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L.A. Beat

A brief history of Canadian music

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This week we celebrated Canada's 143rd birthday. Thanks to my involvement with a spectacular CKXU radio celebration, I did a lot of thinking this week about Canadian musicians. That thinking led to doing a little digging; finding out if our country truly has its own 'Canadian music' identity; trying to see what sets us apart and makes our music so special.

This was not an easy task. Thankfully, there have been certain organizations holding it all together almost since the very beginning.  Now that I have done some research, here is the history of music in Canada. I hope you find it as interesting as I did.

The earliest Canadian music was here before the French settlers were. Aboriginal drumming, multi-part vocalization, Inuit throat singing and songs that would last for days were noted in some of the earliest settler' journal entries. Then along came the French settlers, who brought their fiddles and dancing, teaching Aboriginal children to sing and play violin, guitars, flutes and trumpets as far back as the 1630's.  

By the turn of the century, original music was being composed in Canada's earliest colonies and settlements. While many traditional songs and dances were transmitted from village to village and down through generations, very little of it was transcribed or written down, and a great deal of it has been lost forever. By 1770, regular operatic and chamber music concerts had become part of Canada's cultural landscape. By 1800, Bach and Mozart's classical fare was being performed in Halifax and Quebec City.

Through the early 1800's, music publishing and printing was a thriving industry in Europe, but written reproductions of music were still predominantly reserved for a privileged, upper class minority in Canada. Most Canadian composers and musicians were making a living by leading choirs, playing organs in churches, teaching music lessons to students and children or playing in regimental military bands.

Fiddlers were still a fixture in most public drinking establishments. The accordion and harmonica had been introduced, and barn dances and inspired jamboree sessions were not uncommon — our earliest folk music. Soon ensembles of musicians were playing around the country, performing waltzes and polkas for adoring, dancing audiences. Mass immigration during the 1840s and 1850s, largely from Ireland, England and Scotland, considerably broadened the Canadian musical culture. Since many of them lived in relative isolation, many of their original folk songs can still be heard today in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia.  

By 1835, sheet music had begun being included in newspapers and magazines — the only media sources in operation, and in 1844, Canada's first music store opened in Toronto selling pianos and publishing sheet music. By the time the Constitution Act was signed in 1867, songwriting had become a favored means of expression. Most middle-class families now owned a piano, and standard school education included at least a rudimentary introduction to music and songwriting. By the 1870's, Canada had several conservatories open to the public, leading to greater opportunities for individuals to 'officially' learn music. Original Canadian operas were becoming popular by 1880; and by 1900, there were more than 40 piano manufacturers operating across the then-still fully developed nation.

By 1910, Canadians were purchasing their own gramophones, the precursor to our modern day record player. They were purchasing works made by American and British singers, but many international hits would soon be created by Canadian musicians; published as sheet music and distributed far and wide. Then came the First World War which was a catalyst for the writing and recording of many patriotic Canadian songs.

Canada's first independent record label (the Compo Company) built a huge pressing plant in 1918 in Quebec, originally intended to create and distribute records in Canada for American record companies. By 1920, Canada's first AM radio stations had appeared, and our first commercial FM radio station and first French-language station were close behind. By 1923, Canada had 34 active radio stations, and with them came the spread of all things jazz.

Throughout the late 20's and 30's, while Canada was suffering through the great depression; Canadians were listening to swing music, dancing the jive, the jitterbug and the lindy hop. Canada's first 'star' was born during this period as well, a man named Guy Lombardo, who performed big band jazz music with this brothers and friends as The Royal Canadians. Country music was also beginning to appear more frequently.

In 1925, the Canadian Performing Rights Society was formed. CPRS, as it was known for 20 years, was a body created by private agreements that, under Canada's new Copyright Act, collected royalty payments from various individuals and groups for copyright holders. They had the authority to license works and would enter into agreements with the copyright owners to represent their best interests when dealing with all potential licensees.

Essentially, the owner of the right must authorize any use of his or her work. CPRS would collect fees from those who made public or broadcast use of music (by this point including radio and TV stations, concert halls, theatres and cinemas) and re-distribute to those individuals whose music had been utilized publicly. By this period, over a million Canadian households featured radios, and so Parliament had passed the first Broadcasting Act and created a commission regulate all broadcasting over the new national public radio network. By 1936, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) had formed; still a big power broker in the Canadian musical landscape today.

Canadian popular music continued to enjoyed considerable success at home and abroad in the years following the great depression, including Montreal's jazz legend Oscar Peterson - considered one of the greatest pianists of all time. A Canadian musician named Hank Snow had signed with a major label in 1936. Snow would go on to become one of America's most influential country music superstars throughout the 40's through 60's.

Then in 1930, an American performing rights society called ASCAP came knocking, buying up partial ownership of the CPRS, and by 1945 the CPRS had became known as CAPAC;  the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association of Canada, with a head office in Toronto. Beyond that function, CAPAC produced Canada's first official bilingual music magazine and would provide support to composers and artists in terms of financial scholarships, event booking and promotions.  CAPAC founded a non-profit, non-governmental musical library and information centre in 1959 that provides archive services, instruction and direction to musicians with questions on how to proceed. CAPAC also provided financial aid to the Canadian Music Council, a committee formed in response to the need to coordinate musical activities within an ever-growing country and an ever-shrinking world. A second similar committee was formed to deal solely with classical and concert performance.

During the Second World War period, which saw a devastating decline in new Canadian musical offerings, one Canadian opera singer managed to become an international sensation. Portia White achieved international acclaim with her powerful contralto range and charming stage presence. An African-Canadian, Portia's popularity helped to open hearts and minds to the acceptance of talented women in Canada's music scene. 

