The Purity Spiral of Canada's Music Industry

The Purity Spiral of Canada's Music Industry

Neil Gray
Neil Gray
23 min read

In 2015, the Canadian music world erupted in controversy when a Calgary post-punk band named Viet Cong came to slight prominence with the release of their debut album. The name was deemed culturally appropriative, insensitive and racist. And the band endured concert cancellations and protests throughout a North American tour for its self-titled debut album, with some activists claiming that the band’s name was enough to cause them full-blown emotional trauma. Finally, in late 2015, members of the band announced they would change the name, unveiling “Preoccupations” in 2016 (under whose banner the band has released two further albums).

One might think the band would be lauded for this move: The members took the protests seriously, spoke to those involved—even if they may have bristled at the accusations of outright racism, and pushed back against the level of scorn they were receiving. Having chosen “Viet Cong” in an unserious moment during an early rehearsal session, the band eventually concluded that four guys from Alberta, none with any personal connection to Vietnam, might want to pick another name.

Preoccupations performing live

Yet the controversy continued to build at the 2015 Polaris Prize galaCanada’s version of Britain’s Mercury Prize and the Australian Music Prize—even though the event took place after the band had announced its decision to pick a new name. The Calgary quartet was introduced to the attending audience by Dan Boeckner, singer and guitarist of Montreal-based indie band Wolf Parade. Boeckner noted in his introduction that band members knew they had made a mistake, were addressing it, and suggested that the focus should be on more important projects in the world than tearing to shreds fellow members of the music community. “It’s time to get together and let the music talk,” Boeckner told the audience just before the band stepped on stage and played a challenging song called March of Progress from their Polaris-nominated album.

Yet outside the venue, protesters were decked out in t-shirts declaring that the band was “still racist.” And Boeckner stirred outrage with his attempted fence-mending. He was accused of his own kind of racism, because he’d used the phrase “forces of darkness” to describe threats facing the world that were being ignored while the community fixated on a parochial internal controversy. After the event (at which the Polaris Prize was awarded to Buffy Saint Marie), a juror who’d initially submitted the Viet Cong for shortlist consideration wrote a lengthy apology. He also suggested it was the right choice to deny the band the Polaris prize, due to the offensive nature of its name: “If we give $50,000 to a group of white men who’ve recorded, toured and marketed themselves with a name that hurts and excludes people of other races, we’re rewarding them for racism.”

Even this past Spring, more than two years after the whole issue had become moot, a Toronto Globe and Mail writer, ostensibly profiling the band’s latest release, the second since their name change, chose to focus primarily on the 2015-era controversy: “Can a new album—regardless of its quality—under a name that’s had time to settle, overcome the turmoil of its origins? Should we, as critics, and as paying music consumers, allow it to?” The article goes on to discuss how certain venues that had cancelled the band’s shows in 2015 likely will continue banning them—including what sounds like a city-wide blacklist in Halifax. The piece reads at times as a proposed referendum on whether the band should be allowed to continue to exist at all.

As someone who has made his career in the music industry for many years, I find myself dumbstruck by these developments. I believe that sensitivity to other cultures is important, and I consider myself a progressive. But what is happening now goes well beyond anti-racism. Like their counterparts in other creative industries, musicians historically have held artistic freedom and free expression as core values. Now that they are channeling the self-censoring spirit of our times, the soul is being sucked out of the business, and the art, that I love. This essay is my attempt to explain how we got here.

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Like many stories about a changing culture, this one is also about the changing way that people spend and earn money.

When Napster dropped its peer-to-peer bomb two decades ago, nobody knew exactly how this new technology would alter our cultural landscape. Almost 20 years later, the music industry remains in flux. But its lopsided structure remains similar to that of other creative sectors—each of which has experienced its own version of Napster—with a small minority of market-tested stars raking in an enormous share of the money and publicity, while everybody else tries to scratch out enough money to pay the rent.

