The South by Southwest music festival and conference is a whirlwind of hundreds of live concerts throughout the city of Austin, TX. As such, it’s a place where everything’s possible for musicians wishing to export their music. So, once again, to help its members maximize their impact in this chaotic environment, SOCAN participated in this year’s edition.

This music component lasted from March 15-20, 2016, and more than 100 SOCAN members were invited to perform, making the organization’s presence all the more crucial.

As an A&R Executive at SOCAN, Guillaume Moffet’s role is to make the most of the performing rights organization’s contacts to benefit its members – which is why he lined up meeting after meeting during the event. “It’s become obvious, in 2016, that the music business is all about contacts and relationships,” he says. “Especially with the quantity of music on offer from everywhere around the world. There’s a lot of business being done, and impromptu meetings over a cold beer going on, at SXSW. That all contributes to making things happen – maybe not next month, but six, or twelve months down the road.”

Basia Bulat“You never know how things are going to go at SXSW,” says singer-songwriter Basia Bulat, who was back at the festival this year. “We all have expectations, but there is rarely any kind of immediate impact. But then, when you least expect it, you get a call to play in some other festival.”

SXSW is a particularly interesting showcase of Canadian artists, according to Rodney Murphy, manager of A&R for SOCAN. He reminds us that “it is the international festival with the most Canadian presence. Obviously, it ends up feeling like an immense competition. Our role is to present our members to the right people at the right time.”

That’s why, for an eleventh consecutive year, the traditional Canadian Blast BBQ attracted bookers, producers and music lovers from around the world – thanks to its high-flying and varied programming, assembled by the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) and sponsored by SOCAN. Among the artists who performed on that occasion were Montréal electro-pop duo Milk & Bone, Ontario rockers Arkells, Manitoba hip-hop group The Lytics and folk-rocker Terra Lightfoot, also from Ontario.

It was Lightfoot’s first-ever trip to SXSW and she also took part in three other showcases, chief among which was a memorable one at the must-attend Canada House, held at the popular haunt Friend’s, on the even more popular 6th Street. “We came down here hoping to find an agent for an eventual U.S. tour,” says the Hamilton-born singer. “SXSW is a must for any Canadian artist hoping to make it in the U.S.”

As for Milk & Bone, it was their second year in a row at the festival, and they, too, are motivated by making it south of the border. In a sure sign that things are looking up, they noticed a lot more enthusiasm for their sounds during the Canadian Blast BBQ and their other showcases, especially the infamous Poutine Party presented by M for Montréal.

Says Camille Poliquin of Milk & Bone, “We got a much warmer welcome compared to last year. We met a ton of people to try and sell our show internationally. The promoter of a festival we hope to play seems to have really liked us. We spoke with him and we just clicked. That’s the type of meeting you need to create and tighten bonds.”

In Milk & Bone’s case, being at SXSW allowed them, among other things, to put a face to the other parties in relationships that they’d been nurturing online for months. This opportunity is great for the duo’s support team, if only because it allows them to line up meetings with producers and bookers. “Being at SXSW allows you to make things happen because it is, above all, a rallying point,” says Guillaume Moffet.

Creating a Buzz

As it turns out, the festival can benefit all artists, not just emerging ones. “Artists generally come to SXSW to be discovered. Otherwise, they come to get exposure and create a buzz that will get their careers going,” says SOCAN Chief Membership & Business Development Officer, Michael McCarty. “It’s always a good idea to come and meet the industry’s movers and shakers.”

The Strumbellas

That’s exactly what Ontario roots-pop band The Strumbellas did while they were at SXSW — where they were presented with a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for their song “Spirits.” Already well supported by their Canadian label Six Shooter and the prestigious Glassnote Records in the U.S. (the label behind Mumford & Sons and Phoenix, among others), it was the sextet’s first time at the festival.

“It was a fabulous experience. We played to completely crazy crowds,” says the band’s lead singer and songwriter, Simon Ward, clearly exhausted after performing 12 times in 4 days. “We didn’t set specific goals in coming here. We just wanted to play here for its own sake. It is one of the biggest festivals in the world, so yeah, obviously, we made new fans and met important people.”

It’s with the same attitude that Arkells returned to Austin this year. Already well established in Canada – the three JUNO Awards they received in 2015 is proof of that – the band decided to extend their U.S. tour with a few shows in Austin, even though they aren’t looking to achieve anything specific. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be able to play in front of people from all around the world,” says lead singer and songwriter Max Kerman. “At SXSW, you never know what might one day change the course of your career. It might be a showcase in front of only 10 people!”

And in all cases, SOCAN plays a crucial role in helping its members make it internationally. Milk & Bone has been supported by the organization since day one. “They were the first to believe in our project,” says the duo’s Camille Poliquin, reminiscing on their stay at L.A.’s SOCAN House last year. “They’re people we can count on, who watch over our rights and who introduce us to the right people.”

The Unavoidable Decline of the Francophone Offer

Helping a band like Milk & Bone export itself is an obvious choice for Guillaume Moffet, because their potential to make it internationally is obvious. As a matter of fact, bookers attending SXSW are mostly looking for “export ready” acts. “Artists that stand out often have a team behind them,” says Moffet. “A team that can secure an American booker and PR person who, in turn, will do anything to get them out there. But if your music’s good and your team is incompetent, you will get nowhere.”

