As another decade in music comes to an end, entertainment headlines are filled with winner stats – Drake’s the most-streamed artist on Spotify, while other famed Canadian pop stars like The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes also find themselves on top, with mammoth, endlessly stream-able, and promoted, pop albums.
But what about the artists making Indigenous, global, or other music outside of the mainstream? Those whose diverse sounds don’t capture streaming algorithms as easily as pop music’s powerful machines do. As National Canadian outlets play less and less of their music, and spaces such as MTV IGGY (shuttered mid-way through the decade) disappear, an undeniable calibre of artist, who perform in genres too diverse to categorize, are trying to navigate the new spaces of music in hopes of finding wider audiences. Here’s a cross-section of four.
For singer and radio host Celeigh Cardinal, the struggles that come with making non-pop/mainstream music have never been a surprise. “I never thought I would be a Lady Gaga type. I just never created that kind of music, so I didn’t have the expectation that I would be on commercial radio,” says Cardinal, whose sound ranges through soul, blues, and folk genres. “Most of my success is with Indigenous, community, and college radio stations. I think as an independent artist, having realistic expectations is a must.”
A self-proclaimed singing “diva” since the age of four, who’s performed music for 20 years, it was in 2011 when Cardinal released her first, self-titled EP, recorded in her partner’s kitchen. The release allowed her to tour, promote, and sell her music. Since, she’s released 2017’s Everything and Nothing at All, and 2019’s Stories from a Downtown Apartment.
Besides realistic expectations, Cardinal’s key to independent artistry is adaptability. “I’ve learned from my years playing bars to folk clubs [and] reading rooms, [to] constantly adapt to the crowd in front of me.” She’s taken those skills and transferred them to how she markets her music. It means knowing that a YouTube-er listening to her may utilize platforms in a very different way than one discovering her on Spotify. It’s also meant not assuming everyone consumes or finds her music online. Cardinal creates monthly newsletters for those who aren’t on social media at all. It’s been key in building a fanbase.
“It means extra work for me,” she says. “But it means that I’m actually really plugged in with the people listening to my music.”
Though music platforms are everywhere – promising unlimited access to listeners around the world – reaching audiences can still be a major challenge, explains Kiran Ahluwalia, especially since some outlets have notably narrowed their music focus.
“CBC radio has pretty much stopped playing any music that isn’t in English or French,” says Ahluwalia. “They used to have dedicated shows playing world music, and used to record live concerts. This [was] a great way for non-mainstream musicians to reach a national audience, but now it no longer exists.” And while CBC has diffused world beats into speciality channels, she says it’s only served to further niche sounds that are already struggling for wider attention. “They don’t have the same kind of national reach as radio itself,” she adds.
It’s particularly challenging for artists like Ahluwalia, whose music, such as 2018’s 7 Billion, resists easy genre labels. “Journalists and fans don’t know what to make of it until they actually listen to it,” she says. “And that’s the catch – sometimes they don’t listen to it until you call it something. I don’t do traditional Indian music, but I don’t do club/dance Indian music either, such as Bollywood. I write original songs in Hindustani and Punjabi, but I can’t call it singer-songwriter because I [have] an extended band – electric guitar, drums, tabla, bass ,and organ. I describe my music as modern Indian song, influenced by West African desert blues and jazz. But for most people that doesn’t generate an aural image.
“If someone says they do rock, or folk, or R&B, you get an idea of a sound. But since I’ve created a hybrid genre – taking my Indian roots and blending them with Western and global sounds, there’s no neat category. This makes it harder to sell, which brings about more challenges in marketing the music.” Though touring is where she makes the most income, community radio, a space not beholden to easy labels, remains a saving grace for Ahluwalia’s work. “I’m a big fan of community radio. It is definitely an important factor in getting my music out [there],” she says.
If not for Indigenous and community radio, many may not have discovered the deep, moving blues of Yellowknife’s Digawolf. Digawolf himself calls community radio essential for many Canadian musicians.
Releasing music since 2003’s solo project, Father, and currently touring his latest release, Yellowstone, Digawolf sound has been compared to those of Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits. He believes artists today must become business-savvy in order to make, and make a living from, their music. Particularly remotely located artists, who face extra hurdles – like weaker internet connections, less access to festivals, and expensive flights when travelling to shows.
“I think it’s really important as a musician [and] artist to diversify your income,” says Digawolf, explaining that touring and streaming are equally important. “To make it as a full-time artist [and] musician, no matter where you live, you have to understand where your money is. Finding those royalties, and making sure every song is properly registered, so you’re able to make a living.”
Singing in Tlicho and English, when asked if he was ever tempted to switch to a more mainstream sound, it’s a simple no. “I just write music,” says Digawolf. “If I like it, I like it. And that’s what I put out.”
When it comes to mixing up one’s musical style for the ever-coveted mainstream attention, it’s also a flat “no” for Mali-born, Montréal-based Mamoutou Dembélé, better known as EMDE (pronounced “EM-day”). “I compose [the] music that I play. I would not change it to fit in any mold or standards,” he says.
Playing music since he was a child, and professionally performing from the age of 13, in 2013 the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist released EMDE Djeliya, and then its 2017 follow-up, Dasio. Now working on his third release, EMDE says finding a musical home in Canada has been an admitted challenge, particularly for global beats.
“Performing and touring is how I sustain my career,” he says. “There are just a few radio stations that are playing world, African music. If you don’t get played, it becomes harder.”
Despite the challenges EMDE is finding success. In 2019, he became the winner of Montreal’s Festival International Nuits d’Afrique’s People’s Choice and The Syli d’Or prize. It’s bolstered his resolve. Today, he’s taking the steps to get his music onto streaming platforms, and searching for a label. He believes patience and perseverance are the tools that will help his music find a broader home. “[It] takes a major investment,” he says. “[And] that will come in time.”