Justin Bieber? Again? Same old Juno Award appearances suggest Canada's top music show is facing a large disconnect

Singer Justin Bieber performs during the 2010 Juno Awards at the Mile One Centre on April 18, 2010 in Saint John's, Canada. (Photo by George Pimentel/WireImage)

Large-scale award shows have a tendency to chase big names, that much is certain across borders. The tendencies come in part as an effort to hit rating makers and in Canada perhaps to garner the attention of the general public otherwise distracted by international tracks crooning across Canadian airwaves. There’s a question of relevance at play, however, when it comes to the Juno Awards in Canada.

Justin Bieber, Jann Arden, The Tragically Hip, and Feist have been named as performers at this year’s Juno Awards, the Canadian music equivalent to the Grammys, or the Brit Awards in the UK. While Bieber and Arden are known and loved in Canada, their relevance to the year in music may well reveal a larger disconnect when it comes to the awards ceremony and supporting emerging Canadian talent.

Indie singer-songwriter Feist’s last album Pleasure was released in 2017. Most recently, Jann Arden put out a Christmas album in 2015. The Tragically Hip did put out a single in 2021, aptly titled, “ouch.” Justin Bieber has had a busy year with the release of his 2021 album Justice. Still, there’s something about the marquee lineup that preceded Thursday’s announcement of emerging Canadian music talent that makes us think – is mainstream Canadian music stuck in the past?

Bieber is returning to perform for the first time since “Baby” was belted out in 2010. He’s nominated for five awards, including fan choice and artist of the year. Last year's fan choice went to Avril Lavigne of "sk8er boi" fame. The pandemic may have warped our collective sense of time, understandably, but have we gone back to 2002? With taxpayers pouring millions into supporting grassroots music annually, it would make more sense if the Juno Awards tried to complement those efforts by putting emerging acts first.

As part of the 2021 budget, the federal government added $10 million to the Canada Music Fund in support of the production, promotion, and distribution of Canadian music. In Ontario, $2.5 million was invested in relief programs to help strengthen music in the province. What’s more, last month the Government of Canada announced a $70 million over a three-year period to Canadian Heritage for the Canada Music Fund in support of the live music sector. Are establishments like the Juno Awards, and by extension the Canadian public, doing its part?

Canada has a 'sad history' of ignoring its own artists

“People like to think they always liked Drake. No, you didn’t. He was just the actor on Degrassi: The Next Generation,” Kardinal Offishall, the award-winning rapper and record producer, told The Globe and Mail in an interview earlier this month.

“It took the United States and the rest of the world embracing me before Canada realized, ‘Oh, man, I guess this guy really is good.’ Unfortunately, that’s a sad history Canada has.”--Kardinal Offishall in The Globe and Mail

Offishall isn’t alone in his criticisms. The first-ever Black woman to win a Juno Award, Liberty Silver, has expressed her disappointments in the country’s slow goings in supporting a large pool of talent. Alternative rock’s Matthew Good, who never attended the ceremonies in the years he’s won, in 2009 called the awards “marketing warehouses for the United States.”

Of course, there’s the Kaytranada school of thought that suggests that Canadian musicians don’t need industry anymore. The Grammy award-winning Haitian-Canadian record producer and DJ made a name for himself internationally by growing his base online before signing the British independent record label XL Recordings.

“We’re not really paying attention to any infrastructure that’s been in place, and I think that’s what made us successful,” Kaytranada’s manager, Will Robillard Cole has said. “I like to say I bend the industry, not let the industry bend my artists.”

Why emerging talent doesn't have much of a chance in Canada

Still, there’s something inherently off-kilter about the way the Juno Awards celebrate home-grown talent. The title of the very award itself is an ode to the promotion of Canadian arts. Named after Pierre Juneau, the first president of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, a central figure in Canadian regulation policies that mandate that at least half of annual programming be of Canadian origin. Not to say that Justin Bieber isn’t Canadian, but when part of what qualifies nominees for the awards is the requirement that they have lived in Canada in the last six months, I’d be curious to count Bieber's days spent in the homeland in the last few years.

The way the Junos are awarded is currently based on a combination of sales, jury and member voting. The Juno Fan Choice Award is publicly voted. While the 2020 Avril goof may be on us, the sales factor that determines nominees for Album of the Year and the combined sales and jury vote that determine the New Artist of the Year, New Group of the Year, Rock Album of the Year, and Pop Album of the Year, make it very difficult for emerging and more relevant talent and rise past established acts.

So rather than chasing big names, perhaps it’s in the best interest of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (the governing body behind the Juno Awards) to spend time updating its rules so that emerging Canadian talent can rise to the top.

The truth of the matter is musicians don't need the industry like they used to. Awards like the Juno Awards are the ones that need them, and it’s a sad day when the talent that Canadian taxpayers and provincial organizations have helped raised need to go elsewhere, beyond our borders, before they are appreciated and celebrated at home.