Making A Path for Canadian Hits In The U.S.

By Sean Ross

In the late summer of 2001, as a trade magazine editor, I was listening to Z103.5 (CIDC-FM) Toronto, a station I liked not only because I could keep up with Canadian dance records, but also international dance music not heard anywhere else. Soon after turning the station on, I called my former A&R boss, Cory Robbins, about a song they were playing. The song was the DJ Sammy version of “Heaven” and it finally gave me my “hit” as an A&R person, nearly a decade after a short-lived attempt at A&R.

In 2009, when I had made the transition to the research business, I called a client, Mike Kaplan, at The End (KNDD-FM) Seattle, about a song I had heard on Curve 94.3 (CHIQ-FM) Winnipeg. It was the perfect song for Curve 94.3, then doing a mix of CHR and Alternative. Soon thereafter, The End became the first American station to play “Help, I’m Alive” by Metric.

As with anybody in the business who loves music, a far greater number of my predictions vanish into the ether. It’s not that they’re ever proven wrong, per se. They just never get a chance to get their hearing and get any sustained exposure. Listeners never get the chance to vote in the first place.

I don’t do much music advocacy in Ross On Radio, the newsletter I write for the broadcast and music industries. But last week, I recommended four records to readers, the four Canadian songs which, nearly two weeks ago, were comprising four out of the top five positions on Canada’s Alternative chart, the fifth being Twenty One Pilots, “Heathens”—songs by July Talk, U.S.S., Arkells, and Sam Roberts Band.

As a fan of Canadian music and radio for more than forty years, I’ve always been bemused by the songs I know as hit records that few other Americans are even aware of. Why did “Crying Over You” by Platinum Blonde come out in the U.S. a year after it was a Canadian hit, without ever being really promoted to radio. Why did “Fine State of Affairs” by Burton Cummings never come out here when it was new?

Canadian artists and managers are not the only ones intimidated by the notion of cracking the American market. The failure of certain British artists to crack the charts here, whether Robbie Williams or R&B acts, was the stuff of convention panels and consumer press articles in the U.K. Then came Jay Sean and Taio Cruz. Then Adele. And what changed was not the way that American radio thought of British acts, it was, in most cases, that they were finally taught to think of British acts at all. The enemy, it turned out, was benign neglect.

If benign neglect doesn’t entirely explain those Canadian smashes that go unheard of in America, it explains a lot. And it’s not just Canadian music. It’s the reason that radio stations don’t play that song that was phenomenal online, or featured in the big movie last weekend, or sung on TV last night. Or certain hits from the U.K. or Australia. A lot of what gets played here comes down to:

Label Priorities – In the late ‘90s, a friend who did A&R for an American label—a boutique imprint that was part of one of the major behemoth labels—picked up a Canadian pop record that already had stories in both Buffalo and Detroit. The cost to the label was probably about $5,000. And that was the problem. There was a much-hyped major signing that had cost the label several million dollars, and all the time and energy had to go to recouping that investment. The priority artist went on to produce one successful album with a single radio hit—and one that you don’t hear on the radio today.

A few years later, around the time of Avril Lavigne, Canadian artists were on a tear in the U.S., and one of the frequently cited reasons was that many were direct signings. That shouldn’t have to be the case, but often it does seem difficult for a U.S. label to love an international pickup as if it was their own.

Radio’s Lack of Enterprise – It happens more rarely these days that programmers in any format go looking for their own hits beyond those things being aggressively worked to them by labels. Digging for the next hit even in a superstar album is less likely these days. And labels don’t usually want their marketing plan messed up anyway. In a different era, Taylor Swift’s “Welcome to New York” would have played like a single on New York’s pop stations, even if it never became one. But nobody in New York radio wanted to create a hit from whole cloth, even by the top artist in the format.

The Lack of Gateways – There are only two Canadian-licensed radio stations targeting large markets: Windsor’s 89X (CIMX-FM) and 93.9 The River (CIDR-FM). And I don’t doubt that any Canadian act highlighted there feels some activity in the Detroit market. As of last week, 89X was the only U.S. exposure for “Work Shoes” by U.S.S. But there is no current Top 40 reporter targeting the U.S., but regularly exposing Canadian product. If anybody has become today’s CKLW Windsor—the gateway for Canadian records to cross to the States in the ‘70s—it’s probably SiriusXM with its Canadian channels, judging by the following that Canadian indie rock has gained here as a genre.

The “Stigma” of Canadian Content – I have been inclined to dismiss this over the years as less damaging than some of the other issues that Canadian records deal with being signed or worked here. American programmers were barely aware of Cancon even 20 years ago during 89X’s heyday. And if it went away tomorrow, it is hardly a given that programmers would know and adjust their opinions accordingly.

That said, I was talking to a record rep about last week’s story and Cancon was the first thing that came up. So maybe the notion that even a hit record is “played by default” is sapping the enthusiasm with which American label people approach a project, long before PDs have a chance to dismiss a story.

Sean Ross
Sean Ross

A lot of the job here is demanding attention—both at the level and radio level. How that might happen is an essay unto itself. But there are four hit records that have the potential to significantly help Rock radio in the U.S. as much as Drake and the Weeknd have helped Urban and Rhythmic Top 40 radio here. The records in question are not esoterica that needs to find an audience, any audience. They are mainstream hits that are capable of reaching a wider audience. Without in any way minimizing the challenges, the first step is for labels, artists, and managers not to psyche themselves out.

Sean Ross is VP of music and programming at Edison Research, a programming consultant, and author of the Ross On Radio newsletter. Follow him and subscribe to his newsletter @rossonradio on Twitter.