well damn!


Where Did All The Canadian Music Go?
October 30, 2009, 4:41 pm
Filed under: Music | Tags: , , , , , ,

Note: here is an assignment/article I wrote last semester for a class, I figured it’s related so I may as well share. Enjoy

Music circles all over the world critically praise Canadian artists in a wide array of genres, but these same artists have a hard time garnering attention from Canadian audiences. What’s going on?

FeistThree years ago I was at a barbeque listening to Feist’s 200 4 release Let it Die. Aside from the owner of her album, no one was singing along to “Mushaboom” or “Inside and Out”. Feist was background music. None of us knew that 2 years later she’d be a Polaris Prize Nominated, Juno-sweeping phenomenon gracing iPod commercials. We were too busy listening to Rhianna and the Black Eyed Peas to pay attention to an established young artist on the verge of a commercial breakthrough.

The music industry has come along way from the days of record players and jazz standards. With the integration of technology and the internet, musicians hold more and more power in their hands to have their music heard by the right people. With the right equipment and computer software anyone can create a decent quality recording and distribute it for minimal cost and with limited help. Artists are able to tour more successfully and venues can draw larger crowds by advertising on the internet. Yet still, international artists like Coldplay and Miley Cyrus are dominating singles charts while Canadian musicians such as Joel Plaskett and K’Naan are pulling up the rear end.

Sure we could blame the media outlets around us, the radio and television, but are they really at fault? Radio stations tailor their music to play what they think their audience wants to hear. Music Directors aren’t just sitting in their chairs and pulling songs out of a hat; larger radio stations perform research to determine which music their listeners want to hear. This research determines which songs are put into heavy rotation. Thanks to the internet, smaller radio stations can immediately find out what these larger radio stations are playing in high rotation and make appropriate modifications to their playlist. Ian Sterling, the current music director of 103.1 Fresh FM admits, “Whenever we do research asking Canadians what they would like to hear on a radio station, typically American music is at the top and Canadian music is towards the bottom.”

While Canadian audiences would rather listen to our American friends, the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission regulates that radio stations must ensure that at least 35% of their playlist contain Canadian content, known as CanCon. Canadian content is defined by music that is wholly composed, performed or produced by a Canadian. It’s not a stretch to imagine the difficulties radio stations face trying to meet both CanCon requirements and the desires of the listeners. This explains why artists such as Nickelback and Avril Lavigne receive so much airplay. Not only do listeners want to hear them, but they are also CanCon.

“From a business and radio standpoint, we’d like to play less [CanCon]. [Because] that’s what people want to hear” says Sterling. Unfortunately, radio stations are losing more listeners each year. Think about how much more time you spend listening to your mp3 player than you do to the radio, it’s an epidemic. According to the 2008 Communications Monitoring Report the weekly hours tuned in to the radio have been decreasing by 2% each year since 2003. It’s not in the best interest of a radio station to take a chance on the seldom heard Canadian kids, although Sterling points out, “I think the 35% we do play is pretty good. We give chances to artists who maybe wouldn’t be on the air otherwise.”

Sterling believes, “If you were to ask the listeners without saying which song is Canadian and which is not and you played them [the Fresh FM] music library, including the 35% [CanCon]. The Canadian [music] would be for the most part at the bottom of the list.” Does this mean Canadian made music sub-par in comparison? There are many indicators that suggest otherwise. Each year there are multiple cash awards given to Canadians based solely on artistic merit, for example the Roger’s Media sponsored Polaris Prize, which awards $20, 000 to the best album produced within the last year judged by a panel of Canadian music journalists. In 2008, two Londoners (folk darling Basia Bulat and hip hop extraordinaire Shad) were among the top 10 shortlisted for the prize.

Of course there are also the annual Juno awards, which were recently held in Vancouver. Do you take them as seriously as their American counterpart, the Grammys? Not many people realized the along with the awards galas, Junofest, a weekend music festival is held each year in the host city showcasing current Canadian acts, many of whom haven’t been nominated. “I’d watch the Junos if they were relevant” says one casual listener. It’s not the Junos that are irrelevant, but perhaps Canadians need to be more aware of the happenings in today’s music scene.

