Heard any good Canadian bands lately? North of the border, Canadian artists are producing a wealth of great music--yet Americans hear nary a note of it. While Yankee bands find expanding their success across the border as simple as hopping a garden fence, many successful Canadian artists who try to extend their popularity southward find that the garden fence has suddenly grown into the Berlin Wall. Why?
With a recent gold album for their fifth release, Rock Spectacle, and promising buzz on their new album, Stunt, Barenaked Ladies (above) seem to have scaled the border wall, but only after years of languishing in American obscurity while enjoying superstar status in Canada. The band started by releasing an independent cassette that sold an astonishing 100,000 copies without mainstream distribution. Their first album, Gordon, then moved a record-breaking 900,000 units in Canada. While these numbers may not impress Americans used to measuring success in multiple millions, the smaller size of the Canadian market (one-tenth of America's) make sales of Gordon comparable to those of Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A. and Prince's Purple Rain. "We got played everywhere," says Steven Page, singer and guitarist for the band. "So we thought, we're huge in Canada, why not go to the U.S.? But when we went across the border, we were met with 'Who are you?' We found out that being huge in Canada was like being huge in Luxembourg," Page says, laughing. "Nobody cares."
Part of the problem for Canadian bands seeking critical approval in the United States is the notion that their success is manufactured, since the Canadian government requires that 25-30% of the music played on radio and television stations must be by Canadian artists. However, the Canadian Contents law, known as CanCon has had mixed results in promoting national talent.
"Before 1970, Canadian artists couldn't get airplay in Canada," says Dave Rave, lead singer of Teenage Head, another band that achieved superstar success in Canada while remaining unknown in the States. "Canadian radio stations followed the American charts. The few Canadian artists who did succeed did so by scoring hits in America first." Rave noted that at first, CanCon resulted in a flood of mediocre Canadian bands receiving maximum exposure. "The press in America heard these records by bands signed just because they were Canadian, so Canadian music developed a bad reputation among American journalists that we're still fighting." At the same time, Rave says, "CanCon made a career in music possible for many people, including me."
While CanCon did open the airwaves to homegrown talent, it sometimes resulted in over-exposure of a successful artist. "There are no restrictions on what they can play and some stations will play one band excessively to fill their CanCon requirement," Page says. Barenaked Ladies received enough exposure to generate a backlash. Each of their three subsequent releases sold less than the previous one.
But as the Ladies' reputation was declining in the north, radio play of their single, "The Old Apartment," was heating up sales in the States. The band began touring the States, paving the way for their next release, Rock Spectacle, to hit gold in America. Just as Americans had ignored the Ladies' Canadian success, Canucks took no notice of Rock Spectacle. "It's our worst selling record in Canada," Page says. "People don't even know that it's out. We still get people in Canada saying, 'Hey, I love you guys, I've got both your records.' We've released five."
Touring in the U.S. has given the Toronto band Moxy Früvous a foothold in the American market, although they have yet to fully kick open the door. (Their latest album is the aptly titled Live Noise.) Having also ridden the Canadian roller coaster of success, Früvous is determined to build a solid fan base through their exuberant live shows that showcase their fondness for musical theater, comedy, and political satire, held together musically by their trademark four-part harmonies and multi-instrumentation.
Like Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Früvous released an independent cassette that sold 60,000 copies, followed by their first album, Bargainville, which went platinum in Canada. The Früvous boys suddenly heard and saw themselves on every radio and television outlet in the country, which eventually produced the predictable backlash. But south of the border, their American record company failed to capitalize on the band's huge success at home, pushing Bargainville to the bottom of the label's priorities. Früvous went unheard in the United States. Frustrated, they hit the road. "We've been touring here like crazy since 1994," says Früvous's Mike Ford. "Each time we play a city, there are more people, so it's growing." Ironically, the lack of hype in the U.S. makes this kind of reaction particularly sweet for the band. "We know they're reacting to the music," Ford says. "They not coming to see us because someone in the media says we were cool."
Katie Sigler is a former music business executive and communications professional who quit the corporate world to earn a master of fine arts degree in creative writing, which she expects to complete in August. Currently, she is writing a nonfiction novel and living like a starving artist, a lifestyle she now considers highly overrated and better suited to dead painters.