Music publishers help nurture their songwriters’ careers in myriad ways, whether a writer has enjoyed big commercial success or they’re just finding their feet on the first few rungs of the music industry ladder.

“Every single situation is unique,” stresses peermusic Canada Inc. (Peer) Managing Director Neville Quinlan. “The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, they don’t need us in the same way a newer writer does.”

The real heavy lifting typically happens with writers who are working to get established or seeking to branch out into different genres or different areas of the business like writing for film and television.

“Nobody is going to be hot all the time,” observes Quinlan. “Careers move in cycles. We help our writers do what they need to [in order to] keep their careers going during those inevitable lulls.”

“Peer came at a dark time in my life and they’ve stood by me through thick and thin.” – Hawksley Workman

Hawksley Workman

Hawksley Workman (Photo: Dustin Rabin)

One Peer writer who has persevered through ups and downs is Hawksley Workman, who signed with Peer in 2010.

“Peer came at a dark time in my life and they’ve stood by me through thick and thin,” says Workman. “I was going through the divorce phase of the major label part of my career, and it was uncomfortable, with all the feelings of failure and inadequacy that surround that.

“But Neville and Cheryl [Link, Director, Film/TV and A&R] still saw me as somebody who could be worth a million dollars one day and that’s a really nice feeling.”

Peer has worked hard on Workman’s behalf, landing him significant TV placements, setting up and helping finance co-writing trips around the world, even assembling a makeshift studio for him at Peer’s Toronto office for the recording of 2010’s Meat and Milk albums.

“Other than my agent, who’s been with me since day one, the longest professional relationship I’ve had has been with peer,” notes Workman. “They believe in me and I believe in them.”

By the time Peer signed Workman, he had several albums under his belt and had built an international reputation. But Canada’s music publishers frequently dive in much earlier than that, to kick-start a young career.

Gary Furniss

Gary Furniss (Photo: Jamie Quaile)

The day we reach Sony/ATV Music Publishing Canada President Gary Furniss and Vice President Creative David Quilico, they were popping champagne with Toronto’s Kiki Rowe to celebrate their freshly minted deal with her. The publishers had been watching and working with Rowe for months before the contract was drawn up. They’d paired her with more established writers to see how she performed, and they flew her to New York and Los Angeles to meet with music supervisors, and with the Sony/ATV affiliates who’ll represent her in the U.S.

“When you’re considering signing someone, obviously they’ve got to have the talent,” says Furniss. “But they have to have a great attitude and work ethic, and Kiki has both. You don’t know if they’re going to go all the way, but you know they’ve got what it takes if the right pieces fall into place. Our job is to help make that happen with the right producers and the right co-writers.”

Says Rowe, “When I played them my music I could tell how excited they were. They genuinely like my sound and they believe in me. What more could I possibly ask?”

Furniss and Quilico felt strongly enough about dance duo USS that they financed the recording of their first album in 2008, and introduced them to Coalition Music for management services. The publishers went a similar route with Elise LeGrow, footing the bill for her 2012 debut EP, which contained the Top 10 hit “No Good Woman.”

Toronto’s Red Brick Songs was similarly supportive of a recent signing, Vancouver-based Nygel Asselin. Excited about his production work on Dark Eyes by Half Moon Run, Red Brick Creative team Jana Cleland and Amy Eligh invited Asselin to a writing camp they run every two or three years, to see how he would perform. He ended up co-writing “Drifting,” a song that became a lead-off single for U.S. group On An On.

Jana Cleland & Amy Eligh

Jana Cleland & Amy Eligh (Photo: Chris Robinson)

“‘Drifting’ is probably our biggest song to date,” says Cleland, noting that she and Eligh believed in the song so much, they released the demo and streamed it online to generate interest. “We sign writers we already love, then we expose them to new environments and new co-writers. We try to find the right magical connection that will make sparks fly. We want to find the right writers that are going to gel and create something spectacular.”

Says Asselin, “I don’t know how they do it, but they’re really in tune with my musical style. Sometimes they push me outside of my boundaries and get me to try something new. They set me up with the SOCAN [“on the Farm”] writing camp in BC a month ago that introduced me to people I had never written with before. The networking that comes from it is tremendous.”

Like larger music publishers with affiliate offices around the world, Red Brick taps into its network of international sub-publishers to spark support and co-writing opportunities. “We’re a community of music publishers,” explains Cleland. “We’re competitors, sure, but we’re also colleagues.”

