by carl wilson

Montreal Miracle Explained, Cancer Cured, Etc.


Take the Arcade Fire, the Juno nominations, the Canadian music industry, the Montreal-is-the-new-cheddar-cheese hypewave, the Wavelength anniversary, Richard Florida and David Byrne, chuck 'em in the blender and punch "pulverize." And there you have it, today's Overtones column.

(By the way, you know writers don't pick their own headlines, right? The earlier version I saw, "The world is listening, but we're not," was more to the point.)


Someone please throw some Arcade Fire on the Junos

Sat, Feb 12/05
The Globe & Mail, Toronto

In the past two weeks, the two new solitudes in Canadian music were mapped in bright relief.

First, Montreal's sturm-and-strings rock brigade, the Arcade Fire, took Manhattan: The band made a madcap appearance (with helmeted percussionists drumming on each other's heads) on Late Night with Conan O'Brien. They sold out two large New York clubs, with scouts, critics, fans and David Bowie in the house. The second night -- in perhaps the most surreal, sugar-cereal-sweet moment so far in Canada's indie-music renaissance -- their encore of the Talking Heads' Naive Melody was joined by David Byrne himself.

The New York Times followed with a Sunday Arts cover story proclaiming Montreal music "the next big thing," naming the likes of Stars, the Dears and Sam Roberts. Spin, Interview and Rolling Stone magazines are joining the chorus.

Comparable worldly strides have been made by Vancouver's Hot Hot Heat and New Pornographers. Toronto has Broken Social Scene, Death From Above 1979, and the Hidden Cameras (cultivated partly by the weekly Wavelength concert series, celebrating its fifth anniversary this weekend). Not to mention Canadians abroad such as crooner Leslie Feist or various electronic-music whiz kids.

But then on Monday came the annual Juno Awards nominations. And like blue-state Democrats whose exit-poll high came crashing down in November, Canadians were served notice that our "best artists" still were supposed to be Bryan Adams and Céline Dion. The likes of the Arcade Fire were shunted off to the token alternative categories, not included in the April awards broadcast.

In Canadian music, the revolution will not be televised.

This isn't the annual gripe about the Junos being square. The awards have made a remarkable turnaround since their 2002 takeover by glitz-loving CTV after, sad to say, three decades of parochial CBC broadcasts. It was an inspired initiative to add more performances and, with much foofaraw, to change cities each year (St. John's, Ottawa, Edmonton and, this year, Winnipeg). The ceremonies are now watched by nearly as many Canadians as tomorrow's U.S. Grammys will be, and that's amazing.

Last year's triple win by Sam Roberts also caught the nation off guard, and this year the non-conformist Toronto rapper k-os got three nods, and Feist two. The new adult-alternative category, with nominees such as Rufus Wainwright, is another sop (what are the other alternative nominees - babies?), but at least the Junos try.

No, the alternative ghetto exists because Canadian radio and our U.S.-branch-plant major record labels remain timid, lumbering beasts. Nearly all the artists above are on tiny indies here, with bigger deals abroad. Feist broke through in France. The Arcade Fire is on North Carolina's Merge. Broken Social Scene is on Mercury U.K.

Most aren't even tempted to sign in Canada. As David Byrne posted in his on-line diary after his Arcade Fire gig, "The question is, can the larger labels that are courting them do better? . . . [Maybe] they're doing all right where they are."

The damage is to the national culture. If you haven't heard these artists, it's because no one is promoting them on Canadian radio. After decades of radio regulation and industry sponsorship, Canada still lets Americans sell our culture back to us, as in Neil Young's or Joni Mitchell's day.

Toronto's Evan Newman is one of the few insiders to speak out. As an employee at V2 Records, he wrote an open letter to his industry peers in September asking how they could let the rising indie stars pass them by. Then he quit to start his own management firm, where he advises clients such as Toronto band Tangiers to sign abroad.

"The majors here are looking for the Canadian equivalent of U.S. acts. They aren't interested in nurturing a distinctly Canadian sound," Newman told me. They want cash cows to slide unnoticeably between U.S. hits on radio, he said, corrupting the spirit of Canadian-content rules. When Juno time comes, they spin wheels to get their latest one-hit clones onto the list.

The trouble isn't that major nominations are based on sales - the Junos would wither as a showcase of unknowns. True, the figures used (of recordings "shipped" by labels to stores) are very open to manipulation, but even if the system were reformed, the airwaves would still be flooded by disposable signees whom the labels pump for a year or two and then dump, such as Canadian Idol winners.

If that push were given to more unique Canadian voices, Newman contends, the public might embrace them, too. But no one dares.

Such tunnel vision is hardly restricted to Canada. And there has been progress. Vancouver's Nettwerk continues to discover the Sarahs and Avrils. Warner Music has made daring moves like signing hip-hop maverick Buck 65. Other majors have made side deals with indies, or created "incubator" imprints such as Universal's MapleMusic, trading aid to promising newcomers for an option on future partnerships.

