Canada’s music community remains tight-knit amid COVID-19


By Jonnica Hill


Audio: Music plays and continues in the background.

Brian Melo: Our industry is based on gatherings, you know. So, not being able to get out there, to really get your music out there and connect with people, has been very tough. I don’t think there’s an artist out there that would say it’s been easy.

Vish Khanna: There always seems to be something new to listen to, or watch or read, and I think that’s a testament to the artistic spirit.

David Chafe: They are able to in a way take advantage of this kind of really turbulent time and carve out their own niche.

Lynn JacksonI found myself recording a lot of videos of songs that I liked and I would post them on social media. That’s been a cool way to stay connected.

Brian Melo: Thank God that we have the technology that we have now going through a pandemic.

Laura Simpson: The online access has been extraordinary, and it’s really opened up the ability for people to take part in shows in a way that they never could before, and that’s such a good thing.

Audio: Music plays in the background.

Jonnica Hill: It has officially been a whole year since the COVID-19 pandemic came into our lives and changed everything. Music fans are missing going to see live music, but for musicians and other people working in the industry, the loss of live concerts has had even more serious effects than creating gaps in their calendars. Since music relies so heavily on being there, live and in-person, the industry has been struggling since the early days of the pandemic. The Canadian Independent Music Association says that because of COVID, Canada’s industry will fall short of its plans by $2.8 billion and lose roughly 41,000 full-time jobs. Not only has live music stopped, but stay-at-home orders and social distancing protocols have even made recording new music more difficult. For Canada’s independent musicians, the consequences are even more visible because, for many, touring was their main source of income. For those without the support of major labels or global fanbases, the future is unclear. And yet, Canada’s close community of independent musicians remains strong. And now, more than ever, this sense of community is vital. With new ways of connecting, musicians are continuing to stay active in their communities, and they’re not alone. Organizations and audiences across the country are pitching in to help save music.

Audio: Lynn Jackson’s Flight plays in the background.

Jonnica Hill: At the heart of the music business are the artists who dedicate their lives to making music and sharing it with others. Kitchener-based singer-songwriter Lynn Jackson is among of over 35,000 musicians working in Canada. As an independent musician, Jackson has been playing across the country for 20 years and just released her 11th album, Lionheart, in 2020, blurring the lines between rock, folk and blues. Even though Canada is a large country geographically, many musicians describe the national music community as a tight-knit one, including Jackson, who’s formed friendships and connections from the KW area to Vancouver.

Lynn Jackson: If you’re touring fairly regularly, quite a few people get to know who you are. I think, definitely nationally, those connections, I treasure them, they help me feel supported when I roll into town, whatever town that is across Canada to play a show, especially if I am sharing a bill with them or meeting up with them, which often is the case. Or they’re helping me with accommodations, or I’m actually sleeping on their couch. That is a fantastic way to feel supported.

Jonnica Hill: This national sense of community helps musicians across the country feel like they belong to something bigger than them and offers countless opportunities to connect and collaborate. These connections happen even more frequently on the local level, and Jackson is known for connecting musicians in Kitchener like at her open garage jams, before COVID, where she welcomed both friends and local musicians of all genres.

Lynn Jackson: All these different people that play different genres of music, we would just get together and we would have a jam. It’s really fun to see, you know, have a violinist sit in on a reggae song, and then watch people switch instruments and have that violinist go play drums on a rock song. And it’s just it’s a really fun way of getting people together that maybe didn’t know each other before. But all are great musicians.

Jonnica Hill: Since COVID, it has been more difficult for musicians to organize any kind of jam session, but it’s not impossible. In Hamilton, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Steve De Piante, known as Deeps, has been pursuing music for 27 years. Over the last year, Deeps has found it difficult to adjust to being at home, in isolation, but he’s still trying to keep his love of music and collaborating alive by connecting with his bandmates online.

Deeps: We’ve actually finally got a little momentum in recording at a distance. So, you know, we’re trying to keep that community alive by, like, recording at home and then sending tracks over to the drummer, and then he’ll put a, put something on and then the bass player. And it took me a little while to get momentum in that regard because why I play music is for that real kind of human interaction.

Jonnica Hill: Maintaining these personal connections is important for muscians’ professional growth, but also for their personal wellbeing. Even before COVID, Deeps says working in the music industry is not an easy life.

Deeps: It’s an interesting lifestyle in that especially when we’re gigging a lot, you tend to be away from home a lot. And also, you’re around a lot of temptation, in terms of alcohol, drugs, and you couple that with kind of loneliness, you’re kind of often putting yourself on the line, so it’s nice to know that you have some people you can rely on.

Audio: Music plays in the background.

