Toronto might be Canada’s official “Music City,” birthing such a range of talent as Alannah Myles, Daniel Caesar, Deborah Cox, Drake, Rush’s Geddy Lee, Jeff Healey, Jessie Reyez, Neil Young, Peaches, OLP’s Raine Maida, Robbie Robertson, and The Weeknd, but over the decades the entire province of Ontario has produced some phenomenal success stories and put their hometowns on the map: Timmins, Shania Twain; Stratford, Justin Bieber; Kingston, The Tragically Hip; Napanee, Avril Lavigne.
Shawn Mendes was actually born in Pickering, Gordon Lightfoot in Orillia, Alanis Morrissette in Ottawa, Deadmau5 in Niagara Falls, Alessia Cara in Brampton, Bryan Adams in Kingston, Neil Peart in Hamilton, Dallas Green in St. Catharines, Tory Lanez and NAV in Brampton, Keshia Chanté in Oshawa, James LaBrie in Penetanguishene. The list could go on and on, from the band Billy Talent forming in Mississauga, Teenage Head in Hamilton, Three Days Grace in Norwood, and Sum 41 in Ajax.
Toronto is Canada’s biggest city, and the hub of the music industry with tons of venues to play. The three major record labels are based there, music publishers, indie labels, booking agencies, management companies, concert promoters, industry associations. Many artists move there, if they’re trying to get their careers off the ground, or at least spend considerable time there meeting with members of the industry, networking or building a following — Metric’s Emily Haines, Feist, Lights, Nelly Furtado, Ron Sexsmith, to name a few — but it’s not necessary anymore.
With the Internet at your service, and Canadian music dominating the charts in America, the once-spouted belief that you have to go to the States to make it — like Toronto-born legends Neil Young and Robbie Robertson did in the 60s — has been debunked over and over. Often, they only leave after they’ve made it. Still, many Ontario musicians launched and developed their careers without moving: bands like Barenaked Ladies, Blue Rodeo, Death From Above, Rush, The Tea Party, Triumph, and main members of Broken Social Scene to solo acts Jully Black, Kardinal Offishall, Maestro Fresh-Wes, and Snow. Ontario has everything they need.
According to government agency Ontario Creates (which supports economic development, investment and collaboration in Ontario’s creative industries, including music), “In 2018, the Ontario music publishing and sound recording industry generated over 4,000 jobs, accounting for 44.8% of the 8,986 industry jobs nation-wide,” while in the live music industry, “in Toronto alone, music venues represent the equivalent of 10,500 full-time jobs.”
In 2017, Ontario exported close to $226 million in music publishing and sound recording, up 11% from the previous year, and in 2018, music publishing and sound recording generated $384.2 million in provincial GDP, up 4.2% from 2017.
Last year, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the Ontario Music Investment Fund supported 139 companies with $7M in funding and Ontario Creates “fast tracked” almost $2M in funding to the music industry in the early months of the coronavirus when it was urgently needed. Ontario Creates continued to work with the industry to be flexible with its support so that Ontario companies could be nimble, think outside the box and adapt to the challenges and opportunities that the global pandemic delivered.
The Ontario music industry, it appears, got its start in 1844 when Bavarian immigrant Samuel Nordheimer opened a music store in Toronto that sold pianos and engraved sheet music —the first and largest music publisher in what was then called The Province of Canada — including Canada’s unofficial national anthem, Alexander Muir’s “The Maple Leaf Forever.”
When the gramophone came into Canada, WWI inspired the writing and recording of songs. In 1918, Canada’s first independent record label, Compo Company, opened in Quebec, whose owners started Apex Records in Toronto in 1921, Ontario’s first label. It would be the start of the growth of a Canadian music industry and cultural importance of music.
Of significance, in 1925, the Canadian Performing Rights Society was formed; in 1932, the government passed the Broadcasting Act and created the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission; in 1936, with a million households owning radios, CBC Radio was founded. After WWII also came a significant influx of bands, likely due to the inclusion of music education in schools.
Undoubtedly the first Canadian superstar was London, Ontario’s Guy Lombardo, who sold an estimated 250 million records in his lifetime, had more than 140 hits between 1927 and 1940, including 21 No. 1 singles, was the first Canadian to have a No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit, and was one of the first inductees into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
The next superstar was the country’s first teen idol, Ottawa’s Paul Anka who had his own No. 1 stateside in 1958; Port Arthur’s (Thunder Bay) Bobby Curtola would be the second, having his own international hits and claim Canada’s first gold record.
In 1964, in Toronto, Stan Klees and the late Walt Grealis started their own music trade paper, RPM Weekly, Canada’s answer to Billboard, complete with its own radio and sales charts and a best of poll, an idea that sparked the JUNO Awards. The 60s was an incredible time for music, and Canada was no different. The hippie era was in full swing and Toronto’s Yorkville district was filled with singer-songwriters playing the coffeehouses: Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young.
