In the early 1970s, when the Guess Who were Runnin’ Back to Saskatoon and Neil Young was feeling helpless in north Ontario, most ambitious Canadian musicians discovered that home just wasn’t big enough, that the rest of the world seemed distant and impenetrable, and that the United States was first and foremost.
For Canadian musicians and exports of their music today, the view has changed dramatically on every front.
Today, more Canadian musicians and their export teams see that while the U.S. market is still “the golden ring,” says Steve Kane, they also know that if they can get traction elsewhere, such as in Scandinavia, Europe or Australia, “then let’s get over there.”
Kane, who’s been in the Canadian music business for 30 years, including the past 14 as president of Warner Music Canada, says the rise of music streaming has globalized the marketplace, and a major change is access to deep data on who is listening to Canadian music, and where.
That opens new export opportunities, Kane says. “You start to see action when you drill down on the analytics on the streaming services.” Artists and their teams must look to those new markets and ask, “How do I turn this into an exportable commodity?” Kane says. “It’s taking that risk, and making that investment.”
While thorough numbers are scarce, all agree that Canada is exporting more music today than ever before, in large part because the domestic music industry has evolved and can now exploit more export markets.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Canadian stars such as Paul Anka, Anne Murray and Joni Mitchell had to move to major U.S. markets to be noticed. In Canada, says long-time music public relations man Eric Alper, “there was no music industry infrastructure, there were no major labels with marketing staff. There were no Canadian-content radio regulations in place that forced radio stations to play homegrown talent.”
Big changes began in the 1980s with the rise of music videos and, in Canada, MuchMusic. Getting a video on Much’s rotation became a huge lever for boosting physical sales and radio play in Canada, and some Canadians also hit it big in export markets, such as Bryan Adams, Corey Hart and k.d. lang. But there were bigger changes to come, in both technology and in Canada’s status on the international stage.
During just a few years in the 1990s, Canada gave the world Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Alanis Morrissette and Sarah McLachlan, and each would sell millions of records as global superstars.
Later Canadian musicians “have the benefit of the Bryan Adams, the Shania Twains and the Alanis Morissettes, and can take those pieces and say, ‘this works for me, and this works for me,” Alper says. Yet, “we’re living in a far different world when there’s no place to sell a physical format anymore.
“For the last 15 years,” as music streaming has become viable and provided data to show which markets are listening to Canadian music, “it’s almost been imperative that you have an export plan in terms of your marketing when you’re signing a Canadian artist,” Alper says. “You can’t survive without it.”
Streaming has also changed how those markets are approached, Kane says.
“There was a time when I had to get the buy-in from my company colleague in Spain or France or Germany to even get a release” in those countries, he says. Today, with Canadian music already digitally available in almost every export market, Warner Music Canada can organize “superfans” and other reps to promote music on foreign ground, and perhaps the campaign “makes enough noise that my colleague in Germany says, ‘hey, I’m going to commit to a full release. Or maybe we get a call from an independent.” Either way, another Canadian musician has a toehold in a market for exports of streams, downloads, and live shows.
Kane cites the example of Warner Music Canada’s act Courage My Love, which just finished its second successful tour of Europe, despite having no physical CD or album for sale there. Because the band’s music is available digitally, “they’re at least now able to go take advantage of that opportunity.”
Kane says “absolutely” when asked if Canadian music exports are bigger than ever — and there seems only one answer when the world’s biggest music stars include Canadians Drake, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd and Alessia Cara, in this age of data and limitless frontiers.
“People are starting to realize,” Kane says, “I can take four or five runs at the wall to the south of us, bang my head against the American market, and if all I do is walk away with a bloody forehead, you know, why not try some of these other markets?”