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The unsustainable global success of the Canadian music world

Mark V. Campbell is a senior research associate for the Faculty of Communications and Design's Forum for Cultural Strategies at Ryerson University.

At this year's Juno Awards, Jazz Cartier's non-televised expletive to describe the lack of support his music receives from the Canadian radio industry came at a perfect moment. Standing on the shoulders of Vancouver hip-hop group the Rascalz, who refused to accept their Juno in 1998 because it was not part of the main ceremony, Cartier poignantly reminded us of the many ways in which only some music genres receive major label support in Canada. "This means a lot to me, but like I said this evening, the Canadian radio is gonna have to stop bullshitting and start playing our own on our radio so these kids don't feel the need to leave to the States in order to make it or get heard," he wrote on his Instagram account after appearing onstage.

Since the late 1980s, non-Canadian record labels have generally capitalized on our hip-hop talent, starting with the signing of Rumble to Island Records in the U.K. Nowadays, stars such as Choclair, Kardinal Offishall and Drake have all been scooped up by major American labels. History is not on Cartier's side, yet his gesture is appreciated and necessary if Canada is interested in maintaining the level of Billboard success we are currently enjoying.

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The young, Toronto-based hip-hop artist's outburst amplifies the importance of cultural infrastructure in Canada – a steadily crumbling infrastructure that Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly and her team are diligently racing to modernize in an era of digital disruption and algorithmic intensity. It's been more than a quarter-century since the 1991 Broadcasting Act took effect, so Cartier was not yet born when this country last intensively reviewed its public broadcasting policy.

How did we get to a moment in which our award-winning musical artists must seize the stage to "politely" demand this country's support for Canadian artists? For many young hip-hop artists in Canada, it may appear that a co-sign from Lil Wayne and Cash Money Records is the only way to successfully build a career. Sadly, the Canadian music industry has serious issues with developing and supporting Canadian hip-hop and R&B music.

From April 18-23, Toronto will be the site of a plethora of music-related panels and performances as part of Canadian Music Week. With the presence of many key stakeholders in Canada's cultural infrastructure, the events are an opportunity to discuss some of the issues that plague the industry.

One unmentioned element in Cartier's lament is the role of MuchMusic. At the height of its influence, the specialty channel and its VJs, such as Master T, fulfilled an important role at the intersection of social, cultural and economic concerns.

The making of a Canadian music star is no small feat – beyond talent and luck, there are multiple organizations, players and stakeholders. In this unstable mix of fans and audiences, live music venues, multinational music corporations, local radio stations and key taste-making DJs on both the club and radio circuits, there are innumerable variables.

Yet U.S., German and British record labels all find ways to make stars out of Canadian hip-hop artists. Why can't we?

The paradox in Canadian music is that we have so many superstars and very few developmental channels to build future superstars. We cannot expect to continue to have globally relevant Canadian pop stars without examining (or creating) the mechanisms needed to sustain pop chart ascension. In the music industry, technological disruption came early, and solutions such as streaming and 360 record deals – in which labels take a cut of an artist's other money-making activities, such as touring – have temporarily plugged the hemorrhaging of profits. Superstars such as Justin Bieber, Alessia Cara, the Weeknd and Drake keep Canada in the global spotlight, even if we haven't perfected a star-making formula.

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Various portions of Canadian Music Week focus on disruptive technologies that have already dramatically rearranged the business models and relationships of the music and radio industries. The week of activities is a decent balance of industry concerns and artistic priorities, as media and research companies coach industry executives.

Certainly with the amazing evolution of Drake's illuminating new ways of building an audience, there is much musicians can learn from the blogger's nuanced curatorial manner. Studying its success could prove to be a useful case study for industry insiders and those seeking to understand how discoverability and audience development operate in the era of playlists and streaming services.

Two panels focused on some of Toronto's local infrastructure promise to be informative and important to the evolution of the city's music strategy. With the threat earlier this year of disappearing live music venues across Toronto, there is much to discuss, especially with the city's condo-filled skyline affecting the affordability of those venues. And cultural spaces such as the former site of the 416 Graffiti Expo, at Queen and Portland Streets, are the reasons why local hip-hop artists of two generations ago could imagine Toronto as a hip-hop city, a place to affectionately name and represent as the T-dot-O-dot in the mid-1990s.

In fact, the other Toronto-focused panel, The 411 on the 416! How TDot Put Punctuation on the Music World, will feature hip-hop movers and shakers, from pioneering radio host and concert promoter DJ Ron Nelson to the current host of Canada's longest-running hip-hop radio show, Dave (DTS) Clarke from CIUT 89.5 FM's The Masterplan Show.

As Cartier mentioned in his public lament, much of the world (and the Juno after parties) moves to the Billboard-topping hits from Toronto, yet the infrastructural bedrock that made Drake and the 6ix possible remains a mystery to many. The college radio tastemakers, the MuchMusic VJs, the record stores and the bloggers operate largely under the radar of huge music conferences, summits and powerful cultural brokers. Hopefully, we will all learn of the hidden elements – the cultural glue – that has made Canadian "urban" music a mainstay atop the Billboard charts.

Video: Female music producers on tackling sexism in the industry (The Canadian Press)
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