Canada’s big 150th-anniversary birthday bash couldn’t have come at a better time for Canadian music, with so many of today’s biggest pop musicians proudly hailing from our home and native land. And that star power will be reflected at the 2017 Juno Awards, which will head to the country’s capital to fete our country’s best artists and wave our flag on April 2; Drake, The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes lead the pack with five nominations apiece.
But this week’s nominations announcement wasn’t all patriotism and good cheer. Last year, musicians like Grimes and Amy Millan criticized the Junos for failing to reflect gender equality, sparking the hashtag #JunosSoMale; this year, after the nominations were released, rock duo and Juno mainstays Tegan and Sara continued to press the message. “We must do better as it sends an outdated message to the next generation about whose art and voice and message is valuable,” they wrote in an open letter, noting that no women were nominated in eight of the categories, and another 12 only featured one female nominee.
Allan Reid, the president and CEO of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS), sat down with Maclean’s to speak to this issue and more—from the role politics plays in music and awards shows, to whether it makes sense for some award categories to be judged, in part, by record sales and streaming numbers.
Q: Some of the world’s most prominent artists are Canadian, and the Junos obviously benefit from that. How do the Junos harness this moment and momentum?
A: I’m a guy who’s spent 30 years from the label side of things—I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time in music than what’s happening right now, and it’s also interesting too because of what’s happening politically in the world. Canada’s become this really great beacon. And music is so important to our cultural identity as well. I think they’re all very much linked together right now; we look to musicians to help guide us in a way, they’re our culture check. And it’s exciting—not just because of Drake and the Weeknd and Bieber, we’ve got these massive superstars, and it’s not since the 90s when Shania and Alanis and Celine and Sarah were dominating the charts have we seen this Canadian connection to the global charts, which is awesome. But it goes deeper than that. You look at someone like Grimes, or PartyNextDoor—there’s so many artists out there who are quietly building in their world, and they may not have massive breakthroughs but they’re happening all over the world.
Q: But the flip side of all this current energy is that it almost makes this a crucible period. Pop music is cyclical, and this Canadian pop moment won’t last forever. What are the Junos doing to build on this for when that isn’t the case?
A: I say this all the time: We’re not just an awards show. What people don’t know about CARAS as a whole, which is the academy, is we start with MusiCounts, our music education charity, which is a really important part of what we do. I mentioned yesterday on the 20th anniversary of MusiCounts—I ran it for three and a half years when I first joined this organization, and it really changed my life and what we do as an organization. I always say it’s the heart of the organization—putting instruments in school music programs—and this year will mark $10 million in instruments. That’s an essential part of our mandate: we’re not just building the stars of tomorrow, but also music in our schools and communities.
Last year, we started the Allan Slaight JUNO Master Class. At the time, I had been talking to all the music industry associations across the country, saying, what can we do to help your members, mainly small independent artists just trying to get heard. And they all said, ‘we need showcasing and networking opportunities, we need platforms for our artists.’ So we created this new program that brings three artists from across the country to Toronto for an intensive week, and it’s about peeling back the veil on the music industry—here’s agents, here’s managers, here’s lawyers, here’s how music supervision works, here’s how business works, and if you want to be successful, here’s what you need to plug into. And then we have the Juno Awards and then the final piece, the Canadian Hall of Fame.
So people don’t really look at us as all of that, they just look at the award show. But that’s all an important part to make sure that we’re helping actually not just promote and celebrate but also educate and develop those artists.
Q: But the Juno Awards themselves are a big, buzzy thing, and they’re certainly a big showcase for musical acts. So can you speak specifically to the idea of the Junos as a showcase, especially for lesser-known artists?
A: I used to manage an artist—after I left Universal I ran MapleMusic, an independent, and there was a guy named Royal Wood who I signed there, and when I left Maple, he asked me to take over his management. And he got nominated for songwriter of the year [in 2011]. His guarantees doubled after that nomination. He went from making a couple thousand bucks a night to instantly people going, well, if you’re nominated for that, then you must be good.
So there’s that piece. And in the lead-up—from the nominations to the award show—there are two months of hyperawareness of who those people are.
It is hard to do with the broadcast, when the broadcast always has the pressure for ratings and eyeballs: Does that music resonate, is the music what people want to hear, are they going stay tuned in if they don’t know what it is? But that is part of our obligation. But that’s why we’ve got Juno Week, bands playing through that, and we always have artists who may not get into the broadcast but are phenomenal at what they do, and we want to expose them to the industry.