The language issue is also an unavoidable factor. Franco-Canadian bands didn’t get much exposure this year, contrary to the past, because of the void left by the defunct Planète Québec initiative. “It’s harder to get a return on investment with those artists,” says Moffet. “It makes more sense to concentrate our efforts on European music conventions, since the most important breakthroughs of Francophone artists are mainly in France.”

ChocolatHaving made quite an impression during the last CMJ Music Marathon, Chocolat was one of only two Francophone bands programmed at SXSW 2016. The Montréal-based band played several shows, and made quite an impression, thanks to their high-energy, American-influenced rock sound.

“It went really well,” says guitarist Emmanuel Éthier. “It even reconciled me with the idea of a showcase. I came here with other bands before, but it was all for naught.”

But above all else, all the musicians we talked to say they loved the experience because it allowed them to meet other high-calibre musicians. “It’s not just about business. It’s also about discovering a scene and feeling like you are part of it, if only for the duration of a festival,” says Chocolat keyboardist Christophe Lamarche.

In other words, there are as many reasons to come to SXSW as there are Canadian artists attending the festival year after year.

Still, 2016 was quite a memorable one for the Canadian delegation. “It’s a lot more interesting for Canadian artists here than it was five years ago,” says Moffet. “Right now, Canadian music has a good buzz going for it, especially because of the massive success of The Weeknd, Drake, Alessia Cara and Justin Bieber. For many people, it’s become cool to be Canadian. We need to take advantage of that while it lasts.”

After 15 years and a business that in 2012 enjoyed $20 million in revenues, multi-faceted MapleMusic has entered a new phase of evolution. At a lavish bash held at Toronto’s Velvet Underground on March 1, 2016, MapleMusic was re-christened the Cadence Music Group and a promising future was set in motion.

“It’s a re-focus,” says Iain Taylor, Cadence Music Group President and CEO, a few days later at his office, adjacent to Universal Music Canada headquarters. “We call it a re-invention of our legacy – that’s what the party was, but we’re proud of the fact that [we’ve had] 15 years of success. It’s something to be celebrated.”

Taylor also said the re-branding is a rallying cry to announce to the world “that we’re going to be doing business on a global scale, in the most effective way possible, for our artists.”

“It’s about getting with artists and helping them.” – Cadence Music President and CEO Iain Taylor

Moving forward, the new umbrella includes Cadence Music (their domestic roster includes Vancouver’s The Pack A.D. and Toronto-based Ferraro, Megan Bonnell and Royal Wood); Open Road Recordings (Dean Brody, Tim Hicks, The Road Hammers, Doc Walker, more); Pheromone Recordings (Joel Plaskett, The Dears, Steph Cameron, Alejandra Ribera, more); label distribution company Fontana North (Justin Time, Shout! Factory, Downtown, more); Cadence Management (Royal Tusk, Zaki Ibrahim, Poor Young Things, more); music publishing company Cadence Songs; and fan engagement company Fan Experience (Sarah McLachlan, Hedley, Frank Turner, Classified).

Cadence Music Group

At the Cadence launch party. Left to right: Iain Taylor, Toronto Mayor John Tory, and The Honourable Michael Coteau, Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport. (Photo: Andrew Schwab)

No longer part of the Cadence fold: online ticketing agency TicketBreak, sold for an undisclosed amount in January to San Francisco-based Ticketfly. “It just became harder to compete in that space while competing in the music space,” says Taylor, who assumed his position in April of 2015. “We looked at our core competencies and what we really wanted to do both for our artists and our customers.

“To be competitive in this world, you have to look at the music from all angles. That’s not just the recorded masters and their exploitation, but also how you’re going to get involved with artists on the publishing side, the management side and in the V.I.P. engagement business: things we do really well. It became an exercise of getting back to what we were really good at.”

Taylor said the re-branding of the business – which was co-founded in 1999 by the Skydiggers’ Andy Maize and his brother Jeff, and IT entrepreneurs Mike Alkier, Evan Hu and Grant Dexter, as an e-commerce site, on an initial $60,000 investment (according to a 2012 Globe & Mail interview with Dexter) – was necessary.

“When I first got here, there were a number of suggestions internally that [a name change] might be a good idea,” Taylor said. “Talking to stakeholders of the business, it became fairly clear, fairly quickly, that the perception of MapleMusic was a name that was so Canadian. Internationally, there was a concept of, ‘if you were to present yourself a little more as an international entity, it might be advantageous.’”

Cadence Music has already bolstered its imprint label with several international signings – former Evanescence frontwoman Amy Lee, Escondido and Victoria+Jean. Not to mention Alabama Shakes, who the Cadence Music label supported all the way to a Canadian gold record (their first and only one so far), for their four-time Grammy-winning album Sound & Color.