The prototypical one-percenter in the music industry is Taylor Swift, whose 53-show in-progress “Reputation Stadium” Tour typifies how things now work: Even before tickets went on sale, Live Nation’s Ticketmaster service and Swift’s business managers had implemented a sophisticated online incentive program that offered fans enhanced access to concert tickets if they bought Swift merchandise and watched her videos. The old product cycle of promotional campaign, album release and supporting tour still exists. But the songs at the core of it have become little more than a framing device for everything else.

Meanwhile, the musicians who cling to what once would have been referred to as the industry’s “middle class” are barely getting by. These are the artists who release an unprofitable album every two years or so, and make their money by constant touring, playing clubs and small theatres. They may get an afternoon or early evening slot at a festival, often playing a side stage. Some of their income is generated through merchandise and the odd licensing of a song to a movie, television show or commercial. It isn’t uncommon for artists of this type to take on secondary employment to make ends meet.

If you’re a music lover, chances are you listen to a streaming service such as Apple Music. But artist revenues from these services are virtually non-existent. Recent reports indicate that Spotify, the most popular platform, pays a royalty rate of US$0.000665 per streamed song out of their paid subscription tier—which means that approximately 150,000 streams translates to about $100 dollars. This rate is substantially lower than the historical royalty rate paid out from mainstream radio play (which, due to radio’s own broadcast economics, has for the most part narrowed its scope of playable material to legacy hits and today’s Top 40). The numbers show some isolated bright spots for artists in recent years. But the overall picture is grim, with revenues down more than 30% since 1999, and physical sales down 75% over the same period.

Young people inspired to make it as musicians will always imagine that they’ll be the ones who beat the odds. That part hasn’t changed. But opportunities to break into the industry have become scarce. And the numbers show that even those who do make it tend to have shorter careers. Many musicians end up as de facto hobbyists, tending their craft for the benefit of an increasingly small number of consumers divided into smaller and smaller Internet-mediated subcultures.

Where does all this leave the legacy system of grants and incentives that came into being in many western countries when music was made on vinyl? In the Canadian music industry, there’s an alphabet soup of government programs that provide money for recording, marketing, touring and creative development—with names such as the Canada Music Fund and the Ontario Music Fund. (The province of Ontario accounts for about 80% of Canadian recording and distributing revenues, with most of the infrastructure and talent being situated in Toronto.) Many Canadian artists would never record a note without this money. And while it might be cheaper to make an album these days due to the wide availability of inexpensive digital technology, doing so at a meaningfully high level still requires professional involvement.

Two of the major funds, the Canadian Council for The Arts and The Ontario Arts Council, have received funding increases in recent years. The OAC had an overall funding base of (Canadian) $75-million in 2018/2019, while the Canada Council will have its $182-million 2016 budget doubled by 2020. By way of comparison: The entire annual stream of salary, wage and commission income associated with Canada’s recorded music industry in 2015 was only about $140-million.

Though this grant infrastructure has existed for generations, it has become a more important source of income in an industry that increasingly is divided between a small elite class of stars and everyone else. Access to government money effectively functions as a gatekeeper asset that determines whether an aspiring Canadian musician will spend her 20s and 30s doing something she loves, or looking for work at the mall.

Who gets these grants? Historically, government officials would dispense cash according to complex formulas that determined how authentically Canadian the underlying music was. In the days of Anne Murray and Gordon Lightfoot (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them), this policy of cultural nationalism led to a middling creative landscape in which the most famous names represented benign, folksy Canadiana that had little resonance in other countries.

Over time, Canadian government officials also took steps to ensure that citizens would have to listen to all this subsidized Canadian music on their radios, through the introduction of regulations mandating broadcast quotas for homegrown music. Artists were assessed using a point system, which assigned scores based on the citizenship of who wrote and performed each song, and where the recording work was done. Often the results were pale copies of whatever genre was most popular at the time, particularly in America, to keep radio listeners tuned in.

