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How the Junos need to change to better represent the Canadian music industry

On an early February morning, musician Amy Millan sent four simple tweets, all in a row, containing just the word “Dudes” and a picture. Each picture was of a Juno nomination category announced moments before – Album, Artist, Dance Recording, and Rap Recording of the year – and, as you might have guessed, each category was entirely, or almost entirely, composed of dudes.

Millan, who’s won a Juno with Broken Social Scene and has four nominations as a solo artist and with the band Stars, went on, posting a fifth tweet, “#junossomale,” riffing off the recent #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. Then a final pair of tweets further establishing the trend. To Millan, it was less digital diatribe than casual observance, the kind of tweetstorm we all make when we’re briefly angry at something on the Internet, then get back to real life. But she wasn’t the only person asking why there were so few women; she just started the hashtag the discussion centred around.

Amy Millan of the band Stars sparked an online discussion around gender imbalance in the Juno Awards with #junossomale. (Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella)

Only 32 per cent of this year’s nominees include women, just like last year. Thanks, perhaps, to the hashtag, the gender imbalance has become a central point in the public narrative around this year’s Juno Awards. But Millan, like many women in the industry, knows it’ll take more time and effort than a few tweets to fix the disparity. “I don’t think if a hashtag comes out, it gets a lot of clicks, and in three weeks it’s solved,” she said in an interview.

Leadership at the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which has run the Junos since 1975, insists the Juno Awards are simply reflective of the broader Canadian music community, since the academy members and judges that submit and nominate artists for consideration come from the community itself.

That doesn’t make the problems go away for the Juno Awards, which take place in Calgary this weekend and is one of Canada’s most celebrated awards broadcasts. It just begs bigger questions. Namely: What do the Juno nominations tell us about the industry behind Canadian music, and just how fractured is that industry in 2016?

In wide-ranging interviews with CARAS leadership and numerous Canadian music-makers, The Globe and Mail found that, in spite of CARAS’s best efforts, the Juno Awards don’t really reflect what’s happening on the ground in Canada. That’s not to say that any award show can accurately reflect a whole country. But the digital centralization of public discourse – and decentralization of music distribution – shows the Junos have some catching up to do.

“They want to do positive things for the music industry in this country,” Millan says. But she doesn’t think that means accepting the status quo: “I don’t think that we should be afraid of the conversation.”

Canadian Alessia Cara was among the artists ruling the highest reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015.

Something Big

Canadian artists commanded unprecedented swagger on the world stage in 2015, with Justin Bieber, Alessia Cara, The Weeknd, Drake and Shawn Mendes ruling the highest reaches of the Billboard Hot 100. But they also won over ears on their home turf, too. Hidden in the news that album sales in Canada were falling and streaming was rising was the fact that five of the top 10 best-selling artists in Canada were Canadian themselves – a rate we haven’t seen since 2006.

Those five artists – mostly men – were also among the top Juno nominees this year, at least in part because the Junos’ biggest categories weigh sales and digital consumption metrics, such as streaming, into determining nominees. “To think they should not be nominated, or that there was a lack of females – when Alessia Cara had this breakout, she was right there with them – it’s such a non-story, in a way,” says Allan Reid, president and chief executive of both CARAS and the awards.

Nominees from nine different categories are partially determined by what’s most consumed – sales are joined by streaming numbers this year for the first time, as Canadian data have become easier to gather. These are generally “popular” categories, including Single, Artist and Group of the Year. Nominees for some of those awards weigh in votes from CARAS members, too – the artists and music-industry types who also vote on the winners in popular categories.

Carly Rae Jepsen was widely celebrated in 2015, but not with listeners’ wallets. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images)

We’re sitting in the CARAS boardroom, in its distinctly unshowy loft-style office in downtown Toronto. I ask Reid and his colleagues why sales and consumption are so important, since artistry isn’t always dictated by dollars, even in pop music. Acclaimed pop albums by Grimes and Carly Rae Jepsen – women who were widely celebrated in 2015, but not with listeners’ wallets – have already come up in conversation.

“Because the nature of pop is that it’s popular, the sales component, the consumption component, needs to be part of that award,” Reid says. “It’s how pop is consumed. It’s a popular category.”

You only have to look back a few years to see the Junos have put women at the forefront before: Celine Dion has 20 awards; Alanis Morissette has 14, including an induction to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame last year; Shania Twain has 13. And in her nearly five-decade career, Anne Murray has the most wins of all time, with 24.

Reid is careful to point out that “we are simply a reflection of what’s happening in the industry. What gets submitted to us is what ultimately gets nominated.”

If that is the case then the Junos can teach us something about how the industry works in 2016.

Head Over Feet

The Junos eliminated male and female-specific categories years ago because, Reid says, “an artist is an artist.” Is this year an anomaly? CARAS provided The Globe and Mail with a gender breakdown of nominees for the past seven years. At the low end, both this year and last, 32 per cent of nominees were women. At the highest, in 2013, 41 per cent of the 210 nominees were or included women.

Women, in other words, are almost always underrepresented among Juno nominations. The numbers just happen to be even worse the past couple of years. And if you were to parse by gender the members of every group nominated, the total percentage of women nominated would almost certainly be much lower.

Sure, world-class nominees in the popular categories have sales to thank for that, at least partially. But the vast majority of 41 awards, including technical ones, are determined completely by expert “judges” from that field recruited by CARAS. And that, especially, is where women including Millan see Junos’ community-reflection logic breaking down.

Canadian singer-songwriter Grimes, second from right, lamented the lack of women nominated in fields such as engineering. (Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Only one woman, jazz artist Emilie-Claire Barlow, is nominated for the Jack Richardson Producer of the Year category. No women are nominated in the engineering field. Grimes, who wrote, produced and engineered the critically acclaimed 2015 album Art Angels, pointed out the huge lack of women in these and other fields in a series of since-deleted tweets. She was not seeking attention for herself – and the album, released last November, will qualify again next year thanks to a 14-1/2-month-long eligibility period – but she rightfully lamented the absence of producers such as Ebony (WondaGurl) Oshunrinde, whose production résumé includes names such as Jay-Z, Drake and Young Thug.

Reid called both Millan and Grimes after seeing their tweets. The Junos chief executive remembers both conversations going well; Millan, while happy he called, remembers being astonished by some of Reid’s “talking points.”

“One of the things he did say is ‘Maybe women don’t want to be producers,’ which I think is the wrong launching point,” Millan says. “There are women producers; there are female engineers. I think part of it is they aren’t getting the jobs. … This isn’t about whether women want to be producers – it’s about whether there are opportunities for them.”

Annelise Noronha is a Toronto producer, engineer and composer who’s worked with artists such as James Brown and Jennifer Lopez and who’s run mixing workshops for women and transgendered people. She believes more women and less-represented groups would enter music engineering and production with more focused education coupled with mentoring programs that provide validation and encouragement. With that, she says, “we can empower them to follow through” and build careers in the industry.

Vienna-based Canadian Caitlin Smith, who’s produced several big-band jazz records, often finds herself the only woman in the control room. “The Junos have a responsibility to reach out,” Smith says. “Because if there is a systemic problem, as a large institution they have an obligation to be activist on this issue.”

Barlow is less surprised about being a female nominee in a technical category than she is about the fact the nomination was for jazz songs. Discrimination, she points out, also crosses genre lines – and in multiple ways. “The Vocal Jazz category has been almost entirely women,” she said in an interview. As a producer, she’s never encountered problems as a woman, and wonders if, simply, women aren’t attracted to technical jobs. “Not all jobs in every industry are always represented by gender.”

But if women don’t see themselves represented in a category, might they be less likely to consider that as a career, keeping genres such as rock and the fields of recording and producing as a boys’ club?

It certainly is one. San Francisco’s Women’s Audio Mission has found that women make up less than 5 per cent of producers. And for the Canadian team behind the documentary Play Your Gender, the Junos just shone a light on long-established facts. Director Stephanie Clattenburg points out that CARAS’s 15-member board of directors has only two women present. And she’s even more curious about the judging panels that select the less-popular nominees and winners.

“That’s when you can start digging deeper,” she says. “Who are on these panels? Is it diverse? It should be, not only with gender, but diverse in many ways. … So many people don’t see themselves reflected up there. And then where do you belong?”

Kaytranada’s song At All was disqualified from the Dance Recording category. (The Canadian Press)

The Beginning After the End

Gender disparity is not the only reason this year’s Juno cycle has people in the music community feeling left out. After the producer Kaytranada’s song At All was disqualified from the Dance Recording category – the panel of judges who deemed it worthy of a nomination didn’t catch that it came out in 2013 then was pulled down to clear a sample – the artist declared the Canadian music industry “out of touch.”

The quote comes across as a sore-loser sound bite, but there’s a nugget of truth: If they deemed the song worthy, how did the Juno’s hand-picked panel of “experts” not already know about it, or at least check timestamps on the first page of Google?

Allan Reid says the panel simply went with what Kaytranada’s label, Ultra Music, provided – the release date after the sample was cleared. He called the producer’s manager, Will Robillard Cole, to apologize, and extended him an olive branch, too: Would he like to be a future judge?

“I would be honoured to work with them. But at the same time, I don’t know if it’s worth putting my time into,” Cole says. “I do have respect for the awards, and I have a lot of respect for Allan, but I don’t agree with how they’re running things.”

It’s artists such as Kaytranada and leaders such as Cole that should have the industry on its toes right now. Together, they’ve taken Kaytranada from a few hundred SoundCloud followers to a much-hyped forthcoming debut on XL Recordings and to venues the size of Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, capable of hosting major-label artists such as Lights and Pusha T. They did this without the support of the existing Canadian music infrastructure, partially because they didn’t know much about it, but mostly because in 2016, artists simply don’t need that infrastructure.

CARAS leadership insists it is simply a reflection of the music industry, but here is the thing: That industry is more fractured than ever. Artists no longer need bankrolling from major labels to establish success. The Internet is now the hand that feeds. “We’re not really paying attention to any infrastructure that’s been in place, and I think that’s what made us successful,” Cole says. “I like to say I bend the industry, not let the industry bend my artists.”

If the Junos reflect its voting body, it’s not clear if the voting body still reflects Canadian music. Women make up only 42 per cent of the 1,441 voting academy members. Non-artist staff from the three major labels have 95 CARAS members each, versus a total of 120 members from all participating indie labels.

Not a single act featuring a woman was put forward by a band or label for the Rock Album of the Year category, CARAS says. That’s certainly not to say women didn’t make rock albums. U.S. Girls and Diemonds put out strong rock-oriented albums, for example, but were slotted to the Alternative and Heavy Metal categories. But other strong female-fronted records, including Toronto-based Dilly Dally’s grungy, punky LP Sore, appear nowhere, despite critical acclaim around the world.

That’s because their label, Buzz Records, didn’t submit any of its bands for consideration this year. “Buzz operates in a different music industry than the Junos,” says label co-founder Ian Chai. The digital democratization of distribution lets Buzz operate on its own terms. “That’s not to say our worlds never intersect, but right now we have different goals and different masters than they do.”

CARAS’s goal, Reid says, “is to give everybody the best opportunity to be heard. … It’s never about trying to hold people back – it’s always about, how do we help? How do we keep moving this industry forward?”

Maybe that means reaching out to artists on the ground more proactively. Even Millan, a stalwart of Canadian music for a decade and a half, wasn’t a member of CARAS until her call with Reid. If established musicians aren’t even taking part in Juno decision-making, do the Junos truly reflect Canada’s presence in the music world? No matter who wins during Saturday’s awards banquet and Sunday’s broadcast, the lack of women present will be the first indication that something is amiss.

There’s certainly, however, an eagerness to change things. “I think creating environments for women to influence younger girls is something that’s going to be a passion of mine for the next 10 years,” Millan says. “Whether it’s for running your own business, or in the music industry, or the technology industry, there’s a lot of work to be done.”

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