Creating a record of a singular moment in time

As a former member of a modestly successful Canadian band, J. Joly is all-too aware of the financial tightrope walked by working musicians at the best of times. So he knows it’s even more precarious in a pandemic that robs them of crucial touring revenue.

The plight of these musicians is the basis for “33.3,” a new fundraising project conceived by Joly with assists from Huge Canada managing director Matt Di Paola, and media executive turned entrepreneur Raja Khanna, who are also his partners in a planned live music venue in Toronto called Liquor Donuts.

Billed as an “inclusive high-concept music destination,” the 200-person venue was supposed to open this summer with a “chef-driven menu,” local beer and wine, and in-house record press to fulfill orders for indie musicians and labels.

“We can’t open just yet, so 33.3 is our way of funding artists during COVID-19 and helping create exposure for them until they can tour again,” says Di Paola.”It’s also a way for us to help highlight music scenes in each city/province/state that we roll it out in.”

The project revolves around deluxe triple-vinyl compilations with songs spanning multiple genres. The project’s name is a reference to the turnable speed (33 1/3 revolutions per minute) for traditional LPs.

The final product—one compilation for Ontario and another for B.C. to start—will be curated by music lovers from various professional backgrounds, who will also provide essays, poems and illustrations related to the music.

“It’s an interesting artifact of a place and a time,” says Joly, variously describing the project as a “phonic National Geographic” and a vinyl album meets The New Yorker. “It’s going to be one of those things you want to put on a bookshelf.”

Each artist with a song on the album will receive a one-time payment of $999, with additional revenue generated by the project going to music-related causes. The organization has already reached the 1,300-order threshold required to cover costs and provide payment for the artists.

For Joly, the project provides a way of reconnecting with his youthful stint in Van Allen Belt, a Kingston, Ont. power trio that released two albums of what he jokingly describes as “music that girls don’t like” and scored opening slots for acts including The Tragically Hip, Wilco and Blink 182 before calling it a day.

“We were total music nerds,” he says of Van Allen Belt. “Too many time changes, too many riffs, too silly—but we had the time of our life. We were these young kids playing this overly complicated stuff through big Marshall stacks.

“It was a bit of a spectacle, I guess.”

He has enjoyed a diverse career since then, including launching the Vancouver-based film accelerator The Coup Company, which produced the 2014 cult film hit WolfCop and its 2017 sequel Another WolfCop (described by the horror website Bloody Disgusting as “a fun, gory and hilarious midnight movie that will scratch your itch for camp”), as well as developing bespoke content platforms for clients including Telus and the Vancouver International Film Festival.

He also co-founded Vancouver digital agency Overinteractive Media, which has developed branded gamification and social TV strategies for clients including CBC, Disney/ABC, Telus and PwC.

“I fill my life up with things I love to do and try to make a business out of them,” says Joly, who turned his attention to building a live music venue a few years ago. “I was living in Vancouver and just watched as one great live venue after another got bulldozed to make way for condos.

“We were getting into building [Liquor Donuts] until COVID hit, so we had to mothball all those plans because live music wasn’t viable.”

Di Paola, too, has more than just a passing connection to Toronto’s storied live music scene. His late uncle Richard O’Brien co-founded the city’s legendary live music venue the BamBoo with Patty Habib, who remains a close family friend.

The club, which closed in 2002 after 20 years, was a leading destination for fans of ska, reggae, funk, soul, jazz and blues during the 1980s and ’90s, with bands including The Parachute Club, Rough Trade, Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo all treading its boards at some point.

“We had all of our family Christmas parties there and spent a lot of time there in general,” says Di Paola, who shoots live music as a hobby and plans to serve as Liquor Donuts’ official house photographer when the venue finally opens post-COVID.

The goal with Liquor Donuts, says Di Paola, is to turn it into a venue for up-and-coming musicians, a place where they can play and hang out with other artists while also enjoying quality food. The hope is that it will contribute to the city’s cultural fabric in the same way the BamBoo did during its heyday.

But with Liquor Donuts on indefinite hiatus until the pandemic is over, Joly began toying with ideas that could help out musicians who had already seen their income take a hit when streaming services like Spotify became the de facto music source for most fans.

To illustrate the scope of the problem, the 33.3 website features a testimonial from Torquil Campbell, singer and songwriter with Montreal-based indie band Stars, noting that the “abysmally low” royalty rate paid by streaming services like Spotify means that performing live has become more important for artists.

According to Campbell, Stars earned less than $35,000—minus management fees and taxes—for approximately 9 million streams on Spotify last year. And even that meagre sum had to be split six ways.

The 33.3 project is still seeking curators in Ontario and B.C., and they want more creatives from both provinces to take part. “All they have to bring is a passion for music and a talent that we can include in the liner notes or album art, like design or writing,” says Joly.

Curators will be given a batch of songs and asked to select three they’d like to see in 33.3, along with a piece of writing or art relating to the one that spoke to them most.

Backed by sponsors including iHeartRadio, musical instrument retailer Long & McQuade, record company Umusic and Record Day Canada, the project is built around lavish triple-album compilations being sold for $63.

While they are starting with compilations dedicated to bands/artists from Ontario and B.C., Joly says that artists from as far afield as the Atlantic provinces, Michigan and California have all expressed an interest in participating.

With minimal advance publicity, the project has received more than 750 song submissions, which will be pared down to 33 for each of the first two albums. The main requirement for musicians wanting to participate is that songs be no longer than three minutes and 33 seconds, be submitted by working musicians, and ideally come from an album that was either disrupted or delayed by the pandemic.

“In a sense, it’s a way to promote a whole album of material the way a good compilation does,” says Joly.

The program also features a brand component, with 33.3 organizers saying they will press albums in coloured vinyl matching participating brands’ colour scheme, with their brand’s logo on the record label.

Participating brand partners are required to commit to purchase a minimum 333 units at wholesale cost, with the per-unit cost dropping if they commit to 1,333 units, 2,666 units, 6,666 units etc.

Di Paola, meanwhile, is recruiting potential sponsors through his personal connections. “Music has been a huge part of my life, and musicians have had to deal with a ton of transformation to their industry already through the digital age,” he says of his involvement.

“It’s hard enough for a musician to make a living as an artist during normal times. But when you take away touring and live shows and the service industry is hit, and the part time jobs go away too, it is near-impossible.”

Chris Powell