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Q: There’s also a representation piece in the showcasing. The Junos are a high-profile event, and they can serve as an inspiration for younger artists to say, ‘I can do that.’ And there’s an element, also, of people of colour, people of all genders, seeing what they can become, too. How much do the Junos integrate that idea into how they choose nominees and performers?
A: Aspiration is the premise of what the awards are all about: Will my peers recognize me? That’s a powerful tool to drive a lot of things. I don’t think most artists go into it ever doing that, most artists, they just need to create, and if they get recognized for it, then that’s a bonus. But that’s what we want to be, an inspiration for artists to say, ‘I want to be the best at what I do, and in this country, if the recognition the Junos, that’s what I want to get to.’
Q: This all brings me to the controversy surrounding the Junos and lack of representation for women. What did you think when that controversy first cropped up last year?
A: So, yes, we went through this last year when Amy Millan sent that tweet out. And having been in this business a long time, I know a lot of people, so I just called Amy immediately, and kind of went, ‘What’s this about?’ She goes, ‘Ah, it’s kind of a joke, riffing off the Oscars thing.’ And it got a lot of traction. And it’s interesting, because again for CARAS, we don’t pick nominees, we represent what comes out that year.
As we say, we’re putting a mirror back to the music industry. And that’s what I think what Tegan and Sara’s whole point was: they’re very appreciative obviously, they’re a three-time nominee this year. But they want to bring a message to the music industry that they have the power to sign, find, promote, acknowledge all these artists, and that we have a diverse population in the country. The interesting thing is, I sort of go: ‘Who did we miss’? When I look at our list of nominees, and I see Alessia [Cara] with four, and we’re honouring Sarah [McLachlan] and Buffy [Sainte-Marie], and Ruth B’s there with three, and Grimes who was also part of last year’s [controversy] is now a three-time nominee.
There were eight categories where there was no female representation, and we’re working through this actually today. Producer and engineer are some of the key ones. We haven’t yet been able to delve into finding out where those sit now, but typically those two categories, last year we get 70 to 80 submissions, we get single-digits from females. So it speaks to the larger challenges in the industry, is that a career path that women are picking in this music industry. When you go to Nimbus in Vancouver and Metalworks studio here or Trebas Institute and look at those courses, the majority of those students are usually male. And there are definitely women there, but it’s highly a male-based course. So that again reflects on: do we have female producers who are at the top of their game to the same as the men are in producing these records that are having global success. For the most part, we don’t see that, not right now. That doesn’t mean there aren’t great women who are making great music, but when the committee vets those applications, they’re also trying to make sure that the best people get it, and it’s not gender-based. That’s one of the things at CARAS, we don’t base it on gender, or diversity, it’s about music and music only. And so those things aren’t really taken into account—I hope they’re not, by the judges, because that’s not what people should be based on. It should be about music.
Q: But what role can CARAS play in making sure gender equality is better reflected in the industry?
A: There’s an organization here called Women in Music. So I called them and said what can we do, how can we help? And then one of the first things I said to Amy was, ‘Are you a member of CARAS?’ You’re turning the spotlight on us but you’re not actually a member here, so if you want to help us here, have a voice and be part of the membership and join the dialogue that happens here. Same thing with Tegan and Sara, they’re not members. That’s the first place it starts with us at CARAS: please, if you want to have an impact on who the nominees are and who wins, vote. Become a member and have a say. And I think that’s an important part. But that also goes back to MusiCounts. We’re putting instruments in the hands of young women. Thousands of young girls are getting to play music in their schools because of this organization. And that comes back to what we were saying at the very beginning of what we do that people just don’t see.
Certainly, I’m all for the healthy dialogue of how can we help women find more roles in the industry, but they also have to have that desire of, ‘I want to be a producer, I want to be an engineer, and enrol in those schools and go forward with that.’
Q: Why do you think artists aren’t becoming CARAS members?
A: A lot of artists, they just don’t bother. They make their music, it’s an honour to be a nominee, but they don’t enroll. And it’s interesting, because it’s important to us—and we do a ton of outreach to the industry. A lot of them will join and they won’t renew the next year, and there is a cost to it, so there’s a barrier of entry for some of them. You need to be an engaged music industry person to be part of our membership, you’ve got to know about the business and who we are. But those people are also key for us in how we pick and create our category advisories, our judges.
