Recording Angels: The Multinationals May Be Cutting Back, but Canadian Independents Remain Vital Contributors to the Vocal Scene

By Phillips, Rick | Opera Canada, March-April 2007 | Go to article overview

Recording Angels: The Multinationals May Be Cutting Back, but Canadian Independents Remain Vital Contributors to the Vocal Scene


Phillips, Rick, Opera Canada


The business of recording music has always been fickle. Profits, the bottom line, trends, fads, changes in demographics and technology all contribute to make it an unpredictable business that can change virtually overnight. But surprisingly, the Canadian business of recording classical music, and especially vocal music, seems to be surviving and developing.

In this age of downloads, iPods, MP3 and file sharing, it's difficult to imagine a time when the simple recording of data and audio was new. But recordings in Canada date back to the 19th century. As early as 1878, Governor General Lord Dufferin and some of his party guests at Ottawa's Rideau Hall tinkered with an early version of the cylindrical phonograph, recording spoken word and a song or two. According to the diary of Lady Dufferin, they enjoyed playing them back ad infinitum. A decade later, another Canadian Governor General, Lord Stanley, recorded a message of greeting to the President and people of the United States at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. By the turn of the century, the new ability to record was in use in the then-burgeoning field of ethnomusicology. Canada was a leader in this, recording, preserving and studying the music of our First Nations people. But none of these early forays was available to the public. The first commericial Canadian recordings date from the first decade of the 20th century. Baritone Joseph Saucier, soprano Emma Albani and cornetist and bandleader Herbert L. Clarke were among the first to lay down music. But in these early days, most recordings of Canadians were made outside the country because Canadians were not generally perceived as great musicians, and the Canadian market was too small to reap any real commercial gains. By the time of the Depression, a number of Canadian opera singers, such as Edward Johnson and Pauline Donalda, had made recordings. But because of the small market, they tended to be limited to parlor songs and other light material that would sell easily.

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After World War II, the CBC stepped up in an effort to promote Canadians abroad. Most of these recordings were intended for broadcast use only, and were not for general sale. In the 1950s, opportunities for popular singers and musicians began to blossom, while in classical music, recordings of talented young musicians such as Maureen Forrester, Lois Marshall and Glenn Gould, as well as ensembles like the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and The Festival Singers of Canada, were released. The small domestic market and the lack of interest in recording Canadians by the large international record labels came to a head in the 1980s. A number of government programs, including FACTOR and Musicaction, offered money and tax incentives to support the Canadian recording industry. For most of its life, the Canadian record business has been dominated by the large multinationals, which set up branch operations here. Sony, EMI, Warner, Universal Music and others distribute and sell recordings made by their own recording arms. But they have generally been reluctant to record Canadian musicians in Canada. And now, with profits dwindling due to downloading, the major labels are closing offices in Canada--or at best leaving skeleton storefronts--and running their North American operations from New York.

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In today's world of specialized and niche programming, however, several Canadian-based record labels now record, press, market, distribute and sell recordings. And for most of them, their distribution networks cover the globe. Mario Labbe founded the Montreal-based Analekta label (www.analekta.com) almost 20 years ago. Today, it is the largest independent classical-music label in the country, churning out over 30 recordings a year featuring the finest Canadian musicians. To date, there are over 350 titles, with over 200 Canadian artists. As far as vocal music is concerned, the Analekta emphasis has been on francophone singers such as sopranos Karina Gauvin, Lyne Fortin, Aline Kutan and contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux. …

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