Turn and Face the Strange: Canadian Musicians Embrace Change Amid Industry Upheaval

With the pandemic waning but its impact lingering, a panel of musicians weighs in on an industry in flux

Photos (clockwise from top-left): Tush by Darnell Reddick and Joshua Rille, Vanille by Dominic Berthiaume, Anthony OKS by Graham Wiebe, Snotty Nose Rez Kids by Sterling Larose, Kylie V by Lauren Ray, Chromeo by Tim Saccenti, New Chance by Yuula Benivolski

BY Matt BobkinPublished Jul 13, 2021

Since the COVID-19 pandemic first hit Canada in early 2020, it's far easier to list what's changed since then than what's the same, and the music industry is no different. With live music having been on pause for well over a year, it feels like the very soul of the music industry (or at least what's left of it) has been taken away.

Even with the impending widespread return of concerts currently slated for this fall, the idea of things returning to exactly the way they were before the pandemic would indicate that we've learned nothing from the past 16 months. This forced slowdown has led to important, necessary and long-overdue conversations on racism in the music industryincreased pressures on musicians to constantly release new material and the precariousness of the live music ecosystem. As the reopening of the music industry enters its next stage, there is no better time to take action from these conversations and implement meaningful and long-lasting change to benefit musicians and all those who benefit from their art.

In the spirit of embracing change, we spoke with a panel of eight Canadian musicians who answered a series of questions about the country's music industry and their hopes for the future: Kamilah Apong, vocalist for Toronto-based disco revivalists Tush; Montreal-based dream popster Rachel Leblanc, who records as Vanille; Winnipeg-based rapper Anthony OKS of the Lytics; Toronto-based electronic producer and vocalist Victoria Cheong, also known as New Chance; David "Dave 1" Macklovitch of Montreal-born electro-funk duo Chromeo; Vancouver-based folk-rocker Kylie V; and Young D and Yung Trybez of Vancouver-based hip-hop duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids. Here is what they shared with us.

What needs to change in the Canadian music industry?

Kamilah Apong: For the music industry to change in Canada, we need to overhaul a lot of things that seem distant to the music industry here but, in fact, are inextricably linked. We need investment in public transit on municipal, provincial and federal levels so people don't have to feel tethered to Toronto/Montreal/Vancouver, and we can spread out economies for better access. We need tangible, vouched-for, reviewed and publicly consulted-on commitments to low-income, underserved populations in private arts funding. We need ODSP to be increased immediately so disabled artists can actually live and create their art. We need investments into DIY, grassroots media outlets. We need intervention in affordable housing. We need Canada to stop using real estate as a means for upwards class mobility — we are spiralling so quickly on this. We need affordable daycare for the children of Canadian artists. We need UBI, and an actual tangible recognition of how artists, low-wage earners and precarious workers actually prop up the economy. We need Indigenous-led, -reviewed and -executed arts strategies. We need queer, trans, femme, poor, disabled, Indigenous, Black and brown people in leadership and decision-making positions at the public and private levels of arts and culture institutions. We need FACTOR to commit to overhauling their jury system. We need more grant funding for emerging, low-income artists that are just starting. We need more grant systems that accept applications in other formats beside written essays. We need demonstrated, documented and accountable reviews of "diversity and inclusion" measures. Canada is a very conservative country, particularly when it comes to taking risks and changing things up, and we're in a new paradigm now. It's time to change up.

Rachel Leblanc: I think that most artists that are covered are in the same style, not mentioning there is a big gap between the Anglophone and the Francophone coverage. The fact that people listen to music almost exclusively on Spotify makes it hard for artists who do not fit in the "cool chill" playlist format to be discovered and they are left behind. I hope that the executives of festivals will not base their choices on the profile of the average Spotify user, because the diversity in style is clearly lacking. 

