LAST WEEK, the New York Times proclaimed Montreal “the most influential scene in American music.” And Spin magazine said as much in its latest issue. Both articles feature critically loved indie acts like the Stills, the Unicorns, the Dears, Sam Roberts, Stars and especially the Arcade Fire, current fave of those in the know, including David Bowie and David Byrne. It was only a matter of time before someone down south noticed that all these music-press darlings hail from not only the same city but pretty much the same neighbourhood. Now record label A & R guys are packing their parkas for northern scouting trips. And budding out-of-province musicians will be scooping up cheap apartments on the Plateau. But don’t think that Montreal has been waiting around to be discovered. “I’m sure that everybody in America thinks that everyone in Montreal is now very excited,” says Stars’ singer Torquil Campbell. “But the X factor of Montreal is that it’s a francophone city with a rich, vibrant history that’s been cool in the eyes of itself for decades. I don’t think it’s particularly affected by what happens with a few indie rock bands.”
The musicians aren’t under any delusions either— after all, theirs is not the first scene to be unearthed and it won’t be the last. Take Halifax back in the early ’90s. “I remember people asking, ‘Wow, how did you get a scene together so fast?’ ” says Jay Ferguson of Sloan, the band that helped Halifax earn the nickname Seattle of the North. “I’d say, ‘There’s been an independent music scene here since the late 70s. It just took one band to get noticed.’ ” Back then, the acts that got signed were disappointed by the major labels’ lack of attention, and those that didn’t were bummed out, too. Years later the buzz is gone, but great music is still being made in the city.
This time around, the bands in Montreal have the benefit of those Maritimers’ experiences. “Any major label in Canada would die to sign these Montreal bands,” says Campbell. “But they wouldn’t put their money where their mouth is. They have no vision.” Yet, without the backing of a major, cutting-edge artists lose out on radio play and mainstream recognition. For example, a day after the New York Times said there was a cultural explosion taking place inside of Canada, the Juno nominations gave all the attention to the tired, outside-of-Canada success stories, including Avril Lavigne, Simple Plan and Diana Krall. “If the Junos are to promote the Canadian music industry,” says Campbell, “why not give the big spots to the people who are on the edge of breaking through?” Instead, Montreal’s Stars and the Arcade Fire were thrown the best alternative album bone—a category that in the past two years hasn’t even aired on the television broadcast. For now, being influential in others’ eyes doesn’t count for much back home.
Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.