Despite a wealth of talent, Atlantic Canadian acts are struggling to break into the mainstream
In july, the Polaris Music Prize announced its annual ten-album shortlist. It was the result of two rounds of voting by nearly 200 music critics, journalists, and programmers from across the country who had been tasked with identifying the best Canadian album from the past year, regardless of genre or commercial success. The shortlist made one thing clear about which band would go on to claim this year’s prize: it won’t be from Atlantic Canada.
That’s because no East Coast albums made the Polaris cut. That fact comes with two small asterisks: shortlisted Acadian singer-songwriter Lisa Leblanc is originally from New Brunswick (although she no longer lives there), and all three members of longlisted indie-rock supergroup TUNS have been Haligonians at some point. But, effectively, this year’s lists include no albums from artists based east of Quebec — acclaimed new records from such past longlisters as Jenn Grant and Amelia Curran were overlooked.
Having served on the award’s grand jury in 2013 and voted for the Polaris Prize every year since 2011, I’ve seen some of the work Polaris does to try to make sure all albums have a shot, regardless of where they’re from. It has, for example, established a message board so that jurors can share recommendations, and made efforts to recruit jurors from under-represented groups. And while a mere 16 of the 196jurors come from Atlantic Canada, keep in mind that adds up to about 8percent of the total Polaris jury pool — and East Coasters make up only 6 percent of the overall Canadian population (and, I’d wager, an even smaller percentage of Canadian music professionals).
But sixteen voters can only do so much to help Atlantic Canadian albums compete for the Polaris list, even if they vote only for East Coast artists (which, speaking from my experience of the process, is rarely the case). In order to succeed, anatlantic Canadian album will almost certainly need support from jurors outside the region. And, going by recent results, that support isn’t easy to come by: at most, only one or two East Coast albums sneak their way onto the forty-album longlist each year.
This isn’t just an Atlantic Canadian problem: Polaris lists rarely do a good job of featuring albums from outside the Montreal-toGTA corridor or Vancouver. But the total absence of Atlantic Canadian albums this year makes it worth considering the state of music on Canada’s East Coast — and whether its struggles to reach Polaris voters reflect broader trends.
The old side of this story features familiar villains: geography and population. With apologies to our region’s natural beauty, the fact that Atlantic Canada covers a large amount of space with not that many people in it is a big problem from a music perspective. If you’re based in Halifax, you have to drive ten to twelve hours to get to Quebec City or Montreal — en route, you’ll pass no urban centres of 100,000 people or more. And that’s to say nothing of Newfoundland and the unique challenges its artists face in hitting the road.
But geography has always been an obstacle for East Coast artists. You might assume that modern technology is helping them overcome it. And it’s true: digital recording has made it easier than ever to create music, and digital distribution makes recordings available to anyone, anywhere. But those digital sea changes have also dramatically changed how musicians earn revenue.
“It’s very difficult for any artist to maintain a sustainable career in 2017,” says Sheri Jones, whose firm Jones & Co. has a twentyfive-year history managing the likes of Joel Plaskett, David Myles, Gordie Sampson, and Mo Kenney. “Nobody buys music anymore. Streaming just doesn’t cover even the cost of recording for the emerging or mid level artist, and it’s tougher every day to get people to buy tickets to shows.”
And because music is so abundant, it’s harder than ever to break through the clutter and reach the ears of label executives, potential fans, and Polaris jurors.
“Trying to carve out space for someone to listen to a record they’ve never heard becomes a lot more difficult,” says Trevor Murphy, who works for Pigeon Row, a publicity company in Halifax. “When it comes to criticism or coverage or the industry, it’s still predominantly an in-person thing.”
It’s no secret that most of the Canadian music industry is concentrated in just a handful of major cities. But the deficit in places like Atlantic Canada is especially large. A recent report commissioned by the East Coast Music Association, titled Striking a New A- Chord, found an “alarming” lack of industry infrastructure in the region. Those who have jobs in this bare-bones system are stretched beyond capacity. Additionally, many wear multiple hats. Murphy is a case in point: he’s an artist (fronting the folk-rock outfit Quiet Parade), a label manager (Acadian Embassy), and a local radio host ( Halifax Is Burning, on CKDU FM, which broadcasts from the Dalhousie University campus).
Kyle Cunjak is in the same boat. He runs Forward Music Group, a record label and artist management company, but also performs with such acts as the indie folk outfit Olympic Symphonium. “Our artists out here need to be DIY to a certain extent, because there’s not as much industry to help them, and there are so many musicians per capita,” says Cunjak. But he doesn’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing; in many respects, these circumstances can help create more sustainable careers.
“It’s a much longer road,” he says, noting it takes artists in Atlantic Canada perhaps twice as long as it would artists in, say, Toronto or Vancouver to reach key points in their careers. “But I think you’re set up a lot more, working for yourself—to be in control of your own destiny.”
Cunjak also sees value in being part of conversations like the one sparked by Polaris, which is why, in June, he tweeted his disappointment about the absence of East Coast artists on the longlist. “I firmly believe you don’t need to move to a major city to maintain your career & advance your art,” he wrote. “But when things like this happen, with no inclusion of artists living rurally, it becomes harder to believe that’s possible.”
A whole other article could be written about Atlantic Canada’s complicated relationship with artists who leave to make their careers — outward migration is, after all, a defining story of our region, across many industries. So let’s not quibble over the fact that for some artists (like 2017 Polaris shortlister Leblanc), moving to a major centre may make the most sense in terms of taking their career to the next level. It’s worth noting that what came across in all of my interviews was a deep enthusiasm for East Coast music and an eager willingness to work as hard as possible — despite and because of the challenges .
“Atlantic Canadian artists have an incredible work ethic and an incredible amount of talent — they can all really play, and the level of performance and musicianship is really high,” says Andy Mclean, executive director of the East Coast Music Association. Although he is a relative newcomer to the region, as the co-founder and past managing director of Toronto’s North by Northeast festival, he has a long history booking Atlantic Canadian artists.
“And the intangible is that East Coast attitude: maybe because life is a little bit harder here for all kinds of reasons, economically and geographically, they are determined to make it work,” he adds.
But a can-do attitude can get you only so far, and the uneven playing field Atlantic Canadian artists face is becoming ever more tilted against them. Striking a New A-chord highlights the fact that dedicated provincial funds in Ontario and British Columbia are changing the Canadian music landscape. The Ontario Music Fund, for example, originally launched as a $45million, three-year investment, is now permanent, and it’s already leading some Atlantic Canadian artists to focus their business expenditures in Ontario. That’s why the report recommends that Atlantic Canada develop its own music strategy by creating a policy that would not only better support the region’s artists, but also amplify their economic and social contributions to the East Coast.
“Music is a very important part of the culture that’s passed on here, and that shouldn’t be passed off as something that’s simply a regional characteristic,” says Mclean. “It’s more than that — it’s massive economic potential that is underdeveloped. And I think that’s the way we need to start seeing music.”