How Red Music Rising is building a culturally competent space for Indigenous musicians
While the Canadian music industry has historically been dominated by white dudes playing indie rock, recently there’s been an explosion of interest in Indigenous talent. Enter Matt Maw, member of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation and director of Red Music Rising. Launched in August 2020, the Indigenous owned and operated music company seeks to develop robust, sustainable, lasting careers for Indigenous musicians and industry professionals. Since its inception, the company now manages six artists and has seen its roster grace some of Canada’s biggest stages and billboards.
We sat down with Matt Maw to talk about his entry into the music industry, the challenges Indigenous music professionals face and how Red Music Rising is working to rewrite industry norms.
Can you share a little about your entry into the music industry?
After my first failed attempt at post-secondary education — I went to school originally for music performance then quickly realized that I had zero interest in it — I knew I needed to do something with music. After moving back to Kitchener Waterloo, where I’m originally from, I found myself working at a record store and DJing at a local bar. I was doing a little bit of concert and party promotion and then I was also working with a friend’s band, helping with whatever they needed at the time. I met someone through the record store who said to me “you are doing all of these things, have you ever considered going to school for this?” And I didn’t think that was a thing that you could do. Literally like a month later, I moved back to Toronto and shortly thereafter enrolled at the Harris Institute. After graduating, I immediately got a dream internship at Arts & Crafts, home of Broken Social Scene. It was kind of a dream come true at that time because [they were my] favorite band in high school. To have the opportunity to be a fly on the wall and see how the sausage is made was like Disneyland or like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory for me. I also simultaneously started interning for a company called Vapor Music Group. While interning full time, I was doing what I could to make a little bit of extra money working with a party promotion company Collective. Right in my early 20s, I was working in music in Toronto and I was just happy as hell.
What is the vision behind Red Music Rising?
For the company to be wholly Indigenous owned and operated and to identify, amplify, develop, curate and nurture the most exciting art that is being made by Indigenous creators in Canada. The roster is wholly Indigenous, covering a variety of genres and a variety of nations. When people have asked me “what kind of artists are you interested in working with?” my answer is that I am interested in working within the artists who happen to be Indigenous as opposed to “Indigenous artists”.
I think that we’re In the midst of what I affectionately refer to as the third wave of Indigenous music in Canada. The first wave of people whose existence and representation was like a big deal, folks like Buffy Saint Marie. The second way in my mind includes The Hallucination, who were unabashedly Indigenous and taking up space outside of the bubble of “Indigenous music” that had come before that which tended to be more traditional, singer-songwriter and folk leaning. The Hallucination are taking existing and traditional sounds and broadening the audience and taking up space on festival stages.
That sort of brings me to where I feel like I’m operating: the third wave. We’ve got people representing as Indigenous creators across multiple genres. Folks like Zoon and Status/Non-Status and Ombiigizi sort of taking up space in the indie rock space that has so traditionally been white, cis, straight male. Or my client Nimkish, who is Chinese and Indigenous and queer, making R&B bedroom pop — not a traditionally “Indigenous” genre, right? We’re now moving past the idea of indigeneity being at the forefront of your identity or artistic practice.
Of course everyone’s lived experience as an Indigenous person is always going to inform their art, whether overtly or subtly. But I think for me it’s most important that it doesn’t need to be the main signifier. I wanted to create a space with Red Music Rising for artists to have a culturally safe space to be as unabashedly Indigenous as they want to be or need to be but that doesn’t need to be like that. We’re not filling anyone’s quota, we’re not ticking anyone’s boxes — we’re making cool, fun, engaging and exciting art that just happens to be informed by an Indigenous experience.
What challenges did Red Music Rising face getting off the ground?
The primary challenge was launching in August of 2020, a weird challenging time for anyone to do anything, let alone launch a brand new music company. In the early days of the label and the management company, not being able to travel and spend time with people in real space or see people perform live felt like a hurdle. Because when I launched this new music company… How am I going to find someone to start working and building something together? If I can’t go hang out with someone, have a coffee, have dinner etc. and see if we actually like each other, let alone see someone perform live on stage to see if what I’m hearing coming out of my computer speakers actually translates onto a stage… It was a tough thing to navigate until I just sort of said ‘F*** it. I like what I hear right now and the music that you are planning on releasing is somethingI can help with.” That means I signed folks both for management and label without ever having met them or seen them play live before. Pre-pandemic to me would have been absolutely unthinkable. Blessedly, it has worked out perfectly for us.
How has the Dadan Sivunivut partnership furthered Red Music Rising goals?
