The relatively small 33 million population of Canada, the world’s second-largest country in terms of land mass, makes it nearly impossible for its musicians to maintain careers based on domestic support alone.
While international touring for leftfield artists was once considered an anomaly, the global success of Canucks such as Broken Social Scene and Arcade Fire has opened the floodgates for a seemingly endless supply of top-notch underground talent hailing from the great white north.
Looking to take advantage of the spike in interest in its nation’s musical output, the Canadian Independent Record Production Association (CIRPA) is hosting its second annual Asian Trade Mission in Tokyo from Nov. 10 to 14, featuring live shows as well as some serious schmoozing.
“Japan is a $5 billion prerecorded music market of which 25 percent is international,” explains CIRPA president and CEO Duncan McKie. “Most commerce is still legitimate and there is little piracy, so there’s a strong potential for export.”
2007′s inaugural events proved to be a lucrative endeavor, generating $1.4 million in new business and 91 deals for Canadian music companies. The upcoming mission will feature 19 imprints and industry-related businesses and nine bands, with participants selected from a list of online applications by a panel of label execs, managers and event organizers.
“This year we will be introducing some new companies to Japan, and some will return to reinforce relationships made last time around,” says McKie. “We expect these relationships will pay off for a long time in the future, so we aren’t looking for just ‘one-off’ successes. For that reason, if we do fewer deals directly, but establish more ties with Japanese companies, we will also be pleased.”
CIRPA and the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo are also presenting a showcase gig for the general public dubbed Canadian Blast, which will feature the reggae-tinged pop sounds of Bedouin Soundclash, Patrick Watson’s ethereal chamber-pop, Woodhands’ eclectic electropop grooves and Clash-inspired rockers Saint Alvia. The concert follows the embassy-sponsored Canada Wet in 2005 (Broken Social Scene, The Dears, Stars, Death From Above 1979, Metric) and 2007′s Canadian Rock and Rule (The New Pornographers, Bedouin Soundclash, Jason Collett, Amy Millan).
Woodhands will be promoting their debut disc, this summer’s “Heart Attack,” which is currently only available in Japan as an import. When told that some over-zealous music lovers waited several hours inside an Osaka hotel to get autographs from lovelorn, orchestral pop act Stars during Canada Wet, Dan Werb, one half of the hard-partying duo, admits he has no qualms about taking full advantage of Japan’s unparalleled level of fandom.
“I think we are ready to be treated like superstars,” he says. “The only question is how we’ll adapt when we go back to the cold Canadian winter and temperament. We are working on a list of exorbitant demands but we can’t really talk about it in print. Let’s just say that it involves multiple fans, six pounds of butter and an otter.”
The self-titled debut from the far humbler Saint Alvia was released domestically in October by Pony Canyon. Guitarist Greg Taylor is half-Japanese and has family located throughout Kanagawa Prefecture, making their role in the trade mission extra special for him.
“Our sights are purely focused on Japan right now,” says Taylor. “We’d really like to become more than a band that visits once a year; we’d love to be able to come and play and hang out more often.”
Taylor and Werb have differing opinions on the overview of their peers that Canadian Blast will provide concertgoers.
“I think the showcase will be a good representation of the Canadian scene, but as with any scene, Canadian music is diverse, and you are really only just getting the tip of the iceberg,” says Taylor.
Werb counters, “I don’t think the showcase represents the underground scene, considering that Bedouin Soundclash are international superstars and Patrick Watson won the Polaris Music Prize for the best album in Canada last year. We’re probably closer to the underground scene, but you can’t keep a Woodhands party quiet for too long.”
A combination of government grants and bursaries, along with funding from different music-industry organizations, is helping all involved offset the high costs of taking part in the upcoming events. Although Canada is quite good about providing financial assistance to musicians (CIRPA says the federal government will likely give around 20 million Canadian dollars this year, and provincial governments also offer support), the government recently cut PromArt, a program that helped send artists abroad to promote Canadian culture, potentially presenting an extra hurdle to launching future trade missions.
“It was short-sighted to cancel the program without reviewing its effectiveness with the industry,” offers Neill Dixon, president of Canada’s largest international trade convention, Canadian Music Week. “Any funding cuts to artists and companies that are at a development stage and that are export-ready will hurt their chances of competing on a world stage.”
But CIRPA’s McKie is confident that the strength of the still-burgeoning Canadian scene will ensure that quality product will continue to be exposed. Hell, if you can make it through a tour in the Canadian winter, everything else is basically a breeze, right?
“Canadian bands are in demand,” McKie states firmly. “And one way or another we’ll get them to the marketplace.”
Canadian Blast featuring Bedouin Soundclash, Saint Alvia, Patrick Watson and Woodhands is on Nov. 12 at Duo Music Exchange, Tokyo (6:30 p.m.; ¥5,900;  5459-8716; www.creativeman.co.jp).