Step Outside Your Musical Box: Canadian Music

I confess that 40 years ago, when I emigrated from the United States to Canada, I didn’t expect to feel much difference. I thought, “Two nations, largely English-speaking with a lot of shared history—how different could life be?” I was wrong in many ways and during my stay I have learned a lot about assumptions and cultural differences. Canadian music was one of the first and most tangible markers of the fact that I was living “abroad.” I heard many artists on the radio who were completely unknown to me.

That was not an accident. In 1971 the Canadian Radio and Television Commission adopted a rule which required that 25% of radio airplay be dedicated to Canadian music. That figure has now risen to 40%. Since its inception there have been many disagreements about the form of the Canadian content rule. But virtually everyone agrees that it gave a boost to the industry. The increased recognition from airplay allowed bands to make a living touring in Canada. An increasing number of them were able to cross the border into the much larger United States market. Over the years Americans and others have enjoyed music by artists they may not realize are actually Canadian.

Some of these bands include:

  • Bachman Turner Overdrive
  • Drake
  • Guess Who
  • James Taylor
  • Joni Mitchell
  • Justin Timberlake
  • Nelly Furtado
  • Shania Twain
  • The Band
  • The Weeknd

In my opinion, two things have shaped the current Canadian music scene. The first is Canada’s immigration policy. At this point close to 30% of Canadians are foreign born, the highest proportion among G8 nations. It is projected that that will grow to close to 50% by 2030. The influence of the various cultures, primarily Caribbean, African, and Asian, are felt throughout the industry, particularly in the genres of hip-hop, electro-pop, and electro-world.

The other major contributor to the growth and development of the industry (currently the sixth largest in the world) relates to a quintessentially Canadian emphasis on community. Bands develop and rise to prominence but they do so as part of a connected whole of musicians who work together on various projects. Even when they move away (often to larger cities), they remain a committed part of the communities they left. This article describes the effect with respect to artists based in Toronto.

The same observation can be made of the city where I live on the east coast of Canada. At one time Halifax was known as the next Seattle. Many of the musicians who started their careers here have chosen to stay, in spite of the size of the market. The membership of groups has been fluid but they are still making great music. The newest formation is TUNS, with members from many of the supergroups of the ’90s. Other artists, like Wintersleep, Buck 65, and d’Eon, have moved to Montreal and Toronto but remain connected to local performers and producers.

If I was to characterize the current Canadian music scene I would describe it as heavy on indie rock and singer-songwriters. There are comparatively fewer straight-ahead rock groups than in the United States. That said, The Sheepdogs were the first unsigned band to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

The electronic and dance genres have not yet had as much of an impact as in Europe. But that is changing. Listen to both Grimes and d’Eon for great examples of electronically styled music. Hip-hop is well established in the larger cities. In 2016 Kaytranada won the biggest prize offered in the Canadian music industry for his album 99.9%.

There is a surprising amount of indigenous music available on radio and stages in Canada. Perhaps the best-known artist to audiences around the world is Buffy Sainte-Marie, who is still writing and performing at an exceptional level. More recently Tanya Tagaq and A Tribe Called Red have staked out legitimate spots on critics’ “best-of” lists.

There are many great ways to stay in touch with new music produced by Canadians. Two of the easiest are compilation services such as The Verge on SiriusXM and CBC Radio 3. In addition, CBC Radio 1 and 2 also feature Canadian artists. On Radio 1, Q carries long-form interviews and performances as well as including breaking artists in their playlists. On CBC Radio 2 there are many programs (principally Morning, Shift, and Drive) which feature Canadian music. You might also want to listen to the show called A Propos; it is one of the only English-language sources of information on music made in Quebec.

I also utilize lists of prize nominations as a source of information about the best new recordings. The long list for the Polaris Prize, which is awarded by critics irrespective of sales, is a fantastic window on the best recordings in all genres. Each year I put together a class based on the list. I was first introduced to The Weeknd (before he broke big) and Austra, Japandroids, and Braids when they were nominated for the Polaris. Regional prize awards are also helpful. I consult these regularly—East Coast Music Association and Breakout West. The national awards, called the Junos, tend to reflect sales but they are still worth investigating.

Here are eight Canadian songs that I think all indoor cycling instructors should add to their libraries. They reflect a variety of genres and Canadian regions and would be welcome in almost every class context.

6 Responses to “Step Outside Your Musical Box: Canadian Music”

  1. Mary KateMcKerney says:

    Thank you for such a thorough job on Canadian artists. Living near enough to Canada myself that we can get Canadian radio, I always listen to it and especially for their viewpoints and for music ideas. I really enjoy the differences and “new” artists. Gratefully Itunes usually has them!
    Thanks again for all your hard work to put the play list together as it is always a pleasure to get to know our Canadian neighbor even better.

  2. Bill Roach says:

    Christine, what great fun! Thanks for the article and I will try the groups. I just gotta say this, my favorite Canadian artist is not mentioned, Diana Krall. But indeed little of her music is suitable for indoor cycle. Thank you for the good read.

    • Christine Nielsen says:

      Thanks, Bill. Sadly I left many of my favourite Canadian artists off the list because I haven’t found their music useful in classes. While I don’t use Diana Krall, I have used a couple of songs by a young jazz singer named Nikki Yanofsky. You might also want to check out Coco Love Alcorn (daughter of John Alcorn). She lives in my area and is an avid cyclist.

  3. Robert Brien says:

    Ah Christine! You really touched my Canadian heart! I have tried to find a spot for A Tribe Called Red, I think that this one will work for me.
    Have had listen to Maestro Fresh Wes? Particularly Reach For the Sky? The beat is great for a climb and the message is inspiring.

    • Christine Nielsen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Robert, and that you’ll use some Tribe Called Red. They released a new album last fall but I haven’t explored it yet.

      Maestro Fresh Wes is a great choice. I didn’t put him in the Spotify list because I was trying to focus on more current performers (although I did let Rush and Tragically Hip sneak onto the list.) I had to draw the line somewhere or people would have been overwhelmed with my recommendations. 😊

  4. Bill Pierce says:

    This is an outstanding article. Christine took a geographic region’s music, which spans many genres, and found some common themes which pervades her vast playlist. Although Canadian music isn’t far outside of my musical box, there are several artists new to me that I can’t wait to use in a cycling playlist.

    PS, A Tribe Called Red could have chosen a more original name but I really like Electric Pow Wow Drum.

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