Canadian artists breaking into the mainstream

Some of the highest-selling and best-known artists in the world are Canadians, but how does it happen?

Canadian singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco. (Courtesy Imnotcmjames/Wikimedia Commons)

Canadian singer-songwriter Mac DeMarco. (Courtesy Imnotcmjames/Wikimedia Commons)

By Manus Hopkins

Drake is one of the most popular hip-hop artists in the world right now, outselling numerous American peers. A slew of pop-punk bands that rose to prominence in the 2000s included Canadian groups: Sum 41, Billy Talent, and Simple Plan, some of the biggest names in the scene. Canadian pop stars Celine Dion and Shania Twain are among the top 30 highest-selling musical artists of all time.

Video courtesy Atlantic Records via YouTube

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) was established in 1968. The CRTC is responsible for establishing the famous Canadian content, or Can con, requirements that radio and TV broadcasters have to include a certain percentage of content made by Canadians in their programming.

This has gone a long way to help Canadian musicians get airtime — in Canada. But there are Canadian artists who rank among some of the biggest of all time in their genres on a global scale as well. There are many Canadian artists who have broken into both American and British-ruled mainstream music scenes.

While Canada has steadily produced world-class pop stars and rock bands over the years, the simple truth remains that to make it big globally, artists have to make it in the United States. For some Canadian artists, a step towards worldwide stardom is working with well-established American names, like Toronto artist SAFE collaborating with Playboi Carti and Sean Leon now working with Kanye West.

Some of the most promising stars across a variety of genres right now are from Canada. Many Canadian artists have achieved international stardom in the past two decades, going back to pop singers like Avril Lavigne, Justin Bieber, and Carly Rae Jepsen in the 2000s. More recently, we have seen the rise of hip-hop and R&B artists Drake and The Weeknd, as well as singer-songwriters Mac DeMarco and Shawn Mendes this past decade. 

Video Courtesy CapturedTracks via YouTube

There are older Canadian mainstays who remain relevant cultural forces today as well. Neil Young, Bryan Adams and Leonard Cohen all place in the top 15 highest-selling Canadian artists of all time, and their works are now considered Canadian classics. 

Video Courtesy clydeman via YouTube

There are Canadian bands who are lumped in with leagues of American and British counterparts, like speed metal veterans Anvil in the ‘80s thrash scene and Rush with the ‘70s progressive rock icons. But Canada has given birth to unique scenes of its own as well, with both Brtish Columbia and Ontario becoming home to punk scenes in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Some of B.C.’s groups, like D.O.A. and Dayglo Abortions, are now grouped in with classic punk bands like Dead Kennedys, Circle Jerks and Bad Religion. While hardcore punk never went mainstream, Canadian artists have still dominated underground movements in addition to popular music.

Video Courtesy Epitaph Records via YouTube

While Canada is still not a musical empire like the United States or England just yet, it is well on its way. The shift won't happen overnight, but with so many emerging artists representing Canadian music on a global scale, heads are being turned towards Canada as a country, not just a select few Canadian artists squeezed into American scenes. 

With the music industry changing, an overload of new music is available at the fingertips of potential fans. This means it can be both easier and more difficult for Canadian artists to get their names and music out there. On one hand, listeners can find music much more easily in the age of streaming. On the other hand, with nearly 40,000 songs uploaded to Spotify daily, independent artists can find their music lost in a digital sea.  

With a new decade approaching and the music industry still rapidly changing, it’s hard to predict who Canada’s next breakthrough artists will be. There are some groups stirring up a buzz right now, like The Jerry Cans out of Iqaluit, who combine traditional Inuit throat singing with folk and country styles, and First Nations hip hop duo Snotty Nose Rez Kids, based out of Vancouver. Both groups have been sneaking into the spotlight lately, and have the potential to be some of Canada’s next mainstream artists. 

With the emerging talent Canada is producing right now, one thing is for sure — people aren’t just looking to America for new music anymore.