Published Aug 01, 2006There was a recent flurry of media activity surrounding the release of Jamaica To Toronto, a compilation that exposes the "lost history of R&B and soul music in Canada. The CD, released on American indie label Light in the Attic, collects recordings by Canadian-based R&B singers in the 60s and 70s. Toronto had experienced a wave of Caribbean and West Indian immigration that resulted in a highly charged music scene, and straight-up soul was the order of the day. Current press has marvelled at the fact that these soul artists even existed and how much they influenced the contemporary Canadian sound. The music was fresh and vibrant, but didnt translate into sustainable success Canadian soul detoured into a cultural cul-de-sac while Canadian rock became a well-paved road.
The struggles faced by a domestic R&B/soul scene remain an intricate mix of fear, prejudice and conservatism twinned with an inferiority complex when held up against American counterparts. R&B and soul artists in this country are afforded more limited opportunities in terms of media exposure, touring opportunities, radio play and major label backing when compared to Canadian rock. Despite a smattering of Canadian success stories both at home (Jacksoul, Ivana Santilli, Massari) and in the U.S. (Tamia, Deborah Cox, Glenn Lewis), the Canadian music industry still seems mystified what to do with them.
The number of active, successful Canadian soul artists can be counted on two hands with fingers to spare but not for a lack of talent or ambition. Toronto-born vocalist Jully Black is a good example; she was a well-known commodity (at least to the industry) for more than a decade before she finally unveiled her debut album. The fact that it was released after she had a Top 40 radio hit (1998s "Rallyn), a Juno nomination and an American major label deal underlines the challenges shes faced. After signing a deal with now-defunct affiliate MCA Records, which evolved into a joint deal with Universal Canada and U.S., her album was reworked, renamed and re-jigged before finally being released last summer.
Black remains upbeat about the situation, saying "Im happy because I wasnt really ready anyway. The people who run the industry only know what they know so you cant really fault them for not being willing to take the chance. What those industry-running people dont know is what to do with an artist like Black is she R&B, soul or pop? How will she be received in Medicine Hat?
Generally speaking, the industry hasnt bothered to answer those questions, leaving it to the artists themselves to break ground and build a DIY touring circuit all their own. "Im the person I am today because of the grind, Black continues. "I got stronger and better at what I do. I sold 40,000 [records] and no one expected me to sell even five or ten [thousand].
"There arent a lot of outlets out there, says Haydain Neale, front-man for Jacksoul, arguably the most successful R&B/soul outfit in the country. He describes the bands decade-long career as a "beautiful struggle that, despite nationwide recognition, moderate record sales and inevitable Juno nominations, remains a challenge each time out. "Theres no circuit, he continues. "Youve got to create it yourself. Its real easy to say that people dont want to show us love, but youve got to demand that respect.
Ivana Santilli is another Canadian success story; her early 90s rise came at a time when there was some buzz around soul, R&B and hip-hop hybrids. "There was a genuine excitement at the time. Live music on the road was still a doable concept whereas now it really is about making your band smaller. Downsizing your artistic ambitions to keep your overhead low is one solution, but it doesnt solve the problem of having nowhere to play. "If youre playing rock, you can play 30 dates across Canada within a two month span, Santilli says. "As an R&B artist, youd be done in two weeks.
Vancouver-based soul artist GreenTARA agrees, "Its about finding that pocket of people that relate to your music. You have to be able to shave down all your extras and just go.
ooking again at Jamaica to Toronto, its acutely ironic and wholly Canadian that it took an American label to recognise and legitimise the music before Canada took notice. This, more so than any other musical genre, relates to the perception of R&B and soul in this country.
"The Americans are laughing at us because Canada doesnt have a system, says Torontos Melanie Durrant. The R&B vocalist knows all about the U.S. system. Once signed to the legendary Motown label, Durrant suffered countless delays to her American debut project and was ultimately dropped. She came back and her reworked album was released by Koch Canada. Still, Durrant says the experience was valuable, if only to highlight the differences between the American and Canadian approaches to the music. The American approach is soup-to-nuts producers, studios, writing staff and labels work in conjunction. "Its a whole package, Durrant says. "Here someone will play a beat for you and demand five grand. There are only scraps to win.