This approach lost its urgency in the early-to-mid aughts, when international interest in Canadian musicians surged. Independent acts such as Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade and Feist were lauded critically, and generated respectable concert and album sales in the United States and overseas. The band Broken Social Scene established Arts & Crafts, a Toronto-based label that became a hub for many of these burgeoning acts, while Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade both chose to release their music on American-based record labels (Merge and Sub Pop respectively), while remaining based in Montreal. Arcade Fire would go on to win Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards for their third record, The Suburbs. All of this buzz gave the whole Canadian music industry a boost. For the first time, homegrown stars could stay home rather than follow in the footsteps of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Alanis Morissette by becoming replanted members of the American musical juggernaut. Perhaps more importantly, they proved that Canadian musicians didn’t have to cater to the parochial criteria dictated by the legacy culture industry to succeed.

Aracde Fire live in concert

But though superstars such as Drake make headlines with every new album and eponymous restaurant opening, the overall Canadian music industry is suffering. Sales and concert attendance have continued to decline, for the most part. And a rash of small and mid-sized venues have shut down in Toronto in recent years.

The average middle-class Canadian band will be lucky if they ever come close to the Canadian standard for a gold record—which is just 40,000 copies sold at home. Such bands are paid highly variable rates for concerts, which typically net something between 500 to 5,000 dollars per show depending on the venue and touring agreements (from which the cost of the tour, including accommodation, travel, production and other fees, will be deducted). Four years ago, American independent YouTube sensation Pomplamoose broke down their 2014 tour numbers, and showed that the band had actually lost US$11,000 over the 24 dates played in clubs and small theatres after all expenses were factored in. For a band from Canada, the situation will be worse, because the size of the country and low population density makes local touring even more difficult and international touring is more costly.

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I’ve been working in Canadian music circles for more than a decade, occupying a variety of roles. After studying music and sound design in university—working in record stores as I did so — I signed up with a major musical licensing agency, eventually leaving to focus full-time on creative projects. Over the last seven years, I’ve released the equivalent of several albums of material, mostly music that falls in the indie/art rock sphere. I’ve written for other artists, made music videos and classically-inspired film scores, and recorded electronic theme music for podcasts, all the while taking on completely non-related jobs. I have played concerts in famous venues, at arts festivals and gallery openings; been a member of various music-industry groups, and worked with artists from Spain and England on collaborative experimental projects. None of this work has made me a household name, and my life as a journeyman often has been exhausting and stressful. But I spend my days doing what I love. The joy comes from the effort of trying, with each new thing, to take your talent and vision a bit further.

I recently submitted grant applications to two of the major arts-granting bodies in my country, the Canada Council for The Arts and The Ontario Arts Council (OAC), seeking funding for a major musical recording project. The total amount requested was approximately $16,000. As album budgets go, that’s on the low-moderate end—the amount would include costs associated with travel, space and equipment rental, post-production, and the hiring of personnel to assist with visual and promotional art for the project, as well as online outreach.

Both organizations have revamped their programs in recent years, moving them to online portals instead of mail-in applications, and putting in place new policy guidelines that feature increased transparency. Among these guidelines are sections that prominently outline the organizations’ respective diversity and equity policies.

In the OAC application, under a subsection called “Impact,” applicants are asked:

Does this project involve artists, organizations and/or audiences/participants from one or more of OAC’s priority groups and their communities (Indigenous peoples, persons of colour, Francophones, people 18-30 years old (new generation), Deaf persons and persons with disabilities, and people and organizations located in regions outside Toronto)? If yes, who, how and why? Describe your relationship to these artists, organizations and/or audiences/participants who will be represented, engaged or affected by your project. Talk about how you developed that relationship. This might relate to the musical content of the recording, the performers or intended audience.

Addressing these questions was difficult. Central participants in my project were indeed associated with one or another of the identified priority groups. But the task of assessing the value of their participation on this basis—as opposed to what they brought to the table creatively as artists and skilled workers—seemed awkward and objectifying. The two options seemed to be either to emphasize demographic characteristics that had nothing to do with their participation—or to not play the game at all and risk scuttling my application.

In the end, I split the difference, choosing not to identify participants by their particular identity factors, and stating only in general terms that project participants would meet some of the priority-group criteria. I hoped that this nod to the stipulated policy objectives, alongside my pledge to do chunks of the work in northern parts of Ontario, away from Toronto, would allow the gatekeeping bureaucrats to check whatever boxes were necessary to approve my application. Yet the whole thing still felt grubby.

