Canada's Got Soul?

Why Our R&B Artists Get Left in the Cold

BY Ryan B. PatrickPublished Aug 1, 2006

There 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 didn’t 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 (1998’s "Rally’n”), a Juno nomination and an American major label deal underlines the challenges she’s 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 "I’m happy because I wasn’t really ready anyway. The people who run the industry only know what they know so you can’t really fault them for not being willing to take the chance.” What those industry-running people don’t 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 hasn’t bothered to answer those questions, leaving it to the artists themselves to break ground and build a DIY touring circuit all their own. "I’m 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 aren’t 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 band’s decade-long career as a "beautiful struggle” that, despite nationwide recognition, moderate record sales and inevitable Juno nominations, remains a challenge each time out. "There’s no circuit,” he continues. "You’ve got to create it yourself. It’s real easy to say that people don’t want to show us love, but you’ve 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 doesn’t solve the problem of having nowhere to play. "If you’re playing rock, you can play 30 dates across Canada within a two month span,” Santilli says. "As an R&B artist, you’d be done in two weeks.”

Vancouver-based soul artist GreenTARA agrees, "It’s 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, it’s 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 doesn’t have a system,” says Toronto’s 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. "It’s 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 there’s a market for soul music in Canada, but the industry hasn’t evolved with the scene. "Maybe the industry of yesteryear didn’t 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 it’s hard to compete with because it’s got to be something that sticks out enough, but not to the point where it doesn’t compete.”

One big reason why soul music doesn’t get any love is due to cultural points of reference. The industry has always been white — there’s no other way to describe its infrastructure. The mistake historically made by labels was the belief that the music’s 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 doesn’t 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 doesn’t work the same way because the socio-cultural experiences of black Canadians aren’t always shared with African-Americans.

What’s interesting is that soul and R&B, as popular music, have Canadian roots far deeper than rock and pop. Larry LeBlanc, Billboard magazine’s 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 isn’t 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t a shortage of talent,” Jennings says. "It wasn’t 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 couldn’t be good.”

The Canadian music scene in general didn’t 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. It’s a process that the R&B and soul scene is now in the middle of, according to Billboard’s 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 doesn’t give Canadians enough credit. "Living out west, I think there’s still that notion it’s 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. "Let’s say there are five signed Canadian acts — those are the ones you’re 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 didn’t last. "It’s 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, there’s no other way to put it,” he continues. "There are still some dinosaurs in the music biz. They’re making decisions and they don’t listen to the music. That’s problematic, especially since there doesn’t 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, you’re usually [booked into] rock rooms, sometimes you’re 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, there’s 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 there’s 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 they’re not comfortable with. But it’s all about [getting] good music out there and getting good feedback.”

It’s 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 aren’t 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 you’re any good, consider Canada a building ground. It’s not about being bitter. If you’re 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. "You’ve got to work ten times harder than the average artist. The overwhelming presence of the States means that we’ve got to work harder to get noticed. People have been waiting for something different, and I’m here to provide that. It’s not about the money but about longevity.”

"He’s got a structure around him,” says LeBlanc of Massari’s career trajectory. "Five years ago, a major wouldn’t know what to do with an act like Massari — I don’t think they’d 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 I’d say Jully’s career is at a crossroads. But I think it’s to her credit that she’s kept herself alive,” LeBlanc says. "The days of the million dollar record deal are over. You have to create an indie presence and most don’t 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 don’t need to remind ourselves that there’s talent here. We know that. What we need to do is inform other people elsewhere that there’s talent here in that way it can be widespread.”

Calgary’s Jeff Hendrick has thought about moving out of Canada but decided against it. "At the end of the day it’s still a very rock-oriented country. I don’t think it’s inherently our music. But we do have people that love it and we’re producing some music of our own. I think that we’re doing ourselves a disservice if the answer is always ‘Let’s move away.’ There’s 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.

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