Art, Canada, Music, Politics

The Purity Spiral of Canada’s Music Industry

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.

Taylor Swift’s Reputation Tour merchandise

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.

*  *  *

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).

*  *  *

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.

*  *  *

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.

*   *   *

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 is an independent musician, producer and writer from Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @sawthedust

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90 Comments

    • She’s a talented artist. I don’t know her personally, or agree with her views and approach, but writing people off as garbage is rarely a useful thing to do.

      • Michael P says

        her music is good but her approach and character are both garbage

      • Steve says

        Evil Garbage. She’s one of the most racist people in the country.

      • leprechaun says

        I tried listening to her music. Sorry, in my universe, she’s not a talented artist.

    • Richard Ramirez says

      See that is the kind of ignorant comment people like her use to claim victim status. A much more useful and reasoned criticism would be to say she exudes a lot of hate for white people, because some white people have been mean to her. Ironically, the Polaris Prize is paid for by taxpayers, the majority of whom are white in this country. So she is using money from white people to talk about how terrible white people are. Luckily no one cares anyway, you can live off arts fund welfare for awhile but it doesn’t get people to come to your show or care who you are. Oh by the way Lido, you’re welcome.

      • Some black people have been mean to me. Is that an excuse to be a racist? Seriously, did you just try to defender this piece of human garbage with that argument?

    • Miguel Nutria says

      Hopefully she’ll start to self medicate all that hate and despair inside – preferably with fentanyl.

  1. Pimienta certainly knows how to market herself and keep her media image well buffed. If she keeps it up she’ll have a lucrative second career on the pundit circuit…

    Is she any different to Madonna, Lady Gaga, Alice Cooper or any other act trying to compete in a crowded market place? It seems that sex, dresses made of meat and antics with skewered doll babies and manikins with pubic hair are no-longer effective…

    • Michael says

      Exactly. Nowadays its fashionable to have active political position. What these guys/musicians are doing isn’t different to all those beauty pageant contestants who was want ‘Peace in the World’.

  2. Elwood says

    None of the music celebrated by these prizes is remotely of interest to me. It is a funding circle jerk with almost zero market appeal. I work in the cultural sector and no one talks about this music. It does not resonate. Any tome it is mentioned it is out of a kind of slavish duty to diversity and mot because the music reflects a vision of character and value.

    Winning is a counter indicator of quality. It is valuable neither as experimental or popular music. It is a kind of zine which will be forgotten almost immediately by most who glance over it and never heard of by most everyone else. A state funded spitting into the wind. This is not so different from China where political winds define rationales used to choose winners. But at least with China there is optimism in their choices. While we fund those who take pleasure in tearing us apart.

    When it becomes clear that arts grants privilige only one political viewpoint and are actively hostile to people on the basis of race and gender then i have little sympathy for complaints when government funding is cut. Indeed I welcome it. My friends who are talented musicians don’t rely on freebies or make narcissistic garbage.

  3. Craig Hubbard says

    If the band had named itself Viet Cong in an earlier era it would have been labelled communist and treasonous.

  4. graytown stump jumper says

    Neil needs to change gender. Then he will get his grant money.

  5. Drew Shaw says

    Never read the comment section… great article.

  6. listdervernunft says

    We don’t listen to songs anymore; we eavesdrop on them.

    Music qua form of cultural expression just ain’t what it used to be; the “spirit of the radio” has moved on and our metaphorical conversations are no longer reflected in music. The Zeitgeist has set up shop on YouTube now where literal conversations take place. We no longer listen to songs so much as watch others react to songs (and then watch others react to their reactions). Music is becoming a mere fashion, i.e. a noticeable but inessential element of the general cultural trend about which we more or less let others decide for us. We listen to songs the same way we shop for clothes; namely in a set manner without giving it much serious thought for ourselves.

  7. That was the best written, most balanced, and most engaging article I’ve read on Quillette — or really anywhere — since Jeffrey Tayler’s “Manchester’s Children” was published.

    I used to play in local bands. The last band I played in featured a couple of musicians who were almost caricatures of the censorious so-called SJW described in this piece. One would set up a song by basically telling the bar audience that they were a bunch of racists. To say I was uncomfortable with accusing strangers of bigotry is an enormous understatement.

