That Canada’s most famous music exports include whiny songstress Alanis Morissette and mushy-metal band Nickelback says more about us Americans than it does about Canada.
Truth is, Canada, with a population about one-tenth that of the U.S., is crawling with great young rock bands, heralded on music blogs and among the indie cognoscenti, and steadily gaining a worldwide audience.
“I started my blog a year-and-a-half ago thinking that I’d spend a lot of time listening to American bands, only to discover that there’s more than enough Canadian music to occupy my time,” says Matthew Pollesel, who maintains the music Web site iheartmusic.net.
Canadian rock bands hardly constitute a single scene, though they are confined, for the most part, to three far-flung cities — Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver.
Montreal, home to indie-rock bands such as the Stills, Sunset Rubdown, Wolf Parade and American critical favorites Arcade Fire, is the current hotbed; yet Toronto still boasts Broken Social Scene, Stars and Metric (whose frontwoman, Emily Haines, headlined at the 9:30 Club earlier this week), while Vancouver claims New Pornographers and Destroyer, which share the singer-songwriter Dan Bejar.
If the blogging collective at mockingmusic.blogspot.com has anything to say on the matter, underdog capital city Ottawa will be Canada’s next major buzz-generator. For his part, Mr. Pollesel, who blogs from Ottawa, says Toronto’s Tokyo Police Club and Spiral Beach are poised for breakthroughs this year.
The success of these bands owes much to grass-roots support, but also to a somewhat contradictory policy environment that blends restrictive old-media content regulations with the frontier spirit of the Internet.
Canada offers several carrots to fledgling artists. There are taxpayer subsidies from the Canada Council, while the privately funded Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records (FACTOR) also dispenses cash grants to rock bands. Moreover, the Canadian government mandates that radio stations broadcast a minimum of 35 percent homegrown music.
Yet Mr. Pollesel cautions that the value of such regulations is far from clear. The Canadian-content rule does little to expose radio audiences to new bands and, indeed, has been “almost completely irrelevant” to the country’s exploding indie-rock output, he says.
“The only bands that benefit from content regulations are those that are fit for mass consumption, like Nickelback, Avril Lavigne and Sum 41,” Mr. Pollesel contends.
Touring subsidies, however, are an unambiguous blessing, he says: “This is a pretty big country, and there’s no way that a lot of bands would be able to go out on the road without financial support.”
However much government harms or helps true alternative bands, Canadian artists seem to take seriously the idea of mutual support. According to a profile of Broken Social Scene last year in the New York Times Magazine, Toronto is so nurturing of young talent that it’s known locally as “Torontopia.”
Elsewhere, as in Canada’s relatively uninhibited digital music sphere, a more libertarian ethos reigns. Under Canadian copyright regulations, peer-to-peer downloading is legal. At least for now: The Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) is as keen on clamping down on digital pirates as is its American counterpart.
Yet young Canadian bands such as Broken Social Scene, Stars and Sum 41, as well as more established hit makers such as Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, are determined to see Canada stave off restrictive copyright laws.
As members of the Canadian Music Creators Coalition, they officially lobby against proposals that mirror the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the Clinton-era U.S. law that prohibits technologies that circumvent copyright protections.
Michael Geist, a technology law expert at the University of Ottawa, says Canada’s independent music labels — on which fully 90 percent of new bands get their start — also are resisting anti-piracy efforts.
“These labels have taken a much different approach to the Internet than the RIAA and CRIA,” Mr. Geist says. “Most have come out against suing peer-to-peer users and are working to find ways to use the Internet to help promote artists and connect with fans.”
While acknowledging that this “approach appears to be working,” Mr. Geist is doubtful that Canada’s content rules, as currently structured, can ultimately survive the demands of the 21st-century marketplace.
He says the vast majority of native Canadian entertainment is a product of what writer Chris Anderson called, in a blockbuster 2004 story for Wired magazine, the “long tail effect” — that is, the economic success of small-time books, movies and bands that collectively equal, even surpass, sales of international juggernauts such as Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code” or “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise.
Unrestricted, Web-driven commerce, according to Mr. Geist, is key to Canada’s future cultural health — in literature and film as well as in new rock music.
“Canadian success, whether in domestic or foreign markets, will increasingly depend on Internet-based distribution that can overcome the scarce availability of Canadian content in bookstores, music shops and movie theaters,” he wrote last year in the Toronto Star.
Mr. Geist calls for a re-examination of Canadian content rules, since everything about new media militates against limiting consumer choice.
The risk might be well worth taking. Unlike the classic-rock era during which Canadians Neil Young and Joni Mitchell emigrated south to become rock stars, the freewheeling Internet will allow today’s Canadians to stay home.
Says Mr. Pollesel: “A lot of bands across Canada realized last year that they didn’t necessarily need to break in the U.S. in order to make themselves heard.”