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Making screens sing sans bling

Canadian Creativity 2012

Canada has always been a magnet for the self-reliant. In centuries past, a pioneering spirit was essential for anyone who hoped to survive the region’s rugged, unforgiving terrain.

Those demanding days are long gone for most pros in Canadian film and TV production. The Canadian industry may be one of the most hospitable and constructive in the world, burnished with generous production incentives and government support for filmmakers and crews.

But there is a niche where entrepreneurial self-reliance is still a must: the country’s small, close-knit guild of music supervisors.

“We really have to be the run-pass-kick-and-hit players,” says Toronto-based Ron Proulx, a composer-turned-music supervisor whose most recent work is found on CTV series “The Listener.”

“You pick the music, you edit the music, you negotiate licensing, you deal with the score. In a lot of Hollywood productions, you can tell just by looking at the credits that the music editing might be done elsewhere, and the licensing gets farmed out to other companies. We don’t have that luxury here.”

Toronto — with its wealth of local acts and busy production scene — is home to the majority of Canada’s music supervisors, who often get scant resources but must always assemble professional-grade musical soundscapes.

“It’s not the borders that change what we do, it’s the budgets,” says Velma Barkwell, whose East End Music shingle is in charge of CBC series “Mr. D.”

“The challenge of working in Canada is that our budgets are so much smaller. I wish I could work in the U.S. and have the budgets they have. That would be easy.”

A onetime exec in Sony Music Canada’s licensing department, Barkwell is one of several music industry refugees who found safe harbor in supervision. Another, Chris Corless, spent years working in both the publishing and A&R divisions of Universal Music Group Canada before escaping into the supervision world. He is now inhouse music supervisor for the Grayson Matthews agency.

“There were some pretty dark and gloomy days” in the record business, Corless says. “You would just get this feeling of despair when you looked at a band you helped sign, realized they’re not selling, and that the deal you signed with them is only going to hurt them.” Supervision gave Corless a better way to ally himself with local artists — he recalls watching Ottawa band Amos the Transparent ride a wave of buzz after he scored them placement in an ad for a dating site.

Canada’s prolific local music scenes have long benefitted from the country’s cultural quotas, which require a certain percentage of homegrown content to air on TV and radio throughout the day. Music supervisors are under no such requirements, but often end up hewing to the homefront regardless.

“I would say about 50% of the placements I do are Canadian artists,” says David Hayman, who spent seven years leading music supervision at Toronto’s Vapor Music, scoring Canadian ad campaigns for Coca-Cola and Dove as well as film and TV projects, before setting out on his own last spring. “But that’s not because of any quota, it’s just because that’s what I love.”

In Hayman’s case, having an ear to the local scene can be vital to securing contracts with international brands. While he says he’s rarely specifically asked to license homegrown Canadian music, doing so is often in a client’s best interest: “If you have a strong Canadian brand, there can be a backlash if you’re using a song by an American — you don’t want to have John Mellencamp singing a song about Canada. But (on the other hand) there are international brands that really try to embrace the culture of the market.

“We really do rally around our artists in this country,” Hayman continues. “Even if it’s someone like Carly Rae Jepsen or Justin Bieber, it doesn’t matter what you might think of the music, you’re just proud of them as a Canadian.”

Longtime supervisor Michael Perlmutter, who has logged time with “Degrassi: The Next Generation” and “Canada’s Next Top Model,” also attracted Stateside attention of late, music supervising for Richard Gere starring Sundance entry “Arbitrage.”

Like all supervisors, he insists the needs of the film always win out over national pride, though he cops to a “subconscious bias for Canadian artists.” But much of that, he suspects, is due to gratitude.

“It’s remarkable that, even in this economic climate, people can still make all these shows in Toronto,” he says. “I never thought we’d be as busy as we are.”

Indeed, while Canadian supervisors may have to be more entrepreneurial than their Stateside counterparts, the sense of community may be just as important.

“There’s only, what, 10 or 12 of us (in Toronto) doing this,” Hayman says. “I don’t know what it’s like in Los Angeles, but there’s a real sense of respect here — like, you would never see anyone trying to steal a show from someone else. That just doesn’t happen.”

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