Anthony OKS: Canadian music has historically leaned rock and pop, but now, the landscape is changing and I can feel that. Labels, radio, playlists are introducing different genres into their repertoire now. I think this is deeper than music — Canada is seeing more and more immigrants everyday, and those immigrants are introducing new styles of music to the country. I feel like music platforms are also celebrating music from First Nations groups a lot more now. BIPOC identity has been interwoven into the DNA of Canadian music for a long time, but now we're starting to see that transformation firsthand. It's an amazing thing.

Victoria Cheong: The most urgent thing that comes to mind is that artists need to be paid more for streaming. The way that people listen to music now is primarily via streaming services that don't pay artists or rights holders nearly enough to sustain the art form. The current situation is not equitable for creators. It's become clear to me during the pandemic that we can't just rely on touring and performance to make a living. It was never particularly environmentally or energetically sustainable for artists anyway.

Dave 1: Being that we haven't lived in Canada for years now — [Chromeo bandmate P-Thugg] for almost a decade, me for almost two — things back home always seem so ideal: government grants of all kinds, an institutionalized respect for the arts. But, of course, we could always use more diversity and inclusion… and funding as well. 

Kylie V: I think there needs to be a huge shift in the diversity of Canadian music, and the industry needs to support that financially. I think there are more than enough cishet white men in Canadian music, and while, yes, a lot of them are great, the focus needs to be shifted even more off of them and instead toward artists who are Indigenous, Black, LGBTQIA2S+, artists of colour, disabled artists — anyone who isn't a cishet white man. People who don't fit that category get treated terribly in the industry for the most part, and some a lot more than others — in other words, I have it pretty good being a white non-binary autistic queer person. The industry support I mean when I say this includes better media coverage and inclusion in things like playlists and festivals as well as prioritizing these people for funding, which already happens, but clearly not enough if Grimes is getting $125,000 and there are so many incredible Black and Indigenous artists who are held back by financial barriers.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids: A lot of independent artists rely on grant funding to help kickstart their album process and campaign, so that's been huge for us! It's amazing that, even after this pandemic, grant funding is still available. I feel that a lot of artists have grown in their own way after facing the struggles of living throughout COVID. We've had a lot of growing pains ourselves. But, by going through those times in our lives, we were able to grow into a more evolved version of ourselves. It has led us to creating new styles of music and experimentation with sound that we wouldn't normally do. We've seen so many events take place over this last year. These revolutionary movements have only been growing bigger and stronger. It definitely inspired and motivated us to be able to do our part for the movements against social injustices that continue to happen everyday. Taking the time to learn and unlearn things that the media normalizes, and to stand with our relations from different nations all around Turtle Island. There's so much diversity when we all stand together as one, and it's one of the most powerful things we've seen during our lifetimes. 

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What parts of the Canadian music industry do we need to preserve?

Apong: We need to preserve small, intimate performance venues and deem them as cultural heritage sites. If we get rid of these, we are discarding the very nuclei of a rich, thriving, diverse arts scene, creative cultures and economy. We need to keep spots that are community-led and -focused, where creatives can experiment. We need to keep/reinstate universal basic income (CERB). I would say we need to keep diversity and inclusion going, but I don't trust D&I as a concept without doing actual anti-racism work — corporations were too quick to hop on that bandwagon without true self-analysis.

Leblanc: Canada and Quebec are great for the funding opportunities, and that is a thing that should stay. It is imperative for the survival of artists, and for new ones to emerge also. The fact that there are special funds for Indigenous artists and people from different backgrounds is fundamental and should be preserved. However, the media coverage should be more diverse regarding these artists.

OKS: I think we need to preserve music from our First Nations groups and Canada needs to make sure more First Nations people have the opportunity to explore the arts. I think Canada also has a great opportunity to continue to embrace sounds from around the world, and the Black diaspora. All of this music tells a story — a story of where we are going as a country.

Cheong: I guess the first thing I think of is local independent venues. The DIY spaces that nurture artists and musical culture need(ed) to be preserved. We've mostly lost our DIY spaces in Toronto. They didn't directly prioritize driving capitalism and there was nothing to protect them from rising rents. So, we need to preserve the idea that these spaces matter, that they are integral to artists being able to grow and produce work that is vital and innovative and diverse and complex. 

