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Winnipeg singer Alexa Dirks, known professionally as Begonia.Leeor Wild/Handout

At Lee’s Palace in Toronto on Saturday, Winnipeg singer Alexa Dirks took to the stage looking every bit a star. And she would have been even without the ankle-high platform shoes that could have been on loan from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (either the Stevie Nicks or Elton John wing). Every inch up helps an emerging artist, especially one with no major label push behind her, as is the case of Dirks, who trades under the name Begonia. Big of voice, with a colourful, electric charisma, she’s the kind of performer whose rise would seem to be undeniable. But, then, being denied, isn’t that what being an artist in the music business is all about?

Begonia coincidentally arrived to Toronto during Indie Week, an annual event of shows and conferences dedicated to independent acts and artists. This year’s thrust was education: how to promote one’s music, how to distribute it and how to monetize it in the age of streaming. The first conference was on “supporting your dream career.”

Watching Begonia on stage, one might have seen her as living the dream. In 2017, upon the strength of her EP Lady in Mind, National Public Radio in the United States named her one of the 10 Canadian artists one needs to know. More recently she released Fear, a dazzling debut album of modern soul-pop, with boldly delivered lyrics about insecurity. At Lee’s Palace, she sang the title track, an intense groove-heavy declaration of unease and the “fear of harnessing power, fear of screaming too loud, fear of wasting an hour, fear of never getting it together, fear of being lazy.”

As she sang, Begonia often flicked her wrists, as if waving away trivialities in favour of the music coming through her. There’s a brashness to her, and yet her lyrics testify to her vulnerability. “Don’t wanna drown,” she admitted. When the song came to an end, an adoring crowd applauded wildly. Begonia smiled – this must be the fantasy realized that everyone talks about.

But there’s a telling line in Fear: “I’m wearing two paper hats and calling them crowns.” Begonia and emerging artists like her aren’t living the dream, they’re living an illusion. Streaming royalties barely pay for the food Begonia poignantly referenced on Hot Dog Stand. And even though the room at Lee’s Palace was full, the math doesn’t work out in her favour.

The venue’s capacity is 550. The promoter sold tickets for $20. Though we’re looking at $11,000 coming in, there’s so much going out. The opening band (Toronto’s Fast Romantics) must be paid. Begonia brought in a pair of backup singers for the show – money well spent in my opinion, but still money spent. Begonia’s three bandmates (keys, drums and bass) aren’t working for free. Tour expenses add up. Guestlist tickets cut into revenue. A publicist is on retainer. Et cetera, ad nauseam.

There was a time when the big record labels would support a Begonia. Those days are over; the trimmed-down majors are less in the artist-development business now. The severe drop in physical album sales has resulted in the fall of the middle-class musician. Online algorithms might place Begonia in the category of Feist or Bahamas, both successful Canadian artists who have realized the white-picket-fence goal. They are the exception, though.

The crowd at Lee’s was enthralled, deep into Begonia’s easygoing sway. The singer said she appreciated the reaction. “I’m going to put it in my back pocket for the next time I need it,” said Begonia, whose pockets probably aren’t stuffed otherwise. "Is this what I’ve been dreaming?' she sang on the 2017 song Juniper. “Getting closer but not quite.”

Indie Week conferences on the same weekend as Begonia’s show concerned social media, music licensing and marketing campaigns. One discussion was simply titled Finding the Money. On her concert-closing Out of My Head, Begonia sang, “I’m placing bets, I’m writing cheques, to keep on living.” Consider her performance and her young career a master class in paying costs.

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