When The Tragically Hip vocalist Gord Downie announced in May that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, the news hit Canada like the ice storm of 1998.
While the running joke is that Bryan Adams is Canada’s crappier version of Bruce Springsteen, Downie is likely the better fit for that role (minus the crappiness). The Hip’s sound—which mixes rugged, bluesy rock ’n’ roll with sentimental ballads—has the same rough-hewn, heart-on-sleeve folksiness as The Boss, though the lyrics are more opaque and the instrumentation less bombastic. Think of a bar band with aspirations of being Margaret Atwood and you’re in the ballpark. To lose Downie, it seemed, would be to lose Canada’s unofficial poet laureate, a man who spun tales of ice hockey and Toronto nights into sweeping portraits of a magical snow-swept land.
Of course, the story was picked up by every news outlet in the country. It even managed to generate its own scandal, as scalpers began profiting off Downie’s illness. In the U.S., the response was more muted. While the music press ran stories, it wasn’t exactly making it into the evening news (at least, until the eve of the final concert, when a bevy of Canadian writers managed to infiltrate everything from Slate to The New Yorker). It isn’t a coincidence that the band’s farewell tour featured no American dates.
When that tour reached its final date in The Hip’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, the audience included not just thousands of fans in the arena (including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), but the entire country: a commercial and commentary-free broadcast on the CBC was watched by almost one-third of all Canadians. In my hometown of Montreal, a crowd of thousands gathered to witness Downie’s last few hours on stage at a local street festival which projected the show onto a big screen. We applauded and cheered for a band hundreds of kilometers away and got teary-eyed while singing along to classics like “Nautical Disaster,” “Little Bones,” and “Grace, Too.”
It’s to be expected for a group who are unironically referred to as “Canada’s band”—rare is the July 1 Canada Day without a prominent Tragically Hip concert somewhere within our borders. We tell ourselves that Americans just never “got” The Hip—the band’s lone Saturday Night Live appearance came at the insistence of devout Canuck Dan Aykroyd, not from any audience demand. The band has sold respectably in the States—it’s charted eight albums on the Billboard 200, but only one of them, 1990’s Up To Here, stayed on for more than a week. That pales in comparison to in Canada, where the band has sold 6 million copies over the course of its career.
As Hip superfan Dave Kaufman phrased it in a recent article for the National Post, “For generations of Canadians, they have become the soundtrack to our lives, and for those lucky enough to have seen their concerts—often in the humid summers of a land otherwise made for winter—they have become an attraction bigger than those on any roadside. They have become a part of our landscape, an experience in what it means to be Canadian.” (Note: Dave Kaufman is a friend of the author.)
It’s a nice, romantic view of the band, and one that’s shared with the many other Canadian rockers that never made it in the States, from Mahogany Rush to Kim Mitchell to Sloan to Marianas Trench. “You idiots,” our collective Canadian consciousness is sighing. “Sure, there’s references to Bobby Orr galore, but how awesome are these songs? Don’t you realize what you’re missing out on?”
Unfortunately, like many romantic views, it’s a bit of a fiction. It’s not that they grew up with the Queen on their money and a conspicuous absence of blue on their country’s red and white flag that kept The Tragically Hip back in the USA. Nor is it the case for Hedley, Sam Roberts, I Mother Earth, Classified, The Tea Party, or Fefe Dobson. It’s a matter of two countries with two very different music industry infrastructures that in some ways make it easier to stay and have a career in the North with success in the U.S., despite its vastly larger market, not being given that much weight.
“It doesn’t fucking matter that The Hip had limited success in the U.S.,” wrote music journalist and broadcaster Alan Cross in the days after Downie’s diagnosis went public. “There’s only one reason why things didn’t work out: bad record contracts. It had nothing to do with the band being ‘too Canadian’ or the inadequacy of their music.”
The first thing to consider is that Canada—vast as it is—is relatively tiny population wise. Andrew King, the editor of several music industry magazines like Canadian Musician, likens Canada’s spread-out population of 35 million to regions of the United States like South California or the Pacific Northwest. “Even for something to be huge in Canada from coast to coast like Hedley or Marianas Trench and can sell out a hockey barn in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver, that’s basically akin to a band doing really well in one small market of the United States,” he says.
In essence, it’s easier to dominate a niche market than a gigantic one. That’s especially the case when radio and television outlets are largely owned by just a few corporate entities. Companies like Bell Media and the government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have national reach—get in with them, and your music can be heard around the country. That kind of exposure is simply not possible in the States.
Speaking of broadcast, Canada’s small size has inspired certain measures that protect our artists’ chances of making a living. Canadian content laws ensure a hefty portion of what goes out on our airwaves is locally made. This works well when it benefits a band like The Dears or Metric, but yes, it does ensure we have all been exposed to a lot of Theory Of A Deadman.
“A lot of Canadian bands do benefit from CanCon laws so that right away is a leg up that a lot of musicians have here,” said Jason Rockman, frontman for long-running hard rock band Slaves On Dope and a DJ on Montreal’s CHOM 97.7. “Plus, they also have the luxury of being very, very heavily funded and supported by the government with grants.”
All this to say, sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to risk everything. Rockman’s band is a bit of an exception—after kicking around Canada for much of the ’90s, it made the (illegal) move to L.A., living out of a one-bedroom apartment and parking cars to make ends meet until getting an American record deal. Lots of acts find it more comfortable to stay in a more hospitable environment rather than risk it all for the brass ring. “Our industries are built in such different ways,” says King. “In Canada, I think there’s much more of a low but wide bell curve and in the States you just have a way taller peak but it’s way narrower.”
That’s not to say it’s an either-or situation. Sam Roberts might be pop-rock king of Eastern Canada, but he can still play to crowds at the Troubadour in L.A. The Hip isn’t exactly unknown in the U.S. One manager who works with several high-level Canadian acts said the entire question of why some bands can’t crack the States is a false premise.
“The Hip always seem to be the poster boys for this topic on the Canadian side. Yet, they sell out so many big music venues all over the U.S.,” he says. “Their level of success in the U.S. is bigger than most signed U.S. bands have in the U.S. Just because it’s less than at home, it’s perceived as total failure. But how many bands can do as well as the Hip from NYC to Vegas, playing 1,200 to 5,000 cap venues? Not that many. So, it’s actually a success story that is skewed as failure.”
It occurs to me that this is a terrible time to be talking about the failure of Canadian acts to bust through in the America. The biggest stars of the past decade in hip-hop, pop, indie, and hard rock have all hailed from various parts of Canada (that’s Drake, Justin Bieber, Arcade Fire, and yes, Nickelback and no, we are not done apologizing for the latter. Sorry again). That’s not even counting more minor stars like Avril Lavigne and Sum 41 or older stars that decimated charts like Céline Dion and Shania Twain.
You can credit some of that success to the world shrinking with online distribution or a willingness to push for global icon status rather than a nice living. Or maybe these are just the catchiest artists we can send you. But that’s a long way away from being the best and it’s still frustrating that when one of us makes it, it’s not the right one. It’s like when we see Bernie Sanders and think how awesome a prime minister he would be. You took Chad Kroeger instead of The Tea Party. Drake over Shad or K-os. Bieber over… well, he’s pretty good at what he does. And he covers The Tragically Hip, so we’ll leave him alone.
But the U.S. is still missing out. Canada’s better, weirder acts will continue to go from sea to shining sea, surviving off grants and the loonies we spend on their albums, merch, and concert tickets. But the next time you’re blasting The Weeknd’s next big single, remember: There is other music, not so far away from you, that is achingly, beautifully, untragically hip.