Moving the music scene North of 60

Like many independent musicians, Sarah MacDougall had to leave her home and family for her music. She moved all the way to Vancouver from Sweden. And she did it at the age of 19.

Like many independent musicians, Sarah MacDougall had to leave her home and family for her music.

She moved all the way to Vancouver from Sweden.

And she did it at the age of 19.

But a decade later, she did something many musicians would not – she moved up to Whitehorse.

“Coming up here wasn’t really a career choice,” she said with a side grin.

How could it be?

Life is tough for Yukon musicians.

“It’s harder because it’s much more expensive to leave,” she said. “If you’re in Winnipeg it costs $100 or $200 to fly to Toronto, whereas from here it costs $1,200. It’s a very big difference for a musician. It could make it or break it.”


In an industry where, no matter where you live, the hardest thing is getting face time with industry bigwigs, the treat will be even more sweet when the Western Canadian Music Alliance sets up shop in Whitehorse next month.

The Breakout West festival and conference, which precedes the annual awards ceremony, is one festival that’s more for the artists than it is for the audience.

It’s a chance to network, to meet other musicians, to learn the ins and outs of the industry and it’s a place – a rare place – were a travelling guitar player can find themselves standing next to the booking agent of one of the biggest music festivals in the world.

“We have an international buyers program,” said Rick Fenton, executive director of the Western Canadian Music Alliance. “We have people coming in from all over the world. We have the buyer for Glastonbury, one of the largest rock festivals in the world. We have Carsten Panduro who runs one of the great music festivals in Denmark – it’s a big festival, but all the Europeans sort of follow everything that he does. It goes on and on, it’s a huge list. And, of course, we have Canadians. We have the head music supervisor for CBS television, we have the woman who puts all the music on for Grey’s Anatomy. A lot of these people have been coming for years.”

It’s an opportunity that shouldn’t be taken for granted, said MacDougall.

“It can mean a lot,” she said. “Just getting a chance to actually meet people and ask questions of people that are established in the industry is huge. You might not get anything concrete out of it but at least they’ll have your face and you’ll have their face. That’s like the hardest thing, really, to get in this industry – to even get someone to read your email. So if you can get a chance to actually talk with someone, it’s an amazing thing.”

Western Canadian musicians are known for being independent, even before the larger music industry began turning that way, said Fenton.

The goal of this festival is to create an atmosphere where independent musicians can really break out onto a professional stage, he said.

This kind of opportunity has been a long time coming to the North.

Music associations of BC and the Yukon joined the Prairie Music Alliance Inc. in 2002 to form the Western Canadian Music Alliance. (This is the first year for the NWT.)

And it was pretty much ever since then that cohorts at Music Yukon began “pounding on desks” to get the awards show held in Whitehorse, said Grant Simpson, president of the territorial association.

It took a couple of years, but the squeaky wheel finally got the grease, said Fenton.

“It was just a matter of planning,” said Fenton. “And certainly it was money. It’s a lot of dough. Normally we let the artists get there themselves; this year we’re supporting their travel. We’ve never done that. Because it’s not hard to get to Regina, but it’s hard to get here. We didn’t want to hold an event and have nobody be able to come.”

But once they do get here, for four days in about a month’s time, Whitehorse’s winter slumber will have to wait.

“We figure there’s about 300 delegates coming, as well as extra family that are coming to take part,” said head of the host committee Michele Emslie. “So you can imagine, at a time of year that’s usually shoulder season – things are slowing down or slowed down – that this place will be alive and bustling. You’ll notice a difference on Main Street, hotels are already getting booked up and I think the energy it creates will be palpable.”

The festival, conference and awards ceremony were held in Kelowna, BC, last year.

An economic impact study showed around $1.8 million was injected into the economy there, said Emslie.

“It’s going to be busy,” she added. “I’m just so excited for the opportunity to really have the focus of, not only just the music community, but the rest of Canada and the world, focused on Whitehorse.”

And for MacDougall, it’s a great chance to show her new home to all the musicians she used to collaborate with in Vancouver.

“The most fun part of it all is to network – it’s not even networking, it’s just meeting other musicians and making new friends with people that are doing the same thing you’re doing,” she said.

The Breakout West Festival begins in Whitehorse on October 20 and while an official lineup has yet to be released, it will encompass genres as diverse as the awards – everything from classical and jazz to rock and rap. Festival passes are only $25 for more than 50 bands in 10 downtown venues. The award ceremony and gala will take place at the Yukon Arts Centre on Sunday, October 23. And while many Yukon artists and groups will be playing during the festival, only Yukon’s own Kim Beggs, Matthew Lien and agency Magnum Opus Management are nominated for awards.

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