Q: Earlier, you brought up the idea of the Junos being a mirror to the industry. But I’m having trouble reconciling that with the idea of also seeking to be a spotlight for lesser-known Canadian artists, or less-represented artists, to get them exposure. One seems very passive, but the other very active. Is that trying to have it both ways?
A: You know, when I think of us as a mirror there’s no question we as an organization want to celebrate the success of our artists. And I think it would be a disservice for us to say we don’t want to celebrate Drake, Weeknd, Alessia Cara, Shawn Mendes, Celine Dion—they deserve it.
It is a tightrope. And it’s hard to be all things to all people all the time. That’s why we welcome the feedback and that’s why when the Tegan and Sara thing came up today, I go, ‘okay, this is a chance for a conversation again, this is a chance to continue to push CARAS’s message out: we are inclusive, and we want to do what we can do to help promote and celebrate our artists, whether they be major artists or emerging artist or niche artist.‘
Q: The Junos used to have gendered categories for best artist, up until 2003. Would you consider going back to that?
A: I don’t think so. It’s not something people have come and said, ‘we need to have the male and female artists of the year again.’ I think we looked at it—this was before my time—and the board kind of went: it’s music. Gender shouldn’t be a determining factor, and nor should your ethnic background. It should be, do you make great music?
Q: Would it help with that representation piece?
It might, but equally you have a lot of people—very strong feminist people— going, we don’t want to be recognized as a woman, we want to be recognized amongst our peers as being the best we can possibly be. So that’s where we sided. We’ve got Alessia Cara, and Ruth B, and one of the members of the Strumbellas are in there in the Junos Fan Choice this year. Should that be female only? We don’t think so, it should be: let all musicians make music, and let it be judged simply on that merit.
Q: I want to shift gears a bit and talk about the caveats to our current Canadian pop moment—that is, while people like Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes and Alessia Cara have made it big, they’ve done that by signing to American labels. In both your position as the head of CARAS, and also as someone who’s been in the industry for 30 years, is that a problem?
A: They’re Canadian. That’s all that matters to us—doesn’t matter how they’re having that success, breaking out in a foreign market and coming back to Canada or breaking out of Canada and going to foreign markets, it’s not really that important. Obviously, we love to see Canadian artists who have Canadian agents and sign to a label here and have Canadian managers, because that helps to build the infrastructure of our whole network. Like when Celine [Dion] was signed years ago by Sony Canada, that revenue that those records made around the world came back to Sony Canada and they were able to reinvest that back in. But then I look at someone like Drake and even though he’s signed to a U.S. label, he’s created OVO, he’s employing people, and the spill-off of that is amazing. They’ve got a beautiful studio here, a network of producers, and they’re now bringing artists from around the world here to record. It’s a super exciting time.
It’s certainly, from the label world, it’s always hard when an artist signs to a U.S. label, but there are some times where it makes sense. When you sign to a label, you’re signing with somebody—somebody who’s passionate about your music. Your A&R guy needs to champion your music and your vision through the company. And if that person is in the U.K. or Australia or Canada or wherever, that’s a really important part of your career. Same with your manager, and we’ve got some of the best managers in the world here.
Q: What then would you say is one of the biggest challenges facing the Canadian music industry specifically that people aren’t maybe talking about?
A: When we talk about the music industry we talk about record labels and not just what’s going on as a whole. The digital disruption that happened was devastating for the labels, was devastating for artists. What we often forget about is how are these people making a living. And it’s easy to say we’ll go tour, there’s no money in record sales anymore, go tour. That’s an easy thing to say. Go on a bus or a van with these bands who have to travel eight, 10 hours between shows—it’s a grind. It’s a tough life. It’s tough on relationships. It’s tough to have a family. That’s a tough road to hoe out there. So the industry’s gone through this decline in record sales which not only hurt the labels and cause contraction, it’s also hurt the investment dollars available to artists. Artists are forced to do a lot more on their own. The artist development money isn’t as great as it used to be. If a label doesn’t have more rights—if they’re just looking at their return on investment—they now have a smaller pie to work from, so that means if my goal is to sell 10,000 units, then I can’t invest a million dollars in you. The dollars don’t work. So I need to have a portion of your publishing or I need to be a part of your touring rights. I need to build your brand. I need to be involved with other things. So the business has become more complicated that way for artists and managers to navigate.
