Naming your new record label End X Music (End Times Music) amidst an ongoing pandemic reveals a rather dark sense of humour, as the independent imprint’s co-creator Donovan Woods acknowledges.

“The name came up during the pandemic, but the idea for the label preceded it,” says the acclaimed Toronto-based songsmith. “It doesn’t really feel like the end of the world, but we’re just trying to get ahead of the curve on that.”

End X Music is a co-venture of Woods and longtime manager Michelle Szeto, of Paquin Entertainment. Based in both Nashville (where Szeto lives) and Toronto, End X Music is distributed internationally by The Orchard. It officially launched in September of 2021, to early positive reaction.

“The response from people like Spotify and Apple has been very encouraging,” says Woods. “They’ve been an important part of what I’ve been able to do as an artist, and it’s fun to watch them get excited about something new.”

To Szeto, “it has solidified for us how much of a community we’ve built on both sides of the border. The reaction from the streaming industry has validated how hard we’ve worked to build Donovan’s label, Meant Well, over the last five years.”

First Up: Cassidy Mann
Cassidy MannCassidy Mann, a Manitoba-based pop-folk singer-songwriter, is the first signing to End X Music. She began songwriting in her early teens, releasing a self-titled EP at age 15, followed by 2013 EP, Blue Skies & Bright Eyes, that earned her a Western Canadian Music Award nomination (for Aboriginal Recording of the Year) in 2014. Her 2021 single “Election Night” was the first release from the label, followed by “Stop A Heart” in early November. “There will be an album eventually, but we’re not in a rush,” says Szeto. Donovan Woods is effusive in his praise of Mann’s talent and potential: “The thing that impresses us about an artist is if they present what seems to be a fully-formed artistic statement,” he says. “They know what they want to sound like and what they want to say. I think Cassidy is ahead of the game there.” Woods and Mann have already had a couple of co-writing sessions together.

Woods – a renowned, JUNO-winning folk/roots singer-songwriter – has achieved his impressive international success (more than  220 million global streams) in true do-it-yourself (DIY) fashion through Meant Well. “We’ve developed an understanding of how a label works and the decisions that need to be made,” says Szeto. “It’s a shared brain trust.”

Says Szeto about working with other artists, “From being thrilled about some of the opportunities presented to Donovan, we started talking around three years ago about doing that with someone else. The only problem was that we couldn’t agree on anybody!”

That changed when they simultaneously, separately encountered young Winnipeg singer-songwriter Cassidy Mann (see sidebar). “Donovan was a mentor at a songwriting competition, and I was on the jury,” says Szeto. “After coming across Cassidy there, we messaged each other, ‘Have you heard this girl?’ She was certainly a catalyst in making End X Music a reality.”

Mann is the first artist signed to the label, and her single, “Election Night,” was its debut release. Woods confirms that “going forward, my music will come out on the label, too.”

At present, there are no plans for a publishing component. Woods signed an exclusive publishing deal with Concord Music Publishing a year ago, and Mann is self-published.

For future label additions, Woods and Szeto will consider both Canadian and international artists, in a variety of genres. “Our focus will be on songwriters, whether a solo artist or a band member, but that can still be pretty broad,” says Woods.

The label’s mission statement reads, in part: “The core of End Times’ mission is transparency and adaptability.” Woods reaffirms that goal, stressing that “we want to have everyone understand where things are coming from and why, in a fully transparent way.”

The Canadian Liberal minority government has promised to re-introduce legislation to reform the Broadcasting Act within the first 100 days of being re-elected.  

A stated objective is to ensure “foreign web giants” contribute to the creation and promotion of Canadian stories and music. Put another way, the government is looking to even the playing field between traditional and digital media. 

You may be wondering a few things from that statement. First, why do we need regulations to “even the playing field,” and second, why did the previous efforts to update and revitalize the Broadcasting Act not succeed? 

The Need for Digital Canadian Content Rules 

In 1971, the Government of Canada recognized a problem: Canadian music wasn’t being played on Canadian radio, but foreign artists (mostly American) were. 

This meant that non-Canadian artists received the vast majority of radio airtime. Money flowed from Canada to support foreign talent rather than our Canadian talent. 

As a result, Canadian Content (“CanCon”) rules were implemented for radio stations. The CanCon rules require that at least 35 percent of music broadcast by radio stations during peak hours must meet a defined minimum level of “Canadian.” In Québec, the level increases to up to 65 percent for French-language radio stations. The rest of the “traditional” sector (television and cable) also has its own CanCon rules.  

Those rules have been enormously successful in ensuring that Canada has its own cultural industry and Canadian voices, creating, sustaining, and building a significant source of monetary, emotional and cultural value. There are few, if any, aspects of Canadian culture that foster as much national pride and value as the success of music made in Canada. 

Today, we’re facing a similar but new challenge: Canadian music isn’t sufficiently prominent on internet-based services. 

As digital services become the primary source of music consumption for Canadians, this lack of prominence presents a major issue for Canadian creators. 

A comparison of SOCAN’s royalty distributions to SOCAN songwriter and composer members demonstrates the disparity between traditional media (radio and TV) and digital media (online music services): 

Traditional Media Royalties Graph

English Digital Media Royalties

Without modern CanCon rules built for now and the future, we will continue to see a catastrophically unfair decline in the success of Canada’s music makers – from 34 percent of royalties collected on traditional media distributed to SOCAN writer members, to barely 10 percent of royalties distributed to Canadian songwriters and composers through digital media.  

The transition from traditional media to digital media continues to increase as more and more Canadians turn to digital services to discover and listen to new music. 

So, the question is: How can we safeguard the success of Canada’s creators on digital services?  

The answer is to bring the Broadcasting Act into the digital era, to enable the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (the CRTC) to explore rules relating to a modern and fair version of CanCon. 