    I’ve since opted out of the music scene in large part because, even if I agree with the general positions (anti-sexism/-racism/-homophobia), those positions, first of all, are not the reasons I got into music, and second of all, I refuse to cosign on the sort of laundry list of far-left stances *some* in the local music scene demand that other cosign on. I can check at least two diversity boxes, too, FWIW.

    But I think the phrase “colonized by activists” pretty much sums up the damage that *some* so-called SJWs do to the arts.

    • Taylor King says

      Oooo this one hurts haha. Experiencing the same dilemma at the moment; I don’t know how long I can continue being a part of the music scene if it continues this way.

      • I mean, I’m sure there are people out there who want to play music without turning the whole thing into a melodrama revolving around cultural issues and whether or not basically left-leaning people are going to cosign on the SJWs’ list of far-left causes. But I imagine it’s going to be harder and harder to do so.

        • Taylor King says

          Yeah for sure. And whether people are gonna have the courage to stand up to it or not.. Considering music scenes can be so cliquey I doubt it for the most part.

  8. Farris says

    “identified priority groups”

    This what happens when government and art mix. You only get government approved art.
    This article depressingly reads like the Chinese Cultural Revolution under Mao.
    The author/artist appears to justify this by claiming the artists need the funds to survive. Government money/interference corrupts creativity. Bureaucrats eschew edginess. I wish this artist the best of luck and hope he doesn’t stray into any unapproved lyrics or monikers. It is a shame the amount of time wasted navigating the bureaucracy and attempting not to run afoul of the Star Chamber that could have been devoted to creating.

  9. Fran says

    I tune off CBC when they do the compulsory ‘Canadian Content Music’. You can always tell, because it does not scan. Don’t know if it is funded by my tax money, but the article above suggests it does.

  10. I thought music was supposed to get more aggressive and more deliciously offensive with each succeeding generation. Isn’t that the whole point of it? That it’s supposed to freak out your parents?

    Instead, the music of the last ten or so years — even that on the so-called cutting edge — sounds less confrontational and abrasive than it did when I was a kid a long time ago. When I was younger, I listened to bands with names like AIDS Wolf, Rapeman, Dead Kennedys, and my all-time favorite, 10,000 Homo DJs. Conservative kids would flinch when you would say these band names (that was part of the fun of listening to them), but the left-wing kids would say, “Awesome.” Offensiveness meant that it was in revolt against “the establishment,” and the radicals loved that.

    • My thoughts exactly. Best not call your band something really offensive like Joy Division or New Order, you’ll never get anywhere with a name like that. Similarly my vote for best ever band name goes to Pansy Division.

      • Paul Ellis says

        Howlin’ Wilf. Still laughing about that 40 years later.

    • Circuses and Bread says

      I was stunned by the idea that a punk rock band would actually change its name because it was controversial. Doing so completely misses the point: punk is a middle finger in the face reaction to the prevailing culture. Being controversial and offensive is the point, not a mistake to be corrected.

      Oh how the Canadian punk scene seems to have fallen since the days of DGA.

      • Evola Ebola says

        Don’t you mean DOA?

        DOA were an INCREDIBLE live band. I saw them first in 82 or 3, and later became friends with Joey and Dim. Canadian Subhumans, too. Joey needs to replace that milksop pantywaist Trudeau.

        I got into Hardcore because I hated scolds and authoritarians. I could NEVER be in the scene now, because I can not STAND racists and moralizing “progressive stack” scum who hate me for my skin color and sexuality, and who legitimize it because supposedly people of my skin color and sexuality made them feel small, or something.

        That is just the same as me denouncing all black people because a black person once tried (he failed) to mug me- or that a black once “disrespected” me.

        I don’t accordingly go through life accusing all blacks as a group of doing the things that someone who looked like them did. Why is it suddenly OK for this to be done to me?

        And where else would you be “privileged” but in your own home? Here in the US, we were 90 percent white until the 1965 immigration act. This entire nation was literally built by white people, for their children, who in most cases are other white people. Sorry, not sorry, and you don’t get to attack me and then claim the moral high ground. Western Civilization is white (again, not sorry), and has done more to elevate the people of this planet than any civilization before it. Have there been some hiccups and mistakes along the way? Of course. Maybe Miss Olive Pimento should head to Saudi Arabia to ply her trade, and she can complain about evil Muslim Straight Males. See how that flies.