Dave 1: By all means, funding and grants.

Kylie V: I hope that we can preserve the DIY part of the industry — DIY venues, projects and media are the backbone of the industry and if places like Vancouver's local DIY venues Red Gate and Black Lab close, I don't know where people would be playing their first shows. I wouldn't be anywhere without the DIY scene.

SNRK: We need to preserve and uplift the voices that continue to be silenced or, for systemic reasons, are not equally amplified. It's increasingly important to continue to fund the arts and music especially, providing grant and funding opportunities for new, emerging and more-established artists. With so much music being released, it takes increasingly more resources to stand out amongst all the noise. We hope to see more media championing independent and emerging artists as we begin to return to a fully functioning music industry. 

What do you see as the future of the live music industry?

Apong: Please, please start paying musicians proper rates for shows. I'm already afraid that won't happen because people will think musicians are "desperate to play post-pandemic" and will accept shoestrings and popcorn as payment. I hope that people realize how much they miss live music, art and creation, and honour the fact that such artists deserve stable, living wages for their work. I also hope audience members won't feel the need to record live shows on their cell phones as we are finally starting to leave the virtual simulation. That being said, I do hope virtual performances and events can continue for accessibility purposes — it was nice to be able to see an artist play without having to leave my home, and so perhaps for people who cannot attend live music due to inaccessible venues, this could be a good thing.

Leblanc: I believe that everything will be back to normal. The public, from what I see, is thrilled to go back to shows, and want to encourage us whether it's by buying concert tickets, merch and, of course, our music. That's really encouraging for me and for the musicians I know.

OKS: Personally, I definitely want to bounce back, but only when it makes sense. Sometimes, forcing something at the wrong time ends up making a situation worse. If we can start to control this virus, and introduce live music in the safest possible way, I'm all for it. I definitely miss it, but I just want everything to be right before artists go back out there and play live shows.

Cheong: It feels pretty clear that, in the future, there will be shows that have a combination of live audience and people tuning in via livestream. This model might allow for smaller live shows to monetize virtual audiences. I could imagine this being good for artists and local venues and promoters assuming that we have access to the means to stream and it isn't made totally exclusive by gatekeepers of any kind.

Dave 1: I'd love to say that we need a keener awareness of safety precautions, hygiene, ventilation and all of that, but honestly, after a crippling year off the road, I just want things to bounce back to the way they were — and then some!

Kylie V: I think I've been hoping that the old live music industry will just come back as soon as possible but, thinking more about it now, I don't see that entirely as the future. I really hope there is more effort put into the safety of shows, not just COVID-wise but protecting everyone in the audience from weirdos, etc. I also hope that we can bounce back to some approximation of the way things were eventually, but I know there are definitely some irreversible changes.
SNRK: There's definitely going to be a 'new normal' from here on out. I don't think the livestream shows are going away anytime soon, but there is definitely a hunger from fans to return to the experience of a live show — we feel that with our fans. I can see situations where, if you can't buy a ticket to physically be at the venue, there'll still be the option to see it on a stream, which could help to democratize live music and make it more accessible.

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When it comes to playing shows again, what's on your mind?


Leblanc: For my part, it will mostly be first experiences because I'm relatively new in the scene, so I'm excited to see how it will be. I don't have anxieties about leaving my home — it will honestly do me good to get out of the town I've lived in for the past months/years, and I look forward to meet other musicians and fans! It will be liberating to get out of the house.

OKS: COVID kinda changed everything for me. I really had to pivot my day-to-day. I have a routine now, and I'm at home a lot with my fam (partner and dog). It's all just so different now. There will be some hurdles in trying to fit touring back into my life. I'm also not that into staying up late anymore and being out of my comfort zone. I guess you can say, COVID made me into a little baby again! But, I'm sure once things pop off again, I'll be ready. I'll have to be ready. 

Cheong: Well, to be honest, what's on my mind immediately is how to put together a live show after not playing for over a year. I have some anxiety about how to make it sustainable for myself energetically and financially, and how to bring other musicians into the New Chance fold. I do look forward to performing, though. I have missed it deeply. 

