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