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Old 01-10-2010, 12:01 PM   #1
Join Date: May 2000
Posts: 15,624
Default Music helps define Canadians

EntertainmentHome Arts/Life Entertainment Music helps define Canadians
Posted 1 day ago

As we all cry in our collective beers about our junior hockey team just missing the gold medal, we can take some comfort that hockey isn't the only thing that defines our elusive national identity.

Many cultures define themselves with their music, and we can, too. It is difficult in a country like ours, diverse as it is, yet we have managed to build a very robust music industry here.

This column is about collecting artifacts of the music business, mostly records. The way the hobby of collecting Canadian records has grown and developed reflects the way our music has done the same.

Records have been manufactured in Canada right from the beginning of the last century, but there was very little recording done here so, to some collectors, early Canadian records are just inferior copies of the U.S. or European originals.

You might find interest if the Canadian company issued an alternate take of a jazz recording or if they used a label design not found elsewhere, but recorded Canadian music was virtually non-existent.

Later, RCA built studios in Toronto and Montreal. They recorded jingles, a few bands like Mart Kenny and a lot of great fiddle players.

There was talent here; Hank Snow made some records in Montreal in 1936 but soon left for the U.S.A., because that's what you had to do to earn a living in music.

One country star, Wilf Carter, made many records here and remained proudly Canadian although he very cannily recorded in the U.S. as Montana Slim. His 78 RPM records are highly collectable today.

In the post-war period, a new type of Canadian record company emerged. A lot of small, independent labels had sprung up in the U.S. They produced many hits that were heard on radio here, but these labels did not have a distribution network here, so large Canadian companies like Quality and Reo and smaller ones like Barrel and Zirkon made arrangements with as many U.S. labels as they could for Canadian distribution rights.

It was a great business model but not very creative. These companies hardly ever recorded or released Canadian material. Talented Canadian artists still had to go south to make a career. Canadian records from this period are collected mostly by Canadians and mostly for nostalgic reasons; these are the labels they remember as kids. Most U.S. collectors dismiss them as cheap knock-offs, however Europeans take a different view. They consider them original American issues on a different label, so there is a market for them outside Canada.

I think these records, for better or worse, reflect the Canadian psyche of the time. These companies followed a safe, predictable plan.

They simply manufactured and distributed product, letting others take all the risks. However, besides the label design, there is a distinct difference between a Canadian and U.S. pressing of the same recording.

One difference is the physical material. In the highly competitive

U.S. market, companies often melted down unsold records to re-use the vinyl, which adversely affected the playing surface. Canadian companies only used virgin vinyl, no lumps.

Later, many U.S. companies abandoned vinyl altogether and went for a cheaper plastic called styrene. Styrene had a harder surface and sounded great for the first few plays but wore out very quickly. No Canadian company ever used styrene.

Finally, there was the sound. U.S. companies liked to push the volume and boost the bass and treble to give the record a "hot" sound. That also caused a lot of distortion.

Canadian companies kept everything within limits; the records didn't "jump off the turntable" quite as much, but to discerning ears, the sound quality is better and many collectors, even in the U.S., collect them for that reason alone.

So, just like Canadian banks in the great recession of 2009, Canadian records from the 1960s are valued for not taking too many risks.

Quality Records did take one risk by recording an unknown band from Winnipeg called Chad Allen and The Expressions. Even then, they didn't think a Canadian band would sell so when they distributed the promo copies to radio stations, they put a big question mark on the label with the words Guess Who? hoping programmers would think it was The Beatles.

That first Guess Who record,Shakin' All Over,is now worth a fortune and for many people it marks the beginning of the Canadian music industry.

For a lot of reasons, the pop music business exploded all over the world in the late 1960s, but probably more so in Canada. Recording studios sprung up like dandelions in spring; all of a sudden we had hundreds, even thousands of artists making music here and on the international stage.

Orillia played a big part in that explosion. Besides giving the world Gordon Lightfoot, there was Danny Harrison, lead singer of the Count Victors who had many hits in the early 1960s.

The Pav dance hall at Couchiching Beach Park played host to almost every Canadian rock band of the era, including the Guess Who. Local favourite Bobby (Blue) Branch made a fine record on his own label. It was a crazy time for Canadian music.

Demographics played a big part. Baby boomers were coming of age and those same boomers are behind the thriving collectors' market for Canadian records made in the late '60s and early '70s. Quite frankly, a lot of them are pretty bad, but that doesn't matter. They were made here by Canadians; it's our sound.

Today, Canadian music stars have a disproportionately high presence internationally. What's more, musicians can, if they chose, have a good career living and working only in Canada. We also have musicians coming from all over the world to live here, giving us a thriving "world music" scene. Name just about any style of music and you'll find first-class Canadian musicians performing and recording it right here.

If you doubt that, just check out CBC Radio 2 (90.7 FM in Orillia). Despite all the criticism, they do showcase a lot of Canadian popular music, and it's pretty darn good.

Makes me think we should have a Canadian Music Festival here in Orillia with all kinds of music from classical to native drumming, pan pipes to hip-hop. Make it a true festival, with a free stage in the park and paid admission shows all over town.

Let's face it, every city has a jazz and blues festival, but a celebration of Canadian music would be unique and this is the place to have it: at Couchiching Park in the empty lot across from the water treatment plant where the Pav used to be.

Lorne VanSinclair is organizer of the Toronto Musical Collectables Show & Sale, Canada's largest record collectors' event. Email him at or follow "record_shows" on Twitter.
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