Tag Archives: Canadian Music

Canadian ingenuity conquers self-isolation with adaptation

Published 06/24/2020

By Howard Druckman

More than three months have passed since self-isolation was imposed by public health regulations in necessary response to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It’s been a hard 100 days for music-makers.

In an era where digital streaming is already the predominant form of listening to music, with meagre royalty rates, live performance was one of the most reliable ways for those who make music to make a living. With live concerts shut down, music creators have turned in full force to live-stream online concerts to survive – whether through digital “tip-jar” contributions, tickets for the performances, or royalties from the SOCAN Encore program.

Even as restrictions begin to ease in some regions of the country, the first wave isn’t over yet, and the possibility of a second wave still looms. So the scarcity of live performances may last longer than initially expected.

The good news is, Canadian ingenuity is conquering isolation with adaptation. A handful of musicians have applied their creativity to the challenge of presenting actual safe, in-person shows during the pandemic. Necessity is the mother of invention, and some of the solutions they’ve come up with are pretty elegant.

Drive-In Concerts. The first planned drive-in concert (a live performance at a drive-in theatre ) in Canada that I heard about was by Québecois duo 2Frères. Then July Talk and Brett Kissel announced theirs, and more have followed, including Ottawa’s RBC Bluesfest with the NAC. It sounds like a  good compromise to experience music live in-person, from the safety of your car. I love that it’s rejuvenating drive-ins, which had been languishing in quaint, nostalgic memory. A similar rooftop “drive-in” rock concert was planned for Prince George, British Columbia. Also in a similar vein, new organization Hotels Live is launching the first-ever hotel balcony concert series in Canada, not unlike  Martha Wainwright’s balcony singalong in Montréal.

Micro-Concerts. Musicians can safely play to one person, or household clusters of two or four people, at a time. The Festif! Festival in Charlevoix, Québec, undertook a “doorway tour” series where musicians play one song in front of someone’s home, then move on to the next house. Calgary’s Matt Masters is booking curbside concerts for fans from the top of his mini-van to people in front of their homes. His fellow Calgarian Michael Bernard Fitzgerald is opening up his backyard for four-people-at-a-time micro-concerts.  In Esquimalt, British Columbia, Jeff Stevenson stands on the bank of the Gorge Waterway, and serenades groups of boaters. Stéphanie Bédard, in Québec, is doing something similar with her “Lake Tour.” Montréal’s Dear Criminals played 72 one-song live shows in three days, at the Lion d’Or club, to two people at a time.

Mobile Stages. Musicians can actually tour, using portable venues that will maintain physical distance. This Fall, Michael Bernard Fitzgerald also plans to play farms across Canada, to 10 people a night, in a travelling open-air venue he built, “The Greenbriar.” Similarly, The Io Project is a new “anti-COVID” mobile stage that can safely allow live shows for up to 250 people, watching in household clusters of two or four people, isolated by plexiglass.

Some Other Ideas.

* How about a series of courtyard concerts, where musicians play in the courtyards of designated apartment buildings, while tenants enjoy the music from the safety of their own balconies?
* Or the inverse of that, where the musicians in a band each occupy a separate balcony in an apartment building, and play together, for an assembly of safely-distanced tenants in the courtyard?
* Perhaps solo musicians could be booked to play at regular intervals along hiking trails, or pathways in public parks, safely distanced, so people getting out for exercise during the pandemic might stop to hear some live music, enhancing their journeys.
* Municipalities across the country might allow restaurants to host patio performances, to further improve the outdoor dining experience (although Toronto ruled against them during its recent relaxation of regulations to combat the pandemic).
* Why not allow live shows at any central gazebos in public parks, as long as the audience maintains (moderately enforced) social distancing?

These smart adaptations prove that different kinds of in-person live shows are still available to us, and offer a few rays of hope that there’ll be more to come. Here’s to the next wave of creative thinking that helps to get us even further back to live.

About Howard Druckman

COVID-19: This Too Shall Pass

Published 04/2/2020

By Alan Cross

One night in early 1348, a rat scuttled down a street in Florence, Italy. It was a stowaway on a merchant’s cart hauling goods from the port of Livorno. Or perhaps it came with cargo from a ship docked somewhere on the east coast carrying goods from Greece, Crimea, and other points East.