The live music scene is interesting too. There’s a lot of talk right now about the closure of these venues in Toronto. Vancouver went through this years ago in downtown Vancouver exploding the condo market and all these legendary rooms just disappeared. And that’s a real concern. I don’t know if we’re quite there yet in Toronto—we’ve got some great music venues here. But supporting live music is also another key thing.
Q: You brought up the idea of streaming, and what’s interesting is that one could make the argument that the big Canadian stars are leading a lot of the digital disruption right now: Drake is signing exclusive deals with Apple Music, and he and The Weeknd are releasing longer albums arguably to maximize their per-song streaming revenues. But the thing that people don’t think about is that yes, these guys are trying new things to try to make it for themselves—but the vast majority of artists aren’t at that level. So what can the ’99 per cent’ of artists do in a world where even these top-flight musicians are still trying to figure it out?
A: The one good thing that finally seems to be coming out is that mass streaming is now here, and the labels are sort of seeing a bit of rebound. Which is great because that will again allow for further investment. So there is there’s a silver lining here. We’ve all got phones now that allow you to stream whatever you want whenever you want. But as you said, you know, the compensation by the creators is not there, especially for those emerging level of artists because it’s tough to make a living. It’s not just about the streaming revenue, it’s about everything you can do. And that’s not easy. It’s not easy when MusicCanada brings out Miranda Mulholland, a talented violin player with the Great Lake Swimmers, who does very well as an artist, and says she’s struggling to pay her rent, saying this is the reality of the music industry for a lot of us.
Q: You spoke before about the Junos not being able to be everything to everyone. And the Grammys, for instance, certainly have more categories. Is it something of a fool’s game to even try to to reflect the music of a country as geographically big and culturally diverse as Canada?
A: Well no, I think it’s important to try. Can we capture everybody? No: it is a huge country, and a diverse country. But it’s also why we’re also a very open organization. If all of a sudden there was a new form of music that came along, we create a new category that covers this. So constantly we’re looking at who we’re trying to serve in the industry, and do we have it all covered.
But I think it’s not a fool’s game. And it’s never going to be perfect; it’s an award show. But I think the Junos really do play an important part in helping promote our artists and our culture.
Q: Would losing the streaming-and-sales element in the judging help give jurors more choice in promoting more kinds of artists?
A: No, they don’t come into every category. The majority categories are not based on sales.
Q: But most of the big categories, the ones that people talk about, are based on sales figures.
A: Absolutely. But sales consumption of music is probably the biggest indicator of are you being listened to. And to take that out would be a disservice to the people who are actually having success, and we want to celebrate that success. So it’s one of the key indicators that we look at along with the voting of our members and also what artists are doing online to build their awareness.
Q: These days, it feels like awards shows are becoming emotional clearinghouses for politics. And you said, right when we started this conversation, that Canada has an interesting place in global politics for becoming a kind of beacon. Is that something you’re trying to embrace and advocate for, with the awards show in Ottawa for Canada’s sesquicentennial?
A: I was in Ottawa doing an event last week, and the political climate of the U.S. is on everyone’s mind, and how it’s going to affect us. And our artists have a megaphone to use. And not just for that, but just look at what Gord Downie did for Indigenous people in Kingston—that was a moment that 12 million people watched on a broadcast. And to use that platform to say we have a problem, and we need to fix it—that started something. That to me is amazing that music can help change things, and it always has. I think America is going to go to through that with what’s going on now, and music is going to be at the forefront of that.
But in Ottawa, when I was there, the conversation was: I’m so proud to be Canadian right now, I’m so glad of the pointed difference we represent. I think our artists recognize that, and not just about America, but who we are in the world, and how great our country is. Sure, we’ve got flaws. But this is a great place to live.
So it’s not our mandate, but our mandate is to give our artists the platform to express themselves to as large an audience as we possibly can.
Q: So will this year’s Junos be intentional about sending a political message?
A: No, I don’t think so. That’s not our message. We don’t have a political message. Ours is to say, these are amazing artists and they have opinions and here’s a platform. Whether that be a simple love song or a protest song, if it captures the imagination of the Canadian people, we want to honour it and celebrate it.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.