Jonnica Hill: Musicians have been pushing through many of the challenges that COVID has brought, quickly finding new ways to connect with each other and play music for their audiences. Over the summer artists were still able to play outdoor concerts and many have opted for hosting digital livestreams and creating makeshift home studios to stay in touch with their passion and audiences. But no matter how many virtual alternatives have emerged over the last year, the industry is simply not the same. Like everyone, musicians are having to cope with a lack of human interaction that threatens both their careers and their well-being. Deeps says this human connection was a major draw to leave his previous career behind and pursue music.

Deeps: To do it across this distance, felt a little strange and wasn’t really why I was in it, you know? I left a career in IT, which was a desk job, which is a lot of solitude. I left that career behind for the community aspects of music, both like in the rehearsal room and playing to a crowd, those kinds of social things that I find really enriching. So, the technology helps to a degree. Unfortunately, the technology to actually be able to play music together, across a divide, it’s not really there. When I’m using it, I kind of just feel like I’m missing out on being with my friends and colleagues.

Jonnica Hill: Coming not long after of music’s streaming revolution, COVID is a huge hurdle to making money as a musician, especially for independent artists who have limited opportunities to begin with. In St. John’s, classical pianist David Chafe released his album Still in 2019 but wasn’t able to tour because of the pandemic. As a sociologist, Chafe has also studied the independent industry and says the pandemic is amplifying what was already known to be a poor-paying gig. And now, some musicians he knows have left their music careers behind indefinitely.

David Chafe: I’m connected through a friend of mine here, who is from Europe, with other European choir conductors who have just completely thrown in the towel and are going back to school and re-educating themselves. I know an opera singer, in the States, who has completely abandoned her very promising and well-paying career because there’s no audiences and no opera houses are open. So, she’s going into graphic design.

Jonnica Hill: For the most part, the musicians I talked to describe the national music scene as tight-knit, but admit there can still be a sense of competition between musicians, especially in the independent landscape, simply because of our country’s smaller population and smaller music market, which means fewer opportunities than major industry players like the U.S. Hamilton singer-songwriter Brian Melo says he witnessed this difference when he lived in Nashville with his former band, Apollo’s Crown.

Brian: There’s just not as many opportunities up here in Canada than there is in a place like Nashville or LA, right? So, in a place like Toronto, there’s some artists that don’t want to help you with connecting you with the right people, or don’t want to get you in front of you know the right people in the industry to further your career, because maybe there’s an insecurity there that they’ll lose their seat in line. So, instantly, once you get down to Nashville, there’s something that you have in common with another musician because most of us left our homes to go to Nashville. So, we’re all sort of in it together. If you are blown away by an artist, you wanna tell people about it, you wanna connect people, because you know how hard it is.

Jonnica Hill: In light of the pandemic, opportunities in Canada are even fewer, and David Chafe says that while musicians are banding together, there’s also a sense of protecting and safeguarding one’s own interests. The lack of opportunities, especially in-person shows, is a big threat to independent artists who rely on shows to earn a living and who don’t necessarily have a steady following they can connect with online.

Audio: Music plays in the background.

Jonnica Hill: Musicians are not alone in their struggles with COVID. There are a variety of organizations and businesses helping to support and connect them. Since in-person touring has stopped, many musicians have turned to online concerts on social media and other platforms to connect with their audiences. After organizing concerts at her home for six years, Halifax music industry professional Laura Simpson founded Side Door with Vancouver musician Dan Mangan in 2017. The organization focuses on building community by giving audiences and venues the ability to book artists in their own spaces and by making sure artists are paid fairly. Simpson says that with Side Door, in-person concerts can be created anytime, anywhere. But, when COVID hit they had to rethink that plan.

Laura Simpson: Dan and I are a country apart, I’m in Halifax and he’s in Vancouver, so we’ve been using Zoom actually since, from day one. So, we were very comfortable running things over that platform. And, so quite quickly, we use that as a way to do online shows, something that we had no real experience in. But what was important to us, is how do you create a sense of community at a show online? And, so, I think we’ve worked really hard to achieve that. At the centre of it, it always is, how do you give agency to the artist to make the decisions they need to be successful and feel confident in their show.

Jonnica Hill: Side Door’s pivot to online shows allows musicians to keep playing, and to reach audiences around the world, which they may never have played to before COVID. But this shift has left venues struggling, from massive stadiums to small pubs. While Side Door will continue to make online and intimate shows possible after the pandemic, Simpson says it’s important to her to keep venues alive. She hopes that the future will bring a mix of online and in-person shows.

Laura Simpson: Places that primarily held live music events or entertainment events, they’re saying 70, 75 per cent, just won’t reopen. And, you know, for us, it’s really important to try to salvage as many places as we can. We’ve worked with some to do virtual events. We’ve done hybrid events: so, a bit of people in person and then a bunch more online, and our real goal is to not lose those spaces but incorporate them as much as possible.

