Platinum-record presentations tend to be glorified photo opportunities—a chance for record executives to pose with musicians and publicize their company’s success in selling 100,000 copies of an album. But the award ceremony that took place backstage at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Friday night was special. Held by the record company BMG Canada for the Crash Test Dummies, it was a giddy, high-spirited event that marked the Winnipeg band’s meteoric rise to pop stardom. Just nine months after the release of the Dummies’ debut album, The Ghosts that Haunt Me, BMG was presenting the group with three platinum awards for sales of 300,000 copies in Canada—a rare achievement for any new Canadian act. Said Brad Roberts, 28, the band’s leader: “I never expected this kind of success. It’s really a bit of a shock.”
The Dummies are among a growing number of Canadian acts enjoying domestic and, increasingly, global success. A cluster of stars, including Alannah Myles, Jeff Healey and Céline Dion, are achieving international breakthroughs. Meanwhile, bands such as the Cowboy Junkies, Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip have all received favorable reviews around the world and are, to varying degrees, beginning to achieve foreign commercial success to match. Seasoned performer Tom Cochrane is experiencing newfound fame (page 54). And another veteran, 45-year-old Bruce Cockburn, is finally reaching a wider audience in the United States with his current record, Nothing but a Burning Light.
Vibrancy: More than anything, stars and industry officials cite Canadian-content regulations for the vibrancy and success of the Canadian rock scene. And last week, many of them challenged Vancouver-based superstar Bryan Adams’s contention that so-called CanCon regulations, introduced in 1971 by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, are responsible for “breeding mediocrity.” The rules stipulate that radio stations devote 30 per cent of their airtime to Canadian productions. Designed to give Canadian artists a niche on airwaves dominated by
U.S. music—and to keep production money in the country—the regulations set out a point system that helps determine if a record can be considered Canadian—and should, as a result, get more airplay. Said the Crash Test Dummies’ Roberts: “A lot of Canadian music wouldn’t get played otherwise. Sure, some of it is mediocre. But there’s all kinds of mediocre music that isn’t Canadian that gets on the air.”
Although some industry insiders said that the point system could use some fine-tuning, many, like Cockburn’s manager Bernie Finklestein, argued that it would be disastrous to abolish it. Said Finklestein, who began working in the music business before the regulations were introduced: “CanCon is the cornerstone of the industry. We’d simply be lost without it.”
Indeed, there are now twice as many Canadian record releases annually as there were a decade ago. An unprecedented 84 Canadian musicians are signed to the seven major, foreign-owned labels, which this year alone have invested $25 million in them—an all-time high. At the same time, there are more than 100 other musicians signed to Canada’s many smaller, independent labels.
The increase in the number of Canadian recording artists has taken place in an industry that is in global decline. Sales in Canada continue to plummet, to 52 million last year from 94 million in 1979. But according to Brian Robertson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, Canadian sales account for an impressive 10 per cent—a figure that has held its ground over the past decade. Said Robertson: “It’s such an incredible numbers game, with companies recovering costs on only one out of 10 acts, that it’s mind-boggling any Canadian artist breaks through at all.”
Besides CanCon, a number of newer factors are strengthening the industry. The 10-year-old, government-funded Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR) last year paid out nearly $3 million to performers, producers and record companies in loans and awards. Al Mair, president of the Canadian Independent Record Production Association, argues that is a small expenditure compared with the amount of public money spent on the film and television industries. Said Mair: “The record industry brings $250 million into the Canadian economy each year—by far the country’s most successful cultural industry.”
Meanwhile, the cable TV channels MuchMusic, based in Toronto, and MusiquePlus in Montreal have, since their launches in 1984 and 1986 respectively, helped to foster the music business. Along with the industry’s annual Juno Awards, they have developed a kind of Canadian star system. MuchMusic has also helped to establish a foundation similar to FACTOR to support the production of music videos. Known as VideoFACT, last year it handed out close to $1 million.