Two Hours TrafficOver the past few years, Canadian musicians have been finding business partners in the unlikely form of American television. If you were to revisit the last few episodes of Gossip Girl you PVR’d or pull out a disc from Season Three of The O.C. you’d find many Canadian musicians tinkering in the background. Charlettetown’s Two Hours Traffic has particularly experienced this phenomenon. If you watch Gossip Girl, One Tree Hill, The O.C. or Castle you’ve more than likely heard their work. Despite declining record sales industry wide, Two Hours Traffic bassist Andrew MacDonald says, “For us, it has been a way of staying afloat. There is not much money in the music industry for independent bands and licensing music has become a one of the big ways to sustain being in a band. “

That’s not to say Two Hours Traffic are the only ones receiving exposure on the tube. Artists like Sam Roberts, Tegan and Sara and Feist license their music as well, and it’s not just to television shows. Anyone who turned a television on in 2007 is familiar with Feist’s future classic 1234, which aired for Apple’s iPod nano commercials. You probably don’t realize it, but you’re familiar with a few other Canadian anthems as well. Zellers used a series of Canadian artists for the promotional ads in 2006, including Joel Plaskett, The Golden Dogs and The Salteens. Telus is another example, featuring many Canadian artists in their ads. The music our fellow countrymen are producing is good enough for primetime American network television shows and national ad campaigns, so there is no reason to see it as inferior to the music we import from across the border or ocean.

Next time you’re at a barbeque, don’t dismiss that Arkells’ album playing in the background, the next time you hear about them they may be dominating their airwaves of our American friends.



2009 Juno Nominations

For those of you south of the 49th parallel or an ocean away, the Junos are Canada’s semi-equivalent to the Grammys. I say semi-equivalent, because quite frankly, our country isn’t behind or involved in our music industry in the same way Americans are involved with their music industry. To be honest, after the reviewing the Grammy nominations I found myself thinking Who are these people? I am out of the loop! There isn’t one album on this list I’ve listened. Thankfully I found I actually had listened to quite a few albums and artists nominated for the Junos, although I did find myself thinking Celine Dion released a single this year? That Nickelback song is new? The Stills are a new band? Is my 10 year old sister an infant?

When did Celine Dion release new material? I’ll admit I don’t often find myself listening to mainstream pop, but surely somebody would have complained about her new stuff! Or at the very least you’d think I would have noticed in one of my many weekly (sometimes daily) visits to the record store. REALLY?

I have a hate/hate relationship with Nickelback. I quite dislike them, but I also quite dislike that sometimes I actually like their songs. Then I realize that all of their songs sound exactly the same. The Junos recognize new music! Not recycled arrangements! I think five nominations might be pushing it.

The Junos frequently nominate an established band in their Best New Group category. Last year it was the 6 year old Wintersleep (who deservedly took the award), and this year it is a 9 year old The Stills. Should I expect to be seeing Sloan in this category next year?

The Junos did make some hits though. Sam Roberts walked away with 4 nods, while Creature, Tokyo Police Club, Protest the Hero and City and Color each managed at least one nomination. The rest of the New Group of the Year, Roots & Traditional Album of the Year: Solo and Group, Adult Alternative Album of the Year and Alternative Album of the Year categories are looking promising. Coeur de Pirate and Karkwa each received a Francophone nomination. Constantines‘ bassist Dallas Wherle received a nod for the artwork on Kensington Heights. Even Moneen were nominated for their DVD, It All Started With A Red Stripe.

I do think they missed out on nominating Hey Rosetta!, Mother Mother and Land of Talk, each of whom put out fantastic albums in the past year.

Unfortunately, if I were to bring this list to a group of my friends or to my coworkers, they’d have no idea who I was talking about. Have the Junos lost their relevance or as Canadians do we need to expose ourselves to the music being produced in our backyards?

Juno Categories or PDF summary