Hard Sell: Making Music in Canada

There’s a fairly romanticized notion of the working musician or band touring the country and partying it up, carefree – without a worry over tomorrow. They play gigs, sell albums, and get to travel. They are their own bosses. They’re doing what they love most and are getting paid for it.

Like so much else, Hollywood has perpetuated this falsity and glossed over the hard truths. Lugging your own gear. Lining up your own shows. Travelling in vans and sleeping in cheap motels. Not seeing your family for weeks or months at a time.

It’s a lifestyle that demands hard work and unwavering commitment.

“You don’t really have any days off,” says Jesse Dee of Picture the Ocean, explaining that the moment one tour is over, planning for the next one begins almost immediately.

It really is a lot of distance.  There is a lot of work required to establish new markets, and they can be quite difficult to establish because there’s a lot of bands doing the same thing. It’s a slow process.

For Jesse and Picture the Ocean — which also consists of Jacquie B and Matt Blackie — that draining pattern has held for about five straight months, with only a month or so off beforehand to prepare and line everything up.

Currently they are in the middle of a Canadian tour that sees them play 17 shows in 24 nights. The tour stretches out from Ontario to British Columbia and hits just about everywhere in between.

Before that the band toured India during the month of November, and Europe during September and October. Before that, the trio crisscrossed all over North America for their summer tour.

It’s not an uncommon pace among Canadian musicians and bands — geography is an unavoidable challenge for touring in this country.

“Being a touring musician in Canada means that you have to kind of play where you can in order to get from point A to point B,” says Jesse, stressing that it’s not the travel itself that’s a grind, but rather the amount of work that’s needed to plan and book shows ahead of time. And which is, essentially, unpaid work.

It can be a difficult process.

“Musicians often aren’t taken very seriously,” says Jesse, explaining that sometimes the process of securing venues and payment is the most challenging and frustrating aspect of his job.

“If you’re going to be a music venue and you want people to take you seriously you need to really consider how valuable music is to your business. If you’re not going to treat it with respect and get good equipment and treat bands well and pay them well and be honest you’re just a disservice to the entire industry and you’re watering it down and making it more difficult for everyone.”

It’s a suggestion that perhaps summarizes the value Canadians place on music and art in this country more generally.

Picture the Ocean is a hard-working and positive band that’s finding success and has a fresh new self-titled album out, but for many Canadian musicians and bands that success is far more elusive. The financial prospects for many are often disproportionate to the amount of hard work that’s required to survive, let alone succeed.

Based on 2006 census numbers, the average earnings for musicians and singers in this country is about $20,000 below the national average for the overall labour force.

That’s despite the fact that Canadian artists tend to be far more educated than the overall labour force: Thirty-nine per cent of artists in this country hold a Bachelor’s Degree or higher while only 21 per cent of the overall labour force does.

Further, only 7 per cent of the overall labour force is self employed in Canada, whereas 42 per cent of Canadian artists are — an unsurprising statistic but one which further demonstrates the level of work and energy (and stress, as any self-employed person will tell you) needed to sustain a career.

Overall, it’s a strange set of dichotomies that suggest a gross undervaluation of those who produce art and music in this country.

Some of those differences would make sense if the demand for music was on the decline, but that isn’t the case.

Canadian’s spend 500-million dollars a year on music and Canada as a country sits fourth in the world in terms of illegally downloaded music — an embarrassing statistic.

For hard working bands like Picture the Ocean it’s all part of the industry and the job.

But it shouldn’t be.

  • Kerry Krishna

    I played mandolin and E-mando 5 years with Winnipeg’s touring machine ‘Acoustically Inclined’ from 1990 to ’95. We did close to 225,000k in that 5 years, and would generally go out for 4-6 weeks, come home for 3 or 4 weeks and go right out again. We spent two and a half years (almost) not sleeping in our own beds.

    So we were ‘out’ for 5 whole years, went through 4 vehicles, and put out three albums.

    Before we would leave on tour, I would have to figure out whether eat on tour, or pay my rent when I got back, because I certainly could not do both. Funny thing is that we were a pretty popular band, and had a huge fan base anywere West of Winnipeg.

    CBC’s ‘Ear To The Ground” did do a half hour Doc on us at one point, and I will never forget getting woken up at 7 in the morning at a posh Edmonton Hotel with a band member yelling and smiling, showing me my picture on the front page of the Edmonton Journal!

    The overall cash we got at the end of the night, went out the door something like this; 15% to the booking agent/manager/ :10% to the record company (we had to pay off the ‘last’ album for 4 years we were out) :the full time sound guy got around 8% (He was a Godsend and our consistent sound made the fans/club owners LOVE us), : 15 % to the Van (gas/repair bills payments on the van): 5 to 8% to the tour publicist (for promoting the ‘new’ album): 5% sometimes to pay off Loans to the Band from band members Pa … The list goes on. And the mistake we ultimately made, was that the Band Member’s Parents.

    The worst decision we ever made though, was that we only got paid after everyone else.

    There were tours were I would get back into ‘Peg after 4 weeks out, with $400 to 600 bucks, then head straight to “Smith Agencies” to pay my back rent . There was about a 5 month period in that 5 years that I was only a single month behind. (I was the only band member of the 6 of us who had his own place, so my rent was an incredible $289 a month, but still I starved. There was no band member that complained about the cash as much as me…)

    I learned to buy cases and cases of Kraft Dinner, hot dog wieners when they were on sale, and mega-boxes of porridge.

    There were tours that the day after I came home, I had to put stuff immediately up for sale. When the Band started, I had about 12k worth of playable axes, recording equipment, sound reinforcement P.A. gear. At the end of it, the only three things left were my Beauteous Monteleone mandolin, my Flying ‘V’ E-mando and Roland amp.

    It was a fun ride though. WE got to do a bunch of dates over the years with Sarah M, and once played to 16 thousand people on a Sat night at Winnipeg Folk Fest (It was the best 24 hours of my life so far).

    To the rest of Canada who were never Pro Musicians, Please remember what I wrote here. Pro Touring Musicians hemorrhage money to entertain you, make hardly a thing in return, and the money output never, ever stops. Sometimes, we sure do enjoy the perks though.

    All this to say, I would not have changed a single min of it, except for the getting fired part of it at the end. I love all of them, and am on speaking/hanging out terms with almost all of them.

    • Kerry Krishna

      I meant to write ” 5% sometimes to pay off Loans to the Band from band members Parents … The list goes on. And the mistake we ultimately made, was that we paid ourselves last. “