Jim Bryson, Kathleen Edwards

Jim Bryson and Kathleen Edwards perform at the Cadence launch party. (Photo: Andrew Schwab)

Taylor reveals that many more signings will be unveiled in the not-too-distant-future. “We’ve got over a dozen new ones in the last three months,” he says. “We’ve also brought on eight labels in the last little while. We’ve got a couple of bigger ones, in the sense of announcements, to come as well.”

As far as music publishing is concerned, Taylor admits that Cadence Songs is still a work in progress. “That’s the one piece of the puzzle that’s still in the formative stage,” he says. “We control a number of works and we certainly are interested. When we get into management or signing acts, we’re seeking the publishing as well. There are a number of ways we can approach it – we certainly have partners globally and domestically that work on our behalf, but we haven’t finalized how we’re proceeding. We’re definitely getting more active in that space.”

With a newly unified office and staff of 25, over 100 distributed labels, and the unwavering support of such stakeholders as Universal Music Canada and Slaight Music – as well as a distribution partner in Canada in Universal, and for both the U.S. and the rest of the world in San Francisco’s INgrooves –Taylor says his company is open for worldwide business.

“It’s about getting with artists and helping them,” he says. “Artists are much more business-minded than ever. So for us, it’s about engaging and becoming business partners, and being able to execute effectively on their behalf, and help them sustain and flourish.”

Seven songwriters –Michel Rivard, Mara Tremblay, Éric Goulet, Luc de Larochelière, Gilles Bélanger (Douze Hommes Rapaillés), Arianne Ouellet and Carl Prévost (Mountain Daisies) – locked themselves up in May of 2015 with the goal of writing and recording songs over a period of seven days.

It was a high-wire act, but there’s no victory without risk. Éric Goulet is familiar with impromptu creative meetings, thanks to the Open Country events he co-hosts with Mountain Daisies at Verre Bouteille, and he came up with a brilliant idea to add suspense to the sumptuous Valcourt cabin where the artists had secluded themselves: every morning, after breakfast, the tone was set for the day by drawing the theme for a song out of a hat, into which each songwriter had placed a paper on which they’d jotted down a few sentences for the song subject, and a writing partner with whom the song was to be created. The challenge was to do it, with full music and lyrics, in three hours – and not a moment more.

Mara Tremblay remembers, “Having a theme helped me a lot, I work a lot better under pressure. Being limited to three hours to create a song, and having a direction and a partner, was a big motivation.”

“Initially, admits Michel Rivard, “when you play within such strict boundaries, having a pleasant environment to work in, in May, with cherry trees in bloom, and spring in the air, and the house filled with light… that helps a lot.”

Says Tremblay, “If we had recorded this album in a context where we all went home at night, it would’ve been a whole different album. The setting played a big part. I worked in my PJs most of the time!”

Ultimately, 14 of the 21 songs created during that week ended up on Sept jours en mai, a magnificent snapshot of this unique creative session that was launched March 18, 2016, on the Spectra Musique imprint.

Bélanger, like the others, was excited but anxious. “We started from scratch and needed to create everything,” he says. “We knew each other musically, even though most of us had never played with each other, and it worked.”

7 jours en maiDe Larochelière (and Goulet as well) had already experienced something similar through the songwriting workshops they directed at the Festival de la Chanson de Granby. “I would pair up participants and give them a theme,” he says. “We soon noticed that a song written in a set time limit was often quite better than another which had been worked on for three months. It’s like this sense of urgency is a catalyst.”

This time, Rivard says, “When I write my own songs, I can pause and get back to it the next day, but not there. If you hit a snag in the second verse, you have to resolve it right away, because when those three hours are up, you have to sing that song to the others.”

With a career three decades in the making, De Larochelière was thrilled by the experience. “I’ve never had a proper band, so this project was in total contrast with my usual modus operandi,” he says. “My first reaction was, ‘Oh yeah!’ Not everything was easy, sometimes we were missing a verse or a melody, but we always found a solution. And once you get into the groove of things, you can’t wait to start working on the next song.”

Singer and cellist Arianne Ouellet and her guitarist partner Carl Prévost see a definite parallel between that experience and Verre Bouteille’s music lab. “The collaboration process creates bonds, but the key element is sharing and listening to other people’s ideas,” she says.

Will this creative process influence your careers?

7 jours en mai“When I created the songs for Les Filles de Caleb,” says Rivard, “I had to come up with 36 songs in record time, way too short a rime, but I had to deliver. So when I started working on my Roi de Rien album, that got transposed, to a certain degree. The Sept jours en mai experience definitely had an impact on my creation time.”

“Letting go and being receptive to your partners’ ideas was a big buzz for me,” enthuses Mara Tremblay. “It’s like getting on a never-ending merry-go-round; it’s addictive.”

But nothing was less sure than the fact that this week of collaboration and brainstorming would end up being an album.

“When I came back home,” says Rivard, “I was filled with doubt: what if what we did wasn’t really good and we’re the only ones that like it?”

Exhausted by the experience, Mr. Rivard? “Exhausted in a good way,” he says. “We rehearsed for two solid days recently, and I was drained, but happy. Everybody turned their ego off and opened their minds. We rehearsed together and we can now call ourselves a band.”

As you may have gathered, Sept jours en mai will tour throughout Québec this spring. Thirty dates have already been confirmed.