Music History

Academic Proof That Canadians Had a Massive Musical Inferiority Complex Until at Least 1995

For the first decade-and-a-half of rock’n’roll’s existence, there wasn’t much of a Canadian music industry. We lacked all the basic infrastructure: recording studios, proper managers, promoters, venue operators and all the back end necessary to support musicians. While there were Canadian record labels, most were either underfunded indie companies or mere branch plants of foreign entities.

If you were a Canadian with any talent and ambition, you had to leave the country if you wanted a shot at success. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, The Band, Leonard Cohen and many others were forced to take that route. Everyone else had to make do with whatever meager resources Canada had to offer.

It wasn’t until the Cancon rules came into effect in 1971 that things began to change. Sure, Cancon was designed to build Canadian music culture, but it was also an industrial strategy. By mandating that radio allocate 30% of its playlists to Canadian artists, a cascading series of events began. Recording studios were built. Foreign record labels bulked up their domestic operations. People got serious about concert promotion, running venues and managing artists.

It was a painful but necessary process that took another fifteen years to start consistently bearing fruit. And during those building years, most Cancon was considered to be inferior music from beyond our borders. We disdained it.

For years, our unofficial national mottos could be summed up like this: “Why can’t you be happy with what you have?” and “Who do you think you are?” Any attempt at establishing a domestic star system outside of Quebec was met with derision. It was only after an act found success in the US–the ultimate form of validation–that Canadians decided the act was worth embracing domestically.

Canadian radio was especially guilty of dissing Cancon. Domestic tracks were often edited down to a fraction of their intended running length and ghettoed to between 10 pm and midnight, the so-called “beaver hours.” Playing Canadian music was seen as a necessary evil, quotas to be met to fulfill the terms of a broadcast license.

For example, when a record label serviced a new 45 to radio stations, they left out the name of the band on the label, writing only “Guess Who?” to camouflage the act’s Canadianness. When the record got good reviews and started taking off, it was revealed that the group was actually Winnipeg’s Chad Allen and the Expressions. After the successful feint by their label, though, they adopted the name “Guess Who.”

And to be honest, a lot of what was forced on us in the 70s and 80s was awful. It was nowhere near as good or produced as well as foreign music. There were plenty of exceptions, but overall, playing any Cancon was a grudge spin.

It wasn’t just radio, either. Matt Capel wrote a master’s thesis in 2007 on how the Canadian inferiority complex, nationalism and print coverage contributed to the negative attitude towards Canadian music between 1967 and 1995.

This thesis critically analyses music coverage in Maclean’s between 1967-1995, and reveals that the magazine continually stressed Canadian music as inferior to that produced by foreign artists. Only during times of intense nationalism were Canadian musicians positively received in its pages. More generally, domestic productions were seen as deficient. The historical components of this investigation reveal an essential irony in the perception of Canadian music during the last four decades of the 20th century. Despite nationalist rhetorics and Maclean’s self-appointed title of “Canada’s National Newsmagazine,” its critics consistently emphasised that Canadian music was of poor quality in the 1967-1995 period.
You can read the whole thing here.
Fortunately, we weathered the storm. Money was pumped into artist development. Private radio was compelled to contribute to funds like FACTOR and later Starmaker along with compulsory payments known as “Canadian talent development” funds.  Regulations changed and “beaver hours” were made illegal. Minimum Cancon quotas went from 30% to 35%.
By the early 90s, Canadian music was of a quality that could compete with anything the rest of the world could produce. Canadians took notice and started consuming music by domestic acts not because they were Canadian but because they were good.
By the 2000s, we were a musical powerhouse. Today we punch far, far above our weight for a country of our population size when it comes to exporting music to the rest of the planet.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when this was unthinkable. The care and feeding of Cancon was difficult and sometimes painful, but it was all worth it.


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38457 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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