Initially launched to respond to the pandemic, First Up with RBCxMusic has strived to help emerging musical artists with funding, marketing, and educational programs ever since. Back in the Spring of 2020, the fund started by helping more than 100 artists with $1,000 each, towards creating performances to be streamed on the RBCxMusic Instagram channel. Each week, a new slate of artists could be seen and heard, Thursday through Sunday evenings, throughout that first summer of COVID.

Shannon Cole, RBC’s Vice President of Brand Marketing, explains why the program was originally created, as a virtual performance series to support emerging Canadian recording artists. “[When the] industry came to a complete standstill, the other trend that we were seeing was that musicians, by and large, have secondary [employment] in service, or restaurant, or retail [businesses], so they were also decimated in their supplemental income,” she says. “Our funding was spent in a typical summer on music and festivals. We were able to re-direct some of that money… to support artists that had suffered a huge loss of income due to the pandemic.”

First Up: The Current Cohort

Ari Hicks – Toronto
Bebe Buckskin – Calgary
Cec Lopez – Winnipeg
DESIIRE – Toronto
Jennie Harluk – Calgary
Jhyve – Toronto
Kennen – Newmarket, ON
Kin Crew – Halifax
KROY – Montréal
Logan Richard – Charlottetown
Ludic – Surrey, BC
MICO – Toronto
Olivier Faubert – Montréal
Pisceze – Toronto
Shantaia – Warman, SK
Stun – Winnipeg
T-Rhyme – Saskatoon
Vox Rea – Vancouver
Zenesoul – Brampton, ON

Since then, First Up with RBCxMusic has evolved dramatically. In 2021, it supported 27 new artists, along with nine from the first group, again helping with enhanced live performances (where government guidelines allowed), mentorship, media & promotional support, and networking opportunities.

With live performances now back on the table, First Up with RBCxMusic shifted gears. “We’re all kinds of delighted to welcome the return of live music,” says Cole, “so a lot of what we’re able to do now is provide performance opportunities, live and in the flesh, for some of our roster of First Up artists.”

Cole calls the 2022 version the most comprehensive version of the program to date. “We were excited to provide elevated performance opportunities through our partnership with Live Nation Canada and regional partners,” she says. Working with them, the 19 members of the current cohort have had opportunities to appear at sponsored events across the country, including, RBC Bluesfest in Ottawa, the Cavendish Beach Music Festival in the Maritimes, the RBC Canadian Open, and the Toronto International Film Festival.

This year’s cohort also had the opportunity to participate in an Artist Summit, hosted by the Canadian non-profit Conscious Economics. Attendees were invited to in-person seminars about networking, finances, development, and learning. “These are very, very dedicated to their craft and their industry,” says Cole. Another new partner in the program has helped to curate the artists that participate. Recognizing that bankers aren’t necessarily music experts, First Up RBCxMusic invited AWAL, an alternative to the traditional record label, to help with the selection process.

Cole also describes diversity and inclusivity as imperatives. “RBCxMusic really believes that a career in music should be accessible to every artist who’s talented, passionate, and driven. That’s really our guiding principle,” she says.

She explains that measuring the success of the program is complicated. “An artist’s trajectory is so subjective and unique that we don’t necessarily look at specific metrics to track an individual artist’s success,” she says. “But, from a macro level, we put a ton of value on the feedback that we receive from our partners, and from the artists. We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback to date. I think even you and I chatting today puts some value and recognition on the program from the industry, and from leaders like SOCAN. I think that’s the validation that we need and desire at this point, to know that we’re on the right track and that we need to keep going.”

The artist feedback is indeed positive. “The RBCxMusic program has provided me with the tools to scale my career both here in Canada, and also on a global level – something very important for me as a Queer, first-generation-immigrant musician,” says DESIIRE, one of the program’s beneficiaries. “The team at RBCxMusic has provided me with the platform to have my music and story shared to a whole new audience.”

Cole is optimistic for the future of the First Up with RBCxMusic. “Our goal is to build on the momentum,” she says. “It’s been a phenomenal year for live music. I think we’re going to see that continue. I’d love to broaden the opportunities with our First Up featured artists, and that can be in a number of different ways. Whether it’s live performances, or even just P.R. or media opportunities for these artists. Just getting their names, faces, music out there to the world.

“Something I find terribly rewarding, that we’ve heard from the feedback, is that networking and mentorship with industry leaders is something with which we can help,” says Cole. “That’s the connective opportunity in which we have a role to play, and something that I’d like to see continue. Just more of what we’re doing, and more impact.”

First Up with RBCxMusic looks forward to sharing more about how artists can apply in 2023. Follow @RBCxMusic on Instagram for updates on applications opening. When they’re open, they’ll be available here.