Hitchhiking in the rat’s black fur were fleas infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the trigger for bubonic plague. As a result of Florence’s non-existent sanitation and hygiene practices, the rat population exploded, and with it, cases of the Black Death.

By the end of the year, Florence had become an epicentre of the pandemic. And in just three years, 50,000 people – half the city’s population – had died.

But a strange thing happened. The plague began to change humanity’s view of the world. People began to question their very existence and the reality around them. Instead of being focused only on the church and making it into heaven, people started pondering their current situation as living beings. This new attitude, which we now call humanism, came to dominate the discourse of scholars, intellectuals and artists.

This radical shift in thinking led to the Renaissance, which took stagnant European society from the Middle Ages to the modern age. Florence (and Italy in general) entered a period where much great art was produced, from painting and writing to architecture and poetry. In fact, the term “Black Death” (mors nigra in Latin) first appeared in a poem written in 1350 by a Belgian astronomer named Simon de Covino.

Music, of course, was also greatly affected.

After centuries of creating music based around Pythagorean tuning, a new musical language based on polyphony emerged. The printing press – a Renaissance invention – made it possible to distribute sheet music across the continent. We began to see our first musical stars in the form of composers and performers.

Let’s skip ahead a few hundred years. As the world’s population recovered, Europe was hit with a series of plagues. Henry VIII spent a time in self-isolation as a result from the Sweating Sickness outbreak of 1529. Then a great epidemic hit London in the early 1600s.

Once again, anxious times led to an outbreak of great art. Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in 1606. And at exactly the same time, composers like Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel began musical experiments that would later be known as the Baroque movement, something that would influence music for centuries to come.

Again, fast-forward a couple of hundred years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of the unhealthiest cities in the world was New Orleans. The heat, humidity, the swamps, and the constant visits by ships from the Gulf, the Caribbean, and beyond, made it a transit point for disease like influenza (a worldwide outbreak in 1889-90 killed at least a million people), cholera, encephalitis, yellow fever, and more bubonic plague. Yet New Orleans found time to invent both ragtime and jazz, the dominant form of North American music during the first half of the 20th Century.

When jazz spread everywhere in the 1920s, was that a joyful reaction to the end of the Great War, or an expression of relief after the Spanish flu of 1918-1920 burned out? Maybe both.

Consider, too, the HIV/AIDs crisis of the late 20th Century. How much great art – music, theatre, novels, film, dance, and so on – was inspired by that terrible time?

Now think about where we are today. It’s dire for the music industry. No one’s touring. Music venues are closed. Music sales have cratered to their lowest level since the 1960s. Even streaming is down, as people look to other sources of entertainment to pass the time while they’re locked down. Musicians, crew, promoters, agents, managers – everyone associated with the art and business of music has been sidelined from their usual ways of working.

But it might not be all bad. Already artists have found creative ways to reach out to the public through various forms of live streaming. Others are inevitably using this time to write, and experiment, and record at home. How many bored young people have finally picked up that guitar, or sat at a piano, only to discover that they have a natural talent for music? Manufacturers have made synth apps available for free so that people can fool around with them. Will that result in something unexpectedly great? I bet it will.

When this is all over, we could find ourselves with more great music than we know what to do with. The fall of 2020 and the early months of 2021 has the potential to be very exciting. And while virtual concerts and live streams will continue, society wants to be physically present when art is on display. The gigs and the tours will come back.

Meanwhile, if you’re an artist, keep a daily diary. Write down everything you’re feeling and any observations you have of the current condition of humanity. Document what’s going on the best way you know how. Who knows what kinds of creative breakthroughs will result?

Above all, hang in there. Stay safe and stay healthy. Concentrate on what you do best. As in the past, these anxious times will inevitably produce great art. And you just might be the person to do it.

About Alan Cross

Wouldn’t it be great if CBC Music/ICI Musique played all-Canadian music for two months?

Published 03/18/2020

By David Myles

Posts on the SOCAN blog Music.People.Connected. offer the opinions of the contributors only, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of SOCAN.

I had just finished sound check, was eating dinner pre-show, when the presenter came to tell us that New Brunswick had just issued a proclamation limiting public gatherings to fewer than 150 people.

