Innovation in the minor key

Kyle Cunjak tucks into his fat striploin like he’s never tasted red meat before. It’s like beef is, for him, a culinary epiphany. The 20-something photographer, bassist, record label owner-manager-promoter-booking agent and chief cook and bottle washer of something called Forward Music Group shakes his head approvingly. “This is awesome,” he declares. “It’s just awesome.”

We’ve convened at the Old Triangle Irish Ale House in downtown Moncton on a wintry afternoon in late March, on the eve of the East Coast Music Association’s annual awards show, which every year fills its host cities with the dulcet (and not so dulcet) sounds of hundreds of bands from every corner of the region. We’ve come to discuss the condition of a cultural industry that directly employs thousands in a part of the country that’s variously described as impoverished or worse, defeatist. We’ve come to chat about the rise of independent musician-entrepreneurs and how he and she are reshaping the old model for making money with a heavy dose of realism and a fearless embrace of innovation. Mostly, though, we’ve come to talk about him.

But, first, it’s about the steak. I shrug and call to the waitress. “I’ll have what he’s having . . . and bring me a beer.”

There is a hunger in Cunjak’s shining, brown eyes, and also a mixed message: How do you become your own boss in an intensely competitive, egomaniacal industry full of rising stars, also-rans, wannabes and has-beens without pissing anybody off? How do you both make a living and make friends without compromising your artistic (and social) integrity? Most of all, how do you both “be the man” and the “songwriter” simultaneously and seamlessly without going heart-broken or, simply, broke?

Cunjak – who is based in Halifax, but was raised in Moncton, and who resembles a young Paul McCartney – flashes me a look, as if to say: “I have no idea what you’re talking about mate, but OK, keep talking.” What he does say is this: “Basically, me and two others started our company out of necessity. In 2006, there was no record label, really, in New Brunswick, at least not in the Anglophone community, so we formed our own and started doing everything, from bookings to creative writing to accounting to graphic design to promoting to recording.”

He pauses for another chunk of steak. “We bit off a lot more than we could chew. We put out 20 albums in three years. It was insane.”

Today, six years later, Forward Music Group is a more tractable enterprise. It releases about four albums a year by various artists, including Cunjak’s own group, The Olympic Symphonium (which, in addition to Cunjak, involves “multi-instrumentalists and songwriters” Nick Cobham and Graeme Walker who bill their brand as “delicately arranged folk-pop that drips with bittersweet melodies, soaring harmonies, and an awful lot of passion.”) Other bands under management include Snailhouse from Montreal and Halfax’s Gypsophilia. Cunjak also plays bass for the multiple-award winning, Nova Scotian troubadour David Myles, which he describes as his main gig.

All of which may only suggest that the young, musically gifted operator is too busy, too close to the machinery of his own enterprise, too focused on the task at hand – like enjoying a good cut of bovine as if it were his first or last – to spend much time pondering the shape of the music industry in Atlantic Canada or, indeed, his part in its evolution. Others, however, are more loquacious.

One is Order of Canada recipient Marc Chouinard, the general manager of Moncton’s Capitol Theatre and an eminence grise of the scene since, at least, the early 1990s. He says the rise of the hard-scrabble, small-time musician-entrepreneur, especially in the Atlantic provinces, is a palpable, measurable phenomenon of which Cunjak is an exemplar. “Look at what he does,” he says. “He plays in bands. He records others. He promotes. He is a guy who represents the new class of people who are producing tons and tons of good music and making careers doing it their own way. Hundreds are doing this now and, in the process, they’re having a huge impact on all kinds of surrounding industries.”

Chouinard produces a list to emphasize his point. On it are dozens of professions and sectors that, he says, have benefitted in recent years from the entrepreneurial labours of the region’s (mostly young) singer-songwriters – everything from radio stations and tour organizers to sound and lighting technicians to music stores and photography studios.

Exactly when this gritty self-determination began to emerge is a matter of some conjecture, but Chouinard grants much of the credit to the East Coast Music Association’s annual awards show and professional development symposium. Inaugurated in 1989, the event came along just as the traditional record label system in Canada was contracting away from artists, especially those at the nation’s peripheries. The ECMA, which says its mission is “to foster, develop, promote and celebrate East Coast Music and its artists locally, regionally, nationally and internationally,” provided a timely opportunity to showcase otherwise unknown talent and, crucially, supply regional artists with the skills to, in effect, run their own shows.

“There really is a lot more to the event than handing out awards,” says Sue Hutchinson, the Association’s outgoing executive director. “We do three days of business development that’s really about helping our artists. We bring in buyers from around the world. They have the current knowledge that helps out independent artists as well as the entire industry in Atlantic Canada.”

Indeed, over the years, the event has generated millions of dollars in commercial activity for its participants and its host cities across the Atlantic region. An economic impact study, prepared in 2009, concluded: “The evidence shows that a reasonable estimate of direct sales by Atlantic-based artists and companies as a result of participating in the 2007 and 2008 ECMA activities is $988,337 . . . The net inflow of dollars from visitors to the Atlantic region as a result of the festival and conference is estimated at $490,000.”

Moreover, said the report, “Case studies provide compelling evidence that direct, ECMA-related sales give rise to significant indirect sales, which could bring the total impact well within the $10 million range for 2007 and 2008. A real figure may well be significantly higher.”

Still, it’s not the numbers that impress people like Cunjak. The ECMA and the community it has nourished over the years have legitimized the fragile art of making a living doing what you love. Fame and fortune – the traditional metrics of creative success – are less important to many nowadays than mastering self-employment innovatively, even fearlessly. And that’s not a skill native to anybody.

“I didn’t really get into music until junior high,” says Cunjak, whose parents are marine biologists at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton. “I was more interested in art and photography. I just started playing guitar randomly. Then, I started playing bass in the school band, and I realized this was a really good way of my expressing myself.”

Step by step, he learned his craft. “I started doing managerial duties with the band, booking shows and understanding how things worked,” he says. “It took me a long time to get to the next level, which was being in a band that actually tours . . . Now, it’s basically like we’re playing all over the place all the time.”

But is he aware of the musical wave he and others are riding these days?

“With music, there’s so much stuff happening all the time. There are so many bands recording because of the exposure and the new media opportunities. I wonder if there was equally as much stuff happening in the ‘60s and ‘70s and we just didn’t hear about it because the bands at that time couldn’t afford to record. That’s not something I’ve been able to answer.”

Cunjak finishes his “awesome” steak and signals he’s ready to push off. Earlier in the day, he wrapped up a photography seminar for some high school kids in nearby Salisbury, and now he’s anxious to check the venue across the street where he and his band will play at the upcoming ECMA show. Later, he will travel back to Halifax to update his company’s website or make a few calls on behalf of the other groups he produces or maybe, just maybe, catch some rare down time, relaxing at home.

But only until he’s hungry again, which, history suggests, will be soon enough in the life of this East Coast musician-entrepreneur.

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