Years ago, Aboriginal Peoples Television Network conducted a fairly large-scale research project into the status of the Indigenous music community and industry in Canada. Those results informed what Red Music Rising would become. Through Dadan Sivunivut, Red Music Rising access to infrastructure that I wouldn’t otherwise have as an independent management company and label like accounting, HR, which is kind of unheard of in the independent music sphere industry realm. One really lovely thing is there’s actually the family of sister companies like Nagamo Publishing and Element FM, two radio stations in Toronto and Ottawa that are overseen by First People’s Radio. We’ve had some really wonderful partnerships over the past year with large-scale presentations of Indigenous music both in Toronto and Ottawa. We’ve got this like this beautiful little family ecosystem of Indigenous creators all sort of feeding into one another and supporting one another.
What impact do you hope to have with Red Music Rising? Where would you like to be in five years?
I want Red Music Rising in five years time to be considered like any other independent record label and management company in the music scene in Canada alongside Six Shooter Records, Arts & Crafts or Dine Alone. All of those record labels sort of have a niche and a brand and I want us to be the go-to for Indigenous excellence in Canadian music. With every release, signing and growth stride, my primary goal is to take up space and establish our company as a normal music company in Canada and to dispel the idea of ‘otherness’ or the exoticization of the Indigenous artist. Internally, I hope to create a culturally safe space where Indigenous artists don’t feel pressured to educate anyone on their experience or artistic practice.
Also I think that it’s representation — in the relatively short time we’ve been privileged enough to have scored some pretty wild visual real estate complements of Amazon Music at Yonge and Dundas Square with two of our artists on billboards. [These moments] felt like this is why we’re doing what we’re doing, this is where I want to be. Kids on the rez seeing pictures of unabashedly Indigenous folks on billboards, that matters.
I [also] want to be taking up that space in the industry as a music company. As much as we find ourselves in the midst of an explosion of Indigenous talent across Canada, there’s the disproportionate representation on the industry side [with] a small handful of Indigenous run record labels, Indigenous managers in the country, and I can’t think of a single Indigenous agent or publicist off the top of my head. I consider it a responsibility of mine, having been able to work in the industry for so long and now having gleaned that knowledge, infrastructure and network.
What growth and development have you witnessed since your first signing?
My first signing at the gate was Boogey The Beat out of Winnipeg. We have grown kind of exponentially over the past while where I now manage Sebastian Gaskin, Nimkish, Wolf Saga, Jacob Hoskins and Kristi Lane Sinclair plus have a number of new signings to the label.
How is the music industry a challenging space for Indigenous musicians to navigate?
The challenge really just has been accessibility. Because up until the very recent renewed interest from the mainstream music industry in Indigenous artists, the Indigenous music community sort of existed in a bubble that didn’t have a whole lot of bridges being built. We were sort of left to do everything ourselves because the access points weren’t there, the networking opportunities weren’t there. It’s getting better because arts organizations, conferences and record labels have begun to do some outreach to this community. That is a very small part of overall steps towards general reconciliation. While lots of positive strides have been made, there’s still a lot more work to be done in terms of strengthening those bridges and ensuring that Indigenous artists have access to the same resources that other non-Indigenous artists.
What is the most memorable experience you’ve had with Red Music Rising so far?
Scoring the Yonge and Dundas billboard that had Nimkish’s face for our first release together. It was also the very first full length release Red Music Rising had ever put out. To achieve a massive national billboard our first step out the gate was a hugely memorable moment and a really sort of like, crystallizing moment.
Second was the showcase at the El Mocambo as a celebration of Indigenous People Day. That was the first time I had the opportunity to throw an event, which was basically our belated launch party. To have artists come in from different parts of the country simultaneously and have a full room was reassuring. It wasn’t just music industry folks or my friends either.
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Thirdly, this past Breakout West in Calgary, I had the distinct honor of programming all of the late night lounge programming. It was a really lovely time to reconnect with the industry and community and have everyone gathered to mingle in the same space. That culminated in Boogey on Saturday playing an absolutely packed show at the Palomino where the entire crowd was absolutely losing their mind. There was a lineup out the door and around the corner. The Snotty Nose Rez Kids joined Boogey on stage as a super secret guest closing the conference. People moshed so hard that someone ripped a light fixture out of the ceiling.
Anything coming up for Red Music Rising’s roster we should keep an eye out for?
A full slate of releases, just none of which has been officially announced yet. So people are just gonna have to keep their eyes peeled.
Rachel Romu is a Glossi Mag contributor.
They are an advocate for disability visibility and inclusion in the entertainment industry, an ATV stunt-driver and a zealous reality TV fan. Rachel also works at Matte PR.