        It’s all so tiresome. Maybe we evil straight white males should start behaving like we’re constantly accused of behaving. Somehow, I don’t think these racist bullies would like that very much, and I imagine their bullying would VERY RAPIDLY change to groveling.

  11. Kristoffer Domanski says

    The revolution always consumes its own children…

  12. Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to Gilead we go… Nice article. I hope the madness of “cultural appropriation” and the obsession with “diversity” will pass. The fact of the matter is that the constant attacks on straight white men are getting eye-rollingly boring – and boring your audience is death in the entertainment industry: always has been, always will be…

  13. Sydney says

    “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.”

    Holy crap, eh?! Canadian artists who think like this, and who think it’s hip to think like this, are what’s given rise to the ungrateful, freebie-grant-receiving, entitled, nasty, snot-nosed, racist brats like the girl mentioned and shown repeatedly.

    What you or I think about the music of Anne Murray or Gordon Lightfoot is secondary to the fact that they (and their peer, Buffy Sainte-Marie, who isn’t dismissed in that phrase because she’s FN, which renders her PC and above any possible criticism, I assume) were part of a critical period of Canadian culture, which is a GOOD THING, and not something to be spat on. Our polite Canadian willingness to bend over for pushy assholes is why and how our positive Canadian nationalism disappeared, and was replaced by the very Maoist apologies (to everyone from FNs to new Muslim immigrants) now uttered in every Canadian public space.

    “…benign, folksy Canadiana,” as if that was a bad thing? Wow! And what was wrong with that? Canada was (and is) a new nation, just finding itself and its homegrown culture. CanCon, for whatever its faults were, helped Canadians locate and identify what we were apart from the cultural leviathan to the south of us, and who we were apart from the rest of the huge world. We were NEW, and we knew it! People who sang about snowbirds and the wrecks of ships on the Great Lakes helped us become who we were. And we were very happy and proud being Canadian, for a moment.

    Oh, but the nasty British and French colonized aboriginal lands! Wah-wah-wah! So everything Canadian must be terrible and we’ll spend an hour apologizing for it while random weirdos wipe away 150 years of history. Uh…no. I’m tired of apologizing for everything. FNs have enough cash and support to rebuild their nations and cultures, and I’ve lived all over the country and see that this is true. And FN artists should be proud enough of their land, history, and cultures to flip the bird to little brats like the one you wrote on about ad nauseum. But they, too, need to stop whining.

    CBC is a virtue-signalling, stifling, SJW shitshow today, but for several brief decades before 9-11 (when it began its SJW swing to the crazy left) it helped a tiny population that was spread over a vast landscape pinpoint who we were, and where we were. It broadcast all sorts of HOMEGROWN Canadian music, from Don Messer’s Jubilee – Yes! “Worry” if you’ve never heard of it, dumb Canucks! It matters! Look it the fuck up! – from Stompin’ Tom Connors and Oscar Peterson and Alexa Chung, to anyone in between who’s less known than Canadian-born stars like Joni Mitchell, Leona Boyd, and Leonard Cohen.

    If you think the Canadian culture of our brief past was some “benign” and forgettable thing (because it wasn’t hip and chill someplace cooler than Saskatoon?), then you helped create the climate for that snot-nosed, entitled, racist, SJW brat howling at people based on their skin tone.

    God, grow a pair, stop whining, and be proud of your Canadian cultural history. You have no forbears who fought in WWI or WWII for Western democracy? No forbears who made Nanaimo Bars or Butter Tarts on holidays? And, maybe after this nation-destroying government is gone, we’ll still be a nation, and musicians and artists will express what it is to be Canadian again.

    But waiting for grants? Give me a break. Kafka and US poet Wallace Stevens both worked as insurance agents. Get over yourself and make your art if you have it in you. And in the meantime stop giving oxygen to second-rate, grant-sucking, loudmouth ingrates.

    And please start to “worry” about – or rather, listen to, watch, see, and read – some of the fantastic art and culture that Canada has produced in the past. Stop denigrating and grinding your heel into what this country has produced.

