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.