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Canadian indie-rock musician Jason Collett has released his first album in six years, Head Full of Wonder.Jonah Atkins/Handout

The heyday of Canadian indie rock is over. Says who? Jason Collett, a man of standing in the genre.

“I’m a white guy of a certain vintage,” the 55-year-old singer-songwriter says. “The genre of music I’m a part of has occupied a lot of space over the years. But a lot of things are changing today, and probably for the better.”

There was a time when “it girls” and hip-kid indie-rock collectives from Canada were the darlings of the underground music press. When people bought records. When an upstart label from Toronto was touted as the “future of rock ‘n’ roll.” When an underground press thrived. When artists who weren’t white and male were largely ignored.

Those were the early 2000s – ancient history now.

Collett actually predates that boom, releasing three albums before his on-and-off association with the nascent indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene began in 2002. On his melodic new album, Head Full of Wonder, he’s sentimental about the scrappy times before the Scene and Leslie Feist (and the Arts & Crafts label they were signed to) broke big. Collett rhymes “milk and honey” with “we never made any money.” Well, if he and his middle-aged cohort are romantic about the cash-strapped days of yore, they’ll surely get a kick out of 2022.

Artists of all genres are struggling to make money on and off the road. Indie rockers in particular are out of favour and feeling the squeeze.

Sirius XM satellite radio recently dropped CBC Radio 3 (a digital home for indie pop and rock) from its platform. In its place: a new station devoted to hip hop and R&B. The Polaris Music Prize, once criticized for its infatuation with white, male indie-rock acts, has now awarded its annual award to BIPOC artists working in an eclectic variety of genres for nine consecutive years.

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Sage and soft-spoken, Collett is a respected figure among his peers. He met with The Globe and Mail recently at a downtown Toronto café near the Paradise Theatre, the venue where he has set up his annual Basement Revue salon of music and readings, held on each Thursday in December. Collett is seemingly ageless and enviably lean in his jeans, but with touches of grey gracing his temples and peeking out from his button-down shirt. Concerned that it is too late in the afternoon for coffee, he orders tea. Then, “No, I’ll have a beer.”

The man who grew up in the “Just say OV” era remembers when beverage decisions weren’t so complicated. And he remembers, on his wistful new song Silver Dollar Moon, those good times that now seem to be nearing an end: “Oh, and it’s come and gone so soon, even though we’re not quite through.”

Head Full of Wonder is his first album in six years. Clever and breezy tunes such as Silver Dollar Moon, Dark Times and Everyday Sunflower won’t land as loudly as they might have in the past. Like his indie-music contemporaries, Collett searches for relevancy. “The pendulum has swung, and I’m just trying to understand the times,” he explains. “If I’m going to put an album out, I want to feel it’s contributing something.”

It is important to point out that Collett is a part-time carpenter. He releases records and tours selectively. He sees the practices other musicians resort to in order to survive financially – party with the band for $5 a month – and wants no part of it. “I understand it, but that’s where I bow out.”

Collett was rejuvenated in 2017 by New Constellations, a 13-stop Canadian tour he helped organize that brought together Indigenous and non-Indigenous music and literary artists. The onstage buzz and backstage comradery was a revelation. “Art gets elevated because you’re allowing this injection of energy,” Collett says of the multicultural infusion.

The New Constellation tour was subsidized by the Canadian government’s 150th anniversary fund. Today, touring indie-music artists are struggling to make a profit on the road, even with government support that traditionally has privileged white artists. Costs are up for everyone; pandemic-caused show postponements wreak havoc on scheduling and bottom lines.

That the traditional ecosystem has collapsed is evident in sectors across the music business, including media coverage.

“Good rock journalism is gone,” Collett says. “It’s just a bunch of people yakking away.”

Collett was a member of Broken Social Scene for a number of years, and now, as a member emeritus, he has something of an open invitation to join up with the band. Because of family commitments, he will not be with the group when they play Toronto’s History club on Dec. 17. It is something of a mystery as to how the sprawling ensemble, which has eight members at least, makes money in today’s tight touring economy.

“Nobody knows how they do it,” Collett says.

With the indie-rock economy teetering on the edge, maybe somebody should find out the secret before it’s too late.

The Basement Revue takes place Dec.1, 8, 15, 22 and 29 at Toronto’s Paradise Theatre.

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