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  • Sincop8ed Noize Foundation

Indigenous Music & Industry In Canada Today

by Robert Flis / June 25, 2021

The Sincop8ed Noize Foundation is pleased to kick off a brand new season of Rockalypse Music Workshops. As our first workshop host, we were pleased to welcome an award-winning journalist and promoter of indigenous talent within the Canadian music industry, Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais. Shaneen joined us to talk about the rich history of indigenous music in Canada and provide insights into the industry for up-and-coming Indigenous artists.

As someone who spent many years working in broadcasting and radio, Shaneen has a strong connection to Canada’s indigenous music community and a deep understanding of its history. “Indigenous people are natural storytellers and a lot of that comes out through art, particularly music,” explains Shaneen. This music has been able to reach wider audiences thanks to indigenous trailblazers like Buffy Sainte-Marie and Elaine Bomberry who carved their own path in the industry. Years ago, these women approached the Juno awards and encouraged them to include an indigenous category. It has recently been announced that the indigenous music category at the Junos will be split into 2 new categories: traditional and contemporary. There has been debate as to whether there should be separate categories for indigenous artists, but Shaneen believes that it’s important to put indigenous talent on a pedestal so that it can be properly recognized as the significant part of our national heritage.

Indigenous Music Today

Having started out as a young professional being introduced to the world of radio and broadcasting, Shaneen recalls that there was not always enough support for Indigenous artists. “As Indigenous artists we have unique needs, unique ways of performing, unique ways of writing, unique ways of showing our art through music,” she says. The Indigenous music landscape in Canada is vastly different today with a multitude of resources available to Indigenous artists at all stages of their careers. The Indigenous Music Development Program is a great example and Shaneen currently serves as its Development Coordinator. The IMPD at Manitoba Music offers services like music business workshops, career consulting, showcases and much more to people in the Indigenous community in Manitoba.

Other events showcasing Indigenous talent today include the International Indigenous Music Summit which is a global event dedicated to the Indigenous music community. The Aboriginal People’s Television Network also put together a report called the National Indigenous Music Impact Study which details the significant impact and influence that Indigenous music has on the Canadian music industry. This in turn led to the development of Red Music Rising, an Indigenous owned-and-operated music company dedicated to amplifying the voices of Indigenous artists in Canada. Finally, the Indigenous Music Awards formerly known as the Aboriginal Peoples Choice Music Awards, part of the Manito Ahbee Festival, is a long-running annual event that has recently transitioned online and celebrates the achievements of Indigenous people in Canada.

Radio has also been a huge promoter of Indigenous music across the country. Many remote communities have their own stations that play and promote local music, creating a rich cultural tapestry across the country. In the early 70s, a community came together to create a station of their own in Thompson Manitoba, becoming the main radio station for many listeners. Now operating out of Winnipeg, NCI FM (Native Communications Inc.) is a hub for Indigenous music in the country and has extended into satellite radio, with the Sirius XM station The Indigiverse.

None of these things would have been made possible without the major players within Canada’s Indigenous music scene, namely Buffy Sainte-Marie , Elaine Bomberry, Murray Porter, Crystal Shawanda, Jace Martin and others who have put themselves on the map as examples for others to follow.

Grants & Funding

As with many developing artists within the music industry, grants and funding are a crucial part of being able to give life to your projects. In Canada, FACTOR is the number one source of funding for developing artists but securing funding for projects is no easy task. “It’s really hard to get funding, but keep trying,” says Shaneen. “People get so frustrated but it’s the number one thing I tell my artists. If you need help, get help from a grant writer. Or, if you’re a really good writer just put your heart and soul into it. Don’t do the ‘copy and paste’ kind of grants and funding applications. Tell them who you are, personalize your applications, that’s something that I would highly recommend. And if you are really good at it, help other artists!”

Relatively few Indigenous people apply for grants and funding because it can be so difficult and frustrating, according to Shaneen. As an industry professional, she has been communicating with FACTOR and Canada Council For The Arts to make sure they reach out to people who need the money most. Marty Ballentyne from CCFTA is a Cree person from Saskatchewan and a great industry professional who Shaneen recommends getting in touch with if you’re an Indigenous person looking for tips on grants and funding. She also recommends looking out for provincial funding opportunities in your home province. “Do some research into provincial and municipal funding,” she says. “Reach out to your local MLAs and City Councils to find out what’s available for you. There is money out there that people sometimes don’t know about!”

Touring & Booking

Finding a booking agent is a primary goal for many musicians, but Shaneen emphasizes the importance of knowing the ins and outs of the music business as an artist, regardless of what level you’re at. “If you know that information for yourself, then no one can take advantage of you,” she says. This includes everything from what funding is available to rights and royalties. With services like Spotify and Apple music, many artists are not making much money from the spins they are getting, so knowing everything you’re entitled to is crucial if you want to maximize the profit you’re able to generate from your music.

As far as shows and touring is concerned, Shaneen recommends getting to know the festival schedules. Certain festivals book off certain dates every year. By knowing which festivals within your genre are happening when, you can better prepare a tour around those dates and locations, filling in holes in your calendar with smaller shows. If you’re having someone book for you, make sure they are trustworthy and also look out for opportunities yourself. Don’t leave things entirely in the hands of someone else. “You have to be that engaged artist that is taking control of your career,” says Shaneen.

Whether you’re playing big or small gigs, Shaneen strongly emphasizes the importance of knowing your audience. Effectively communicating with your audience and showing who you are without letting ego get in the way will serve you well in the long term.

Marketing & Branding

In this day and age, most artists recognize the importance of effectively marketing yourself and your music. Shaneen approaches marketing and branding as a way to set yourself apart from the norm. “As far as Indigenous people go, we are different as it is,” she says. Leveraging those differences and showcasing them in a unique way is key to standing out and attracting people to your music.

Photography is also especially important to Shaneen. “One photograph can tell people who you are,” she explains. Putting together a press kit is essential for applying to festivals and having a selection of photos of various sizes is a key element. She also recommends writing a short, medium and long bio for use in different applications. Having some cool and different merch available to shows is another great way to get people’s attention. Any opportunity to do things a bit differently will help artists stand out from the pack. Above all, Shaneen stresses the importance of being consistent with your branding, with who you are and how you portray yourself.

Radio & Satellite Radio

It may seem like it goes without saying to some, but Shaneen emphasizes that the key to getting your music on radio is a high-quality recording. If you do have a great recording, then there are several good options for getting your music heard on both terrestrial and satellite radio. Shaneen recommends sending submissions to Dave McLeod at NCI FM as well as Sarah Burke at Sirius XM Indigiverse.

There are also several major Indigenous award shows, music conferences and showcases across the country, including the International Indigenous Music Summit and Summer Solstice Indigenous Music Awards. Being strategic with release timing can help put artists in better positions for consideration of awards and showcases, so find out when submissions are accepted and line up your releases accordingly.

Shaneen’s main message to Indigenous musicians at all levels is that learning as much as you can about the industry is the best way to develop and move forward. There are more resources available than most artists realize and spending the time to learn how the industry works is the most valuable investment that you can make in your career as an artist.


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