The 1950's saw the acceptance  of mainstream 'rock and roll', and by 1958 we had two groundbreaking Canadian icons - teen idol Paul Anka - who became the first Canadian to have a number one hit single on the US Billboard chart - and Ronnie Hawkins, a key player in the formation of a Canadian blues and rockabilly scenes.

By the 1960's however, most Canadian recording artists felt pressured to look to the United States when establishing long-lasting careers. Notable icons Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell would never have become household Canadian names, were it not for their relentless touring and marketing of themselves throughout the whole Woodstock/Vietnam/protest counterculture movements.

In 1963, CAPAC joined forces with the Canadian Association of Broadcasters with the sole aim of promoting Canadian music. Funds were set aside annually for this committee, that would distribute it through grants meant to assist with recording costs. Once recorded, this newest Canadian material would appear commercially on all the major labels - finally able to compete on a world stage in terms of distribution. With this complete, the Canadian government passed Canadian content (CANCON) legislation; effectively forcing all AM radio stations to devote 30 per cent of their airtime to Canadian musicians. At the time, this legislation was incredibly controversial, and to a certain extent is still is today — though the abundance of FM and satellite stations now make it seem quite antiquated. Thanks to the CANCON legislation and introduction of FM stations, Canadian groups like Rush were noticed; as their songs had previously been considered too long for AM radio stipulations. Rush have gone to become one of the best selling ensemble acts in history, placing only behind The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Aerosmith in terms of most consecutive gold and platinum album sales.

In 1987 a series of formal negotiations began between CAPAC and PRO Canada (a performing rights organization) to discuss merging the two organizations together.

While the former had been dealing with recordings, copyright protection and music promotion; the latter group (originally known as BMI Canada) had been working with Canadian composers and songwriters towards collecting royalties from albums sold in foreign countries, a service that had been previously unavailable. PRO Canada had also been behind many music workshops, competitions, awards and promotion of the national music community as a whole. PRO had been a subtle but steady influence that eventually opened doors for the creation of Canada's Juno Awards in 1970, Christian and Gospel Music awards in 1974 (Covenants), Country Music Awards in 1976 (CCMAs), French music awards in 1979 (Felix) and Toronto-based CASBY awards in 1984. The CASBYs have since been replaced by the more national Polaris prizes; still in recognition of independent and 'alternative' musicians. At the time of the subsequent merger in 1990, CAPAC was administering the performing rights of works performed in Canada on behalf of more than 21,000 Canadian members and hundreds of thousands of members of 36 affiliated foreign societies. In return, the foreign societies administered the rights of Canadian works performed in their countries.

Wholly controlled by its Canadian members, CAPAC had a board of 16 directors elected annually by the membership. The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, or SOCAN, was the name given to the combined performing rights society that formed three years later; incorporating in 1990. SOCAN was reorganized with new sets of principles and distribution rules, election procedures and bylaws.

By the 1990's, the changing 'fast-paced' culture of modern Canada saw an explosion of youthful activity. Music critics in newspapers and magazines were common, with publications popping up devoted to all styles of music. Thanks to the formation of Much Music and French counterpart Musique-Plus in the mid-80's, now all Canadian musicians had outlets to promote their music across the nation. Not only did these television networks show music videos by Canadian artists, they also created VideoFACT and FACTOR, fund to help emerging new musicians produce new videos and record studio albums. Bryan Adams, Celine Dion and Shania Twain all benefited greatly from the music video world; and Canadian hip-hop music garnered mainstream acceptance.

Of course, the early 90's also saw vinyl records and cassette tapes be replaced by CDs, which were cheaper to manufacture; and which have now been replaced themselves by digital and Internet sales. Thanks to the Internet, Canadian musicians today have direct access to the world; thereby essentially bypassing the need for some 'old-fashioned' record labels and the large franchise 'record stores'.

While Canada's music industry has suffered dramatically because of the internet, Canada's musical landscape has never been more widespread and pronounced - particularly for independent and up and coming artists. New agreements impose high taxes on blank CDs and portable memory sticks as a result; and by 2010, the Canadian government had introduced new (albeit complicated and arguably ineffective) copyright legislation and laws; in an attempt to combat file-sharing and internet piracy issues.

This week we are celebrating Canada's 143rd birthday - and many of these institutions are still in effect. Canadian radio stations must play 35 per cent Canadian content each month; and FACTOR and VideoFact grants are still available for up and coming artists. The CBC has branched out everywhere, now including television, radio, websites with streaming audio; and their own CBC record label.  If you are a Canadian songwriter, composer, lyricist or music publisher, joining SOCAN as a member allows you to get compensation for public performances of your music worldwide. The SOCAN website currently attests to collecting licence fees and distributing license fees on the behalf of more than 90,000 composers, authors and music publishers by licensing the use of their music in Canada.

You can listen to dozens of these artists, watch webcasts and read regular interviews with some of your favourite Canadian performers, right there on the site. Resources are available teaching about up-to-date copyright law in Canada, with links to music industry and funding associations, music schools and more.

As a music lover, I could not believe I had never known more about any of this. I could not believe there were these vast and incredible resources right in front of me that had gone completely untapped. While I still may not know exactly what it is that makes Canadian music different, this history lesson confirms what it is that makes Canadian music valuable.  Without this history, we would have no The Weakerthans, no Hot Hot Heat and no Tegan and Sara. We would have no Nickelback, no Billy Talent and no K'naan. Without 143 years of history, I would not be such a music lover.  So happy birthday Canada, and thanks for all your great opportunities.

For more information about SOCAN visit:
For more information about the CBC visit:
For more information about FACTOR and VideoFACT visit:
For more information about CANCON visit: Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission

— By Chris Hibbard, Music Lover, Special to L.A. Beat
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