By Tabassum Siddiqui
Like so many of his colleagues in the music industry, Vel Omazic’s path to a career in music started out as an infatuation with great songs.
While growing up in Hamilton, Ont., Omazic – now executive director of the Canadian Music Incubator (CMI), an artist-development non-profit – was constantly tuning in to local FM stations (including those from nearby Toronto and Buffalo), listening for songs that would catch his ear.
But that interest in broadcasting first led him to study journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa before realizing he could parlay his passion for music into a career.
“At the time, pre-internet, I had no idea you could even work in the music industry,” Omazic says with a laugh.
“I saw a posting for a job at PolyGram Records in Montreal. I applied at the end of my last year of school, and by mid-May, I was on my first day of the job at PolyGram. The whole direction of my life changed unexpectedly within two weeks – and here I am 30 years later.”
Omazic drew on his journalism training to excel in promotion and publicity, writing artist bios, newsletters and press releases, and worked his way up through the label. When PolyGram merged with A&M Island Records in 1991, Omazic was able to return to Ontario, later joining Sony Music Canada in 1995 as vice-president of national promotion and media relations.
“I had a great 10-year run there – that was at the peak of the CD era, pre-digital disruption and Napster. We had a great roster of Canadian artists – Celine Dion, Amanda Marshall, Chantal Kreviazuk, Our Lady Peace – we were pretty hot at that time in terms of Canadian artist development,” Omazic recalls.
“And that’s where I found my love for building artists from the ground up. It’s always been my favourite part of the business.”
Working in the major-label system at the height of its influence informed Omazic’s outlook on promoting and supporting homegrown talent.
“People forget that the majority of Canadian artists we see today that are internationally successful are directly signed to American labels. Celine Dion, on the other hand, was signed directly to Canada. It was rare back then, and it’s even more rare now.”
That fertile era quickly ended when digital disruption – including file-sharing programs like Napster – hit the industry hard.
“I don’t think we saw it coming. And those of us who were in the trenches day-to-day, we had our heads down doing the best we could – but basically overnight, everything changed. It was a challenge in terms of budget cutbacks and lay-offs – we just weren’t selling records anymore, so what do we do? There was all this uncertainty,” Omazic says.
He ended up briefly leaving the music industry, taking on a new challenge by working in the environmental sector before co-founding CMI in 2012.
“The appeal to me was seeing the changes in the industry where the access to record, release and distribute music was now available to anybody, but the challenge is that artists still need to know what they’re doing,” Omazic says.
“So our motivation was to make sure truly talented artists and songwriters didn’t get lost in the shuffle. We didn’t necessarily know what CMI was going to become – at the time, we said, ‘Let’s figure out a way to help.’ We started from there and figured it out as we went along.”
CMI bills itself as a “one-stop professional development solution,” providing emerging artists, songwriters, managers and industry professionals with professional development, live performance opportunities, and ongoing mentorship.
“Working with independent artists/songwriters, for us, success can be anything from instilling self-belief, to changing artist mindsets so that they understand that they are in fact self-employed small-business owners, to helping creators write the grant that’s going to help them put that first great recording into the world, to connecting them with potential collaborators or partners. I call them ‘micro-successes’,” Omazic says.
“I think one of the things I’m most proud of about CMI is our commitment that anyone who connects with CMI through any program has access to ongoing mentorship. So as they go through their journey, they’re able to just reach out to us when and if they need help. It never expires.”
CMI partners with key industry groups across the country for customized programs, including the Allan Slaight JUNO Master Class, which has been running for nearly a decade; the APTN Indigenous Music Accelerator; the Women in Music Canada Entrepreneur Accelerator; the TD JUNO Green Room; City of Mississauga Love Local Live Music series and more.
CMI also connects event programmers with musicians from all genres across Canada, curating over 1,400 shows to date, including the TD Music Connected series; Play the Parks; Indie Fridays at Yonge-Dundas Square; National Indigenous Peoples’ Day events and others.
