Reflecting back. Looking forward - The JUNO Awards

Despite all the uncertainty, music in Canada has never been more vital

The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (CARAS) took the only step it could last March when it cancelled the JUNO Week festivities and pinnacle JUNO Awards in Saskatoon at the eleventh hour, as concerns mounted over the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite all the planning, the financial backing from government agencies and numerous corporate sponsors – not to mention local excitement generated by the awards returning to the Prairies – the non-profit organization pulled the plug for the greater good.  

No one expected the health and safety precautions, business shutdowns and Canada-U.S. border closure to last this long and a highly contagious new virus to devastate the music industry. But it did. And at every level, from the livelihood of the musicians to crew, agents, promoters, venue management and, yes, even self-employed trade journalists. 

“For so many contractors in our business and freelancers, it’s been really tough; they were unable to work or earn revenue,” says Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association. “In some cases, they were unable to access federal relief measures, and in the case of venues, many of them have been unable to get insurance or renew at an affordable rate. So there’s a litany of issues and impacts as a result of COVID.” 

It would be months — and the realization that the coronavirus was not disappearing anytime soon — before CARAS produced an online version of the JUNO Awards to announce the 2020 winners, almost roll-call style over a 90-minute show; there were no trophy hand-outs or acceptance speeches. No hoopla, no red carpet, no infamous after-parties. 

2020 JUNOS cancellation announcement at Saskatoon’s John G. Diefenbaker International Airport.

Why not just delay the awards? Stage the 49th in 2021?  One very important big reason: 2021 marks the golden anniversary of the JUNO Awards and Toronto — where the yearly celebration of the best in Canadian music originated 50 years ago under the name Gold Leaf Awards — is the host city.  

Also, one thing 2020 proved is that despite the absence of traditional live concerts and tours, music has been a comfort to millions of people during COVID, and musicians have learned how to connect with their audience online. They might have started performing for free on Facebook or Instagram during the initial lockdown, itching to do what they love to do, but many, now, are charging for tickets through various platforms, such as Side Door, Sessions Live, Nugs, Juju Live and Ticketmaster.

While drive-in concerts or socially distanced, limited-capacity shows might be few and far between right now, as winter is upon us and in-person restrictions continually change, virtual concerts are still a source of revenue for artists, as well as the venues that have been able to pivot. 

“Right across the country, it’s as bleak as it’s ever been, but we remain super hopeful because there have been many silver-linings, including collaborations that we never would have anticipated, people finding solutions to their business model to survive through something like this,” says Benjamin.  “You’re a live music venue, well, maybe now you’ve upped your takeout food and you’re live streaming. We’re also working with associations from the hardest-hit sectors, like the Hotels Association of Canada and the tourism, hospitality and travel sectors, which have been decimated at the same time by this. We would never have worked with these organizations before.”

Indeed, people have quickly adapted to this new normal, holding out hope that live music, as we know it, will return this summer. Osheaga Music and Arts Festival has been announced for July 30 to Aug. 1, 2021, at Parc Jean-Drapeau, in Montreal; and Mariposa Folk Festival for July 9-11 in Orillia, Ont. at J.B. Tudhope Memorial Park. There are also rescheduled club show announcement for everyone from Sebastian Bach’s, starting in Canada at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom on May 31 to The Weeknd’s arena tour, starting late June. Subject to change, of course.

“I’m really optimistic that we’ll be able to actually gather when it’s safe to do so,” says Benjamin. “And as consumer confidence returns, live music is going to be one of the most powerful forces. We will have to rebuild and recover the economy of this country and we will be making music, throwing parties and festivals like no one’s ever seen before.”

Featured Image: Sarah McLachlan hosts The 2019 JUNO Awards in London. Credit: Ryan Bolton