Musicians descend on Halifax for East Coast Music Association's annual fete
HALIFAX - Mo Kenney was home asleep early one morning when the phone started ringing and texts began streaming in from her mother, wondering if the young Halifax singer had received word of a possible nomination for a regional music award.
Kenney, who had been easing back into a slower routine after months on the road promoting her debut album, hadn't heard anything until her mom rang back a little later on that January day.
"She called me and told me I got nominated for a category, so I was really, really excited too," she said with a big grin of her nomination for an East Coast Music Award in the rising star category.
"I remember when I was a kid hearing about the ECMAs and wondering if I'd ever get the chance to be nominated. It's really cool and my family is really proud of me."
The 22-year-old folk singer will find out if that adolescent dream will come true Sunday when the East Coast Music Association holds its 25th awards ceremony in Halifax — the same seaside city where the group began in a dingy, basement bar.
Musicians from across the region and industry officials from around the globe will be there to fete Atlantic Canada's music scene and, possibly, boost the profiles of artists once on the periphery of the Canadian music business.
Sheri Jones, Kenney's manager and a founding director of the association, says much of that has changed over the years as East Coast artists have garnered attention from big labels and promoters looking for new music. A lot of that, she insists, is due to the exposure musicians have received through the association.
She rhymes off a string of artists, including the Rankins, Rita MacNeil, Sloan, Sarah McLachlan, Ashley MacIsaac and Lennie Gallant, who got their start or a big boost at the ECMAs.
"You know, they just weren't on anybody's radar back then," she says from her Halifax office. "There was a wealth of talent down here that nobody in Toronto had ever even heard of. So, it allowed us to help people create relationships and to create awareness."
Jones recalls the first few meetings of what was then the Maritime Music Awards, which morphed into the East Coast Music Awards in the early 1990s. The small group was trying to draw attention to the region and highlight all types of music, rather than just Celtic-inspired genres.
In many instances, the exposure through showcases and the awards themselves led to gigs, if not the occasional lucrative deal.
"Ashley MacIsaac showcased at the ECMAs in St. John's. It was the first time anyone had seen him," she said. "All the major labels started a bidding war."
But the business has changed so much over the years that Jones says artists no longer expect to sign record deals through their exposure at this week's events, but rather to form partnerships and set up shows abroad or at home.
"It's different now," says Jones. "Back then we were looking for opportunities to sign deals with labels and now we're looking for international business opportunities for partners."
Joel Plaskett, who has received multiple awards and is nominated in two categories this year, remembers his first band in Halifax and being on the outside of the ECMA music establishment.
Plaskett said he didn't pay much attention to the awards at the time, believing they were more focused on traditional Celtic groups than on the likes of his rock leanings.
But as Plaskett started getting more attention, first in Thrush Hermit and then with the Emergency, he recognized that the ECMAs could help with the business side of the industry.
"You're doing showcases, you're trying to develop what you do and draw some attention to it and that's what kind of opened up that world and every year it became a bigger part of what I did," he said on Tuesday before hitting the road for some tour dates along the eastern seaboard.
"To me, the direct result of ECMAs has been the local and Maritime profile that it's garnered me in terms of awareness that people have of what I do and my name recognition. It just builds this local profile and recognition that has carried nationally."
Kenney and Ben Caplan, another nominee in the Rising Star Recording of the Year category, hope the exposure will have the same effect on their careers.
Caplan, whose album "In the Time of the Great Remembering" is also up for Folk Recording of the Year, said the forum is critical to developing artists like himself who hope to make connections with promoters and agents.
"It's spectacularly important," the 26-year-old singer and guitarist said at a downtown studio. "It's a high concentration of influential people in the music industry all in one place, so ... it's these kind of industry events that really helped me to make big leaps."