Just For Laughs and SiriusXM Canada are upsetting some Canadian comedians over the programming choices on the satellite station Just for Laughs Canada. Stop us if you have heard this one before.
It was in 2019 that SiriusXM announced the channel would begin featuring recordings from past Just For Laughs festivals and events that featured comics from around the world. Previously the station relied exclusively on homegrown content culled from independent Canadian comedy albums. The shift alarmed the country’s stand-ups and sketch comedians, who heavily depend on royalties when their material is played on the channel.
After Canadian comedians made their concerns public, SiriusXM and the Montreal-based comedy-festival company reversed its decision and committed to 100 per cent Canadian content that was independent of the Just For Laughs back catalogue.
Recently, however, JFL started its own comedy label, JFL Originals, which uses new live material from up-and-coming Canadian comics recorded by JFL at venues across the country and in Los Angeles and New York. The fresh JFL content on Just For Laughs Canada has displaced some of the independently recorded tracks that previously ran in regular rotation.
“All conversations I’ve had with colleagues indicate a drop of about 90 per cent in earnings from play on the station,” says comedian Simon Rakoff.
Those numbers do not add up, according to SiriusXM, which maintains that the majority of content currently played on Just For Laughs Canada still comes from independent artists and labels, not from JFL Originals. The station points out that all five albums nominated for the Juno Awards top comedy album of 2023 are played in heavy rotation on the channel and were produced by other labels or independently.
“Our job, on all our channels, is to make sure that we bring the best, newest and most relevant content we can to ensure we gain subscribers and retain our existing subscribers,” says SiriusXM president and CEO Mark Redmond. “No artist, whether it is a comedian or a musician, should be dependent upon us or any other platform for their sole income.”
The fact is, for many comedians the royalties from Just For Laughs Canada are a lifeline. Comedians do not receive the same government grants that go to, say, musicians. And subsisting on live gigs alone is hardly an option.
“Club comedy is a very tough way of making a living in Canada,” says Steve Patterson, the long-time host of the CBC Radio comedy show The Debaters. “There are just not enough clubs to support that.”
In addition to performing at local venues or in the country-wide chain of Yuk Yuk’s clubs, Canadian comedians annually look forward to JFL festivals in Vancouver, Toronto and the biggest one in Montreal, which kicked off this weekend and runs to July 29. (JFL festivals also take place in Sydney, London and Bermuda.)
The country’s comics have long grumbled about the taxpayer-supported not-for-profit festivals that often spotlight imported talent. Among the international headliners at this year’s Montreal edition (which receives money from the federal and Quebec governments) are Eddie Izzard, Leslie Jones, Chris Redd, Ali Wong and Marlon Wayans, in addition to Canadians such as Russell Peters and Mae Martin. Seattle-born actor Rainn Wilson (of The Office fame) will receive a Comedy Impact Award and give a keynote address.
“Just For Laughs receives government funding, and then when you get to the festivals, the marketing is always around American and international talent,” says Sandra Battaglini, a comic who founded the Canadian Association of Stand-up Comedians in 2018. “The worry is, what’s going to happen to independent Canadian comedy?”
Established in 1983, Just For Laughs Montreal is the largest international comedy festival in the world. JFL president Bruce Hills pushes back on the criticism that the organization does not do enough to support homegrown funny.
“I believe our commitment is significant,” he says. ”We spend an enormous amount of time travelling the country looking for every Canadian comic we believe can be booked at one of our festivals.”
The JFL travel budget covers the recording of the lesser-known Canadian comics on the JFL Originals record label. The multicomic albums are taped not only at JFL festivals but venues such as the Capitol Music Club in Saskatoon, the Punch Lines Comedy Club in Saint John, N.B., and the Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse.
The JFL Original tracks are not exclusive to Just For Laughs Canada – they can be found on streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music as well. Nor do they receive preferential play on Just For Laughs Canada, according to SiriusXM, which has a marketing relationship with JFL but solely owns and operates the channel.
“We take content from JFL Originals and from independent labels to ensure we have a good mix,” says Redmond. “We’ve given Canadian comics exposure, and we want to continue to do that.”
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