Peer is constantly flexing its affiliate muscles in an effort to bring about co-writing opportunities. Says Quinlan, “We have offices everywhere and we’re always going to be just a couple of degrees of separation from anybody one of our writers wants to work with.”

That’s how peermusic Canada’s Royal Wood ended up writing with U.K. producer/songwriter Jamie Scott. The pair was in a London studio when we reach Wood on the phone in late November.

“I’ve never been happier in my life or felt more grateful,” says Wood, fresh off a writing trip to Los Angeles, and on his way to Nashville next. “I’m in a studio right now working on a console that the Beatles recorded Abbey Road on! Peer has put me in rooms with writers and producers who I probably wouldn’t have had access to on my own. People in the business assume you have cred just because you’re attached to a company like Peer. Doors open, that’s for sure.”

Pierre Fortin, Charles Perron and brother Sylvain and Sébastien Séguin had met a few times since putting a hold on their activities as Les Dales Hawerchuk. But one December night in 2015 at Saint-Sacrement, things were about to get serious.

As he was heading to the Mont-Royal avenue bar and venue, Séguin knew the only thing on the day’s agenda was the return of the Dales. As a matter of fact, in his pocket he was holding what would amount to throwing oil on the band’s still smouldering embers: a demo of his latest two songs, which would become the basis for their fourth album.

“It was a year ago almost to the day. We’d given ourselves some leeway to explore other things. Some of us became fathers, others found stable jobs, but we all wanted to come back to rock ‘n’ roll. We were thirsty, hungry for more,” says Séguin, who wrote the majority of the band’s new songs on Désavantage numérique, released on Nov. 25, 2016.

Les Dales Hawerchuk“I played my two songs for them,” Séguin continues. “They all loved it, and we immediately started talking about our comeback. The first thing we did was set some rules. No more playing in Shawinigan on a Tuesday night. Not that I have anything against Shawi – on the contrary, we’re going back soon – but it’ll be on a Friday or a Saturday, so that everyone can enjoy themselves without worrying about the next day. The rest of the time, we’ll spend with our loved ones. We also wanted our comeback to be carried by explosive, pedal-to-the-metal, new songs. We were done with compromising to get airplay on commercial radio. We don’t give a fuck.”

And that last point seems especially important to the singer and guitarist. Essentially born of the success of its 2005 song “Dale Hawerchuk”, the Lac-Saint-Jean-based band had garnered massive support from commercial radio and Musique Plus, who were thirsty for rock back then. All over the world, bands like The Strokes, White Stripes and The Hives were ruling the airwaves. Abrasive electric guitars were all the rage, and that was the wind beneath the Dale’s wings.

“When we recorded our second album, we tried repeating that feat with the single ‘À soir, on sort,’ but the result wasn’t the same. And thus the pressure for more radio hits started to wear the band down. Our third album was released in 2011 and our record label, C4, folded. That didn’t help. But the break did us a lot of good. We’re back, but we’re not putting any pressure on ourselves. We just want to tour our usual venues and have some fun.”

“We needed to step away from hockey and talk about other stuff. Yet, these days, I’m inspired to write a song about Radulov.” – Sébastien Séguin, Les Dales Hawerchuk

And this return to their roots can be heard right from the first few notes of Désavantage numérique, a titled that translates as Penalty Kill, and inspired by declining record sales, and one of the very rare hockey references on the album. Such nods are typical of the Dales. “It’s totally by design,” says Séguin. “We needed to step away from hockey and talk about other stuff. We’ve grown up. We don’t have the same preoccupations as a 25-year-old kid anymore. But that said, lately I’ve been inspired to write a song about Radulov.”

In the meantime, Les Dales Hawerchuk are focusing their attention on gasoline. As a matter of fact, someone will have to explain this fascination for gas that all musicians from Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean seem to have. There was Galaxie’s Tigre et Diesel, then Fred Fortin’s Ultramarr, not to mention the band named Gazoline, and the Séguin brothers sing about their love of gas-powered machines and the smell of exhaust on more than one of their songs.

“We’re kinda born into it,” says Séguin. “We rode Ski-Doos and ATVs when we were kids. Around the Lac, gas stations are family-run businesses. Not so much anymore, but back in the day, you didn’t say you were going to fill up at Esso or Shell, you said you were going to fill up at Perron’s or Martel’s, the families that ran gas bars. Gas-powered machines are part of our DNA. We always hear about the smell of our grandma’s strawberry or blueberry pies, and it’s true they smelled amazing, but I remember the smell of my dad after a Ski-Doo ride just as much.”