On the face of it, the OAC’s funding framework sounds well-intentioned. It specifies that the agency “is committed to ensuring equitable access for everyone.” It also notes, accurately, that some of the listed “priority groups” possess “a unique history, identity and status in Canada,” and “have faced historical and/or systemic barriers.” I agree with all this.

Then things get more specific. At one point, the OAC “acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the original occupants of this land, and is committed to furthering the growth and diversity of First Nations, Inuit and Métis art forms, practices and cultural expression.”

Scrolling through the documentation available on the OAC website, and analogous materials published by other agencies, I found that much of it—not just the material explicitly setting out grant criteria—is saturated with this kind of boilerplate. All told, fully half of the OAC’s funding framework description is devoted to issues of equity, inclusion, and diversity. And the equity policy developed by the agency in 2013 informs readers that the OAC “will integrate equity principles into its policies, practices, programs, partnerships and services; continue to address systemic barriers and historical challenges; and develop and adequately resource annual equity plans within the context of the current strategic plan.” Indeed, the OAC has committed itself to “meet or exceed the requirements of all applicable equity and human rights legislation” as well as to “regularly track, measure, and report on the OAC’s progress toward achieving its vision of equity and diversity.”

The Canada Council for the Arts (CCA) has a similar prominent equity policy, and states openly that “achieving equality does not necessarily mean treating individuals or groups in the same way, but may require the use of specific measures to ensure fairness.” These measures are not spelled out, but the authors explain that “systems of power and systemic discrimination have created unequal conditions,” which necessitate “funding strategies and policies to support culturally diverse artists and their artistic practices.” The term “diverse art” appears in the first line description of the description for the “Explore and Create” grant category. But the word “diverse” does not refer to the style, genre or type of subsidized art. It refers to the color of artists’ skin.

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At this juncture, a bit of throat clearing is required on my part. I happen to be a straight white man. And I also happen to be a social liberal who believes that all artists should have equal access to funding. I believe in diversity, too: It makes creative work better and more interesting. The history of popular music, I will plainly acknowledge, has been excessively controlled by white men. While more women have gotten actively involved as artists and industry leaders in recent years, creating more opportunities for women is something I support.

I also support the creation of specific, community-targeted programs to address the needs of many of the listed priority groups, including indigenous communities and those with disabilities. But when the equity mandate extends to general programs designed to advance the music industry more generally, the system creates unhealthy incentives. Instead of being encouraged to emphasize the unique qualities of their art, applicants are encouraged to write condescending essays that, as in my case, often boil down to the theme, “some of my best friends and collaborators are black/Indigenous/gay.”

In the 2007 BBC documentary series The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom, writer/director Adam Curtis details the shift towards a late-20th-century managerial style that implemented targets, quotas and statistics to measure progress within organizations. The important thing became meeting the targets themselves, and not the overall outcome of the process. In the case of Canadian music, we had a head start on this transformation—because even during the Cold War period, the industry was dominated by a framework of quotas based around national identity and related cultural aesthetics. What has changed is that the nature of the quotas, which have shifted in a way that reflects our current fascination with groups’ status within Canadian society—rather than the country’s pre-existing fixation with its national status vis-à-vis other counties (especially the United States).

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As a child growing up in Canada, I was mesmerized by music—especially film soundtracks and classical music. As I grew older, I explored in more detail the various styles throughout my parents’ LP collection (there were a lot of Beatles and ABBA records), and learned to play different instruments while coming into my own musical tastes. Like many people in my field, I felt that music was a special form of communication—that it alone could allow an artist to describe the complex shades of the human condition. Hearing a special song is like being told something you know is true, but that you had been unable to express until that magic moment.

But as with all forms of magic, the artistic process that leads to the creation of truly great music is fragile. And it can easily be sabotaged when the process becomes bound up with bureaucratic considerations—which have an inherently conservative effect on the creative process, since they are a creature of politics, not art. Unfortunately, many musicians—the same ones who often present themselves as progressive, free-thinking visionaries—increasingly have come to internalize this conservative logic of checklists and quotas. More and more, the discussion on music websites is concerned with such questions as whether an artist’s skin color matches their music style, or whether the artist’s audience is properly representative of their political postures.