But this country could do better. More than ever - maybe thanks to immigration, travel, the Internet - Canadian artists are sophisticated, not split between lonely poets and provincial cheeseballs. The world is noticing, yet Canada hasn't.

America will always best us at big, dumb, dazzling stuff; the Brits will always be more louche and arch. But as the Arcade Fire's flare signals, Canada may be the country that makes arty stuff the masses can love. It's not just our Leonard Cohen roots. It's what we are becoming. And I don't say so purely out of "true patriot love and la, la, la, la, la," as Halifax rocker Joel Plaskett sings.

The New York Times writer flailed around trying to explain why Montreal is so fertile. He went on about downtrodden anglophone minorities (with an egregious comparison to South Africa, while overlooking the many francophones in the bands). He mentioned a recession (that happened 15 years ago) and low rents (which actually have skyrocketed). Why Montreal, why Canada, why now? Really, he had no clue.

A better answer is secreted amid the jargon in a report by the consulting firm Catalytix submitted to the city of Montreal last month: "The Montreal region has been experiencing a shift in its economic base since the early 1990s," the authors write, "from classic industrial to a creativity-focused business mix more dependent on ideas and innovation than on natural resources or transportation cost."

They add that Montreal "ranks in the Top 5 North American regions in terms of employment growth over the past five years; in 2003, it ranked first." So much for the starving-grotto theory. In fact Montreal artists are getting a little of the new wealth, helping them start labels, artist-run nightclubs and festivals such as Pop Montreal, Mutek and Suoni per il popolo.

Catalytix is run by bestselling American author Richard Florida, who made "the creative city" a catchphrase in city halls across the continent. Montreal ranks second among the 25 largest North American cities in the relative size of what Florida calls the "super creative core," the demographic that works in high tech, science, media, education and the arts. And who comes first and third? Toronto and Vancouver. If we don't screw up, that's our distinct Canadian future. (All American cities rank lower, from Seattle to New York.)

It doesn't mean just pointy-headed esoterica, with no old hoser stomp. Canuck humility lives. Our musicians like their audiences. They form (broken) social scenes. They perk up for melodies, dance beats and sing-alongs. They put sticky peanut butter in their bitter chocolate, populism in their conceptual art.

Overhype and backlash be damned, this is not the flavour of the month. It's the new Canadian cuisine. Industry scaredy-cats can lap it up or go hungry. As the Arcade Fire sang to Conan O'Brien, "If you want somethin', don't ask for nothin' " - and as David Byrne sang to the Arcade Fire, "I guess that this must be the place."

* * *
P.S.: Evan Newman talks some more about these issues on his blog. The New York Times article on Montreal is here. Here is the schedule for the Wavelength anniversary shows. David Byrne's diary is here. And here's the Richard Florida group's report on Montreal.

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Saturday, February 12 at 5:07 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (7)



Spin had a good article on Montreal, it seemed like they were saying it had more to do with the arts scene and a sense of community. That's not unique to Montreal, but it seems like it makes more sense than the stuff you cite in the NY Times article. Of course, I'm not from Montreal, so what do I know.

Posted by andrew on March 2, 2005 3:05 PM



You just got cited in my paper for my Canadian communication studies! You're so USEFUL.

Posted by Tim J. on February 15, 2005 6:22 PM



Hey, great Overtones this week. Loved it.

Posted by travis on February 14, 2005 3:25 PM



i believe arcade fire have published their songs with writing credits going to the band rather than an individual songwriter.

Posted by steve birek on February 14, 2005 12:48 PM



I would hardly say that Feist and Broken Social Scene are on a micro-indie label. Arts & Crafts is distributed by EMI Music Canada and is privy to their marketing and publicity departments. When new A&C; albums get serviced to media people in envelopes stamped EMI don't think they don't notice. EMI-owned Caroline Distribution also is handles their US distro.

Merge is not a micro-indie either. They have had a number of very good-selling indie bands over the last 15 years (Superchunk, Neutral Milk Hotel, Spoon) and had originally pressed more than 15,000 copies of the Arcade Fire's album for release date - which couldn't meet Touch & Go's demand, much to everyone's surprise.

Anyway, how does Arcade Fire get Juno nods when their main songwriter is American? How does that work again?

Posted by Ha Ha Man on February 14, 2005 10:24 AM



sometimes subtlety can be no fun...long live the barcelona pavillion.

Posted by steve birek on February 12, 2005 9:54 PM



I would have quoted, "Did I find you or you found me"

The thing is The Arcade Fire write great songs to get excited about because they want to get excited, but they also want to get US excited.

It's a little subtler than "How do you people expect to have fun if none of you people evar participate?!"

Posted by Matt Alexander on February 12, 2005 8:28 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson