What are the biases that exist in the Canadian music-creation industry? What are the barriers to access for creators from underrepresented groups?
All music creators—whether they are just starting their careers or have fully established themselves—will inevitably face challenges from time to time. Black and Indigenous music creators contend with entrenched systemic barriers simply by virtue of the fact that they belong to a group that has traditionally been underrepresented. The same can be true for other groups as well, based on race, ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation, ability, age, class, or any form of marginalization. However, the level of systemic barriers and privilege experienced by individuals within these groups can be vastly different: a white person in any of these areas may have a very different experience than someone who is Black.
In light of events in our news cycle and a general societal reckoning concerning equity, many key players in the Canadian music-creation industry have begun the process of self-reflection—identifying the biases that have fuelled this long-practised discrimination, and the barriers to access that exist for marginalized creators—in an effort to actively dismantle them. And while the action taken so far to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) is reason for encouragement, there is still a very long way to go.
Many biases have endured for so long and become so deeply ingrained as to be systemically normalized. In the Canadian music-creation industry, certain vital and influential players (e.g., funding bodies) have generally favoured the development, promotion, and success of “white” music over works rooted in the music of other cultures and geographies.
In December 2020, the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) commissioned a report to explore the impact of COVID-19 on the music industry. It found that, even before the pandemic, “generally, it [was] difficult for [Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour] creators to access the music industry…. Underrepresented demographic groups often face additional barriers to discoverability and monetization of their work.”
In a review of CIMA’s report, NOW magazine notes that “systemic bias determines who gets access to grants and funds in Canada, who gets opportunities to play live and have their music heard and who gets past crucial gatekeepers. This pandemic has widened that divide, as emerging and already marginalized artists have been hit the hardest.”
Biases have also been observed in the hiring practices for many of the projects that involve music creators. From arts and entertainment organizations to production companies, the clients and licensees that engage creators are primarily owned, led, and staffed by white men. Additionally, when programmers, directors, producers, or creatives seeking leadership roles are hiring, they can be seen to search for candidates who are familiar. Hiring can become cyclical, leading to the mistaken belief that the pool of non-white and non-male creators is greatly limited.
A similar cycle can be observed in the composition of granting juries. When there is a lack of diverse representation on juries and application-review committees, it can result in a narrow view of what merits funding, often with successful grantees becoming members of the jury and selection-committee pool themselves.
One of the key findings in the Canadian Live Music Association’s 2022 report Closing the Gap is that “Access to funding was the most frequently identified barrier for Indigenous (45%), Black (53%), and people of colour (49%) respondents.”
The exception is when the music of certain non-white genres (e.g., blues, hip hop, and R&B) or cultural groups (e.g., Indigenous, South Asian, and East Asian music) is needed or desired for a project. In such instances, Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour creators are actively sought out, temporarily and for precarious professional experiences. These creators often end up being professionally pigeonholed and overlooked for opportunities that would allow them to demonstrate their range.
It is these sorts of systemic biases that result in inequitable access—to funding, sponsorship, discoverability, etc.—for artists from underrepresented communities who work in non-white music genres.
Fortunately, as mentioned, the industry seems to be finally opening its eyes—making its unconscious biases conscious—and actively pursuing DEI. What’s vital to the success of this endeavour, however, is the adoption of a sincere and holistic approach to inclusivity. Tokenistic appointments and hires are harmful in and of themselves. Instead, what is needed is an examination of all roles at all levels, identifying who’s not at the table, finding ways to bring in those who have been excluded, welcoming their voices equally, and offering meaningful, sustainable opportunities.
Biases can also contribute to credentialism in the music industry. Credentialism is “an ideology [that] puts formal educational credentials above other ways of understanding human potential and ability.” It is driven by the assumption that someone with an advanced education has more intelligence and skill than someone without, as opposed to interrogating barriers and access to said higher education.
Indigenous populations in particular can have generational barriers to higher education with a legacy of risk posed by Canada’s educational institutions of secondary and post-secondary schools. Contemporary settler narratives of devaluing Indigenous knowledge are discussed by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson in her 2011 book, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back. “I think for a long time in Canada and in North America, indigenous peoples have been positioned as not having knowledge,” she states. “Individually we’ve sort of been steroetyped as being stupid. We’ve been unknowing, we haven’t been a thinking people and that was very deliberate because that’s how colonialism and colonisation and now settler colonialism really operates. So really, it’s something that has a very personal impact—a way of erasing indigenous peoples from the land and erasing our intelligence and our presence.”
Because of Canada’s colonial history and the founding of its main institutions by white men (i.e., governmental, religious, cultural, educational, etc.), there is a concern that such biases have become generationally entrenched. The legacy of this harm can show up in the expectation that music creators who are trained in Western European genres have attended traditional academic institutions that grant degrees. As a result, this training is seen as being more valid and more valued than education associated with other genres.
Barriers to Access
Even when it is recognized that members of underrepresented groups are needed and asked to take a central “seat at the table,” there are still multiple systemics preventing them from taking that seat holistically and meaningfully. For many music creators, some of the barriers to access that are especially exasperating can include the following:
Educational & Informational
Before someone can work toward becoming a professional music creator, they have to know that the career path is a viable option for them. And many members of underrepresented and marginalized communities don’t work toward this career, simply because they’ve not been told—or seen much evidence—that it is indeed open to them.
Ideally, educating future creators about the opportunities that await them starts in elementary school and continues through high school, so interested students know they can actually pursue music creation as a viable career path, with post-secondary education being just one of many subsequent routes available to them. Music faculties at colleges and universities can help their students to identify the type of music creation that interests them, and equip them with the specialized knowledge they need to succeed.
There are equally valid practices in African, African diasporic, and Indigenous cultures that observe “informal” generational knowledge-sharing and gate-keeping with great value. In its National Indigenous Music Impact Study, APTN found that “Only 16% of artists reported receiving formal music education at a music school and only 9% reported learning about the business of music in college, university or music school.” One respondent stated: “I get more value from touring and working with other people on different projects. Can’t go to school for that.”
Along the way, engaging diverse, established creators as an early intervention demonstrates access, networking, and possibilities for all. This embodies the principle of “If you can see it, you can be it.” However, it should be done in a manner that’s organic and not exploitative, harmful, or tokenistic.
Ultimately, the industry needs to interrogate practices around how and where to engage community. A lot of today’s work around equity can be a double burden to Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour music creators. The industry must do its part to show up and adapt to communities, to learn and to unlearn, and to champion the mentorship programs, funding sources, networking events, and other professional-development opportunities that can help creators from underrepresented communities to advance.
Oftentimes, where music creators live and where professional resources are located aren’t the same places. And while much of the work that creators do is independent, meeting and cultivating relationships with the people who will offer them that work sometimes requires in-person, face-to-face interaction.
If a creator isn’t located close to a thriving creative community, some Canadian funding bodies offer travel grants to creators to attend specific industry events—like festivals, conferences, awards ceremonies, or songwriting camps—for career-related reasons.
Further, the changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic have increased the opportunities to work and network remotely. Music creators can more easily form connections with their fellow creators and other industry professionals remotely via meaningful online events, social media groups, and video conferencing.
Geographical restrictions aren’t the only barriers that prevent music creators from networking with others, however. For creators who are neurodiverse, or have a physical disability or social anxiety disorder, navigating large groups of people in often inaccessible venues can be frustrating and deeply uncomfortable. Further, these events are frequently held in bars or other places where alcohol is served, which can pose a problem for creators who have a substance-use disorder.
In an effort to address these obstacles, some groups and organizations have started to alter when and where their organized networking takes place. For example, some hold “walk and talk” events in accessible outdoor spaces, or meet in the early morning for chats over breakfast or coffee. Others offer online options based on the virtual accommodation adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The upfront costs associated with becoming a professional music creator (e.g., to buy gear and produce promotional materials) may not be as sizable as they once were, but they can still be prohibitive for many people who don’t come from wealth or privilege.
And since creators are almost always independent contractors and, thus, don’t receive regular paycheques, they either need to assume a fair amount of ongoing financial risk or work multiple jobs to make ends meet. This is a barrier and puts them at a significant disadvantage compared to creators who have access to a fiscal safety net and can devote their full time to practising their craft and running their business.
While a limited number of grants and awards exist to give underrepresented music creators some financial support, a financial barrier may obstruct many entry points. In fact, some granting bodies repeatedly fund specific types of projects and not others.
Most of the people on application-review committees or juries, if they aren’t themselves members of underrepresented groups, may not understand the projects proposed or relate to the personal stories shared by applicants who are. It’s only by ensuring diversity in the groups of people who comprise these funding bodies that a diversity of applicants will receive the grants and awards.
Fortunately, headway is being made in this regard. The collection and analysis of data related to the demographics of the recipients (e.g., race, gender identity, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.) is helping to making grant allocation more equitable. This process can objectively identify who recipients are and, therefore, allow funders to apply their equity practices through their funding.
Not all barriers are externally constructed. First-generation music creators face cyclical opposition from their families. There can be intergenerational, cultural tension around the safety, viability, or respectability of music creation as a career path. And the assumption that it’s not a “real job” is usually linked to the fact that successful creators who are themselves members of these cultural groups are not generally visible. Counteracting this misconception requires raising the profiles of established creators from these communities in every possible way.