Volume 96, Issue 83
Friday, March 7, 2003

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Canada's music scene gains independence

By Andrea Chiu and Brian Wong
Gazette Staff

It's called the "Canadian Invasion."

Avril Lavigne, Remy Shand, Nickelback and Diana Krall all have something in common – they're recent multiple Grammy nominees and they're all Canadian.

Royal City, The Hidden Cameras, Hot Hot Heat and The Constantines also have something in common – they've all recently signed international record deals and they're all Canadian.

Most people have heard of our famous, mainstream entertainers, but not the group of indie artists.

Despite the clear differences, all of these artists are a part of a growing movement some dub the "Canadian Invasion," due to the expanding popularity and improving quality of Canadian music on all levels: domestically, internationally, commercially and independently.

"Right now, Canada has a bunch of superstar acts and it's never been like this – it's huge," says Western's CHRW 94.7 FM's music director, Andreas Gripp. "[However], indie music has been overshadowed by commercial artists."

So, what is independent music?

This question is a difficult one to tackle. For some, your independence is based on the music itself.

"Mainstream music is trite," Gripp says. "Indie music tends to be more intelligent – there is more variance and it's about sub-genres."

For others, an "independent musician" is decided by the structure of the industry – if you are not signed to a major record label, then you are considered an independent musician.

Perhaps the latter description of independent music is the easiest to work with, as it is more definite. Independence, after all, is characterized by the struggle between artistic control and economic resources. Indie musicians have more creative freedom, but lack the money that large labels can provide for expenses such as promotion and production.

"Independent labels are not in it for the money," explains Torquil Campbell, member of indie band, The Stars. "[Being indie] is more like being in a gang or team – it's more of a collective effort; it's more happy."

Bryan Webb, from the Guelph-based band, The Constantines, agrees with Campbell, in that being a part of the indie community is more positive, but comes with disadvantages.

"On Three Gut, we're on a smaller roster of people, whereas, if we were on a major label, we'd be one in a million bands and no one would give a damn about us," Webb says. "But we ended up looking for more support for our upcoming record because, while Three Gut was helping us, they didn't have the money to help us record the album."

Although the funds available to indie labels are relatively low, the artists themselves have a greater chance of making a decent living off their art.

"The economics of a major label are completely different from those of an indie [label]," explained James Keast, editor-in-chief of Exclaim! magazine. "If an indie sells 1,500 or 2,000 copies of a record, that's a success. If a major [label] sells 10,000 copies of a record, that's a failure."

"Artists actually get to make money [on an indie label]," says Trevor Larocque, label manager at Paper Bag Records. "Major labels are sort of like loaners, and you have to pay back the money they loaned with the sales of the record. With an independent label, most companies will pay for the record and everyone splits the costs and the sales."

The increasing strength of Canada's indie scene and the recent signings of The Constantines to Sub Pop, and the Hidden Cameras to Rough Trade UK, has created some optimism within the industry.

"I think [Canadian independent music] is fantastic and the amount of talented artists is growing," Larocque says. "I think the rest of the world is looking at Canada right now and saying, 'Here's a place that we haven't touched yet.'"

The gradual rise in Canadian music's popularity is mainly due to its improvement in quality over the years and better exposure for its artists. While we have our fair share of mainstream entertainers making less-than-extraordinary music, such as Celine Dion, the sounds of our indie musicians have taken shape.

"I think, in our own quiet way, this generation of Canadians and Canadian artists have begun to define ourselves instead of defining ourselves by what we're not," Campbell says. "We're a country of subtleties and that's reflected in our music. There's a lot of care taken in our pop music – everyone has done their work and is trying to execute their music in a subtle but complex way."

Although there is a tight-knit community of independent musicians working together, the sound that Canada's scene produces is not monotonous. Vancouver has a vibrant pop-rock scene that includes bands like The Organ and The New Pornographers, whereas Toronto boasts a strong acoustic twang sound, with the likes of Gentlemen Reg and The Sadies.

The key to sustaining the present strength of the Canadian music scene is to support it. This means supporting indie musicians, even before they are embraced internationally.

"I wish that music lovers in Canada would take notice before other people do. Like the Barenaked Ladies the few people who had heard of them were sick of them, and then they got big in the States and we loved them again," Larocque explains.


major record label: Sony, Warner, EMI/Virgin, Universal, and other companies with lots of money

sub-genre music: Music that cannot be defined by a single genre or type of music. For example, "electropop" is a sub-genre because it is a combination of electronic and pop music

Three Gut: record label home to The Constantines and Royal City

Paper Bag: record label home to The Stars and Broken Social Scene


Akufen: danceable house rhythms

BrassMunk: eclectic hip-hop

Broken Social Scene: arty experimental ambient

The Constantines: fiery post punk

The Hidden Cameras: sexy hymn folk

King Cobb Steelie: groovy electropop

The New Deal: progressive house

The Organ: new wave rock

Ivana Santilli: funky house pop

The Stars: dream pop


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