Juno Awards producers work around COVID challenges for Sunday's 50th anniversary show

·4 min read

TORONTO — Band members have had a hard time getting together, COVID-19 outbreaks have stalled filming and Ontario's third wave of the pandemic has postponed the big show twice.

But "come hell or high water" the 50th annual Juno Awards will air Sunday on CBC-TV and its digital platforms, say organizers, who hope the largely pre-recorded broadcast will serve as a beacon of hope for a Canadian music industry decimated by pandemic shutdowns.

"Nothing is going to postpone it one more time," says John Brunton, chairman and chief executive officer at Insight Productions, the longtime producer of the nationwide show.

Insight has been working with the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and the CBC to shoot performances in piecemeal fashion under ever-changing pandemic protocols.

"Everything is coming in very much up to the wire, so it's actually more terrifying than live because at least live, everybody's there," says Lindsay Cox, senior vice-president at Insight.

"Everyone is working as close to the air date as possible."

The two-hour event was originally supposed to be held with an audience at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena in March. But a spike in case counts and Ontario's lockdown measures scuttled those plans, forcing organizers to reimagine it, postpone to May and then push again to June.

At one point Insight considered doing some kind of live show at the outdoor Budweiser Stage in Toronto, Cox says, but a risk assessment determined it was safer to shoot in different-sized locations on multiple days rather than everything happening on one day.

Still, COVID-19 outbreaks created challenges while filming segments for music's biggest night: the crew on a Calgary shoot had to be completely changed when some workers tested positive for the virus, while an outbreak in Iqaluit stalled production for two weeks.

Producers also shot clips in Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Newfoundland and Labrador and Los Angeles.

Uniting band members has been like herding cats, with travel and safety restrictions keeping artists separated and spread out all over Canada and the United States.

"Many people said to us, 'Thank you for soldiering on and doing this,'" says CARAS president and CEO Allan Reid.

"Canadian resilience has really come through," adds Cox. "Everyone's like, 'Let's find another way to do it. What do we need to do? How can I help?'"

Performers will include Justin Bieber, Jann Arden and the Tragically Hip paired with singer-songwriter Feist.

The Hip will also receive the 2021 Humanitarian Award, presented by rock greats Geddy Lee and Alex Lifeson of Rush, and Anne Murray will induct Arden into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.

There will also be a tribute to the 30th anniversary of the Juno Rap Recording of the Year category from Kardinal Offishall, Jully Black, Maestro Fresh Wes, NAV, Haviah Mighty and Michie Mee.

Brunton says the situation has created more collaboration than they've ever seen with many in the industry grateful to perform in some capacity.

"Everything is about making the very best product we can in really unusual circumstances — and with no ego," says Brunton.

"I think that's the true spirit of the show this year."

Brunton and Cox have produced a few broadcasts during the pandemic, including the multi-network benefit "Stronger Together, Tous Ensemble," and say they know to "zig and zag" amid ever-changing restrictions.

Their planned production for last year's in-person Junos in Saskatoon was scrapped at the last minute when a pandemic was declared in March, forcing a virtual show last June.

Reid wondered if public health measures would discourage artists from releasing new music because they can't tour, thereby also offering a dearth of 2021 Juno submissions.

"And what ended up happening was the exact opposite," he says. "Artists started creating more and releasing more, and we ended up seeing the most amount of submissions in our history, which shocked us."

The Weeknd has a leading six nominations, followed by Bieber, JP Saxe and Jessie Reyez with five.

Insight says they're focusing on "unique venues" for this year's telecast, including Toronto's Massey Hall, Vancouver's Commodore Ballroom and Calgary's Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, where Arden will perform.

The broadcast will also showcase various other clubs around Toronto and pay homage to the city that was originally supposed to host the bash.

"We've embraced what's happening with the live music scene — or not happening, actually — and doing a bit of a tribute to them with the expectation that we're all back in the fall and all those clubs will be back up again," says Cox, adding the show will also "have some live elements."

Adds Brunton: "Without a doubt, this will be the craziest production of the Junos from a behind-the-scenes, 'Oh-my-god-what's-next?' (perspective)."

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Listen to a playlist of 2021 Juno Award nominees on Spotify: https://bit.ly/CPJunos2021

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 1, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press