On a recent tepid late August evening, Dean Brody began a new chapter in the history of Canadian country music. Promising a series of “surprise” guests, Brody along with openers Carly Pearce and Tim Hicks, took over Budweiser Stage in Toronto solely on the strength of domestic success, becoming one of the first Canadian acts in the genre to do so.
That evening Brody played host to what could be described as the Canadian country version of Drake’s OVO-fest, with the headliner bringing out special guests Shevy Price and Madeline Merlo, as well as the genre’s top names, including Dallas Smith and Alan Doyle, to perform their hits alongside Brody’s to the frenzied delight of the sold out crowd.
Like Drake, Brody has spent his recent years spearheading a maple-tinged musical revolution. Bucking the downwards trend of the music industry, both men found record-breaking success by eschewing their genre’s stereotypes — re-framing the narrative through personal lyrics which highlight their Canadian roots. But while Drake is hailed by the mainstream media as a revolutionary, few outside country music fandom have noted his country counterpart's own venerable achievement.
As the head of Canada’s leading independent country music label and management company, RGK Entertainment Group founder Ron Kitchener has spent the last decade plus pondering that discrepancy. “This is something we’ve been fighting for years,” he says. Speaking on the afternoon of Brody’s Budweiser Stage show, Kitchener is in the eye of the hurricane, fielding a flurry of calls, well-wishes, and requests as show time nears. “There’s a couple of things at play,” he explains. “The fact is, until now if [the media] is going to cover country artists, it’s the ones out of Nashville or those Canadian artists that get contracts out of Nashville. And maybe there’s a perception that the Canadian scene hasn’t been on par, but now you can see this in ticket sales, music consumption and radio success. We now have a domestic star system. You have artists like Dean Brody, Dallas Smith and Tim Hicks who can make a living on Canadian success alone. To me, that’s the benchmark where national coverage should start.”
Kitchener’s hope is domestic country music crests to the point where it’s no longer possible for national media to dismiss it. And he has good reason to be optimistic.
According to a study of the Canadian music industry, conducted by BuzzAngle, Canadians consumed 23.6% more country albums in 2016 than in the previous year, a growth rate second only to Children’s music (23.9%) and way above pop (-5%), rock (-0.5%) and hip hop (6.6%).
Likewise, in a 2016 study on music consumption habits conducted by the Canadian Country Music Association, 20% of Canadians rank country music as their genre of choice — narrowly beating out pop (19%), rock (18%) and R&B (5).
As Kitchener points out, though it has yet to hit the sales figures of pop or rock, those two genres have either stagnated or dipped in recent years, whereas country music has maintained its core fan-base of 30-plus rural demographic and diversified its influences to incorporate pop, rap, psychedelic and indie-rock into the mix.
Despite this undeniable current swell, few national outlets are reflecting that demand. Both the National Post and the Globe and Mail have largely ignored the genre, and if there has been coverage, it’s almost always of an American artist.
According to CBC Music executive director Brad Frenette, country’s clean cut image has led click-hungry editors to be wary of giving it space.
“Country music isn’t high culture, and it doesn’t hold the social and political urgency and importance of hip-hop,” Frenette, a lifelong country music fan who worked at the National Post and the Guardian before coming to the CBC, explains. “Most of the country acts I’ve met are friendly and on script – talking about their team, their fans, and their families. That doesn’t make for an easy pitch for the A-section of the newspaper.”
— Continue reading John Dekel's opinion piece on the Top Country website