David "Click Cox, an Artists & Repertoire (A&R) rep for the Universal Music Group, knows theres a market for soul music in Canada, but the industry hasnt evolved with the scene. "Maybe the industry of yesteryear didnt know what to do with a Jully Black, Cox says. "This attitude has changed a lot, particularly with the relative success of R&B and urban acts. Beyond the few Canadian R&B/soul success stories there are teems of artists who toil in obscurity. Even the successes are relative; most were forced to breakthrough Stateside before getting any love north of the border. Paradoxically, it had to be done before people could see it could work.
"Who wants to put their balls on the table? Cox asks. "The Canadian market is so Americanised and its hard to compete with because its got to be something that sticks out enough, but not to the point where it doesnt compete.
One big reason why soul music doesnt get any love is due to cultural points of reference. The industry has always been white theres no other way to describe its infrastructure. The mistake historically made by labels was the belief that the musics appeal is limited only to the African-Canadian community. Canadian labels, who often operate as franchises of their American counterparts, look to the U.S. market as a model in most of their operations, but the Canadian market doesnt share the same monolithic cultural experiences in black or white communities or music markets as the U.S. Targeting an African-Canadian market for soul music doesnt work the same way because the socio-cultural experiences of black Canadians arent always shared with African-Americans.
Whats interesting is that soul and R&B, as popular music, have Canadian roots far deeper than rock and pop. Larry LeBlanc, Billboard magazines Canadian bureau chief, agrees. "Toronto was a strong R&B town in the 50s, 60s and early 70s this was not a rock town until the late 60s. Yet that scene remained separate from the Canadian recording industry, which never quite figured out what to do with it. While the industry isnt overtly racist, there exists a cultural disconnect, a "prejudice by exclusion that hampers the success of domestic R&B and soul. "I can remember being at a Juno Awards dinner ten years ago. There was one visible minority in the room, LeBlanc says. "Some of the labels have tried to tap into the market, but they saw limited rewards. So the cultural thing is part of it. The industry was a composed of a generation that was raised on rock and simply couldnt relate to the music, LeBlanc argues. The situation parallels the meagre gains the hip-hop community has had in terms of forging a place for the music.
According to music journalist Nick Jennings, the position of R&B and soul as an also-ran to Canadian rock is ironic, considering that soul music provided a key component in informing the quintessential Canadian sound. Jennings, the author of Before the Gold Rush: Flashbacks to the Dawn of the Canadian Sound, notes that Toronto in particular was a bastion for blues and R&B. The key player in the early 60s was Arkansas-born Toronto resident Ronnie Hawkins, who drew heavily from black American music in forging his popular rock sound. A lot of blue-eyed soul groups that were attempting a rhythm and blues sound looked to Hawkins, according to Jennings, including Little Caesar and the Consuls, and Jon and Lee and the Checkmates.
Black artists from the Caribbean or the U.S. found hospitable communities not just in Toronto but also Vancouver and Montreal; artists like Eddie Spencer, Johnnie Osbourne and Willie McGhie and the Sounds of Joy all featured on the Jamaica to Toronto compilation made an impact on the Canadian scene. But these artists, Jennings notes, soon became frustrated by a lack of opportunities to record part of a larger prejudice against the worth of Canadian music in general. "There certainly wasnt a shortage of talent, Jennings says. "It wasnt black or white it was a national prejudice. Literally, at radio stations across Canada there was an assumption that if it was Canadian then it couldnt be good.
The Canadian music scene in general didnt undergo the radical transformation required to build a domestic music scene until the early 70s, when Canadian Content rules (which dictate that radio stations must play a certain percentage of Canadian music) came into effect. That legislation gave Canadian music a leg-up, and an infrastructure made up of producers, managers, engineers, writers, investors and label executives began to grow. Its a process that the R&B and soul scene is now in the middle of, according to Billboards LeBlanc. "What we fail to recognise in signing an R&B act now is that they are going through the same problem that the rock community experienced 20 years ago, he says. Canadian rock grew by networking and a Byzantine system of joint venture deals between Canadian majors and their American counterparts, he adds and most of the time, it was the Canadian labels that shouldered most of the risks.
