Over a period of ten years, the M for Montréal festival has become a must-participate showcase for Montréal artists wanting to make it internationally. But beyond those four days in November, how do we export local music year-round? Where will the next Arcade Fire, Grimes, Coeur de Pirate or Half Moon Run come from? 

Sebastien Nasra

Sébastien Nasra, founder of M for Montreal. (Photo: Susan Moss)

In a recent edition of the British weekly New Musical Express, Luke Morgan Britton proposed a list of “Five Acts Spearheading the Canadian Music Scene Right Now”.  It comes as no surprise that his Top Five – which included Nicole Dollanganger, Charlotte Cardin, She Devils, Jazz Cartier and Dilly Dally – was exclusively made up of artists he’d just seen at the tenth edition of M for Montréal. Founded by Avalanche Productions’ Sébastien Nasra in collaboration with Martin Elbourne (of Glastonbury and Great Escape fame), M is a showcase for artists based in Montréal (and elsewhere in Canada), which invites journalists, concert promoters, festival bookers and record label representatives from around the world to spend a few days in what is arguably North America’s coolest city.

The number of contacts established between local artists and the rest of the world during those four days is incalculable. Besides the obvious success of acts like Grimes, Mac de Marco or Half Moon Run, who have all swooned delegates in the past decade, dozens of bands have signed official agreements, or simply built a solid Rolodex for the years to come. So much so that nowadays, M is an obligatory part of any local band’s strategy to conquer the world.

“I think that any artist who wants to make it internationally has to participate in a few key events,” says Sébastien Nasra. “Great Escape is one of those, and, of course, South by Southwest, and, humbly, I think M is now one of those.”

“Sometimes, it’s more profitable to invite a few record label execs to see your band in Montréal in front of a full house than doing some anonymous showcase at 2:00 in the afternoon during a huge international event”­ – Sandy Boutin

Kyria Kilakos

Kyria Kilakos, Indica

Kyria Kilakos, the general manager and artistic director of the Indica imprint (Half Moon Run, The Franklin Electric, Caracol), agrees, and also adds Canadian Music Week and Iceland Airwaves to her list of crucial events. “What Sébastien has been doing with M for 10 years now is amazing, but the fact of the matter is, you just can’t invite the whole world’s music industry to Montréal at once. It’s important to take the first steps and not expect a world tour to be handed to you on a silver platter.”

Regardless, Montréal’s location, which, according to the cliché, is halfway between Paris and New York, is a major advantage. Geography, however, can’t explain it all: it’s possible to be far from major centres and still be the centre of the music universe. To wit: the incredible success of the Festival de Musique émergente en Abitibi-Témiscamingue I rural Québec, an event that hosts a sizeable international delegation year after year.

Sandy Boutin, cofounder of the Festival de Musique émergente (FME) and head honcho of Simone Records, believes that the intimate aspect of his event allows artists to establish or reinforce their international contacts, but that trips abroad should not be neglected. “There are major events that will immediately give you a boost. The very fact of being selected for a major event such as the TransMusicales de Rennes or the Printemps de Bourges places you in a new category. But, honestly, if I had to choose between spending my money on exploring other territories of hosting people at the FME or M for Montreal, I would pick the second option. Sometimes, it’s more profitable to invite a few record label execs to see your band in Montréal in front of a full house, than doing some anonymous showcase at 2:00 in the afternoon during a huge international event.”

Sandy Boutin

Sandy Boutin, FME and Simone Records (Photo: Maryse Boyce)

But despite the increasing importance of that type of showcase event, you need more than a few showcases to launch your international career. Government subsidies for development and exportation are also an essential part of the process. This is what prompted Sébastien Nasra to organize a small think tank entitled “Francos à bord” (Francos on Board) during the last edition of his event. This committee was composed of delegates from all over the Francophonie and representatives from the various funding agencies.

Their conclusion? Without going as far as creating a Canadian or Québec musical export bureau – as is the case pretty much everywhere else in the world – the attendees agreed unanimously that an improved pooling of resources would benefit everyone. There was also talk of an improved reciprocity within the realm of the Francophonie and everyone agreed that actions should be better focused in order to avoid sending an artist out there alone to do one concert with no follow-up tour.

Kilakos and Boutin both admit that the existing programs, whether they are SODEC or Musicaction subsidies, are good at what they do. “The existing programs are sufficient,” says Kyria, “and I even think we’re lucky compared to other countries. But if I had only one suggestion for those agencies, it would be to invest in promotion as well. Sending artists abroad is nice and fine, but once they make it there, you need to make sure they’ll be seen!”

SOCAN Dinner

SOCAN-sponsored delegates’ dinner at M pour Montréal, on Nov. 18, 2015.

And no matter where you’re from, it’s never easy to break a new market. “Take Louis-Jean Cormier: we’re launching his second album in France in the spring,” says Boutin. “Yet, it’s not because he’s currently one of the most popular artists in Québec and that he garnered an immense critical acclaim with his band Karkwa that he’s automatically going to make it over there. You have to start from scratch every time, modestly and diligently, and, above all, you need to know the subtleties of the market you’re trying to break into, which requires having a solid network of contacts.”

The song remains the same at Indica where, despite having become experts in subsidy applications, they aren’t exactly the type to depend only on the government. True to its DIY punk roots, the label has always relied on live performances. “When we sign a band, we let them know right from that start that signing with us means touring a lot,” says Kilakos. “They must be willing to go out and win fans one by one, and that means a lot of time away from home.”

One way or another, to do this, the main resource is a solid network of partners. Whether you meet them at the FME, M for Montreal, or South by Southwest, local agents are the linchpin of ay international success. “Each market has its own challenges,” says Kilakos, who recently opened an Indica office in Australia. “Some genres are more successful in certain territories, and the locals know much better than you do when that’s the case!”