Our show was cancelled, as well as every other gig we had planned for the next couple months. I was not alone, every musician I know was in a similar situation. You could see it everywhere.

Touring is our primary source of income. Now, without that revenue stream, the other sources of income become vitally important.

I was thinking about all this, while I was reading everyone’s posts, when it hit me: what would it look like if CBC Music/ICI Musique played all-Canadian/Franco-Canadian content for the next two months? It seemed easy and direct – a simple way to make a big difference.

The infrastructure already exists for SOCAN to collect the royalties and for CBC to program the music 24 hours a day.

CBC Music/Ici Musique’s mandate is already to support Canadian/Franco-Canadian music, their job is already to be engaged with it, and their on-air personalities already love it. And 24-hour Cancon might allow them to expose listeners to Canadian music that they haven’t already heard.

This would benefit Canadian artists, across all scales of the sector. From musicians cancelling a club tour, to Jessie Reyez, who was going to open the biggest tour in the world for Billie Eilish. Imagine how heavily invested she would have been in that tour, “all in,” with all the merch that was manufactured, for example.

CBC Music/Ici Musique taking this kind of action would make a real difference in the lives of all sorts of Canadian/Franco-Canadian musicians. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

Now is the time for them, and us, to rally around our creative community.

About David Myles

Coronavirus cuts into the Canadian music industry

Published 03/13/2020

By Howard Druckman

It’s Friday the 13th, and yesterday Canada launched into its strongest, and unfortunately very necessary,  response yet to the rapidly escalating spread of Covid-19, the coronavirus. The JUNOs were cancelled, the NHL suspended play indefinitely, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into two weeks of self-isolation because his wife Sophie Grégoire has tested positive for the virus. Ontario shut down all public schools for two weeks after March break, MLB cancelled spring training, the Canadian Folk Music Awards were cancelled, and so on.

The JUNOS cancellation, while necessary, is especially hard for the Canadian music community to bear. The nominee musicians lost their chance, at least for now, to be nationally acknowledged for their work; some of the under-recognized performers on the broadcast awards show lost their opportunity to play on a nationally televised stage; performers in JUNOfest lost access to a broad industry audience in the bars and clubs of the host city. And that doesn’t even consider the huge losses of people who work throughout the entire ecosystem of the event — all of the employees at the airlines, hotels, bars, restaurants, taxi companies, ride-sharing programs, music venues, and so on, throughout Saskatoon.

Worse than that, gatherings of more than 250 people have either been banned or censured, with good reason, to stop the spread. For the next two weeks, this is going to hurt touring musicians playing any venues larger than that capacity. SXSW and Coachella cancelled themselves, while major concert promoters Live Nation and AEG Presents cancelled or postponed all of their tours. Many Canadian acts – from Glorious Sons to The Weeknd to Devin Townsend to Jessie Reyez (opening for Billie Eilish) – have had to postpone or cancel dates, at least through the end of March. This not only hurts the artists, but the venues, and reverberates through all of the ancillary local business ecosystems, as above.

All signs point to large numbers of Canadians staying home for the next few weeks at least, both to protect themselves and to help stop the spread of the virus. But smaller gatherings of people, so long as we  wash our hands and keep our social distance, are still viewed as safe.

So I suggest that, for the next two weeks, we – safely and carefully – go out to the small-scale music venues closest to us and support our local musicians, who are most in need of that patronage right now. In Toronto, where I happen to live, that means places like the Tranzac Club, the 120 Diner, the Cameron House, Drom Taberna, the Dakota Tavern, etc. If you’re reading this, you probably know the smaller venues you can support in your own hometown.

And if you’re not comfortable going out at all, or you’ve had to self-isolate, then I highly recommend that you click over to your favourite local band’s website or Bandcamp page and buy a T-shirt, or some limited-edition vinyl, or any other kind of merch that puts a little money in their pocket. Winnipeg musician Leonard Sumner had a great idea that he posted on Facebook – asking followers to hit him up for a Facetime concert. He might have been half-joking, but “virtual concerts” could be another way to actually help see musicians through the current crisis.

If you find yourself at home for an extended period of time, music will soothe your soul and calm your nerves. Everyone streaming and downloading their favourite stuff, all day, every day, will eventually add up to that much more in royalties for songwriters, composers and music publishers.