As the decade drew to a close, what is now Canada’s longest-running indie label, True North Records, started in 1969, signing Ottawa-born Bruce Cockburn and Scottish immigrant Murray McLauchlan, both staples of the Toronto folk circuit. In 1970, Klees and Grealis launched the Gold Leaf Awards, which was renamed the JUNO Awards the following year after Pierre Juneau, who was instrumental in lobbying the CRTC for 30% Canadian Content (CanCon) regulations to ensure homegrown talent received airplay at AM radio, thus helping to create stars at home, instead of competing with seemingly more regarded international acts.
The following year, the Canadian Independent Record Production Association (CIRPA) was established in Toronto to represent the independent sector of the sound industry. That decade, more indie labels sprouted, including Attic Records in 1974 (lasting through to 2001) and Rush’s management started Anthem in 1977 to put out albums by the prog-metal trio (that label is now absorbed in the former ole publishing, which took on its name).
The 1980s was a boom for music in Ontario from rock to pop to new wave and everything in between: Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies, Gowan, Jane Siberry, Platinum Blonde, Newmarket’s Glass Tiger, Niagara’s Honeymoon Suite, Stratford’s Loreena McKennitt, Burlington’s The Spoons, Kingston’s Headstones, and The Tragically Hip. It was also the start of rap music in Canada, with two pioneers Maestro Fresh-Wes (on Attic) who was the first Black artist to go platinum; and Michie Mee, nurtured by management and production company Beat Factory, which later became a label and put out border-busting group Dream Warriors. The launch of music television station, MuchMusic, in 1984, with its street-level studio in downtown Toronto, helped turn these Canadian acts into stars.
In the 90s, the Ontario music industry continued to thrive. As the decade closed and a new one began, Alannah Myles broke worldwide, Snow had a No. 1 Stateside, and Alanis Morissette put her dance-pop past behind her and became the biggest act in the world, selling a staggering 33 million albums. Shania Twain followed with her pop take on country, selling 12 million.
The oughts (2000s) was thriving musically, DIY and major, from the creation of influential labels Arts & Crafts, initially as a vehicle for Toronto indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene, and Dine Alone, as a vehicle for St. Catharines screamo band Alexisonfire, to a nurturing live environment that brought out A&R and managers. Music discovery was still done, for the most part, through demos and live performance. Victoria’s Nelly Furtado made Toronto her home and was discovered when she performed at Honey Jam, the showcase for female-identifying artists now going into its 26th year. Avril Lavigne became the next to break worldwide, but sales numbers over 10 million on single albums would not be seen again after this decade; the digital age stole the possibility.
While acting on Degrassi, Drake launched his music career and would continue to dominate from 2010 to now. With his global success, he would single-handedly bring unprecedented attention to Ontario, specifically Toronto. He worked with dozens of local beat-makers and songwriters; he made Toronto references in lyrics; and popularized the sobriquet The 6 (also written The6ix). In 2010, a mystery man also appeared: anonymous song drops under xoxxxoooxo. When he emerged under The Weeknd, identity unknown and Drake blogged about him the buzz — and trajectory — began and never stopped.
While the industry became tougher and tougher in many respects, dealing with the loss of record sales, other talent still broke through: Alessia Cara, Justin Bieber, and Shawn Mendes all got their start by posting covers on YouTube.
The province continues to be the hub of the industry and hotbed of talent, and while the impacts of COVID-19 cannot be ignored, the province’s diverse ecosystem of companies, artists and organizations have adapted, created new opportunities, built partnerships and found new revenue streams to weather the storm – and be ready come back stronger than ever.
In the comprehensive January 2021 Ontario Creates Annual Report, filled with statistics of every kind, the agency notes: “Ontario was well-represented at the 2020 JUNO Awards. Among the winners were Avril Lavigne for JUNO Fan Choice; Shawn Mendes for both Artist of the Year and Single of the Year (Señorita); Loud Luxury for Group of the Year; and Alessia Cara for Album of the Year and Pop Album of the Year. Ontario Music Fund-supported artists who took home awards include iskwē, Jessie Reyez, Lee Harvey Osmond, Meghan Patrick, PUP, REZZ, and The Glorious Sons.”
The 2021 JUNOS will likely see even more Ontario winners.
Article Powered by Ontario Creates. Discover some of Ontario’s first-time 2021 JUNO Nominees in the Homegrown Series, produced by Destination Ontario in partnership with Ontario Creates and CARAS here.
Featured Image: Maestro Fresh-Wes performs at JUNOfest in 2019 (Credit: Ryan Bolton)