Lido Pimienta

Last year, when singer Lido Pimienta was awarded the Polaris Prize for her album La Papessa, she told a gala audience: “I hope that the Aryan specimen who told me to go back to my country two weeks after arriving in London, Ontario, Canada is watching.” She went on to “thank my beautiful mother… for being so resilient and for enduring white supremacy in Canada,” and expressed gratitude to various Canadian Indigenous groups, whom she described as “the real people of this country.”

Previous winners include such successful acts as Feist and Arcade Fire, and out-of-left-field choices like Karkwa and Final Fantasy. Pimienta’s win falls into the latter category. (Pimienta herself said she thought the prize would go to A Tribe Called Red for their album We Are the Hallucinaiton. She was also going up against Leonard Cohen’s gorgeous swan song You Want It Darker, and word-hero Gord Downie’s Secret Path, which the then terminally-ill Tragically Hip singer made about a young Anishinaabe boy, Chanie Wenjack, who died after escaping from a residential school.) Pimienta’s album is steeped in a heady mixture of experimental electronics, folk sounds from her native Colombia, with occasional washes of hip hop and new wave. In short, it’s an interesting, creative album and a worthy Polaris winner based on no other criteria except sheer merit.

But it’s easy to wonder whether merit was a secondary consideration, given that the government-supported organization overseeing the Polaris prize has been conducting a series of public “salons” aimed at addressing issues of alleged gender and racial imbalance among both jurors and nominees. These topics have bled further into jury deliberations in recent years. Internal juror discussions, according to one insider speaking cryptically, featured some participants “behaving like trolls intent on drawing attention to themselves, as opposed to the records we were discussing.”

Something appeared to shift within Polaris culture following a win by an experimental music collective called Godspeed You! Black Emperor in 2013. Band members rejected their invitation to the awards event, explaining that “holding a gala during a time of austerity and normalized decline is a weird thing to do,” and announcing their intention to donate the prize money to music programs for Quebec prisoners. Many critics were incensed, and terms such as “douchebag musicians” were tossed around freely, even if one might suppose that an anarchist-leaning band’s support for prisoners and its rejection of bourgeois dress-up soirées would be popular stances in the left-wing music world. Since then, there has been a sense within the Canadian music community that winners will now be picked according to who has the more attractive political and demographic backstory, and who can be expected to tweet the right hashtags and say the right things if they win.

As for Pimienta, she described her own win as “super daring,” exulting that “maybe we’re getting to that point of looking beyond the plaid shirts and acoustic guitars and songs that rhyme dumb words with other dumb words.” An odd thing to say, given that the previous four Polaris winners were comprised of a queer Haitian-Canadian DJ, an Inuk throat singer, a towering mixed-instrumental ensemble, and an Indigenous folk activist whose career spans over 50 years.

In the battle against what she views as a white supremacist society, Pimienta describes her music as being “about preparing for a war…with love.” To some extent, this reflects the 1960s-era concept of the popular musician as hero, bringing us revelations about art, suffering, love, drugs, fame, self-destruction, and the world more generally. It opened up a door through which the musician became a multimedia icon, a pinnacle of culture, who brought forth his or her own kind of truth, and maybe even some form of salvation for those who listened closely.

Elton John at the Musikhalle Hamburg, in March 1972

This wouldn’t last. As the decades wore on, and the business changed, many of the artists who occupied the top rungs would cater more to the desires of casual radio listeners over their core devotees. This can be seen in Elton John’s movement from baroque-pop genius to adult contemporary bore, David Bowie’s 1980s climbdown from the brilliant noise-rock of Scary Monsters to the schlocky muddle of Never Let Me Down, and in just about everything the Rolling Stones produced after Emotional Rescue.