It’s up to you and me to support our local musicians any way we can, and help them get over the next few weeks, or months, until we can all get back to business as usual.

Closer to my heart

Published 01/16/2020

By Andrew Berthoff

This SOCAN blog post, written by SOCAN Chief Communications & Marketing Officer Andrew Berthoff, was uploaded to The Toronto Star website on Jan. 14, 2020, and printed in the newspaper the same day.

I was a 14-year-old in, of all places, the subdivisions of St. Louis when I learned about Rush.

My friend Bret alerted me to this weird Canadian trio. Bret knew about them because his cool older sister, between her apparent penchant for Zeppelin, Steely Dan, and the Moody Blues, got A Farewell to Kings.

Before I knew it, our small, socially awkward, intelligent band of friends were playing the grooves off of Hemispheres, mesmerized by the lyrics and percussion virtuosity of Rush drummer Neil Peart.

We had our own little clique. We were cool to be outcast. And it was mainly Peart who brought our hearts closer to Canada.

To put an even stronger nerd-factor into my musical tastes, I became a bagpiper, as engrossed in piping culture as I was in Peart’s mystic lyrics, Lifeson’s double-necked riffs, and Lee’s improbable bass-falsetto combination. Bagpipes and Rush: unlikely watchwords of my adolescence.

Those halcyon pre-Internet days made us wonder just what they were all about. Geddy? Romantic poetical references to Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan”? Cygnus? Where was this Lakeside Park and its fantastical willows in the breeze? And just how was “Peart” pronounced anyway? Pert? Pea-art? Or could a twist of satined-mustachioed-lyricist-cool make it rhyme with “heart” itself?

One thing was sure: the heart of Peart was art.

Soon I was discovering and enjoying more made-in-Canada music. April Wine. Max Webster. Neil. Joni. I’d wonder what the obscure reference to “Becker’s chocolate milk” meant on the credits on an album sleeve.

We saw two Rush concerts: December 1978 at the Checkerdome and February 1980 at Keil Auditorium. They played three sold-out nights at the latter, having somehow secured a fan base toehold in St. Louis, with the help of Bret, Keith, Rick, Matt, and me.

By that time, though, Rush’s Permanent Waves foreshadowed and countered new wave. As the ironic album title suggested, Rush would stay true to their craft, even though cool was now coming from the U.K. in the form of deliciously synth-y bands.

I went off to college in Minnesota. It was even less cool to love Rush. After detecting some slight musical and video compromise with The Big Money (more irony), I left them for local fare like Prince and The Time, while soaking in as much of The Cure, Echo & The Bunnymen, and REM as possible.

But my interest in Canada, spawned by Rush, continued. Through bagpiping, I discovered that Canada possessed the best pipers in North America, and a thriving scene that I wanted to be part of.

My father and I would journey to Ontario from St. Louis for me to compete in piping competitions in unlikely towns like Cambridge, Dutton, and Maxville. Hours of dad-driven 55 mph travel in our radio-less, ochre-coloured Dodge Aspen.

My heart would leap up driving across the 401 at the top of Toronto. In the distance, could it really be the same high-rise housing featured on the cover of A Farewell to Kings? Eyes cast up on the path of least resistance.

Canada would hold its cool. Within a year of completing university, I fulfilled my subconscious dream and somehow landed in Toronto for good. It was May 1988, and I’d even live in Alex and Geddy’s Willowdale ‘hood for several years. I became a Canadian citizen by 1995, and here I remain.

I would continue to learn and love music made in Canada, and eventually transfer that love, and my career in communications and marketing, to fulfil another subconscious dream: working on behalf of Canada’s songwriters, composers, and music publishers, fighting for their rights, promoting their success.

When I turn my pages of history, I can’t help but to give much of the credit to those days long ago in St. Louis. I thank this unusually compelling power trio for bringing me closer to their art, compelling me to Canada, through music and words.

Neil Peart’s words.

