After two decades and a turn to sobriety, Séan McCann took a good look at his life in the music industry. He wanted a change.
It had been a good living for a while. As a founding member of Great Big Sea, Mr. McCann spent nearly half his life playing and touring with friends. But the road's familiar rhythm belied the shifting world around them. People weren't buying records as much, and some years, making payroll for the band's support staff – let alone the members themselves – could be a tenuous feat.
The Newfoundland-born singer-songwriter had gone sober, too, making tours soaked in the old black rum less enticing. He also wanted to play by his own rules, performing different styles of music and in smaller rooms. In 2013, he announced he'd leave the band at the end of that year's tour.
Then he started over, alone.
Mr. McCann has retooled his music career for the 21st century. He has brought new meaning to going solo: He is his own manager, booking agent and sound technician. Stripped of the support system of a major-label band, but determined not to give up a career in music, Mr. McCann took a new tack. He became an entrepreneur.
"Right now, the cash flow allows for me and a guitar," he says. "No tech, no roadies, no agents. That's what I can sustain financially. And I love it."
Even for artists who want to break into the major-label mainstream, an entrepreneurial mindset is the price of admission, says Dave Kusek, who founded the Berklee College of Music's online program and now oversees New Artist Model, a digital music-business school.
"Labels and publishers are generally not making investments in anything that isn't already proven," he says.
"You need to be able to find your audience, you need to be able to communicate with that audience and build it."
Mr. McCann grew up in Newfoundland's Gull Island and later St. John's, where he began playing music with Alan Doyle, Bob Hallett and Darrell Power.
In the shadow of the cod fishery collapse, "the economics were bleak," Mr. McCann recalls. Even as university graduates, "we were functionally unemployable," he says with a laugh. The quartet began performing as Great Big Sea in 1993.
The band signed to Warner Music in the industry's cash-flush 1990s and released a bevy of bestsellers including the quadruple-platinum album Up and triple-platinum Play. Their pop-rock take on East Coast traditional music made them darlings on the Canadian scene, and they flooded radio and MuchMusic with songs such as When I'm Up (I Can't Get Down), Ordinary Day and Consequence Free.
But recorded music has undergone a remarkable change since Napster sunk the business's sales-centric model in the early days of this century. While streaming-music services have introduced year-over-year industry revenue growth for the first time in nearly two decades, the continuing decline in sales of CDs and downloads has radically reshaped income streams for musicians, in many cases forcing them to depend more heavily on concerts.
Touring helped sustain Great Big Sea through the early part of this decade, but complications arose, Mr. McCann says. After coming to terms with being an alcoholic, he went sober in 2011; following that, playing in one of Canada's biggest party bands became difficult.
"Every night for us was Saturday night on tour. And going to work, our rider was extensive: a bottle of Scotch, four bottles of wine, 48 beers. That's our daily allowance, with 10 dudes on a bus."
Sobriety, too, made touring life seem stale and unsustainable. "Our setlist hadn't changed in 15 years, and I couldn't drink enough to continue doing it." He decided to reel it in.
He'd been writing songs that didn't quite fit Great Big Sea's optimism, in some cases confronting his drinking and the reasons behind it – including sexual abuse by a priest as a teenager. As he wound down his time in the band, he took dozens of songs to his friend Joel Plaskett. The Halifax musician and producer sifted a solo album, 2014's Help Your Self, from the pile.
"He's got an edginess about him, where he wants to stir the pot," says Mr. Plaskett, who also produced Mr. McCann's follow-up, You Know I Love You. "He wanted to push into something more independent, and without rules."
Walking away from the life and money of Great Big Sea was "brave," says Mr. Plaskett, who himself runs his career like a small business, with a studio, record store and various touring band configurations. "He's taken what was a large business and took a small, independent approach. ... It becomes about being accessible to your audience, and doing unique things, so the people who care about you can connect with you."
In 2015, Mr. McCann and his family made another crucial decision: They moved to Ottawa. Newfoundland might offer hundreds of kilometres of highway, he says, "but there's only three gigs." (His wife also likes the inland weather better.) In Ontario, Mr. McCann can travel alone by car, visiting two or three new cities or towns for concerts each weekend.
He books the gigs himself, eschewing the cost of an agent. For as much guff as he's gotten for leaving the East Coast, it has allowed him to build a fresh, growing audience for his solo work.
This is the kind of entrepreneurial groundwork that all bands need to do to sustain themselves, says Mr. Kusek. While Mr. McCann has an existing reputation through Great Big Sea, younger bands need to hustle like this to sustain their work – and doubly so if they lack the financial backing of a record company.
"It's like in the venture world," Mr. Kusek says. "Labels are the Series B and C money. You've gotta find your angels and Series A."
Mr. McCann doesn't want to dip back into big business anytime soon. He's seen it all, and, at least for now, he doesn't mind the change. He's seeing fans – and a whole new side of the country – close up.
"I realized that I'd been all over Ontario a million times, but in the middle of the night, asleep on a tour bus," he says. "I don't ever wanna get on a tour bus again."
Séan McCann plays Toronto on Oct. 28, and London, Ont. on Oct. 30.