Jerry Lucky: So let me see…you perform as a member of the band Mystery…you are producing music and remastering older releases…and running a music label. You must be one busy guy?
Michel St-Pere: Yes I am a busy guy, maybe too busy sometimes. But I try to do as much as I possibly can. I enjoy being surrounded by music and the business side of it is also very interesting and challenging. The only thing that I do not like is that there is not enough time to be at 110% on everything and I have to push aside some projects that I would love to work with.
JL: Give us a sense of what a typical day is like? (If there is such a thing)
MSP: Well most of the day is spent in front of the computer. I start the day around 9 am and look at the emails, and do whatever is planned for the day, prepare the promotion for new releases, listen to new CDs and demos, update the website, work on the graphics for advertising and some studio work as well.
JL: Tell us how you got interested in progressive rock music? What were the first things you heard that caught your ear?
MSP: As a teenager growing up in Quebec, there was Prog Music everywhere, but it took me awhile to enjoy Prog, I was more into Rock music but slowly got interested in Prog with RUSH at first and later on I became a big Genesis fan and later on Marillion. I think the first real prog album I heard was at a friend’s house. It was The Yes Album and the song “Yours is no Disgrace.” And the first prog album I bought other than RUSH was A Trick of the Tail from Genesis and it remains to this day my favourite prog album.
JL: Was Mystery your first prog band?
MSP: Yes, I formed Mystery when I was 17 and have been writing for that project ever since. Unicorn Records was created mainly for the promotion of Mystery because no one wanted to sign the band so I formed Unicorn Records just before the release of Theatre of the Mind in 1995, the year that I discovered the internet. Mystery had a good start and after the release of Destiny? In 1998, the band was put on hold and I devoted my time to the label.
JL: Your latest release (Beneath the Veil…) was a masterful symphonic prog release. A long way from Theatre of the Mind. What was the response from critics and fans?
MSP: It has been extremely well received and I am very proud of this album. It took me too long to complete because there were many changes in my view of music, the music business and life in general. And even though I knew the album sounded good, I was very nervous to release it on the label. But the response was great and it is becoming the best selling album on Unicorn Digital, along with Hamadryad and Daryl Stuermer.
JL: I see you got the title track added to the new Classic Rock Presents Prog publication CD. Did you approach them?
MSP: They approached the label first for advertising in Classic Rock, before there were any plans for the Prog issues so the relation with Classic Rock was there and we have since placed a few tracks in each of the Prog issues they have done.
JL: Let’s talk about the business for a while. How did you come to form Unicorn Digital? And what’s the significance of the name?
MSP: Accidentally, I was promoting the Destiny? album and as I went along, I would always contact people not as a member of Mystery but as the guy from Unicorn Records and at the time there were tensions in the band, and the other members didn’t really like the way I was pushing the band (in the Prog field that was new at the time since before the internet, we didn’t know there was an underground Prog World). I was starting to enjoy the business side of the music very much and since the albumDestiny was getting great reviews in many Prog Magazines, the album was listed under the Unicorn Records label and I started to receive demos from other bands. Since the other members of Mystery didn’t believe in my work to promote the band, I decided to put my energy on promoting and helping other bands, then I signed Spaced Out first and then Hamadryad. The first Hamadryad album was extremely well received as well and I signed my first non-canadian band XINEMA, and then the label became what it is today. There is no significance for the name, I just liked that name but I later found out that there were other Unicorn Records so I changed the name to Unicorn Digital in 2005.
JL: What’s the trick of running a successful label these days? You seem to be doing something(s) right.
MSP: Keep going even when you think there is no way out. Never promise anything that you cannot do and be honest and upfront about the business side of music with the artists. And of course look for the best artists without measuring the success of their album for the quality before sales figures.
JL: When you look at the artists or the individual CD’s, how do you measure success?
