The tension between Canadian musicians’ successes abroad feeding our collective ego and the “aw shucks heritage” that we perceive to be at the heart of our culture makes for a very complex situation when debating the merits of the CanCon regulations. Köhler does a wonderful job of disentangling our Canadian mythology (peace, order and good governance, you know), and does so in a way that also speaks to the mythology of our successful musicians. Here we have this government legislation that was supposedly designed to help our musicians grow and compete with acts from the United States, and along with it we have proof that it works in the form of world-praise and plenty of top-billing talent to go around. At the same time, it’s all crap. Faceless crap.
The irony is that this stuff is how we’re evidently defining our national identity, and yet anyone would be hard-pressed to say that Justin Bieber or Drake are the voices of this country. During the infancy of the CRTC and the CanCon regulations, Margaret Atwood wrote a book called Survival, a critical work that acted as an introduction to Canadian literature. The basic premise of Atwood’s text is that all of Canadian literature is bound by common themes, and those themes tell us who we are as a nation. She essentially took it upon herself to name and define Canadian literature using those themes for fear that our literature and culture lacked explicit definition, and that lack would be subject to outside influence. She “wasn’t aware that [she] lived in a country with any distinct existence of its own” (1972, 29). The idea that our national identity is mimetically linked to our culture was a pervasive influence on the CanCon regulations as well as a popular feeling at the time. In that sense, those regulations are failing to adhere to the idea that necessitated their creation in the first place; we’re not defining or exporting our culture at all, our most successful artists are adopting something else to be successful.
The same year she published Survival, Atwood also published a book of fiction called Surfacing. The protagonist in that text goes on a trip to rural Quebec with her boyfriend and another couple in order to find her father. Along the way, the group encounter a couple of Americans who are camped nearby, and the body of a heron, the death of which is inevitably blamed on that camp in the distance. Upon meeting the Americans, however, it quickly becomes apparent that they are actually Canadians, no different from the protagonist and her friends. That information has little effect on the protagonist’s feelings, as the association in her mind is damning enough. To the protagonist, being American seems to have less to do with race or creed than being not Canadian. Her idea of what Americans are and aren’t seems so assured, and yet she always describes Americans as marginal, strangers, ever encroaching: “they’re what’s in store for us, what we’re turning into” (1994, 129). Thematically, this text is in line with the protectionist attitudes that ushered in the CRTC and its regulations, but it’s more than that. Surfacing anticipates our undoing by not learning how to define our culture in ways that are simply oppositional. These regulations, forged from our very own inferiority complex, are just reifying that complex further by not being built in a way that works, and by not focusing on an actual tangible problem that Canadian musicians face.
We’re failing by our own definition, while simultaneously the most successful we’ve ever been. I’m not suggesting that selling albums is at odds with our cultural identity, but if the purpose of CanCon is to help Canadian artists gain the proper footing to have a presence both nationally and internationally, we need to focus on the ways in which we can continue to help that. Dwelling on our successes rather than questioning and learning from them will not lead anywhere. There’s proof that our most successful artists are successful because they’re leaving, not because they’re the boon of a well-oiled machine. We can circumvent this by redefining why its important for us to have a distinct culture and allow it the freedom it needs to grow organically.
Sure, the CRTC has created incentive and support for Canadian artists in various ways with the development of our culture in mind, but there is also a disparity at the point where that support comes in to play in an artist’s career, compared to where it might be needed. Nickelback, Bublé and the rest should really be credited for making it so far given the types of support systems in place. Certainly there is no lack of financial support for artists, what with grant money being offered from various arts councils, as well as FACTOR (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records), but even those miss the mark and do very little to help Canadian artists who are just starting out.
A part of the CanCon mandate is the caveat that private radio has to donate money to FACTOR each year: stations that make $625,000 in revenue annually must donate $500; stations that make above $625,000 annually must donate $1000, and oftentimes they voluntarily donate more. This initiative is supposed to help build a stronger business on the independent level, but we aren’t seeing that output reflected in sales.
Having corporate radio contribute money to funds for developing artists is a good idea on paper, but in reality it’s much messier. If radio stations see their contributions to the FACTOR fund as an investment, then it creates the expectation of a return on that money somewhere down the road. Ideally, playing FACTOR-funded artists would then serve in radio’s best interests, and could act as a criterion to be played on the radio, “money well spent.” The FACTOR application process could act as a screening process even before an artist can be played on the radio, making radio stations privilege FACTOR-approved bands over ones who aren’t, under the assumption that artists who weren’t deserving of the money would also not deserve to be played on the radio. Begging the question, what kind of criteria do artists have to meet in order to be eligible for FACTOR funding, and who gets to decide?
One look at FACTOR’s board of directors and the picture becomes much clearer. Taking very prominent roles are Rogers, Bell, CORUS, and Astral media, four companies that are not only responsible for the majority of Canadian content we’re exposed to, but also the methods of distribution.
Nothing in FACTOR’s mandate indicates where an artist has to be in their career in order to be eligible for funding. To their credit, FACTOR seem very even-handed when dishing out money to artists all over the board; however, why bother having an apparatus meant to even the playing field between Canadian and American musicians when Canadian artists supported by the American system can also benefit from the same funding? The problem with FACTOR is that for every Dan Mangan who receives money to cut a demo, go on tour or make a video, there’s also a Nickelback, who are just as eligible for FACTOR funding, even though they’re also reaping benefits from having already tapped into the American market via a major label. This poor logic just engenders the status-quo. Why should Nickelback or Neil Young still need propping up from our institutions after having sold millions-upon-millions of albums? Certainly artists are making less and less in this economy, but it’s as though FACTOR, and the government by extension, see their Canadianess, as being a handicap in the music business.
With or without FACTOR support, artists are still leaving the country to get past that little hump of selling albums. The CanCon mandate does nothing to support how they get the attention of an audience, radio station, or major label in Canada, and is a significant factor in the ability of our cultural product/commodities to thrive.
The third and final part of The CanCon Question can be read here.