Which brings us back to the importance of showcases and festivals. Say what you want, even in our hyper-connected era, nothing beats meeting face to face. “Despite what some might think, the music industry is still a ‘people business’”, explains Kilakos. “We build business relationships over years and years, and people who started out as allies become friends. That’s how you open doors: with great tunes and great contacts.”

“How do I get in the game?”

Probably the most asked question I’ve ever received from fellow artists trying to make it into this heaven and hell we call “The Music Industry.”

But what is the game exactly? The game is the ever-turning roulette table at a casino, inhabited by egomaniacs and insecure men (and women) with a lot of money and power. Based on that description, why would one want to voluntarily enter into a relationship with these types of people? Because regardless of what actually drives those at the helm of the game, there’s a possibility that they can help you get closer to your dream of releasing your art to the public, in a BIG way.

“The game will change you.”

I’ve been spinning in the roulette wheel for many years and have found myself skipping over different slots that may end up being my final destination. Anything from chance interaction with my childhood musical heroes to full-on studio sessions and collaborations with the world’s most beautiful and talented people. The game entices the most strong willed… and if you play it right, it can provide for you and/or your family, while giving you the chance to get those words and melodies out of your head and into someone’s MP3 or streaming player.

Imagine knowing a 15-year-old Rihanna and being a part of her demo tape before she signs with Jay-Z two weeks later!? Imagine meeting Jay-Z for the first time six months later, and him bringing you onstage as his special guest in your home town?! Getting to know LL Cool J in a private back room of Phillipe’s, with Raekwon present, and LL telling you about the profound respect he has for founding CANADIAN hip-hop artists. Touring Australia with Pitbull, Sean Paul, Kelly Rowland, Akon and… man. The game can be the best thing in the world. It’s almost like finding yourself in the middle of a real-life movie where you are a co-star amongst the best actors (that happen to be musicians).

My advice to any artist seeking to “get into the game” is to make sure you take note of who you are before you enter. It will change you (anyone who says otherwise is a liar). The challenge is to let it change you for the better. Learn from it and take every obstacle as a lesson that you can springboard from to become more savvy, while you maneuver through the snakes and ladders.

How do you get in the game? Very carefully.

To quote Unison Benevolent Fund co-founder Jodie Ferneyhough, “It was something that had to happen.”

Although the idea has been operational for seven years, it’s only since May 2015 that the Unison Benevolent Fund – a non-profit, registered charity that provides counseling and emergency relief services to the Canadian music community – has been able to incorporate financial assistance into its mandate.

The delay had been a necessary one: in order to sustain themselves financially, Unison had a target amount of $1 million that needed to be raised in order to reach sustainability.

And although the Slaight Music Group and Music Canada ponied up $500,000 immediately to set the ball rolling, with later donations by The Canadian Music Publishers Association and other contributors swelling the charity coffers to $800,000, the final $200,000 took a number of years to realize.

“It was frustrating,” admits Catharine Saxberg, Unison co-founder and Chair, Board of Directors, “because Sheila Hamilton, our executive director, was quite frequently getting phone calls from people who were having a distressing financial emergency. To turn around and say, we weren’t fully operational yet was truly heartbreaking.”

Yet it was necessary. “We didn’t want to launch prematurely, help people for a limited amount of time, and then tell them we couldn’t help them,” adds Saxberg, who is also SOCAN’s Vice President, International Relations.

Prompted by the tragic motorcycle accident suffered by beloved Jacksoul singer-songwriter Haydain Neale, and later his passing from lung cancer, music publishing executives (at the time) Ferneyhough and Saxberg realized there was no safety net for the independent musical community and resolved to make a difference.

“This isn’t just for songwriters or musicians, this is for everyone in the music business.” – Jodie Ferneyhough

They sketched out the details on a napkin over an afternoon, and then set about the inordinately daunting task of organizing the details.

“It’s a lot of work,” says Ferneyhough, past-Chair of Unison’s Board of Directors (also a former member of the SOCAN Board of Directors).

“Getting people initially on board, getting people to buy into the concept, building the concept, finding enough money to do things like just set the company up, applying for charitable status, and finding the time to do it while we had our own jobs. Before we had executive director Sheila Hamilton on board, Catharine and I were the ones who were doing all the heavy lifting.”

Today, The Unison Benevolent Fund is fully functional, with only a few parameters set to ensure the right people qualify for funding – including SOCAN members.

“This isn’t just for songwriters or musicians,” says Ferneyhough. “This is for everyone in the music business, from the riggers to the roadies and everyone on down. All anybody has to do to take advantage of this is be in the music business. Our by-laws stipulate that you have to make the majority of your money, 55% of your income, from being in music, and that you’ve been doing it for at least two-and-a-half years.”

SOCAN members in need of assistance should visit the organization’s website and register.

“There are no fees, no dues,” says Ferneyhough. “Now we know who you are and God forbid, if something happens, all you have to do is call up and say, ‘I need assistance.’ That assistance is given discreetly and/or completely anonymously, depending on what kind of assistance you need, and Bob’s your uncle.”

Due to limited funding, the cap per applicant is set at $5,000 yearly. But just because they’re finally giving out money doesn’t mean that Unison doesn’t need more of it, especially donations.

“It’s an ongoing process,” notes Ferneyhough. “It’s a lot of continuing to reach out to the industry and asking [them] to be generous on their own behalf.”

So there will continue to be fundraisers to support the financial needs of Unison, and in turn, provide emotional and emergency economic relief to those in Canada’s music community.

“We’re extremely proud of Unison and incredibly grateful for the hard work, efforts and the contributions of so many people that have made it possible,” says Saxberg. “And we’re confident that with all that assistance, we’ve built something that will be sustainable.”