Funding the infrastructure

Weird Canada heads argue that grants should prioritize resources over individuals

As the executive director of Weird Canada Marie LeBlanc Flanagan knows how to successfully write a grant application. Thanks to her efforts the outsider music blog successfully landed a grant from Factor a private non-profit organization that manages federal funds which they promptly used to fund a yet-to-be-launched cross-country music distribution network. So we ask her how hard was it to put together a grant application?

Two words: Really. Hard. “I was only able to [write the grant] after a friend passed away and left me some money” she says. “And I decided that I’m not going to put any more money into school. I spent a week not showering and not eating putting together that application.

“But I recognize that not everybody has the ability to do that. It took a week of infinite energy it took time to learn what a SWOT was (for the record it’s a business analysis detailing strengths weaknesses opportunities and threats). Not everybody has that luxury.”

Note Flanagan’s choice of words: In the arts world and in this case music specifically assembling an effective grant application is a luxury. She understands Weird Canada’s privilege — she had funding a post-secondary education and time. But Flanagan also understands that most artists — especially poorer geographically remote artists without label and industry expertise — don’t have these luxuries or funds to hire a professional grant writer.

“Nobody has the time to write a grant especially when you can’t make enough at our jobs to pay rent” she says. “I met Stephen Harper as a teenager and he kept on going on about how he was a self-made man. I said even at the time ‘I really doubt that.’ We aren’t self-made people. With Factor there’s this weird ablest [tendency] this belief that if you really try hard enough that you can achieve what you want. But the [mindset] is also used to diminish people who have fewer opportunities.”

Aaron Levin Weird Canada’s founder adds that there’s another problem with institutions like Factor which in its words provide “financial assistance to help sustain and grow the independent Canadian music industry”: They rely on juries to determine who receives grants meaning that subjective taste reigns over what projects receive funding. It’s a point that was heavily highlighted by Alberta expat Paul Lawton’s Slagging Off blog which argued that Factor’s structure disproportionately rewarded a small group of well-connected insiders. (The Trews Lawton noted earned $620000 in the last decade; meanwhile a label like Paper Bag has obtained $1.5 million through different artists.)

Accordingly Factor has received plenty of opposition over who’s funded and who isn’t. Some have suggested that it’s geographically biased. Others believe it tilts towards certain genres (cough indie rock). And perhaps more realistically it’s driven by commercial interests — Factor’s mandate is to grow the Canadian music industry and to those behind it funding is viewed as an investment.

Levin for his part acknowledges the difficulty in selecting who to fund — and why. “If I were making decisions over which artists to fund I might put money towards releasing Drainolith cassettes” he says. “But that decision wouldn’t go over so well with a lot of people.”

Levin and Flanagan though believe they have a solution. Instead of funding artists or labels they say government funding is better served funding resources. What kind of resources you ask? The type that encourage participation and creation of the arts. The duo suggest all-ages spaces ones that could also earn additional profits by having licensed sections selling alcohol. Or public recording studios with an educational component providing musicians with equipment software and knowledge. Or suggests Levin a transportation system used to connect Ontario with Saskatchewan — a vast expansive stretch of land that often separates eastern and western touring.

These resources say Flanagan and Levin provide support not to individual musicians but music communities. “Resources can go into creating environments that are accessible to many types of people instead of very specific people” says Flanagan. “Creating community resources is the way that you foster creative expression.”

Of course there’s a caveat here: Gearing towards resource-based arts funding requires a certain amount of philosophical reform. It inevitably leads to the question of why the government funds the arts in the first place. If the goal is commercial — that is to promote industry — there’s less incentive to put money into resources that at first glance don’t have a clear return on investment.

But Levin suggests that the goal of funding shouldn’t be entirely capitalistic. He says that the arts should be considered an entrenched aspect of public life — the arts aren’t only to be consumed but are also participatory. “If you [focus on] commercially viable art what happens if you neglect the subculture of appreciators and experimenters?” adds Flanagan. “When you do that the underneath of the entire structure falls apart.”

Neither Levin nor Flanagan suggest that Weird Canada has become a resource — yet. But it’s hard not to see their philosophies at play: Beyond establishing a national distribution network the site has also developed a how-to section edited by Tough Age’s Penny Clark is developing a national database for music contacts across Canada and has published a series of successful (and non-successful) grant applications.

It’s not a fully formed resource yet but it’s inching a lot closer to becoming an invaluable crowd-sourced repository of Canadian music know-how. “I can’t in good consciousness say we’re a model” says Flanagan. “We’re doing the best we can but we also have little resources. A big part of the reason we got a grant is because we’re doing a $100000 project on a $50000 budget.”