Lack of provincial and federal funding for artists is leaving mainstream bands struggling for success

Juno award nominee Amy Hef grew up in Fort McMurray where her music career started when she was 19 years old. She started by touring across Canada with a Christian band, and after being nominated for a Juno, she went to Los Angeles to study music.

Hef is a veteran when it comes to obtaining money for her music career. As a winner of multiple music competitions from various radio stations, including Calgary’s 90.3 AMP Radio’s Rockstar competition in 2012, Hef has built her career off of money she has won. But many, if not most other Canadian musicians are not as fortunate when it comes to gaining the financial support necessary to launch a career.

“With [winning] that kind of money you don’t want to [screw] it up,” Hef said, laughing. “So I did a lot of showcasing in [Los Angeles] and made my last album with that money. It goes fast, it really does. It’s an expensive industry and you can’t make it without money. That’s what I learned.”
Having won over $200,000 in competition money so far, Hef was able to get the attention of the industry people who then helped her boost her music career. She maintains that without winning the competitions and getting the attention of those in the industry, she wouldn’t be where she is today with her music.

“It took a little bit to weed out the ones that just wanted the money and the ones that really liked my music,” Hef said. “They were still with me after the money was gone, that’s how I could tell. But it got me on the phone with a lot of people that I would not have been able to without that money.”

To achieve the same opportunities as Hef, other local and provincial musicians in Alberta have to empty their own pockets to pursue their artistic dreams. Even with the mixture of musical talent here, gifted artists are at times forced to give up because there isn’t a way to fund a future in music. Ryan Lindsay, 90.3 AMP Radio’s former on-air personality has experienced this firsthand.

Inside 90.3 AMP Radio’s studio back in November, Lindsay, who has since left AMP to work in Ontario, said he knows how hard it can be to make money as a musician. Before turning to a career in radio, he was in two bands for seven years and said he never received any form of federal or provincial funding.

“We looked for all sorts of programs you can get into because it’s tough, you’re not making a lot of money when you’re out there in the first place so it’s something we all kind of look into and have that heart-breaking realization that there’s not that much that can help you,” Lindsay said.

“It’s not just us [in Calgary], the country really needs to start pushing a program to help because there are so many artists in this city and across the country that don’t get any type [of funding].”
Matt Berry, the midday show host at Calgary’s X92.9 met with us in the X boardroom and told us that he agrees with Lindsay, saying that more needs to be done about funding.

“There is a lot of up-and-coming talent here, but the problem is that there are so many bands looking for funding that [whatever funding is available] gets whittled down,” Berry said.
Berry also hosts Xposure, a competition for local artists to have their songs played on X92.9. Listeners vote for their favourite submissions and a committee narrows down the best talent for a chance at cash prizes and a possible spot at the stations coveted XFest each summer. He adds that bands should look into unique ways to raise money such as consistently playing live shows and touring outside your home city.

“It’s an expensive industry and you can’t make it without money. That’s what I learned.”

– Amy Hef, Juno award nominee

“Most people think that you need money from jobs to put into a band but I know a lot of bands that are self-sufficient,” said Berry. “They never have to pay out of pocket for a whole lot of stuff to go on tour. It’s about planning and budgeting and taking advantage of the funds that are available, and I would say still apply for things like Xposure or certain projects that can help get bands more recognition.”

Richard Sutherland, a former indie independent music label manager and currently an assistant professor in the faculty of Arts at Mount Royal University, said that the arts funding process is too generalized.

“What we have in Alberta is a big pot of arts funding that doesn’t distinguish enough between [all the different genres],” Sutherland said. “There is no dedicated cultural funding here.”
Sutherland maintains that there just isn’t any push for the government to target the arts in a regional development strategy.

“We don’t have that pressure here; the energy industry reduces our imperatives to diversify and Alberta has a pretty weak record in economic diversification and in fact we have sort of de-diversified,” he said.

Specialty music such as metal or ska, which is a blend between punk and reggae, is harder to find representation from labels and grants according to Sutherland, so those genres rely heavily on their fan base to become known in the music scene.

“Many years ago when I was doing hardcore punk stuff in Edmonton it was very easy for us to rent halls, and it was a little profitable, but that is much harder to do now,” Sutherland said. “It’s a lot of upfront costs and unless you can put that out then you’re left out, there are a lot of challenges that way.”

Juno award nominee, Amy Hef, has won over $200,00 in competition money to date. Hef says her winnings have helped her gain recognition by important people in the music industry, pushing her career forward.  

Photo provided by Amy Hef“It’s a bit of a slow adjustment period on the part of grant programs federally to figure this out,” Sutherland added. “There is a slow recognition that live music is a larger industry than recorded music in this country.”

When asked why there was a lack of more specific musician-only funding, Jordan Baylon, community investment manager at Calgary Arts Developments said, “Where we’re currently at with funding from the city, it’s more impactful for us to address all of the applicants in the same pool, at least for the Artists Development Grant. It’s something we’ll look into, as resources will come more available later on. But at the moment, it’s not something that’s on the table for us, unfortunately,” Babylon said in a phone interview in December.

FACTOR (The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) is a private non-profit organization which states on the website that it is, “dedicated to providing assistance towards the growth and development of the Canadian music industry.”