When the industry experienced cultural collapse following two decades of tension between the vacuous end of the mainstream and the underground push back that always seemed to follow, a new landscape was created in which market-tested pop acts rode to success by embracing artifice, pantomiming past heroes for a new audience. Think Bruno Mars’ stadium-friendly take on 1970s funk and soul, or Lady Gaga’s faux-shocking Bowie-Manson impersonations used to dress up her run-of-the-mill dance-pop. These are not auteurs who annihilate their own ego through the creation and presentation of their work. They have become more like expert cabaret entertainers, playing the artist as icon like a mere theatrical role.

Audiences still want to be saved, but that is becoming a harder thing for artists to achieve in an irony-soaked age in which all music is seen as a kind of performative contrivance. Even putting aside the economic challenges described earlier, it has become harder for musicians to create something new that feels authentic and strikes a chord of understanding and connection among listeners. And so the natural tendency among artists in the Twitter age has been to seek out a sense of authenticity by tapping into the pre-fab moral authority of activist movements—especially those that come with energetic, easily digestible, and popular campaigns oriented on the basis of race and gender.

Of course, the music industry has long boasted a rich legacy of outspoken artists whose work is infused with concerns about social justice, from Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On to Grandmaster Flash’s The Message. What seems to have changed is that these views are no longer just a subject for artists to develop at their discretion, but rather a non-negotiable baseline demanded by social media mobs and grant-awarding gatekeepers. Not surprisingly, many artists have responded by peacocking their political bona fides on an almost daily basis.

This tendency toward ideological litmus tests is a problem in many fields. But it is particularly troubling in the world of music, which has always been a medium that caters to outsiders, loners and rebels—often bringing these people together into tribes and sub-tribes defined by their opposition to some stifling aspect of wider society. The hard enforcement of ideological norms is anathema to this spirit. The outsider culture has turned into insider culture where one must openly display their affiliations to retain their support and funding. By my observation, the result is that music has become less challenging and dangerous.

Music critics have been fretting about artists descending into “purity spirals” since at least the 1980s. But thanks to social media, crowdsourced enforcement mechanisms are now more powerful and unforgiving. And artists themselves now take it upon themselves to police their colleagues. In 2014, for instance, Pimienta took umbrage with her own opening act at a small concert in Montreal, after deciding that their Laotian-inspired music was problematic. During her own set, she blasted the concert’s organizers, calling out what she termed the previous act’s “weird show and racist display.”

An argument ensued, during which, Pimienta claims, “a yoga pants-wearing white woman approached me in [a] rage after I called them out [and] apologized to the people who went to see my show…This yoga pants-wearing white woman approached me and SPAT ON MY FACE. She humiliated me and the venue asked ME to leave.” According to other accounts, Pimienta’s criticism of the earlier act was unfounded, particularly as the driving member of the group was in fact of Laotian descent and was pleased to present traditional Laotian sounds amidst a group of otherwise white performers who added a modern experimental spin.

A second incident involving Pimienta took place in 2017 at the Halifax Pop Explosion festival (the same city where Preoccupations are said to be persona non grata), when a white photographer working for the festival allegedly refused to surrender her spot by the stage when Pimienta invited women of colour to come to the front. Accounts differ, but it appears that some audience members vocalized their disapproval, and got into arguments with one another about the stunt. Ultimately, the photographer was removed from the concert by security, and festival organizers apologized to Pimienta, declaring the photographer’s behaviour to be “aggressive and racist.” The online debate that followed was predictably ugly, though many major music publications expressed support for Pimienta.

In a subsequent interview with Billboard, Pimienta defended her performance at the Montreal show, spoke about both of these incidents, going on to declare that “as an Afro-Colombian, I would never dream of [putting on] an Afro-Colombian music track and play[ing] my ‘weird music’ on top and then hav[ing] a bunch of white people play whatever they wanted on top of that.” That’s her choice, of course. But it carries a strong whiff of censorious puritanism and intolerance that is stifling to artistic solidarity that crosses boundaries of culture and identity. And while much of the ostensible motivation behind the modern fixation on segregating music (and even audiences) according to a musician’s skin colour is a desire to create a culture of safety and inclusion, it’s hard to argue that Pimienta is making anyone feel any safer—even if, for political reasons, many feel inclined to publicly support her.