Those two odours came together and gave us a generation of big-hearted rockers. A generation still leaving its mark on the history of rock in Québec, as the Dales are.

Considering all the upcoming releases announced in the early months of 2016, Québec’s hip-hop scene was clearly going to have an exceptional year. On many levels, enthusiasm for the genre was even greater than expected. Here, then, is an overview of the great leaps forward for this historically marginalized scene this year, and the challenges ahead.

“Québec hip-hop, be it Franco or Anglo, is currently the biggest pop movement [in La Belle Province]. Whether or not [the practitioners of] other musical trends like it… we must admit that local hip-hop is the main focus of attention for young francophones,” wrote music journalist Alain Brunet on his blog last November.

Although the claim has been expressed many times over the last few years, it gained considerable credibility once it was stated by this highly respected scribe, a regular contributor to La Presse. It confirmed that, well beyond its more-than-respectable audience and sales numbers, Québec hip-hop was no longer relegated to the margins of the music industry, and could now hope to shine brightly at its centre.

Steve Jolin

Steve Jolin, Disques 7ième Ciel

“Rap took its rightful place in 2016. It was quite a pivotal year in the evolution of our scene,” says Carlos Munoz, head of the Silence d’or label which represents, among others, Shash’U and Rymz.

At the forefront of the local rap scene since 2003, when he founded his 7ième Ciel label, Steve Jolin also looks back on 2016 in an extremely positive way. “We’ve had great years before, but we were still largely ignored,” he says. “But this time, the mainstream media finally acknowledged us. But in fact, rap was so dominant in so many areas that they simply no longer had a choice.”

And it’s true that Québec hip-hop had a lot of shining moments in 2016. As far as sales are concerned, many artists – Dead Obies, Rymz, Souldia and Koriass, among them – broke the 5,000-copies mark. Add to that the popular and critical success of Alaclair Ensemble, KNLO, Brown, Loud Lary Ajust and Rednext Level, all of whom toured extensively throughout the province for most of the year, as well as Enima’s and T.K’s tour de force, accumulating tens of thousands of views on their respective YouTube channels. And one would be remiss not to acknowledge the international buzz created by Longueuil-based Kaytranada, who became the first hip-hop artist to win the prestigious Polaris Prize.

In June, the opening outdoor concert of the Francofolies de Montréal music festival was undoubtedly the hip-hop event of the decade (see feature picture). For the first time ever, Laurent Saulnier and his programming team tapped only rap groups to kick off their festival.

Koriass, Tout le monde en parle

Koriass, Tout le monde en parle

“It just never stopped,” reminisces Carlos Munoz while thinking about the highlights of 2016. “But the presence of Koriass and Dead Obies on Tout le monde en parle really helped. [The show is an extremely popular, two-and-a-half-hour, Sunday-night talk show that regularly has a 1-million-plus audience.] Most industry types watch the show, so it was quite the general awakening about rap. For many viewers, the rap ‘monster’ was coming out of the shadows.”

Koriass admits that being interviewed by Tout le monde en parle host Guy A. Lepage last February was beneficial for his career, despite having been invited on the show because of his openly feminist statements. “If that’s what it takes for the general public to discover rap, I think it’s a positive thing,” he says. “From what I can tell, a lot of people came to see me live after hearing my opinions on TV.”

But despite being fully aware of all those significant positive changes, Bonsound’s co-founder, Jean-Christian Aubry, is slightly more critical. He doesn’t believe Québec rap is on the cusp of becoming mainstream, let alone dominant, in the province. “We’re still very far from that,” says Aubry. “We’re still evolving in a market dominated by ‘proper’ Franco Pop,” says the owner of the label that represents a diverse mix of artists, from Lisa LeBlanc and Safia Nolin to DJ Champion and Dead Obies. “Even with a phenomenon like Malajube, back a few years, we still only made tiny dents in the mainstream, at best.”

Streaming and Radio

To counteract this so-called lack of openness, the Montréal-based imprint makes sure it has a very strong online presence and totally embraces streaming platforms. Dead Obies’ acclaimed second album, Gesamtkunstwerk, scored very well on Spotify, especially thanks to the inclusion of their track Where They @ on a highly popular playlist in France. “We were very successful this year because of that,” says the label boss. “We’ve been learning how to use the machine instead of being afraid of it. So when it finally becomes lucrative, we’ll already be experts at maximizing revenues for our roster of artists.”

Silence d’or and 7ième ciel adopted a different approach. In order to avoid declining sales, both labels adopted a case-by-case approach by refusing to immediately release the albums of their main artists (Koriass, Rymz) on the major streaming platforms.