It also states, “In their 2013-14 year, FACTOR funded just over 2,000 projects giving more than $4 million towards the creation of 621 new sound recordings. Overall, the organization granted over $16.5 million across their various programs to artists and companies across the country.”

When the Calgary Journal spoke with FACTOR president Duncan McKie, he said the best way to benefit from available grants is to be thorough and know your genre to offer something unique in your music.

“With our two most popular grants [the demo and the juried sound recording] we are looking for a strong piece of work that demonstrates an artists capabilities…” McKie said. “Keep it genuine. Whatever that means in your [chosen] genre, it has to come from the heart.”

The demo and juried sound recording grants see upwards of 1,000 submissions and applications a year, and use a jury of volunteers across the country to decide where funds will be distributed. McKie mentioned that for this process, artists are given a rating.

“You can pre-qualify [for some grants] based on the rating we give. Those that rate 3, which is the highest there is, there are only 75 of them in the country,” McKie said. “They are allowed to apply for funding up to 75 per cent of the project.

McKie explained that one of FACTOR’s grant paid for Carly Rae Jepsen’s popular single, ‘Call Me Maybe,’ and the organization worked with other Canadian artists such as Dan Mangan.

McKie also added that FACTOR’s grants that are given solely to recording companies and not to independent artists don’t give companies a large sum of money.

“When we do fund and support a company we are not giving them $50,000 to run their business we are giving them money to produce music.”

On FACTOR’s website, the annual report for 2013-14 states that nearly 70 per cent of classical musicians are funded following an application. When in contrast, only 20 to 25 per cent of genres like alternative, rock and hip-hop receive funding. McKie chalks this up to the fact that more popular genres’ applications outweigh classical applications tenfold.

“We get very few classical musician applications and because of that, if you are an excellent classical musician I think there is a better chance of getting funding,” he said.

McKie encourages artists to do their research before applying and make sure they are submitting their best work. His final word, “Don’t over produce [your music]; keep it genuine.”

A word from the wise

Being involved with X92.9’s Xposure Contest, Matt Berry said that bands have said they would trade in the former $25,000 prize money just for the exposure the competition garnered.

“I’ve had past winners say they would give up their prize money to get another single on the air or to open up for someone at X-Fest,” Berry said. “Sometimes we can set them up for concert openers for some acts, there are always secondary things.”

AMP’s Ryan Lindsay is on Berry’s side when it comes to musical public exposure. “Exposure is the most important thing now, but as artists, it’s almost become more of their job than it ever was before. Artists don’t realize how much work they have to put into it,” Lindsay said.

Lindsay gave an example of a local artist who hit it big with a single produced a couple of years ago and wasn’t noticed until it got exposure in Europe.

“Kiesza, great example, she’s local… she’s got a multi-platinum single [Hideaway] that has been around for almost two years.”

Views on funding

Although Amy Hef has seen success thanks to contest money she has had access to, she said this type of exposure is not common for most Canadian artists looking to grants for help. She agrees with Richard Sutherland’s view; existing programs do not offer enough variety or possibility to musicians just getting started.

Mike Wood, lead singer, guitarist and songwriter of the Michael Wood Band has taken his band across the country to gain attention within the industry. In an email interview, Wood recalls applying for countless grants across the country before receiving a travel grant from FACTOR to go to Halifax for the COCA Music Conference Showcase.

“I just feel that the bands to support are not the bands that that can follow up their release with a stadium tour.”

– Mike Wood, lead singer of The Michael Wood Band

“It was a huge relief having the bill for that covered in the end; however the money came after we had to commit to the trip so it was kind of blind luck that rent was paid that month,” Wood said.
Wood agrees with Hef’s statement about well-known bands, such as Metric, receiving grant money for their music while lesser-known musicians are left struggling for funds.

“Though a ton of these organizations do excellent work, I find the selection process to be a little bias,” Wood said. “I know that Metric received funding for their last record Synthetica (2012), I just feel that the bands to support are not the bands that can follow up their album release with a stadium tour.”

“Even though I loved that record it just seems like a poor use of funding to me, because that same record was getting made anyways. It’s the one that never gets made because the artist has to choose between paying rent or making a record,” Wood added.

Berry is on the same page as Hef as well. He said that the music industry has changed over the years and that making copious amounts of money instantly is a trend of the past; bands needs to put themselves out there and work harder than ever before.

“You’re not going to get out by playing two shows a year or touring from Edmonton to Calgary — you’re not going to get anything from that,” Berry said. “You’ve got to be realistic still though, it’s not this rock star thing anymore, a lot of popular bands and artists still have to have jobs.”

Sutherland gave some last minute advice for local artists who refuse to give up and want to make a change in the music scene. “Persistence is part of it. With all the challenges here I think it’s to try to work together to create common cause with other artists and create that network. It really takes people working together to make a useful scene so to be less in competition with each other and more pooling resources to work to find success,” Sutherland suggested.

“And try to be imaginative in terms of venues. As Calgary gets bigger it may get easier.”

hcawsey@cjournal.ca & ocondon@cjournal.ca 

To contact the editor responsible for this story; Garrett Harvey at gharvey@cjournal.ca.