For his part, Calgary-based soul singer Jeff Hendrick believes the industry doesnt give Canadians enough credit. "Living out west, I think theres still that notion its only happening in Toronto, he says. More frustrating is a lack of promotional opportunities and diversity on the airwaves. "Obviously, radio is not looking to break new artists, he says. "Lets say there are five signed Canadian acts those are the ones youre going to hear. He points to the fact that, outside of Toronto-based urban radio station FLOW 93.5, many other recently licensed urban radio outlets across the country didnt last. "Its strange that there were all these radio licenses that were able to apply under the guise of urban and were all gone within a minute. (Most switched to a Top 40 format.) "The wrong people are making the wrong decisions, theres no other way to put it, he continues. "There are still some dinosaurs in the music biz. Theyre making decisions and they dont listen to the music. Thats problematic, especially since there doesnt seem to be great interest in trying to grow different genres.
A rock music-based infrastructure is the only one available, according to Hendrick. "As a soul artist, youre usually [booked into] rock rooms, sometimes youre opening for artists that may not really complement you, or vice versa. I know the crowd is there, but when it comes to the booking side, theres hesitancy.
Nova Scotia-based singer Jamie Sparks takes a zen approach to the situation. "Being on the east coast, sometimes you feel like there are things going on in the rest of Canada that we may not be connected to, he says. "But theres a strong community here, which is a plus. You can exhaust the market pretty quickly but there are spots that are really supportive if you have your stuff together.
Sparks runs an independent label and understands the money needed to successfully promote an artist. "Marketing and promotion is a big part and the majors may not want to put money into a format theyre not comfortable with. But its all about [getting] good music out there and getting good feedback.
Its a huge country with a small, spread out and diverse population. But when it comes to work in the music industry, sometimes the opportunities just arent there. "There is a level of frustration, says Ivana Santilli, "but the moment that I stopped blaming things around me and started doing something about it, I became more productive and re-inspired. She adds that, regardless of genre, Canadian musicians need to think beyond their local communities. "If youre any good, consider Canada a building ground. Its not about being bitter. If youre any good, you should be able to play on a world stage. You have to see it as your responsibility to either improve the situation or find a solution for your specific situation.
Those seeking a model example of success for an R&B artist in this country need look no further than Ottawa-based Massari. His debut album, released on the independent Capital Prophet Records, has sold more than 75,000 copies (and counting) that makes him bigger, sales wise, than artists who have been around longer, like Divine Brown, Jully Black, Shawn Desman and Keisha Chante.
"The formula is simple, Massari says. "Youve got to work ten times harder than the average artist. The overwhelming presence of the States means that weve got to work harder to get noticed. People have been waiting for something different, and Im here to provide that. Its not about the money but about longevity.
"Hes got a structure around him, says LeBlanc of Massaris career trajectory. "Five years ago, a major wouldnt know what to do with an act like Massari I dont think theyd be willing to put in the time and development.
The template for success as a Canadian R&B/soul artist probably lies somewhere in the gulf between Massari and Jully Black. Black has been savvy about branding herself, working as a TV host and crafting a media persona that has raised her profile, which should help her upcoming sophomore album. "Since when has any successful person been one-dimensional? she asks rhetorically. "An R&B artist in Canada has to build a brand and broaden your fan base.
"Right now Id say Jullys career is at a crossroads. But I think its to her credit that shes kept herself alive, LeBlanc says. "The days of the million dollar record deal are over. You have to create an indie presence and most dont have the money, infrastructure or business savvy. The majors are signing less.
"Sometimes, the best way you can represent Canada is by leaving, Santilli says. "We dont need to remind ourselves that theres talent here. We know that. What we need to do is inform other people elsewhere that theres talent here in that way it can be widespread.
Calgarys Jeff Hendrick has thought about moving out of Canada but decided against it. "At the end of the day its still a very rock-oriented country. I dont think its inherently our music. But we do have people that love it and were producing some music of our own. I think that were doing ourselves a disservice if the answer is always Lets move away. Theres more to Canada than Nickelback.
Building a sustainable music community in Canada remains a challenge. The measure of success might well be if artists can avoid ending up on a Jamaica To Toronto type of "lost recordings compilation 20 years from now.