Bands like the Crash Test Dummies have clearly benefited from those programs. After receiving a total of $50,000 from sources including FACTOR to make an album, the group was able to record Ghosts. It cost $65,000, and the Dummies had to use only $15,000 of their $35,000 advance from BMG. Now, according to BMG’s manager of artist marketing, James Campbell, the group is enjoying the rewards of a No. 1 album and a Top 10 song—the hit Superman’s Song. “It’s still too early for them to be making big money,” he said, “but certainly by the next album, they’ll be living comfortably.”
Rave: For other bands, without the benefit of a hit single, breakthroughs are a result of relentless touring, rave reviews, video exposure or all three. “It takes longer,” says Jake Gold, who co-manages The Tragically Hip. The eight-year-old Kingston, Ont.-based rock band has released three albums, including two with MCA Records, but has put little effort into videos. Instead, the group has relied on the strength of its live performances—it played 250 shows last year. And the strategy has paid off: the band has had domestic sales of more than half a million copies of their Up to Here and Road Apples albums.
Canadian success, however, is sometimes not enough. For many performers, a platinumselling record enables them only to break even. Even a band like Toronto-based Blue Rodeo, which regularly sells two or three times that number and plays sold-out shows from coast to coast, has to be wary of overexposing itself in the Canadian market. Says Blue Rodeo singerguitarist Jim Cuddy: “It’s a real challenge just to maintain a domestic audience. We’re trying to establish ourselves in other places, like the United States. But it can be pretty daunting.”
Indeed, without the backing of a major, foreign-owned label, breaking into the highly competitive American market is almost impossible. One Canadian performer who is on the verge of accomplishing that is Quebec singer Céline Dion. A superstar in her native province, where she has sold more than one million records, Dion is now poised to conquer the U.S. and, possibly, global pop worlds. Armed with her powerful singing talent, she has the formidable influence of Sony Music in Canada behind her—a deal reported to be worth more than $10 million. But she also has significant support from Sony in the United States.
Reality: Still, even a contract with a major U.S. label does not translate into success in America. Vancouver’s 54-40, one of the first Canadian bands to sign with a U.S. company in the 1980s, found that reality the hard way. The acclaimed group released three albums with Warner Bros, in Los Angeles but, disappointed with sales, it switched to Sony Canada, and a new album is due in March. Said 54-40’s Neil Osborne: “We were a bit naïve. We thought our music would sell itself—that we didn't need much from a record company.”
Meanwhile, Toronto’s National Velvet, a promising rock group led by singer Maria Del Mar, got lost in a shuffle in the United States. In 1988, the band secured a deal with Hollywood-based EMI America. But before the group’s first U.S. record was released, the EMI representative who had signed the contract left the company—as did the promotions and marketing managers.
An increasing number of Canadian artists are finding other, more inventive ways to make records: by themselves. Harpist-singer Loreena McKennitt from Stratford, Ont., sold more than 80,000 copies of three self-produced recordings of ethereal Celtic music before being signed to Warner in Canada. Now, with sales of her current album, The Visit, approaching 100,000, Warner Bros, in the United States has signed her. Still, there has to be a major promotional commitment from a record company in order to sell an album. Said Finklestein: “New technology has made things so accessible. Producing a record isn't the expense these days—it’s the marketing.”
But talent remains a critical element. And industry leaders agree that it has become easier for a gifted Canadian to attract the attention of power brokers in the United States. According to Sony Music Canada president Paul Burger, the turning point in winning support from Sony’s American head office for Dion came two years ago, when she performed for the company’s U.S. sales convention in Quebec City. There, before 350 Sony employees, Dion won the audience over with an emotion-packed performance. And after the show, she was mobbed by adoring fans outside who completely ignored British superstar George Michael, another Sony artist, who was nearby. David Glew, president of Sony’s American Epic label, witnessed the upstaging. “That was the icing on the cake,” said Burger. “Suddenly, everyone understood what we were talking about.” For many Canadian performers, the world is beginning to recognize what all the fuss is about.
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