Part of that work is ensuring artists understand their rights as songwriters – which means working hand-in-hand with organizations such as CMRRA, Omazic notes.
“I didn’t know anything about publishing when I first worked in the majors. It took me a few years to figure out what it was and what it meant in the music industry. When I was at Sony, I had the chance to meet the publishing department, interact and ask questions and see the work that they put into developing songwriters. That was my introduction to publishing,” he says.
“On the publishing side, what we notice at CMI is that the number-one royalty collection gap is on the reproduction side, in terms of songwriters being unaware of the fact that they actually have this right,” he adds.
CMRRA staff have spoken at CMI’s artist entrepreneur program over the years to explain reproduction rights and CMRRA’s role in licensing and collecting for their use.
“As we were figuring out CMI and helping creators to understand how they generate revenue, rights became a very important piece of that. When we were starting out, we reached out to all the rights organizations and invited them to speak. CMRRA always accepted our invitation and helped us really understand the world of reproduction rights.”
CMI also organized an event with the French Embassy in 2023 where Paris-based hip-hop songwriters and performers travelled to Toronto to meet with various industry members, including CMRRA. He also moderated a royalties seminar at Country Music Week in September, which included CMRRA, SOCAN, ACTRA RACS, and Connect Music Licensing.
“We try to make sure all creators understand organizations like CMRRA are an extension of their team – that as rights-holders, they have access to these people who will support them and help administer their rights,” he says.
“It’s their intellectual property that’s earning revenue for them – understanding that in music, there are multiple ways that you’re going to generate a living, and knowing that your copyrights will continue to earn for you over the years.”
CMI’s work helping artists develop sustainable careers has garnered attention beyond Canada – the organization recently collaborated with Gatecrash, a music agency based in Mumbai which promotes live music and started a professional development program for artists modelled after CMI.
“They found us online and said, ‘We need something like this in India.’ They don’t have the luxury of the level of support and arts funding that we have in Canada, but there’s a whole slew of super-talented independent creators in that country,” Omazic says.
“When I was in the majors, talk of India was limited to the Bollywood film industry. But it’s great to see the country emerging as a major international market. And we realized that creator challenges there are basically the same – obviously there’s the unique geography and culture, but the issues around running your own business have clearly been established as universal.”
Those issues include the ongoing challenges posed by rapidly changing technology, including artificial intelligence, Omazic points out.
“Music has always been on the forefront of digital disruption. Right now, in terms of AI, I think there are more questions than answers at all levels of the industry and government, not to mention society in general – but we’ve been dealing with these kinds of changes in the industry for the past 25 years, quite frankly.”
One of the positive aspects of digital disruption has been the ability to harness the power of tech to increase engagement with creators and the industry – which is critical to CMI’s goals, Omazic says.
“We had to learn the importance of engagement very quickly. As a national non-profit organization, being visible, being available for people to connect with us directly was even more amplified when we went through the pandemic,” he explains.
“We started out doing our own programs, but then expanded into custom third-party programs. Our live division has grown organically, and now we find ourselves curating for companies and people looking to hire talent, so everything has kind of evolved from the basic mandate to help artists and songwriters. We’re always looking for ways to open any doors that might stretch out from our core professional development offerings.”
As he and his colleagues at CMI continue to develop different ways to support artists, Omazic always thinks back to the roots of his love of music. He admits that he often struggles to single out specific artists who have harnessed CMI’s programs for career success, because there are just so many.
“I’m the DJ for the CMI Supported playlist and putting that together is probably one of my favourite hours of the week – I work on it every Friday morning, where I go through and listen to all of the new releases from artists we’re connected with,” Omazic says.
“It kind of takes me back to those early days in Hamilton just listening to songs on the radio. I’m a song person – I’m always searching for songs that will capture my attention, imagination or emotions”
To learn more about the Canadian Music Incubator, visit canadasmusicincubator.com.