In many ways, Canadian arts and culture exports are vulnerable to the usual fluctuations of the global economy — as demonstrated by the Ottawa-based indigenous artist who explains how sales of Inuit carvings to the important United States’ market plummeted after the economic downturn of 2008. Yet, in other ways, the export of art and culture is unique, says the University of Toronto’s David Soberman.
“Art is obviously a very different animal,” says Soberman, the national chair in strategic marketing at U of T’s Rotman School of Management.
“Artists have to create a name for themselves. It’s hard for a government or a marketer to create a name for an artist, so in that way it’s different” from many other exports, Soberman says. “Once the artist is well known, marketing their art can obviously be synergistic with efforts to promote Canada abroad.”
Promoting Canada’s interests abroad, through programs that support artists while seeing art as public diplomacy, is a key interest of the Canada Council of the Arts, says the federally funded agency’s director and CEO Simon Brault.
“Art can have a halo effect. It’s clear that when there’s a presence of a well-known and impactful Canadian artist, it opens doors, yes, to cultural exports, but to any kind of export that Canada can make,” Brault says.
“Worldwide right now, there is growth in terms of cultural exports, and it’s an aggregation of video games, movies, books” and many other media, he says. “My question always is, what do we need to make this happen and to sustain it?” To start with, he says, Canada needs cultural exports that “are so original, strong, so universal, that they will resonate.”
Examples abound, from the Montreal-based Cirque du Soleil, which around the world has almost single handedly changed the public notion of what a circus is, to the Canadian play about 9/11, Come From Away, which is racking up theatrical awards and nominations on Broadway.
Then there’s the Canadian music industry, which has produced some of the biggest stars in the world today, including Bryan Adams, Celine Dion, Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and many others.
In terms of the volume of music revenues, including exports, “we’re nowhere near where we were 15-20 years ago, but we’re headed that way,” says Stuart Johnston, president of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), which represents Canadian-owned music companies in English Canada, including record labels, management, publishers and others “in the business ecosystem that develop and promote our Canadian music artists.”
Johnston says that at first digital music was the “great disruptor,” and upwards of 50 per cent of industry revenues “disappeared overnight.” But digital music has since then become “the great enabler. It has allowed our music to be exported instantaneously around the globe. Music now literally is a global product.”
A reality of the digital age is that there’s a lot more music out there, and “that’s what makes it more important for business reps around those artists to be in market, to press the flesh, to meet the people that they need to meet, in order to draw the commercial attention to these artists and their music. You need to bring your artists many times to perform, because that’s what it’s all about. Music is very experiential.”
As a result, demand for CIMA’s export services is growing, from an average of three trade missions per year a decade ago to 20 missions last year, each bringing Canadian music companies and artists to 10 cities in eight countries.
There were missions to the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, with meet-and-greets for Canadian companies and publishers, promoters and other key figures from markets around the world, and also showcases for Canadian musicians where, CIMA has made sure, “the right people are in that room.”
Other missions were to New York or Los Angeles, promoting, for example, the use of Canadian music in movies, commercials or video games — all increasingly important revenue streams when actual sales of music lag in the streaming age. Overall, he estimates, exports of Canadian music are worth “well north of $100 million now, and it’s growing.”
Johnston says CIMA gets government support from Heritage Canada and Global Affairs Canada, and from the Ontario Music Fund. He says CIMA is pushing for another $10 million fund to support the Canadian music industry’s marketing in other countries, which can cost far more than domestic marketing, especially with much-in-demand breakout artists such as the Sheepdogs or the Strumbellas.
He also sees opportunity in U.S. President Donald Trump’s vow to renegotiate NAFTA, if doing so could reduce the costs or other barriers to getting working permits for Canadian musicians to tour the U.S., to see a level of reciprocity on labour mobility.