It is impossible simply to transpose traditional CanCon rules to the digital world. That is, to require 35 percent of all content on digital services be Canadian. The digital realm works differently. 

Traditional services “push” content to consumers. It’s possible to mandate that some of the content that’s pushed must be Canadian Content. 

By contrast, users of digital services “pull” content from those services on-demand. It’s not realistic or even possible to mandate that users pull Canadian Content. 

These are complex issues that would become open to review by the CRTC as part of a broader regulatory mandate over digital media services. 

The CRTC has shown itself to be an effective administrative means of implementing Canadian cultural policies in traditional media. The organization can continue to play that role in the digital world, now and in the future, as new solutions are crafted.  

Bill C-10: The First Attempt to Reform the Broadcasting Act 

The previous federal government introduced Bill C-10 to allow the CRTC to regulate online undertakings. However, the initial draft of the bill excluded social media services, which meant that these digital platforms—some of which are the largest and fastest-growing in the world—could escape regulation. 

The social media exemption was ultimately removed from the bill, but other amendments were added to state explicitly that users (and the programs they upload) were not being regulated by it. As a result, Bill C-10 targeted the broadcasting activities of the platforms, not Canadians.  

Despite this clear exemption, critics of Bill C-10 continued to conflate in the media that the freedom of expression of users was under attack. This controversy ultimately overshadowed what the bill worked to accomplish: to level the playing field between traditional services, which operate under CanCon regulations, and digital media services, which do not.  

The controversy around Bill C-10 was an unfortunate distraction from the vital issue: The Broadcasting Act must be reformed for the digital era. For a law that hasn’t been updated since 1991, it’s imperative to continue to sustain and build Canadian-made music, so that we can continue to benefit from this nationally and globally successful industry and source of invaluable cultural pride. 

Unfortunately, Bill C-10 ultimately expired on the order paper when the federal election was called in August of 2021, leaving the obvious, necessary and vital addition of digital services to the Broadcasting Act in limbo.  

What’s Next? 

The newly elected government has confirmed Broadcasting Act reform as one of its top priorities, promising to introduce new legislation in the first 100 days of coming into office. 

This will be a watershed moment for Canadian cultural policy. 

La Zarra Fatima Zahra is a late-blooming artist, but she’s already attracting a lot of attention in Europe,  thanks to a voice that rivals those of Edith Piaf or Barbara Streisand. Known under her alias, La Zarra, the young woman based in Longueuil (a South-shore Montréal suburb) has been signed by Universal Music Canada and Polydor France, and her debut album Traîtrise (Treachery) will be launched Dec. 3, 2021.

“I can’t really explain the success I’ve had these last months,” says Zahra, who seems a little bewildered, because although she’s always harboured a deep interest in music, she was actually pursuing another career path.

“Until very recently, I was a hairdresser,” she says. “Those years of experience were really helpful. I fine-tuned my ears listening to Barbara [Streisand] while I worked. I’ve never taken singing lessons or vocal coaching, and I can’t answer when people ask what key I’m singing in,” she giggles. She grew increasingly bored with her chosen profession, and when she suddenly became allergic to hair dyes, it struck her as a sign that a career in music could become more than a dream. “Except I wouldn’t have the maturity I have with my music if it weren’t for hairdressing,” she says.

A few years ago, she met Montréal-based producer Benny Adam (Rymz, Tizzo, Zach Zoya), which provided an opportunity to get acquainted with her own musical persona. That seed grew slowly, over a period of a few years, until it became a bona fide project: she decided she would pitch a few song ideas to the producer. “The few songs we created together were an instant hit in Europe, and a record label gave me the tools to start exploring more songs, alongside musicians,” says Zahra. The auspicious star that shines for her on the other side of the ocean even earned her a nomination as the Francophone Revelation of the Year at the NRJ Awards on Nov. 20, 2021.

It’s never the same, for her, when it comes to writing a new song. “Sometimes it starts with a melody or a sentence I really want to use,” she says. “I sing about love, friendship, relationships, but my songs are generally more about over-arching feelings that they are specific stories. It can start from hatred, joy, anger, but in the end, it’s always about emancipating myself. I’m still on the path between the woman I used to be and the woman I want to become.” One thing clear to Zahra is that since music has become the focus of her life, she never feels like she’s working. “It’s not work, to me,” she says. “I sing when I’m cleaning my apartment, and verses just come to me. When I’m in a creative mood, it can go on for quite awhile, and ideas just pour out of me.”

Unlike some success stories rooted online, through shares and likes, La Zarra owes her meteoric rise only to her talent being noticed – and celebrated. “I don’t like showing off, and I just don’t understand the very concept of ‘influencer,’” she says. “I started being popular when industry types started saying something was happening. I really wanted an old-school career. I wanted to work with a label that signs me, and then tells me to start working. Step by step, I’m observing the audience react to my presence in the musical landscape. I’m earning new fans, one by one, and I believe it’s the only way to build a career in music that will last. And that’s exactly what I want.”

After producing her music with no time constraints, using the tools required to make the process run as smoothly as possible, the time will come for La Zarra to get onstage – but she says she’s not yet fully comfortable with that idea. “Music is so new that I haven’t had time to get acquainted with the stage,” she says. “In a studio you can do one more take, if you’re filming a video you can warm up, but on a stage, you can’t lie. We’re starting work on my show, and I’m re-arranging my songs so they feel more organic and natural. That’s the real challenge.”

Although she plans to promote her album in France first, she’s convinced that reaction overseas will eventually be translated as strongly in Québec. “I am Québécoise, but I also know that the French market is difficult, which is why I want to take advantage of my success,” she says. “In the end, I want to be successful in both markets. I’d also like to promote my album in Northern Africa. And then… there’s the rest of the world.”