MSP: It depends on the type of artist or CD, for some artists, if we sell 500 CDs it is a success as for another on the label it is a disaster. Here the success is measured by the reaction of the Prog community towards a certain CD or artist. The sales figures come later on with years of sales. Since most of the Unicorn Digital albums are not targeting a certain sound or time, they keep selling for years after their release and that is how success is measured at Unicorn. I have released albums that have done very poorly when released but since they sell regularly they become after a while among the best selling albums on the label.
JL: We all hear of pop artists who sell hundred’s of thousands of CD’s or even millions. What’s the typical number of CD’s a progressive rock artist will sell these days?
MSP: Numbers are not that high and I doubt that they are high like that even for the Pop artists. I have talked to many other label owners in different style of music and numbers seems to be the same for everyone. Artists who can tour have a better chance to sell more than those who do not perform live.
JL: I’d like to know your thoughts regarding the whole “internet downloading” or “file-sharing” business. How has this impacted on you?
MSP: I am still debating this question. I think that the real problem is that nowadays, with one album, thousands of people can copy it in no time. And some people think it is OK to put an album available on the internet. They think it is a good thing to “screw the Bad record label people” who make money on the back of poor artists, they think they help the artist by promoting their music for free, but in reality what they do not know is that they kill the career of struggling artists by cutting the incomes that are needed to “promote” the artist music and even though this money source is not going back directly in the artist’s pocket, it is usually used to record and promote the next album, or used as tour support and without this, the artists are usually not able to record a second album because they spent all their money on the first one that has been offered for free on the internet. You know it would be great to open a Restaurant where people could come in and eat for free all the time, but such a restaurant would not be able to stay open for very long, the guy who washes the dishes would say, it is great to see all these people eating for free and happy but why should I wash dishes with no salary. No one can eat for free if there are no clean dishes. It is the same thing with music.
On the other hand I understand that people buy an average of 2.5 CD a year and that even if they download 20 000 songs for free they still buy 2.5 CD’s a year, so not all of those copied files are lost sales. One of the biggest problems these days is that anybody can release a CD now so what’s available for sale is greater than the demand. That is why sales seems to go down but in fact they are not as much in bad condition as they seem to be.
JL: Is there a way of putting this “genie back in the bottle?” Or at least controlling the genie?
MSP: The world goes round and round, what we see today, happened before and will happen again. Drum machines were supposed to put drummers out of jobs, and VHS was going to close all movie theatres, today drummers are working as much as before and Movie theatres are doing better than ever, and it is now hard to find a VHS cassette in the store. I am not worried about the future of the music at all.
JL: You’ve been adding to the label’s artist roster quite significantly. What do you look for when you take on a new artist or band?
MSP: The artistic essence of their project and the quality of their music.
JL: I get many emails from artists or bands asking about getting touch with labels, what advice would give aspiring musicians? What should they put together to make a good impression on you?
MSP: They need a very good sounding project, good production and a realistic perception of the music business. And we need to get along too.
JL: So what’s next on the Mystery agenda?
MSP: Right now Benoit is on tour with YES, I am recording the new CD that should be released in the fall of 2009. Once Benoit returns from the tour, we will start the rehearsals for our FMPM gig withSAGA and finish the recording of the new album; hopefully we will be playing a few festivals next year to promote the new album.
JL: Finally, if you were stuck on a desert island and could only have 5 discs with you…what would they be, and why?
MSP: Genesis - A Trick of the Tail: Could not get a better album than this one
Marillion - Seasons End: very inspirational and emotional album
Rush - Hemispheres: the first album I heard from Rush and their best one
Enya - Watermark: Beautiful and grandiose music
Opeth - Watershed: Great production and songwriting, I haven’t been impressed with a new band like this since a long time ago
JL: Michel, thanks for taking time out of a busy day to chat. All the best.
What would the Progressive Rock genre be if it weren't for passionate people. Individuals who spent time and money to further the prog gospel...people like Unicorn Digital founder
Michel St-Pere. Not only did he create the band Mystery and the label to promote the band he also handles guitars and keyboards for the band. And today Unicorn Digital stands out as one of Progs success stories. Here's the results of a little chat we had.