    • E. Olson says

      Good comment. I always find it amusing that artists think they are entitled to make a decent living making “innovative” or “edgy” art that virtually no one wants to pay for. Eventually the concerns of “starving artists” leads some “art lover” or “cultural nationalist” in government to decide that taxpayers should fund the art that the public otherwise ignores or disdains, and sets up some criteria for allocating the money that can’t be market based because then only the popular artists (who don’t need it) would get the government subsidies. And since the government is purposely ignoring market preferences, this means the government “experts” are free to use the money for social justice purposes and therefore give the money to individuals and groups that have shown little or no actual artistic talent.

      • Somewhat tangential comment. And a bit of a scatter shot rant (I’m pressed for time).

        I am an artist producing a product I would consider innovative and others may consider “edgy” – if they were trying to ridicule my work. It’s not that I think I’m entitled to make a decent living doing this. But I do think there is deprivation of options in the musical landscape. Despite have a virtual infinity of choices of songs and artists, there is a narrowing bandwidth to what is considered commercially viable. I think this is simply a result of the shrinking industry’s desire to stave off its own death.

        As an example: It’s a strange phenomenon considering that technology has nearly removed all barriers to music production and distribution that the 3 minute song format still is the mainstream formula. Audiences have demonstrated a hunger for long form discussion which is threatening old media. But there isn’t the equivalent answer to music’s stagnant forms.

        I don’t think I’m entitled to make a decent living making innovative music. But I do consider it my duty as a musician to utilize the full power of my craft and produce alternative possibilities for the future and offer those as an option. I don’t think I’m entitled, I’m duty-bound. To at least make an attempt to stir waters that I see have become stagnant and toxic.

        Should there be grants for this? Some I suppose. I’m not very familiar with the world of grants having never applied for one I think it’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Music as vehicle for sales will not necessarily produce music of transcendent beauty. It may, but that’s an ancillary concern in that model. But state funded art has its pitfalls as we know (see how the Russians scrubbed the Mongolian bard tradition clean of any “primitiveness”).

        I don’t know what the solution is but it’s deeper than politics, economics. It has something to do with the deep human drive to pursue transcendence and how that has been suppressed in the name of empiricism. Or something like that.

        Anyway, I lose anywhere from $3000 – $7000 yearly to the pursuit of this quest. Yes I would like the world to be shaped differently so that I wouldn’t lose this money. I’d be happy breaking even. But for now, I have to consider it an act of charity. Even if no one else cares about what I do, I keep doing it because I think it’s of service. Here’s hoping someone out there somewhere some day accepts my gift.

        • E. Olson says

          More power to you UJN. Innovation in music is what gave us all the variations of Ragtime, Jazz, Blues, Country & Western, Folk, Rock, Rap, etc. and most were developed by people who loved music and never got rich from it, in part because some forms never became popular or only enjoyed a short-term craze. Music has been around as long as man, and the only time in history that a significant number of artists generated some wealth from it was during the piano-roll, record, tape, and CD era of the 20th century, and perhaps someone will innovate something that will bring back the profits in the 21st, but I’m almost certain it won’t be because of a government subsidy program.

          • John M says

            It seems as though some musicians want a guarantee that their time investment will produce a livable income stream. I understand this mode of thinking, which is why I got a computer science degree. I’ll rarely lift a finger for something I don’t expect to produce a predictable outcome. I would also probably make relatively boring and derivative music if I were a musician. Mediocre software still has some purpose, while mediocre music… not so much.

            I suspect that some form of risk-taking and personal struggle are required to develop the edge and perspective required to make great music. I don’t expect it to come from wards of the state. It seems like subsidies could only corrupt otherwise good musicians, and keep others in the business who should only be doing it as a hobby for their own personal enjoyment.

      • If you want to make a living from some enterprise, you need to produce a product that a lot of people want yo buy. Artists of all hues seem to be in conflict with this as they want to create an item that almost nobody cares for but expect to be able to make a living from it. They then look down their noses at artists who “sell out” to the masses with their popularist swill. The fact is, most people listen to music, read books or watch movies etc. for pleasure and if you’re not producing what they want, they are not going to buy it. Case in point, Moonlight won best picture but only made around $20million at the box office.

    • Excellent article.

      @Sydney: “And please start to “worry” about – or rather, listen to, watch, see, and read – some of the fantastic art and culture that Canada has produced in the past. Stop denigrating and grinding your heel into what this country has produced.”

