The people in the crowd at Kitsch Audio, a recording studio in downtown Montreal, were young, spirited and clearly in a mood to party. There were about 200 of them, crammed around a stage in a barn-like room where the light was dim, the music deafening. They cradled plastic cups of Quebec-produced Boréale beer as they swayed and bumped in time with the pulsing rhythms. The slender blonde at the micro-
phone was France D’Amour, and she was vigorously engaged in launching her first album of raw, thumping rock, appropriately entitled Animal, that she hopes will propel her into the upper reaches of what is arguably the liveliest popular-music scene in Canada. “Quebec is where it’s all happening now,” said 24-year-old D’Amour after her show. “The music industry here is booming.” Pausing to brush a strand of honey-colored hair out of her eyes, she added with a note of determination: “And I want to be part of it.”
The aspiring young rock singer seems destined to realize her ambition. To date, sales for the all-French album, which was released late in April, have reached 7,500 copies, and it is still climbing the charts. If Animal continues to
sell that briskly, she may join Céline Dion and Roch Voisine in the constellation of Quebec superstars. There are literally dozens of musicians in the current wave of Quebec performers enjoying robust sales at home and in Europe. Yet nearly all the francophones remain largely unknown in the rest of Canada.
Few can boast sales as phenomenal as Dion’s or Voisine’s, but their domestic figures are still impressive, particularly in light of the size of
the potential market. “Quebec’s a pretty small place, no more than seven million people,” said Keith Brown, president of Montreal’s Aquarius Records, whose new subsidiary, Tacca Music, is the label of musicians including D’Amour and Nicholas Maranda, 24, another rising young rock star. “But that has not prevented us from turning out recordings that regularly go platinum [sales of 100,000], or double platinum, in almost no time at all.”
Funky: For established performers including the Madonna-ish Mitsou or the melodic Maijo, a quarter of a million in sales is routine. Rocker Jean Leloup, singer-guitarist Luc de Larochellière and the funky Daniel Lavoie, all rising stars, regularly reach the 100,000 mark, as do traditional ballad singers Richard Desjardins,
Richard Séguin and Michel Rivard. Newcomer Kathleen is well on the way to becoming Quebec’s dance-music queen, while another new arrival, Julie Masse, is the current golden girl of the pop scene. Masse’s first album, Julie Masse, released last year, has sold 185,000 copies. Advance sales for her A contre jour (Against the Light), released on May 5, indicate an even bigger bonanza. According to Donald Tarlton, chairman and CEO of Donald K. Donald Group of Companies, the leading Quebec promoter and the local representative for more than a third of the province’s performers, approximately five separate acts are earning “extremely lucrative rewards,” 20 acts are making “good money” and another 20 are § “beginning to break through.” Declared Tari| ton: “The place is New York, Hollywood and Nashville all rolled into one.”
The number of record companies, too, is impressive. There are currently more than 40 independent record labels operating in the province. Ten years ago, Quebec companies controlled a scant 10 per cent of the recordedmusic market in the province. Last year, the market share of local enterprises exceeded 30 per cent. Admittedly, most of the 40 existing recording companies are small affairs. But whether large or small, all are actively engaged in developing local talent.
Talent: Public money has been an important stimulant. Quebec’s cultural affairs ministry has been handing out close to $2 million annually since 1984 in grants to support the manufacture of locally produced records and videos and to assist in the promotion of Quebec artists. A similar federal initiative, the Sound Recording Development Program, has injected close to $2 million into the Quebec industry each year since 1986.
As well, Quebec has a solidly entrenched media and broadcast net_ work that promotes—and profits from—Quebec artists. Dozens of spe§ cialized print publications have develi 2 oped a star system that does not exist I anywhere else in Canada. At the same time, hundreds of radio stations and more than 40 private television stations, including the 24-hour all-music cable channel MusiquePlus, are eagerly engaged in the search for talent. CRTC regulations, meanwhile, require that francophone music make up 65 per cent of locally broadcast music. Said rock star Nicholas Maranda: “For a performing artist, it’s fantastic.” He added: “Just off the top of my head, I can think of nine regularly scheduled television shows that constantly require acts. Where else in Canada does that kind of situation exist?”
The real secret of the current success of many Quebec performers, however, appears to be their audience. Said Mark Lepage, rockmusic critic of Montreal’s The Gazette: “If an artist is homegrown, there is an almost familial sense of obligation among many Quebecers demanding that he, or she, be supported.”
Such support crosses linguistic lines. Montrealer Sass Jordan, who sings in English, and the Sept-Iles-based duo Kashtin, singing in the native language Montagnais, have a strong following among francophones. Anglo Rob Meyer, the 22-year-old lead vocalist in World on Edge, noted that his band, which uses only English lyrics, has a strong francophone following. He added: “The people here are very supportive of their artists. You can live off Quebec all by itself. You can tour through the province for two years and people will keep coming.”
Sensation: But Anglo music lovers outside Quebec are not as likely to cross language boundaries. Most francophone performers who are household names inside the province are nearly unknown in Englishspeaking Canada—unless, like Céline Dion and a few others, they begin to perform in English. Rubin Fogel, president of Les Productions Fogel-Sabourin, a Montreal-based concert producer, lays the blame for the problem on the lack of any effective means to transmit Quebec music to Anglo Canadians. He pointed to what he described as a “tune-out factor” at work among those who buy music for radio stations and other outlets in the English-speaking parts of the country.
Fogel said that few operators are willing to take a chance on French music for fear that they will lose audiences. He encountered that attitude when trying to promote Richard Séguin outside of Quebec. “It’s not that English Canada hates French music,” he said. “It’s just that there are not any vehicles available for them to listen to it. It’s futile to try at this point to market French albums across the country.”
In France, meanwhile, French-Canadian performers are in vogue, surpassing the popularity of such earlier Quebec stars as Robert Charlebois, Félix Leclerc and Gilles Vigneault. The biggest Quebec sensation overseas is Roch Voisine, but several others are following in his path. In February, Maranda signed a contract with Polydor Music, a major label in France. Both Luc de Larochellière, whose specialty is intelligent, guitarbased rock, and Jean Leloup, a hard-driving rock-’n’roller of the old school, have enjoyed both critical and popular success in France recently. Last week, each had a single in France’s Top 10. Carole Laure, a countryrock singer who, despite her francophone origins, sings in English, has been playing the 2,000-seat Olympia concert hall in Paris. And Richard Desjardins, whose ballads about Quebec lowlife are delivered in jouai, or street dialect, won rave reviews for recent performances. “His words are wonderful, his music often beautiful: he’s a welcome presence in France,” declared an article in the respected newspaper Le Monde, which went on to describe him as a combination of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Jacques Brel—and Victor Hugo.
Invasion: Nicholas Carbone, the president of Montreal’s Tacca Music, compares the current French invasion by Quebec musicians to the triumphant arrival of the Beatles in North America in the 1960s. “The French seem to think they’ve discovered a new Liverpool in Quebec,” he said. “Roch [Voisine] paved the way there. Five years ago, you couldn’t give away a Quebec artist in France.” Francophone Quebec performers are crossing the Atlantic with greater and greater ease. But it remains to be seen if they can cross the geographically less daunting, but linguistically forbidding, boundaries into the English North American market.
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