From a government official’s point of view, however, Lido Pimienta is a dream come true, embodying all of the priority groups that OAC and other agencies seek to signal-boost. She’s a woman of colour, an Afro-Indigenous Columbian-Canadian, self-identified queer, and a single mother. There aren’t many boxes this woman doesn’t check. And as noted previously, she’s also an incredibly talented musician. She made La Papessa after receiving a grant of just $6,000 from the OAC. In this sense, she’s exactly the sort of artist that the system is designed to encourage. But her defining effect on Canadian music hasn’t been to inspire others to create their own art. It’s been to inspire fear about whether one’s art will be attacked by a music industry that has become increasingly colonized by the world of activism.

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If the Canadian music world I am describing sounds narrow and cultish, well, it is. Many of the voices that become prominent in these controversies come from a small circle of writers, critics and artists who publish in many of the same magazines, newspapers and alternative weeklies. They share a lot of online space together, interview each other, and support each other’s projects. Many also serve as members of the juries that award prizes, and advise on grants under peer-assessor programs. As journalists, they write about the artists who win the prizes that they help award, and who make music funded by the grant dollars that they help dispense. Some run safe-space and diversity initiatives, or have their own bands. While they aren’t powerful enough to police the politics of true international stars such as Drake or The Weeknd, they can strike terror into the hearts of the low-profile bands that are always one or two bad reviews away from the Bar Mitzvah and wedding circuit. Increasingly, their public discussions have little to do with art, and are mostly centered on concerns about quotas at festivals, feminism and intersectionality.

And so it was perhaps predictable that Lido Pimienta would cap off 2017 by being named The Globe and Mail’s Artist of Year. Equally predictable was that the issue of Pimienta’s music was entirely absent from the first paragraph of the article christening her as the Globe’s pick, which focused instead on her race and physical characteristics. When the issue of music did come up in that article, the emphasis was on the what her music isn’t—which is “white.” It is explained that she is “brown,” which apparently is the source of her artistry, since “this distinct Otherness is a great source of power in the face of Canada’s still very-pale music scene.”

As already noted above, I am a fan of Lido Pimienta. Which is to say that I admire her music—as opposed to her race, her ancestry, or her “Otherness” (whatever that is). I admire her because her music embodies the highest value in any creative undertaking—the free expression of an artist’s own ideas and feelings. To the extent that judgments about the value of an artist or their work now closely track the dictates of politics and activism, that hasn’t prevented Pimienta from making great music. Though I’d argue that her career highlights some of the stifling elements within the Canadian music scene, the high quality of her art makes me optimistic that this moment will pass, and the focus of the music world will return, once again, to, well, music.

As for Preoccupations, the band once known as Viet Cong, they, too, supply reason for hope. During a recent concert at Toronto’s Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, Preoccupations blasted their noise-laden brand of post-punk from the stage while the crowd, arced up toward ecstatic over the course of the show, danced and rocked and bumped against each other. Insofar as skin colour goes, it was a mixed group. It was a tribe, yes, but one defined by music, not biology. And best of all, no one on stage told them where they were allowed to stand.

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The grant applications that I submitted to fund my recording project were ultimately unsuccessful. This is a common result, and I don’t feel entitled to that funding. My collaborators and I are trying to craft our project in way that matches our original plans as closely as possible. But it has become quite labour intensive—perhaps prohibitively so—since we lack some of the supporting framework we were hoping to have.

The larger question that is hard to escape is whether there is a place for what we are attempting to do within the industry landscape forming around us; and, indeed, whether there is any point in continuing down this road. This isn’t embitterment, but realism. I find myself increasingly wondering about different directions and other career paths, especially after some health challenges over the last year made me take stock of my life.

No matter how much I might love music, battling against the headwinds of culture and government has become exhausting. Making art always has been difficult. The same goes for fighting a constant culture war. Doing both at the same time might be beyond my capabilities.


Neil Gray

Neil Gray is an independent musician, producer and writer from Toronto.