      Agree wholeheartedly. Some days it seems like Canadian culture is careening headlong into a surreal echo of the Chinese cultural revolution, complete with Moist-style struggle sessions.* Every time an activist musician like Lido Pimienta uses a public performance to weaponize and deploy leftist identity politics, our culture takes a small step backwards. Where’s the joy when music plays second fiddle to the musician’s hostile demand that the audience fall in line and conform?

      *A struggle session was a form of public humiliation and torture that was used by the Communist Party of China in the Mao Zedong era, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, to shape public opinion and humiliate, persecute, or execute political rivals and those deemed class enemies (Wikipedia).

    • Horseshoe Tavern says

      I was going to leave a comment but you nailed it. Well said. And I would add: Lido P is an obnoxious racist pig and eff the CBC. Gotta run.

      • augustine says

        Ditto. Heart and soul in your response, Sydney, that was sadly missing in the original piece.

    • ms100 says

      New Englander here. Would like to add some of the Canadian cultural gems that I’m familiar with. Cape Breton fiddle music and Natalie MacMaster. Wade Hemsworth – The Log Driver’s Waltz, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and, of course, the National Film Board of Canada film of that song.

      It’s OK to be white. Canadians need to push back on anti-white racists. The author writes a great article about the issue revolving around funding and then cucks hard in the end. You’re weak and the racists take advantage of it. You have no business supporting racists like Pimienta. She despises you. They look forward to disenfranchising ALL whites. Don’t be a useful idiot. What you should be doing is civil disobedience. Lie about who and what you are, use the system against them. Race and gender is a social construct, right?

      • ebola evola says

        Yep.

        I just got a grant here in the US Southwest- and a minority set-aside- for one of my small businesses, because I have declared myself a Hispanic Transsexual. No, REALLY. What was funny is that so few people had applied for this grant, but it was “minority only”- and I’m a blonde, green-eyed, red-bearded straight dude… but on paper I’m a hispanic trans. What’re they going to do? DARE to question or challenge me on it? that’s be RAYSISS and SEXISSS!

        Use the anti-white system against itself. Subvert it every chance you get. After all, they want you broke and disenfranchised and they think it is funny. You “deserve” it because of your unearned, evil privilege.

        Yeah, the privilege of being part of the only ethnicity in the US that isn’t a net tax loss to the nation- the privilege of paying for the people who hate me and shit up my civilization. No thanks.

    • Sydney says

      Whoops, typo: I wrote my comment hastily and wrote ‘Alexa Chung’ instead of Canadian composer, ‘Alexa Louie.’ The press used to refer to her as ‘Alexa’, but evidently she’s ‘Alexina’ now. Anyway, ‘Louie’ and not ‘Chung’. my error. Homegrown Canadian content matters.

  14. Damian O'Connor says

    Interesting stuff. It’s much the same in publishing. I gave up trying to go mainstream a couple of years ago for exactly the same reasons and so I have to rely on Amazon sales – which butter very few parsnips.
    ‘The Triumph of Stollie Prendergast’ is my latest and I didn’t even bother sending it to agents because the hero is a white Englishman.

  15. Defenstrator says

    This was an interesting and well written article. However it made clear that government shouldn’t be giving money to musicians for the same reason it shouldn’t be giving it to sports teams. It has no business acting as a social arbitrator or providing special welfare artists.

    As you are finding yourself, in this day and age out right racist differentiation of people is being actively encouraged, and if all funding was prevented, that would stop.

  16. bodydrawings says

    Thank you for this. I’m a visual and performance artist in the U.S. and feel the same. The work of being an artist is difficult in ways that non-artists often don’t recognize – busting your ass for decades with no financial light at the end of the tunnel is one of them – but this climate is more than difficult.

    • The freebie culture of the internet is to blame. I will never produce anything original or of worth. But I can value when someone does it. It pisses me off the way people download stuff for free. Many do it to “stick it to the man” ,they claim the record companies and the like take most of the profits. 100% of 0 is 0, and 0 is what the artist get in the end if you download it for free.

