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Punching Above Our Weight

Kevin Young

May 13, 2021

For a relatively sparsely populated country, Canada is often lauded for having an outsized cultural footprint in comedy, film, and, of course, music. Essentially – a reputation for punching above our weight creatively.

There’s evidence that our cultural footprint has been growing for some time now – some based on metrics such as royalties, which is borne out by the fact that an industry which barely existed 50 years ago (compared to other countries like the US and UK) by 2017, became the sixth-largest in the world. Facts and figures, however, aren’t as emotionally satisfying as hearing folks from other countries say things like ‘Holy crap, I didn’t realize (insert name here) is Canadian’ or ‘Of course I’ve heard of The Tragically Hip.’

When it comes to globally successful Canadian musicians, they run the gamut from the past decade’s successes like The Weeknd, Drake, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Justin Bieber, to internationally recognized superstars such as Rush, Celine Dion, Shania Twain, and many, many others. There are also those who’ve had an impact that, while not always mentioned in the same breath as the chart-toppers above, influenced other artists internationally, such as Buffy Saint Marie, Cowboy Junkies, and DOA.

Why is that? Well, it’s hard to pin down. Historically, a lot of factors have come into play. But the fact is we’ve worked hard as a nation, and as a community of artists and industry professionals (and continue to) in fostering a domestic music scene that can hold its own. 

We’ve certainly benefited from grants funding through organizations like FACTOR (the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent On Recordings), and their government-funded counterparts (operating on national, provincial and municipal levels). Our Can-Con regulations certainly help – specifically in ensuring that homegrown artists get homegrown airplay and don’t feel – as many did in the past – that the only way to maximize their impact is to flee south.

But there are other reasons, perhaps less tangible, for the success of our musical exports; reasons that have a great deal to do with the physical and cultural makeup of the country. This may not be a scientific, statistics-based assessment, but – speaking as a touring musician who’s had the good fortune to traverse the country more times than I can count – I think it has merit.

The commonality is that Canadians realize (and are constantly reminded) that to get to the point where we could punch above our weight creatively, we have to work at it, hard, consistently, at every level. Touring acts realize they’re going to have to literally go the distance to gain recognition, and we care enough to argue about it and advocate for it passionately. There’s nothing more core to creative pursuits than working tirelessly and, in Canada, it comes with the territory literally and figuratively. Whether you’re winning the hearts and minds of fledgling punk, hardcore, and pop/punk acts elsewhere, as BC’s DOA have done, or becoming so ubiquitous that you face a brutal (and utterly subjective) backlash purely based on how popular you’ve become, like Nickelback.

Canada is big. Really big. I mean it’s mind bogglingly huge. It takes perseverance, fortitude, and no small amount of belief in yourself to tackle touring the country – particularly, in a van overflowing with musicians, crew members, and gear, hurtling through a Canadian winter storm. The point being that distance alone is daunting. Touring through the US – generally speaking – you’re going to roll into a good-sized city every 300 miles. Not so in Canada. I’d argue that the sheer distances involved tend to foster perseverance and, in my opinion – the elusive ‘Canadian identity’ is just that – an identity of perseverance and hardiness when faced with tremendous hurdles.

However, the more time you spend in various places across the country, the more you get the sense that defining that identity isn’t necessary. Seeing the commonalities in music scenes across the country, and the differences, we can celebrate both, equally.

I believe our success is less about navel-gazing in an effort to determine what makes Canadian culture and music uniquely Canadian (and comparing our efforts to that of, say, the cultural juggernaut we share the longest undefended land border in the world with) than recognizing that as a nation, as a community of artists, Canadians have a lot to say. We say it in different languages, using different instruments and drawing on vastly different musical traditions based on where we live, what role music plays in our lives, and what our backgrounds and ancestry are.

And increasingly so – our cultural heritage and the degree of musical traditions originated and/or popular here are similar to other nations. But, for far too long, as in other parts of the world, the contributions of our indigenous peoples, immigrant populations, and marginalized and racialized elements of our population have been glossed over, ignored, or actively discouraged.

That seems to be changing with Canadians and our industry embracing increasingly diverse voices, and as artists mix, mash, and blend different genres and musical traditions fearlessly. They are expressing themselves not as just as Canadians, but as individuals for whom borders, musical and political, are just lines on a map.

There was a time Canadian music was treated dismissively to some extent – particularly if it dealt with social justice and political issues. After all, what could such a polite country with so few of the issues other nations have (a fiction many Canadians have eagerly embraced themselves) actually add to the conversation? Well, plenty – far more than can be itemized or even adequately summed up here. Just as an example, see the impact of Oscar Peterson’s Hymn To Freedom.

There’s little we could do about how people outside of Canada received our music, but plenty we could do about what Canadians thought. And because Canadians – ordinary folks, the political class, and those involved in the arts – had the foresight to find ways to grow our domestic industry, not only have attitudes towards Canadian music outside of Canada changed, so have attitudes towards Canadian music in Canada.

It is that kind of effort – like a fledgling act starting out on their first cross country tour (facing down a 16-hour drive from Toronto to Thunder Bay) that may have seemed a bit like spitting into the wind, but has clearly paid dividends, and continues to.

Whatever the ‘Why’, Can-Con and homegrown celebrations – like the JUNO Awards and Polaris Prize, or competitions like CBC Music’s Toyota Searchlight – have made us more aware – and proud of – the breadth of music made here. Regardless of who’s making it, what style it is, or – critically – whether it’s commercially successful or not.

Kevin Young is a freelance writer and longtime touring musician, as keyboardist with JUNO winning Alt-rock group Moist.


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