How four women changed the export world for Canadian musicians

How four women changed the export world for Canadian musicians

Canadian men have long been known as some of the world’s biggest music stars — Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Michael Bublé — yet the four best-selling Canadian musicians of all time, both at home and in export markets, are all women.

Remarkably, the women — Celine Dion, Shania Twain, Alanis Morissette and Sarah McLachlan — all “came to prominence during a five-year window from 1993 to 1997,” wrote Andrea Warner, in her 2015 book We Oughta Know: How Four Women Ruled the ’90s and Changed Canadian Music.

The sales numbers, mostly exports, remain unmatched by any but a few global stars. The top-selling Canadian albums in Canada are by Dion, Twain, Morissette and McLachlan, and the five best-selling Canadian albums worldwide are Twain’s Come On Over and The Woman In Me (more than 59 million units combined), Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill (33 million), and Dion’s Falling Into You and Let’s Talk About Love (more than 63 million combined). Consider that those numbers, though huge, do not include digital streaming, which account for a larger share of total sales with each passing year.

“Few people realize that in terms of actual economics of the industry, these four women were responsible for the huge momentum in culture and commerce in Canada,” Warner says in an interview. “All four have sold more records in Canada than the Beatles — each of them, and that’s crazy.”

Why did it happen? Why the 1990s? And did it change Canada’s status in export markets?

As for why, “having written the book, I still don’t really know,” Warner said. “The only real common denominator they have is that they happen to be Canadian women.” (She wrote in her book, “What’s the Venn diagram shared by a grande dame of ballads, a country-pop queen, a hissing alt-rock viper, and an angelic folky?”)

As for the 1990s, for some time Canada had been on a slow build in export markets, Warner said. Among women, Anne Murray was the first Canadian to have a No. 1 hit in the United States, with Snowbird in 1970. Overall, Canada “sort of came into its own in the 1980s,” with acts including Rush and Bryan Adams, which helped to pique foreign interest in later Canadian artists — usually men. 

“And then,” Warner said, “these four female artists come in and just take over all of the different charts. It was a pretty big invasion.”

In the 1990s, the female superstars-to-be all came along just as the new Soundscan system was launched to more accurately track music sales by location, which allowed artists and record labels to better respond to marketing opportunities at home and abroad, says Warner Music Canada president Steve Kane — who years ago, at Polygram, worked on Twain’s mega-hit Come on Over. 

Soundscan was a hint of bigger changes to come a few years later, when streaming provided export teams with deep data on where an artist’s music was being played. Such analysis, and the immediate and seemingly intimate relationship between fans and stars on social media, is now key to the success of today’s biggest global music stars — who, again, are noticeably Canadian, including Drake, Justin Bieber, The Weeknd, Arcade Fire and Alessia Cara. 

The simultaneous success of Dion, Twain, Morissette and McLachlan “had an enormous impact,” Kane said, “and we’re seeing that impact all over again” with this latest crop of Canadian stars.

“Every couple of decades, we have this little burst of ‘Canada’s back,’ or ‘Canada’s in the spotlight.’ I think this is the most intense spotlight we’ve had in a while,” he said. The question is “how do we maximize that? How do we keep it from just being a blip?”

Warner, who’s now writing an authorized biography of another internationally known Canadian woman, Buffy Saint-Marie, says that apart from nationality, she sees only one commonality among the four female ’90s superstars.

“They all have an incredible focus,” she says. “All four had this amazing drive, this amazing work ethic. Each wanted a certain level of success and they were willing to push themselves beyond imagination.”

That’s key to how four women “ruled” the ’90s and changed the prospects for Canadian musicians, both at home and in export markets. 

“It was,” Warner wrote in her book, “a bizarre show of strength on Canada’s part, completely unheard of and unique, that ultimately ushered in a new era of music.”

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