  17. “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.”
    An extremely racist rant if I ever read one.
    Why is someone from Colombian origin not an “invader” to Canada too? Why is she more entitled to live in North America? It’s a bit like someone from Finland telling a Chinese immigrant in Portugal that he should go home back to China. Why would that be cool? Because Finland is in Europe?

    As a Portuguese should I go after “Portugal, the man”? ohhhh it hurts so much the appropriation!!!

    Viet Cong, well I imagine that names like this or like KGB, Stasi or Okrhana might cause chills, since all these organizations murdered people. But , to the point of being racist? Why? Are Vietnamese proud of their Viet Cong past ? Even people in Southern Vietnam ?

    Every time we let racist people go unchallenged they score a point. We should call a spade a spade and Lido Pimienta and some of the “identity” gatekeepers are racist. Pure and simple.

  18. Great article. One of the best I’ve read on the current music scene. One thing is for sure…the Left eats its own and it won’t be long before the battle among the ‘woke’ left consumes them.

  19. Chris says

    Look at all the gyrations that Canada goes through over its guilt over stealing the country from its indigenous owners and treating them horribly. But it’s all fake. If they believed any of it white liberals would give their land back to the indigenous. But, let’s not be crazy now!! Let’s punish the next generation who had nothing to do with any of this by enforcing absurd restrictions on their lives. AND THEN WE GET TO KEEP THE COUNTRY! Who says Canada is just a useless appendix to the United States? They are so woke that they just dug a big hole and buried their children in it!

    • I see your point. It’s like if I stole your house, then deliver a speech about how horrible I felt but would not return the house to you. But you would have exclusivity on the use of 2 or three words. That seems like a fair trade. I can’t stand that narrative either.

  20. A punk band is supposed to be offensive. I’d have suggested changing their name to Charlie Don’t Surf but that’s taken.

    The correct response isn’t to apologise – that’s only seen as an admission of guilt – but to tell your accuser to shove your balls up their nose.

    I’m nostalgic for the time you had to call your group ‘Rapeman’ to get attention:

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapeman

  21. Paul says

    Great article, I had no idea the music scene had deteriorated so much. I grew up with Canadian bands like SNFU, Dayglos, Nomeansno, DOA, etc who pushed the envelope with very controversial lyrics etc and with no government funding but were still able to make seminal albums that move me 30+ years later.
    I am sympathetic to artists who want to make a living from their passion, and admire their dedication to both their dreams and their craft. At the same time, if one is only willing to make art when it pays the bills, then I wonder whether they are more invested with the idea of being an artist than in the art that they purport to be driven to make.
    I’m well into middle age, work a corporate job, and have been playing various forms of underground DIY music for 20+ years, and plan to keep doing so until I die. If you really want to play, or write, or paint, or sculpt, or whatever, just do it, without waiting for gatekeepers to support you.

    • JMatlock says

      If the trend toward bureaucratization as described in this article continues, the thought police will eventually come for you no matter how “private” you think your art is. These people have a preoccupation with power for a reason. They want to remake society in their image. The term “totalitarian” was coined just for them and Orwell wrote two books (and a slew of essays) warning about them.

    • Young, middle-class Canadians today are deeply, deeply conformist. The notion of defying the social norms of their pearl-clutching peers is unthinkable to them. Maybe it’s the way they were taught in schools, or the effects of growing up with social media, but being genuinely rebellious or independent is just not in their makeup.

  22. The article was way too long. It should have been a series since it touched so many (important) bases. I was primarily interested in the second major point – the ability for up and comers, talented musicians and songwriters to even scratch out an existence in today’s music scene.

    Myself – I’m not young anymore – but have been trying in vain for years to get my original music out there. Even considering the avenues the digital age has opened it’s nearly impossible to earn a dime off the produced music. We can make a few bucks playing live – but unless you have a ‘name’ based off the produced music audiences want to hear cover tunes.

    It seems hopeless – is it? I don’t know. My regret is that there is a ton of good music that no one will ever hear. I try to explore as much as I can and find hidden gems. I try to buy songs as I can and send the artist an encouraging note. Anyone interested search “youngcraig61”

  23. Maybe the Canadian music industry deserves to be in a death spiral. It sounds pretty insane to me.

    That income/wealth overwhelmingly goes to those at the top is not surprising. This happens in sports too. That’s just the way it is, and there is no fixing this. Everybody else needs to get a real job.