Thus, it took eight months before Koriass’ Love Suprême appeared on Spotify. “In that specific case, I knew fans were anxiously waiting his new album and that a single $10 or $12 sale on iTunes was the equivalent of many tens of thousands of streams, says Jolin. But then, I also see that Dead Obies went straight to streaming and still sold super-well, so I question my decision… I’ve never been quite into streaming, but increasingly, I realize that we need to work on that.”

This year, 7ième Ciel’s founder has also devoted a lot of effort to cracking the mystery around another medium: radio. Without going as far as saying they were fruitless, his attempts weren’t conclusive. “If it’s rap, it is extremely difficult to get into rotation,” he says. “Yet when I look at charts in France and the U.S., rap is dominant. But here, despite selling 12,000 copies of his latest album, and being invited on all the big TV shows, Koriass still won’t get radio play.”

Recently, however, the rapper from Saint-Eustache [an off-island suburb Northeast of Montréal] saw his song “Plus haut” go into heavy rotation on NRJ. Not featured on Love Suprême, the song was composed for a group of children during the Journées de la culture.

“It’s a very luminous and consensual song that has no Anglicisms or swear words. I think radio’s afraid of going outside of that framework,” says Koriass. “The thing is, music directors have an immense power over the careers of musicians. That’s why there’s a considerable amount of false buzz, meaning artists that earn a living from radio royalties but never sell out their concerts. Meanwhile, most Québec rappers sell out their concerts but barely make ends meet.”

For Carlos Munoz, the current state of commercial radio holds very little appeal. “I really don’t care to hear one of my artists sandwiched between Taylor Swift and the Cowboys Fringants.” He says. Determined not to have to make any compromise for radio play geared towards “sappy ballads,” Silence d’or’s head honcho dreams of a day when an urban radio station will take over the FM dial.

Steve Jolin shares that ideal. “I’ve even met with the executives of major broadcasters about this, and all they told me was that the radio market was already highly segmented,” he says. “In other words, I was dealing with bosses that don’t know rap and don’t really give a fuck. I’m convinced that a large part of the 25-to-30 demographic who get in their cars to go somewhere would be totally down with an all-rap station.”

2017, The Year of Challenges

While he waits for such a day, the head of 7ieme Ciel remains optimistic. 2017 will be a year fraught with challenges and the businessman intends to do everything required to meet them. Over the course of the next few months, he’ll accompany Koriass on a mini-tour of France. “It’s a tough market to break into, because rap is a highly territorial and identity-based music,” he says. “We’re making encouraging progress over there, but we have modest expectations. We mainly hope that the French will get that Québec rap is more than Roi Heenok,” he jokes.

Munoz will also attempt a French incursion with Rymz in 2017. “We’ve noticed that there’s some interest, albeit small, since six percent of our sales come from the European Francophonie,” he says. “France is quite a chauvinistic country, culturally, so we need to get there with something strong that’ll surprise people.”

Dead Obies

Dead Obies

And that’s precisely what Dead Obies did during their last foray to France. Two years after attracting the attention of the French generalist press (notably Libération), the sextet toured there again last fall and managed to appear in a few more specialized publications, such as the hip-hop magazine Grünt. “The next time we go, we’ll be able to get a good headline slot,” says Aubry convincingly.

As for Québec, the Bonsound cofounder will make sure he keeps up the pace so that Dead Obies’ journey continues to be as successful. One of the band’s main challenges will be to sell out the M Telus venue (formerly Métropolis) at the end of the summer.

As for Steve Jolin, he hopes Québec rap will keep taking its rightful place with “quality projects.” Following the province-wide L’Osstidtour show, which will culminate this winter at Club Soda, and features Koriass, Brown and Alaclair Ensemble, the Abitibi-born label director will assemble more musical extravaganzas that remain secret for the time being.

Munoz hopes that 2017 will be the year when Québec rap will widen its diversity. Even though it’s ebullient at the moment on YouTube, thanks to acts such as Enima, Lost & White-B, and Jackboy, street rap is still shunned by most of the province’s media. “I’m glad there’s more openness towards hip-hop, but the downside of it is that it’s only a very specific, homogenized genre that I don’t find ‘raw’ enough that gets all that attention,” he explains.

While it’s true that there are a few newcomers whose time is overly due to break into the scene, Jolin says he’s not overly concerned. “The artists that make it here often have honed their skills,” he says. “It’s not like in the U.S. where the flavours of the month come and go. The next generation is almost here. We just need to be patient.”