Multi-platinum selling rock band and Canadian music legends 54-40 have been making songs together for more than 40 years.
Formed by high school pals Neil Osborne (vocalist/guitarist) and Brad Merritt (bassist) in 1980, the group learned early on that a great way to keep momentum going was to set ambitious goals. That way you’re always working towards something big.
“Back in the early days of the band, Neil and I discovered after playing a few shows that there’s always this big emotional letdown after you’ve done what you’ve done and there’s nowhere to go,” said Merritt.
“So, we always made sure we had something to look forward to. We said early on, ‘Why not just decide now that hell or high water, whatever issues we might have, we’re going to do 10 records?,’ and then that takes the whole decision of whether you’re going to stay in the band or not off the table because you’re going to make another nine records or eight records or whatever it is.”
There’s no such thing as an overnight success
Being a forward-looking act worked for 54-40 then, and continues to be how they operate now. This hasn’t always been easy. It took the group nearly a dozen years and five albums until they were able to make a living being in 54-40.
Before they started experiencing commercial success in the 1990s, members had to figure out how to do everything themselves from booking studio time and securing music distribution to setting up tours, PR and more – all while working other day jobs to survive.
“You have to be prepared to do whatever it takes,” said Merritt. “It’s quite a learning experience. It’s like you’re a little small business that has no capital startup, so you just have to just keep it going however you can.
“If you’re good, it becomes a bit easier over time. You can draw people into your circle, and you create this little infrastructure that’s a bigger community around what it is that you do. There’s a certain obligation that you feel towards each other and that gives you a reason to make sure the business adapts, so that you can keep on going.”
Changing with the times
After releasing four chart-topping albums in the 1990s and receiving several Juno Award nominations, 54-40 were faced with a new set of challenges in the early 2000s. The music world completely changed when it became one of the first industries to be digitally disrupted, and it’s continued to quickly evolve since then.
The group’s commitment to each other has made it easier to find ways to keep moving forward and look for new opportunities.
“The band has definitely had existential moments,” said Merritt. “But I discovered long ago that it’s actually a source of happiness and satisfaction when you make yourself accountable to another person or to an entity or organization or whatever it is. And as long as you have a place in there where you can feel fulfilled, there’s no reason to not do what you do.”
Thankful for where they’re at
Anyone thinking that after 40-plus years, 54-40 are considering retirement is sorely mistaken. The group have a new record coming out this fall, and in August they’re also putting out a live album that was recorded at Toronto’s iconic El Mocambo venue.
“Where we’re at now, it’s not a question of it getting old,” said Merritt. “It’s totally from a position of gratitude. We’re grateful that people still want to see us. We’re grateful we’re still able to play and sing. We don’t take it for granted, and we’re going to keep on doing this as long as people want to see us, we’re capable of doing it and we love it.”
Rock ‘n’ roll insurance
We couldn’t pass on the chance to ask Merritt an insurance question. For a band that has played thousands of concerts across the globe, how does 54-40 protect their equipment?
“We insure all our gear,” said Merritt. “We have a high deductible because we want to protect against disaster, and all of us have vintage instruments, which are worth tens of thousands of dollars. The funny thing is that with that kind of stuff, you actually have to do a little bit of a song and dance to prove to the insurance company that these things are as worth as much as you say they are. So, we’ve all taken the time to authenticate and insure our instruments to their proper value, and I would recommend that to any band.
“We’ve actually used our insurance. We had all of our gear ripped off out of our locked truck, which was backed up against a wall at a downtown hotel in the 1990s. It was absolutely devastating, but we got our money in short order and replaced all that gear quickly. So I think it has incredible value to be insured that way.”
Want to learn more about 54-40? You can check out their website here.