Three Reasons Why SOCAN Members Should Rejoice

Published 09/16/2019

By Diane Tell

1 – Drake is a SOCAN member.
An article titled “Three reasons why,” ending with the name of a superstar is, I admit, a bit of a tease, but I needed to get your precious and sometimes fickle attention. I did it, right? Maybe you know that famous Groucho Marx quotes, “I would never join a club that would have me as a member.” Conversely, I would totally be a member of a society to which Drake would agree to give the management of his copyrights! With an average of 20 million Spotify streams daily, 19 million subscribers, and 7 billion total views on YouTube – to mention just a few metrics of his immense success – the Toronto-based artist could have easily let himself be lured away by the American siren song, but instead, he’s one of us. I’m not privy to secret information, but I gather that means that, at the very least, he’s satisfied with this arrangement. And what’s good for Drake is good for me, and good for our organization as a whole.

2 – SOCAN belongs to us.
I wrote “our organization” because SOCAN belongs to us. SOCAN is not a government agency and doesn’t belong to shareholders: SOCAN is a co-operative, or in other words, a society, that belongs to its members and, more specifically, an economic group based on the principle of co-operation, in which all participants, equal in rights, are associated to carry out activities with the goal of satisfying their work, or consumption needs, by being freeing themselves of the rule of capital.  In 2017, the Blackstone group acquired SESAC, one of the oldest collective rights management organizations in North America, which is itself the owner of the Harry Fox Agency, a mechanical reproduction rights management society founded in 1927. Did you know that? I’m perfectly fine that my modest business capital doesn’t belong to one of the planet’s most powerful investment firms… How about you?

3 – SOCAN, the devil’s advocate, is in the details.
In Canada, there’s a small detail worth knowing: copyright falls under the purview of two devilishly opposite federal departments. Heritage Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED). To avoid any potential faux pas, I’ll quote the official versions of their mission statements, available publicly on the Canadian Government website. Canadian Heritage and its portfolio organizations play a vital role in the cultural, civic and economic life of Canadians. Arts, culture and heritage represent $53.8 billion in the Canadian economy and more than 650,000 jobs in sectors such as film and video, broadcasting, music, publishing, archives, performing arts, heritage institutions, festivals and celebrations. The Copyright and Broadcasting acts, according to this web site, fall under the purview of that federal department. OK, but…  Innovation, Sciences and Economic Development’s portfolio is composed of the following departments and agencies: Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor), Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Copyright Board Canada (CB), etc. That department is also responsible for the regulation of broadcasting and telecommunications – broadcasting, distribution and spectrum licences, telecommunications standards, certification and more. And more? No thanks. I’d like someone to explain to me how Mr. Industry and Ms. Heritage manage to agree on the custody of their children, namely content and creators. But then again, I’ve got other fish to fry. I’ve got songs to write, a show to put together, an Instagram post to publish… I leave the SOCAN experts to deal with this puzzle, that I’d call “the paradox of the Canadian context for copyrights.”

For these reasons and many, many more, I’m incredibly proud to be a member of SOCAN, as well as one of its directors. SOCAN is democratic, has gender parity, it’s innovative, and it’s one of the least expensive rights management organizations in the world. Bold new tools are already in place, or being developed, to achieve the highest possible efficiency when it comes to collecting and distributing our royalties. A new member portal will be live online before year’s end. You won’t believe your eyes when you see it! The music industry, having been completely transformed by the digital revolution, is having a hard time letting go of its old business models. But SOCAN is constantly re-inventing itself, and giving everything it has to offer new and improved services, such as the addition of mechanical reproduction rights – thanks to the acquisition of SODRAC. I’m really happy to be part of the SOCAN family. And you?

About Diane Tell

 

Music venues need to provide non-alcoholic drink options

Published 07/11/2019

By Damhnait Doyle

A shorter, abridged version of this SOCAN blog post, written by SOCAN Board of Directors member Damhnait Doyle, was uploaded to The Toronto Star website on July 10, 2019, and printed in the newspaper on July 11, 2019. Following is the original, full-length version.

I really began drinking when I started in the music industry.

I was a blisteringly shy and introverted girl from Newfoundland, not long out of Catholic high school, finding my feet in downtown Toronto. I was young, scared, and surrounded by people I had admired and idolized my whole life. I felt like a fraud, an imposter.