Dave 1: Generally speaking, the feeling of community and communion with fans. The human warmth, the contact. Making up for lost time and finally being able to let go. Hopefully we can see some support come in for venues that were the most hurt during this past year. They need it. That's why we're donating proceeds from our new live album [Date Night: Chromeo Live!] to the Touring Professionals Alliance. Venues, venue staff, agents, crew members — they need all the help they can get to get back on their feet after what just happened. That's top of mind for us.

At the same time, apparently there's never been so many shows and tours announced in such a short period. It really feels like it went from 0 to 100 in, like, five weeks. For us, it can be triggering or anxiety- and FOMO-inducing because we don't have new music out and won't properly tour until next year. But when we do tour, we want to pick up where we left off in 2019 and keep building what we started with our live band — that was definitely the beginning of a new chapter for our live show.

Kylie V: I just want to get back to playing shows again! But I think it's going to be a slow start. I miss connecting with people through live music and playing alongside friends, and I miss being able to truly participate in and support my local scene. There's a sense of belonging that's innately connected to performing live for me and I'm anxious to get back to it — provided it's safe for everyone involved.

SNRK: The only thing on our minds is to never take the live show experience for granted ever again! Ever! The fans. Seeing the world. Meeting new artists. Making memories. That's what we live for!

What have you learned about yourself as an artist in the past 16 months, and how are you looking to carry that with you as things open up again?

Apong: Tush put on an amazing and intimate live show that thrives on a stage with an audience. Since I have not done but one show with Tush, I was reminded through its absence: live performance is truly my calling, and I am at my best when I am on stage. This is my truth, inimitably. I feel like that has lit a fire under my ass and I am going to evolve into a new form when we start playing shows again. If you're reading this, book me.

Leblanc: In the past year, I learned that I'm very capable of doing what I do. I began, like a lot of women, with imposter syndrome and not really knowing if I fit in this 'bro music scene,' but I realized that this is my place also! What helps me with this feeling is watching all my women and non-binary colleagues taking their places with a strong hand. When we see ourselves represented, we believe in us and it will empower young people to do the same, and that really makes me happy!

OKS: I learned that I love to create stuff. I wrote an EP during COVID, and plan to release it this September. I had a great time making it because I had more time to dedicate to it. That's what I love — I love to write and record the most. I'm definitely hoping to carry it with me. I learned a lot during the pandemic, lots of different things crossed my mind, and I want to make sure I remember how this all felt. I want to move past this! But I don't want to forget this.

Cheong: Pandemic lockdowns afforded me the time and mental space to make my [new] record [Real Time]. Over the past 16 months, I have been working on how to find strength while facing change. The lesson has been a kind of spiritual resiliency and a refocusing on the core of what matters about music-making. The way I imagine carrying that forward is through ongoing exploration of various forms of spiritual practice.

Dave 1: We learned that you can take away our lifeline, what literally represents 95 percent of our income, and we can still survive. We can adapt. Make things work. Spend more time in the studio and double down on making new music. Maybe we don't have to do DJ gigs every weekend, maybe there's a new work-life balance to be explored — or, at the very least, a new road-studio balance to consider, especially now that we've started our own label and are also producing for a lot of other artists.

Kylie V: I think I've learned a lot about my creative process and specifically how much it needs stimulation. I haven't been able to write the way I did pre-pandemic since about the third month, and at the moment I am trying really, really hard to just finish something I'm happy with. I've done so much self-reflecting over the past 16 months, and, while I think I have a much more solid artistic vision and concept of what I want to be doing, I also now know that that isn't at all set in stone. My creative goals are constantly changing and developing and, as much as I would like them not to be, they are very much influenced by the world around them. I hope by the time I re-enter the scene with new material — playing shows again, making my next album — it becomes easier to create again.

SNRK: If you can make it through this pandemic, you can make it through anything! And it's never too late to learn a new skill and try a new way of doing things. Stay humble, dream big and follow through bigger! Much love.

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