  24. This year, Jeremy Dutcher won the 2018 Polaris Music Prize for his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa. He’s indigenous and the album is all recorded in his indigenous language. Just sayin…….. with respect to Neil’s thesis … is it the music, or the message that wins?

  25. “Like their counterparts in other creative industries, musicians historically have held artistic freedom and free expression as core values. ”

    And yet somehow it is hard to remember a time when they freely expressed values that did not demonstrate their left-wing credentials. They have for decades been dominated by people of the left agreeing with each other in public. So what has changed?

    • E. Olson says

      John Philip Sousa, George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin were popular and patriotic, the Beach Boys performed at the Ford and Reagan White Houses, and I suspect a majority of current/recent country music stars have had Republican leanings, so there are a few pockets of right leaning popular musicians over the years.

  26. TarsTarkas says

    They are trying to make physical appearance, sexual orientation, and most importantly political and social views the sole keys to success in life. Intelligence, ability, effort, personality – F**k all that, and f**k you for suggest our standards might be possibly wrong in any way shape or form. And we’re the intolerant bigots?

  27. John says

    “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.”
    How sexual and racial discrimination are sold today.

  28. Public funding for the arts is like heroin. Looks like it solves problems for a while, but ultimately it kills it. In order to act as a medium of communication between artist and audience, it must be unsullied by bureaucratic intervention

  29. Laura says

    A portion of this article should be edited and submitted for consideration in Rolling Stone. It is that thoughtful, insightful and well researched. There is a huge shift in arts funding in this country that needs to be looked into in a more constructively critical way. Very well written Neil Gray. Sensitive and profound cross section of information providing perspective on particular shift. I hope your message isn’t misunderstood – Call me idealistic but I’m fairly sure that many people who can “check the boxes off” feel equally grubby to play some kind of card, or made to feel like their playing the card. At the heart of every success should be the work and it’s merit.

  30. Pingback: Free Expression in the Canadian Music Industry – The Last Centrist

  31. Andrew S says

    Thank you for writing this so frankly, and exposing yourself to the progressive hate mob. A true service to music lovers (and taxpayers) of Canada

  32. Circuses and Bread says

    This comment section definitely needs theme music.

    “Proud to be a Canadian” by the Canadian punk rock band the DayGlo Abortions (DGA).

  33. Zachary Noyes says

    Why is Regine Chassagne from Arcade Fire the picture for this article? Arcade Fire are mostly apolitical, excepting their activism for Haiti.

  34. Peter from Oz says

    Great article.
    I was the front man of a few punk/post punk bands in the late 70s and early 80s. But then a law firm offered me a large salary and I left the music industry without any regret.
    I don’t know much about modern music, but I can’t say that I’ve heard anything produced since 2000 (ith the possible of exception of Rap, whiich us awful) that doesn’t sound like a lot of things that were released between 1975 and 1990.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, I also get the impression that music does not form as large part of young people’s lives as it did. Further with such a large back-catalogue to choose from
    I agree with the posyers above who say that government grants will just help the industry decline further, especially if the the grants are based on the oikophobia running riot through the bureaucratic class at the moment.

  35. puddleg58 says

    If Prokofiev and, arguably, Shostakovich could produce works of genius under Stalin it should be at least possible for the Canadians to still sneak a few good tunes past their commissars.
    Waiting…

  36. puddleg58 says

    Albert Goldman, of all people, told Tom Hibbert in a 1989 Q interview that rock music was” a classic example of how a libertarian revolution can turn right around and become the worst sort of tyranny”.
    How right he was.

  37. It’s interesting how the economics of the music scene differ from the writing one, even as they both face similar technological and social issues. Pirating books is easy to do and a major problem and almost all the big publishers are social justice organizations now, but self-publishing is a big industry and is getting bigger. It’s more than possible to actually join the middle class by being a self-published author. As the big publishing houses grow more censorious, many people are just buying and selling self-published works.

  38. Paul says

    From reading this article Lido Pimienta is by my definition a bigot. But she’s a “progressive” bigot – that’s to say she discriminates against people who its currently socially acceptable to discriminate against.

    I can’t comment on her music but even bigots can be very talented.

    We’ll never get to a better, happier world through bigotry.