Straightaway, I had a hit with my first single; suddenly, my video was on MuchMusic several times a day. Anxiety was coursing through my veins at lightning speed. This happens when your greatest fear is people looking at you, and you have to go on stage for a living. I was so nervous, I threw up in a bucket, stage side, before my first headlining gig (no booze was involved). Shortly afterward, someone bought me a shot of tequila before I went onstage, and boom! I had my liquid courage. I could go out there, and the fear turned into adrenalin. It felt like the answer.

Musicians don’t drink like normal people. You drink before gigs, during gigs, after gigs, on your day off, on a travel day, at the airport bar, the hotel bar, in the bus, the back of the van, when the show sucks, when the show is off the hook, when your song is on the radio, when no one’s playing your single, when you can’t get arrested, when you get arrested. In music circles, alcohol is both the journey and the destination.

When you’re doing it, you don’t realize that alcohol is putting a blanket over your intuition. Your body could be screaming out, “What the hell are you doing? Stop drinking!” and you’d be all, “Wow, my blanket is really loving this Rioja.” It creates a lack of communication between your brain and your physical body and spirit. When you suffer from depression and anxiety, as so many creative people do, the alcohol that you think is taking the edge off of anxiety, is actually building a fire around your body, stacking it with kindling, paper, and logs, and setting it ablaze. Add on the logs of a 4:00 a.m. lobby call, a nine-hour drive to the gig, and nothing but Tim Hortons for three weeks, and you have an issue.

I woke up almost a year ago and realized alcohol wasn’t serving me anymore. I was done. I hadn’t even considered it as an option before that. On paper, I didn’t have a problem. People asked , “Why would you stop drinking, I drink way more than you.” It’s as if society says the only legitimate reason to quit drinking is if you get thrown in jail, or you get a DUI. Now, sobriety is catching on. People are having a collective awakening, that they don’t have to drink just because they always did, and because everybody still does.

I’m writing this because I didn’t see many stories of people in my sphere talking about it, and when I did, I rejoiced. Listen, there are some cool-ass sober musicians. I know this because I’ve Googled that exact phrase 100 times since last August. That really helps – knowing you’re not alone is an incredible gift, so I’m adding my voice, and passing it on.

Next to having my family, quitting drinking was, hands down, the single best thing I’ve ever done. This includes getting up to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Willie Nelson, every night for two weeks, with my band Shaye, on tour. Not drinking is the bomb.

I won’t lie, it was hard to stop.

I had to re-wire all the neural/social pathways in my brain. The first gig not drinking, the first conference (CCMAs), the first writing trip, the first time in the studio, etc. It takes a lot of work and determination to counteract the mindless habit of drinking. I can’t even begin to fathom the struggle that musicians who are in hard-core recovery from hardcore drug and alcohol use have to go through every day. They have to go to work surrounded by the very thing that threatens their lives.

I don’t know of many other careers where you’re not only allowed to drink all the (free, Free, FREE!) booze you want, but you’re expected to do so, to some degree. Still, I was shocked, when I stopped drinking, by the lack of non-alcoholic beverage options (and, no, water and colas don’t count) at bars and venues in Canada. I believe everywhere a musician goes to work (and yes, even though it’s nighttime, and it’s fun, and it’s your favourite band, it’s still work for the musicians and crew), there should be a proper non-alcoholic option. Sometimes, you just want to have something in your hand, something that lets you blend in, without having to explain why you’re not drinking. Not to mention, non-alcoholic (NA) beers are delicious, taste just like regular beer, have only 30 calories, and won’t give you a hangover or a gut.

For bars and concert venues, the profit margin for NA beer could be just as high as their alcoholic counterparts, or higher. They just need to stock one row, one measly row. I’m not saying they should charge as much as they do for real beer, but I’m gonna be so happy for the option, I’m not gonna complain.

So we’ve got the mental health/addiction component, but we’ve also got the #metoo component. #Metoo demonstrated that silently sitting with something awful causes rot – and if you don’t catch it in time, you disintegrate. Thankfully, our industry is having the necessary conversations: How do we fix, how do we prevent, how does this never happen again? We have to look at the facts, which tell the story, with a running theme throughout: Alcohol. Almost 50 percent of all sexual assaults involve excessive amounts of alcohol. You can’t make up someone’s mind about how much to drink, or how to behave; but if you don’t at least offer up non-alcoholic options, sexual assault statistics will stay the same.

