When the Jerry Cans arrived at their first music trade show in Toronto, seven years ago, they knew immediately they were going to stick out, and it wouldn’t be for their singing. While other musicians handed out demos and business cards, the Jerry Cans performed and offered Arctic char to anyone who passed. “I played acoustic guitar, while the others gave out fish,” says Andrew Morrison, the band’s lead guitarist and one of its vocalist. He stifles a laugh as he recalls the story. “That was our promo. We had no idea what we were doing, but people loved it. We always try to get creative.”
These days, the Indie-rock band is no longer promoting their music by offering northern fish on the side. Since their days as a cover band, playing in Iqaluit’s Legion bar 10 years ago, the Jerry Cans have taken their blend of roots rock and throat singing on several tours in Canada and to shows in Europe, Australia and Cuba. Along the way, they’ve received widespread industry recognition, from Juno Award and Canadian Music Awards nominations to Rock Artist of the Year honours at this year’s BreakOut West awards.
So, here’s the question: How does a band from a community where even simply getting to a show beyond your home base involves thousands of dollars in airfares build a nationwide audience? Moreover, how does it find an audience in a massively competitive business in an era when venues for live music are struggling across the country? True, digital and internet technology have made the process of recording and distributing music infinitely easier than it used to be. The challenge is, anyone can do it—and everyone does.
The Jerry Cans, however, have a strong starting point in their unique music, often featuring lyrics in Inuktitut, and potent northern identity. But Morrison says finding and building the band’s audience has rested largely on its success in networking, a lesson the band learned piece by piece as its career progressed. Festivals, Morrison continues, have been a key element in building industry connections. “I think what’s challenging is getting to those spaces where networking can happen,” he says. “It’s hard to figure out how to get to those first steps. I think that’s something that needs to be supported a lot—to get Northern artists into those industries.”
The Jerry Cans enjoyed a home-field opportunity in having the circumpolar Alianait Festival as a venue during the early stages of their career. In 2012, the band booked shows in Greenland and at the annual Folk on the Rocks festival in Yellowknife, further extending their presence. They released their first album, Nunavuttuit, early in the new year, creating a calling card that helped support growing awareness of the band and leading to Aboriginal Songwriter of the Year honours for band-member Nancy Mike.
Later that year, they also travelled to Toronto to record their second album at The Woodshed Studio, owned by Blue Rodeo, an opportunity Morrison later described to an interviewer as one that “opened a lot of doors for us in terms of meeting people.” By the summer of 2015, the Jerry Cans were established performers on the summer music festival circuit and being featured at major events such as Toronto’s annual North by Northeast extravaganza.
The Jerry Cans are now tapping their network to put other Nunavut musicians in the spotlight. The centrepiece of the effort is Aakuluk Music, a record label the band founded in 2016 to record and promote performers from the territory. Its signature effort was 2017’s Nunavut Music Week festival in Iqaluit, which brought artists from around the territory to meet and perform for Canadian industry professionals and journalists, including representatives from the New York Times and Rolling Stone.
Josh Qaumariaq, singer and guitarist for the Trade-Offs, a blues and soul band from Iqaluit that works with Aakuluk, says the network initially created by the Jerry Cans is vital to the growth of his own band. “The main part of networking is getting [industry] people to come to your shows,” he says, noting that the Jerry Cans’ connections have been very helpful for the Trade-Offs. Terry Uyarak, another Aakuluk artist, says that network has also helped gain media attention across Canada and meetings with publicists and booking agents.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a lid on live music performances for the foreseeable future, the Jerry Cans are now focusing efforts for the band and Aakuluk online. Plans for a follow-up Nunavut Music Week are also on hold. But even under difficult circumstances, they’re keeping the connections alive