    But the older I get and the more I see of the world I’ve come to conclusion human beings have got to hate someone or some group. All that varies is who’s in fashion to be hated. This century’s fashion is to hate white, hetrosexual, non-muslim, non-trans males.

    There was a time in the 90s when I thought we were heading towards a better world with reduced bigotry.

    But I see now I was very wrong!

  39. Mark Beal says

    Music has become progressively [sic] duller for ages now. Partly it’s to do with the economics – if there’s less money floating around, music will essentially be produced as cheaply and nastily as possible.

    But it’s much more to do with the problem the author outlines above. When I was growing up, there were always brilliant records that appealed precisely because the artists allowed themselves to say and play whatever they felt. A lot of brilliant big-sellers of the past would be unimaginable today – “Ain’t Gonna Bump No More (With No Big Fat Woman)” by Joe Tex, anyone? Or would that still be OK because he was black? Even forty years ago The Stranglers were routinely accused of sexism, but they had a massive hit with “Peaches” and gave as good as they got.

    I’m sure there’s still music being made that I might like, but I can’t be bothered anymore, because I can’t stand the virtue-posturing that goes along with it. I liked the first Viet Cong LP, but the moment they changed their name, I was done with them. Not because I didn’t understand why they did it, but simply because, as a child of punk, it seemed completely antithetical to any understanding I had (have) of what being in a band means.

    I’d never heard of Lido Pimienta before reading this article, and judging by what’s written I’ll go out of my way to avoid her like the plague. (“…for being so resilient and for enduring white supremacy…” Get a grip! 21st century Canada is not 1830’s Mississippi.) I think part of the problem here is that artists think “progressivism” is radical, but really all they’re doing is sucking up to the Establishment – which is where the whole grants system comes in. I don’t remember Sex Pistols or The Clash asking the government for hand-outs (other than dole money); it would have been contrary to their whole ethos (though Malcolm McLaren might have done it as a two-fingered gesture).

    If your whole idea of any kind of artistic enterprise is to restrict your audience to a small band of like-minded, insular people and whatever percentage of the middle class self-identifies as “cultured” and woke, then you can do it in your own spare time as far as I’m concerned. It ain’t home taping/illegal downloads that’s killed music, it’s the anxiousness, insularity and puritanism of its practitioners wot dunnit.

    And the moment a Vietnamese band calls itself Brexit, I’m going to be Mr Outraged About Cultural Appropriation on Twitter. Well, maybe not. But it would be fun if someone was.

    • Peter from Oz says

      Mark Beal

      Well said. I agree that the ”progressives” have pulled a strange trick whereby they get to be transgressive and conformist at the same time: ”bohemian bourgeoisie” or ”bobo” was the term someone invented 20 years back to describethese people.
      They want to be the ruling class and the underdog at the same time.

      • evola ebola says

        Yep. Reminds me of another (((group))) who routinely pulls the same stuff.

  40. Michael says

    Isn’t the meaning of the band name ‘Viet Cong’ entirely in the eye of the beholder? Couldn’t it just as easily be considered a commentary on American imperialism or aggression as anything else? How ridiculous of the band to cave and change their name.

  41. Jason Band says

    This is simply excellent! There are a lot of problems in the world, but figuring out how to create a culture where artists can flourish is vital. Beauty will save the world, it’s time we all start taking that seriously

  42. David Turnbull says

    Lido Pimienta? Hard to see anything original there plus you have to put up with her inability to sing consistently in key.

  43. martti_s says

    Lido Pimienta makes beautiful music but how exactly is it Canadian?
    Sounds like Latin American Spanish to me.
    It is a shame how politics (much like religions) spoil everything.

  44. michael F says

    may i suggest that artists everywhere cease to seek monetary support from the government.
    It will always and everywhere attempt to control your work.
    By accessing a funding platform such as Patreon or something similar you may be able to get sufficient money to get your album made. A thousand people at $10 is a quite few hours in the studio.
    at each gig just ask the crowd if they want your album to be recorded. Tell them how to do it. Easy peasy. If they don’t want to then no money and the audience has spoken.
    The patrons of course get early access and maybe some other creative acknowledgement of their contribution to their support of the arts.

    • michael F says

      the model is of course Quillette or your most famous Canadian Jordan Peterson

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