I want to thank Allan Reid at CARAS and the team at SOCAN for making sure that non-alcoholic beverage options were available at this year’s JUNO awards, and at the SOCAN Awards Gala. It may seem like a small thing, but it creates a ripple effect. I’d like to see us band together as an industry and make sure that every festival, every club, every bar, everywhere that musicians go to work, has a non-alcoholic option. Until then, I’ll keep on sneaking my NA beer into bars, and having way more fun than I ever did.

Subway Songs

Published 06/26/2019

By Chaka V. Grier

For as long as I can remember, even as a small child, the subway performer – purveyor of the un-requested tunnel performance – mystified, and even saddened me. Standing under bright fluorescent lights, playing original music or cover songs, sometimes surprisingly pleasing, other times dubiously karaoke-ish. Seeing them, I often tried to avoid eye contact, while pondering why anyone would be drawn to performing in a space where 99 percent of us are relentlessly focused on getting from point A to B as quickly as possible?

I sometimes peered, as discreetly as possible of course, into their open guitar cases filled with change. The coins were most often scant, which is when the sadness would emerge. As a freelance writer, I knew that scarcity well; but I was grateful that, like the respectable starving artist I was, it was restrained to the private, virtual walls of my bank account, and not out there for the world to see. Yet throughout all my parent-like head shaking – “Why, seemingly nice subway guitar man, singing a pretty convincing rendition of Tom Petty’s ‘You Got Lucky,’ are you putting yourself through this?” – I noticed musician after musician performing proudly and passionately, despite the indifference of passers-by, and earning only random loose change.

Eventually, as the rise of music-competition reality-TV programs held me enthralled, I made a sudden connection. These shows fling open the doors to the grueling world of auditions, and trying to get noticed, and in some way, subway performers are the pioneers of such brutal public auditions. They’re akin to stand-up comedians, who bravely take to the stage in front of potential hecklers, cutting their teeth on indifference and possible ridicule in order to pursue their passion for laughs. In the case of subway musicians, they’re just as daring, for the love of song.

I soon took my nose out of the air and acknowledged the true greatness of the subway performer. Unbeknownst to me, I’d been witnessing one of the bravest things I ever see as a music journalist: under-appreciated artists, bringing their song and artistry to the coldest, most agitation-inducing, perfunctory spaces in my life. I had taken for granted how a steel drum playing in the winter brightened my mood, while I waited in line for my French vanilla coffee and two chocolate dip donuts. How saxophones, melodic folk guitars, and singing voices were often lovely signals that I was back at my station and heading home, or great distractions while I waited for a late friend.

One day I struck up a conversion with a talented performer at Bloor-Yonge station in Toronto. Turns out he’d been nominated for a JUNO Award and performed throughout Canada. So, this was a thing, a real thing! I was so curious that I Googled subway performing, and learned that musicians audition at the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to play in these spaces. Performing in subways isn’t some last resort for those who can’t find any other venues. The musicians are licensed and allotted one of very few slots – 75, to be exact. They’re often roving performers, true bohemian artists, who understand the diversity, tenor, and changing communities in different parts of the city, simply due to performing throughout the 25 stations while licensed. Most do more than performing in the TTC; some teach, or record, or both.

Recently, the TTC program was named Underground Sounds. More stations have been opened to performers, and online auditions are being accepted for the first time. In some spaces, like those at my Finch station (as well as Bloor-Yonge, Spadina, and Main Street), I’ve noticed a striking black vinyl box that extends from the wall onto the floor, accented with music inspired decals. It’s a designated performer’s space, which, in a subtle but effective way, sets musicians apart from the rest of us, telling us that this is their stage. They’ve even created a hashtag, #TTCmusic, to celebrate these unheralded performers, who light up dreary tunnels, and bring vibrancy to our travel time. There’s something deeply generous in spirit about those who bring joy to joyless spaces, and some days barely make a few dollars for doing so. But they do so anyway.

So, this is my shout-out to the subway performers from Finch to Main Street, and everywhere in between. Thank you for your artistic courage. Thank you for making the mundane, sometimes unreliable, occasionally infuriating TTC travel experience more bearable. And thank you #TTCMusic for enriching my days with your soundtracks.