Jonnica Hill: Virtual concerts, like those now organized by Side Door, are helping make up for the lack of in-person shows. But in an industry that can already be challenging and lonely, the current shutdown means more musicians may be struggling with their well-being. Hamilton’s Ace Piva is a musician, tour manager and founding member of Over The Bridge, an organization supporting all industry professionals struggling with mental health or addiction. After witnessing friends, family and fellow musicians struggling with these issues, Piva was inspired to become an addictions counsellor and has since taken his knowledge on the road and now into Over The Bridge.

Ace Piva: When people are on the road, they definitely consider themselves a family. Sometimes a very dysfunctional family, but a family, nonetheless. You’re there to help each other, not say hey, if you can’t do the job, then get out of here. Families stick together at the end of the day, so we need to give our families the proper tools in order to after each other better.

Jonnica Hill: During this especially challenging time, Piva says it is important to make sure musicians and other industry professionals have the support and community they need, and fortunately many organizations like Over the Bridge are now operating online, with Facebook support groups and Zoom meetings.

Audio: Brian Melo’s Anywhere But Here plays in the background.

Jonnica Hill: Musicians and organizations within the music industry are key players in building and fostering a sense of community, but without audiences to play to, that community wouldn’t be nearly as strong. For Hamilton musician Brian Melo, the support he got from his audience back home, while competing on Canadian Idol in 2007, meant everything.

Brian Melo: I had a whole city behind me, you know, being from Hamilton, so, looking back for a second, I was a kid that was playing bars and working a construction job. And for, you know, four to six months later, I come back home, and my face is plastered on every pole in the city, and it was incredible to see that all these people were invested in my dream as much and I was just blown away by that. And you know, once that door opened for me, that support continued throughout the rest of the country, and being able to go from city to city, you know, meet people that have been supporting me never supported me for the past 13 years has been unbelievable.

Jonnica Hill: Compared to artists signed to major record labels, independent musicians have to build their audience largely by going out and playing shows. The Canadian Independent Music Association says that with live music interrupted and many artists moving online, there are fewer opportunities for independent musicians. Even though many artists are doing online shows and selling their music online, those who don’t already have a large following or the means to produce online content will be left out. The shift to online concerts does have positive impacts for audiences though, allowing them to continue finding and supporting musicians. Laura Simpson from Side Door says it’s actually making it easier for fans to see shows.

Laura Simpson: That’s been one of the amazing things about online shows: there’s been so many people, you know, in remote areas where nobody ever tours, joining shows, there’s been so many children, there’s been so many older people, there’s been so many people with challenges that prevent them from going to a loud venue or a crowded venue. Shows should not just be for the people who can afford a babysitter and go to the city and go to see a show in a bar. What’s better is to find ways to bring the shows to the people.

Jonnica Hill: Fans are also finding other ways to support their favourite musicians, beyond streaming online shows. Coral Andrews, a journalist and radio host at CKWR in Kitchener says the fans in the KW area are very supportive of their local musicians and have been buying merchandise to help support them.

Coral Andrews: If a band has a website, and they’re selling merchandise, a lot of people are going there and buying masks or t-shirts or hats or wherever they can do to help support them. So, it’s a really, it’s unprecedented times right now, it really is. I don’t think anybody’s ever seen anything like this. So, this is what I mean: everybody’s trying to help each other as much as they can. I think it’s really heart-warming to see.

Audio: Music plays in the background.

Jonnica Hill: For the last six months, concerts have been strictly online, but last summer, when Brian Melo was able to play to small crowds outside, he saw proof that, yes, musicians need the crowds to make a living, but those crowds need musicians just as much.

Brian Melo: I knew that musicians, we really needed the crowds, and we really needed to get out there and feel connected and sing our songs and perform because it’s just a part of who we are. It was nice to see how positive and how much people who weren’t musicians really needed the music for their soul. I truly believe music and connection like that is truly medicine for some people, and you could tell a lot of people were missing that, and you could sense that there’s a deeper appreciation for the art form and how much it’s needed to bring up people’s morale.

Jonnica Hill: With musicians’ tireless efforts to host virtual shows, organizations creating support groups and fans buying merchandise and sharing music online, it is clear that music means a lot to so many people and, with this level of passion and care, the music community in Canada could never fully disappear. In the last year, everyone surrounding the music industry has only helped to prove the power of a strong community and how it can shine through even the worst of times. When this pandemic finally ends, and some sense of normalcy returns, we may have lost some music careers and music venues, but the feeling of being part of such a supportive and optimistic community, like the one here within Canadian music, will never fade. Maybe someone will even write a song about it.