Least Coast

De­spite a wealth of tal­ent, At­lantic Cana­dian acts are strug­gling to break into the main­stream

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Ryan Mc­nutt

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.”

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