By Isabelle Speerin
A recent World Economic Forum report reveals it’s going to take 132 years to close the gender gap. While that feels like a lifetime away, industry-veteran Robyn Stewart is not one to shy away from a challenge.
Stewart is a familiar face to many in the music industry, particularly in Western Canada, where she spent eight years as Executive Director of BreakOut West and the Western Canadian Music Alliance (WCMA).
She’s now confidently at the helm of one of Canada’s largest music industry associations, Women in Music Canada, a role that perfectly unites her dual passions for gender equity and supporting emerging talent. “It was a dream to step into doing all those gender parity passion pieces that I loved the most about my job at the Western Canadian Music Alliance as a full-time job,” she said.
Stewart began her career as a stage manager for the Manitoba Theatre for Young People shortly after graduating from the University of Manitoba in the early 2000s. “I fell into music when I was asked to support Prairie Music Week, which later became the Western Canadian Music Awards (WCMA),” she explained. It was the start of a working relationship that continued for many years. “I’ve been with WCMA since its inception,” she said. “I kind of grew up there and came and went in various capacities over the years.”
In 2009, Stewart moved to Vancouver to book over 250 music artists as the Celebration Sites Program Coordinator at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games. “It was so fulfilling to take artists that the world didn’t know about yet, give them real artist fees and put them on stages to massive audiences,” she said. “It was the best job ever!”
Post-Olympics, Stewart went on to become the Executive Director of the Coastal Sound Academy, before eventually returning to Winnipeg, where she lent her talents to STARS Air Ambulance, the Winnipeg JUNO Awards Host Committee, and the Toronto Pan/Parapan American Games Organizing Committee.
Stewart now oversees all aspects of Women in Music Canada (WIMC), including its educational, career development and networking events, as well as programming, industry engagement and advocacy. “My goal is to build an association that supports a pipeline of talent for a career in music from the beginning phase to the senior executive level that is safe, accessible, and successful,” she said.
One of the initiatives she’s looking to grow is the organization’s popular entrepreneur accelerator program, designed to support the next wave of women and gender-diverse Canadian creators and industry leaders.
“I want to grow this program to meet the need because submissions tripled from the previous year. We also added mentorship as a response to feedback from past years,” she said.
CMRRA is a proud supporter of Women in Music Canada programming and initiatives like the accelerator program, which help to elevate female and gender-diverse music publishers and self-published songwriters.
In honour of International Women’s Week, WIMC is presenting a series of workshops and speaker sessions in Toronto on March 7. Sessions are free to attend and cover topics like financial, legal and admin tips for the live music sector, how to engage with new technologies and practice digital hygiene, and how to become export ready. CMRRA is proud to be a workshop partner of the event.
Stewart is also launching the inaugural Women in Music Canada Honours program on March 8 at The Opera House in Toronto to recognize, celebrate, and support women creators and leaders.
“There are incredible female leaders in Canada but there simply aren’t enough,” she said. “Our community is too small, especially in areas like for example live production. We want to highlight the great work being done and support increasing the roles of women and gender diverse folks in all areas of the music industry and celebrate more aspirational mentors for those coming into the industry.”
While Stewart has been focused on industry programming and events in her first six months, she’s looking to turn her attention to artists and creatives and figure out how to connect members in meaningful ways.
“In my opinion, one of the things we lost the most through COVID-19 is new engagement,” she said. “People were quite eager to jump on a Zoom call with people they already knew but bringing in new people, new opinions, new inspiration into your circle was harder.”
When asked how the digital age has impacted how we engage with creators, Stewart says she’s often blown away by how quickly viral trends have changed the way talent is sourced.
“As a talent buyer previously, it went from who has a website, industry team and tour success proof, years ago, to who has a big social impact,” she said.
Stewart says the fact that artists are so accessible on digital platforms means there’s so much more noise but believes a creator’s ability to share authentic personal stories is the best way to cut through. “Transparency is such a big pull,” she said, “If you are a creator who feels passionately about something and can share it by not falsifying it in any way, you will definitely increase engagement.”
On the flip side, she recognizes there is some fear around being authentic, especially when information can be shared instantly across digital platforms in so many ways.
“It creates a lot more fear,” she added. “And if you’re afraid about what you’re going to say and how it’s going to be received as a public artist, creator or performer, it has to ride on your mental health.”
What keeps Stewart hopeful is that all levels of government are turning an eye to diversity, equity, and inclusion which is an incredible opportunity for everyone, not just those who fall into equity-seeking groups. “My vision is that ten years down the road, we’re hiring the best people and they just happen to be a mix of all different demographics that make up this beautiful picture,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”
Stewart currently resides in Winnipeg with her husband and family. She sits on boards for Polaris Music Prize and Canadian Live Music Association and serves as Chair of the Advisory Board for the Manitoba Heart and Stroke Foundation.
To learn more about Women in Music Canada or join their directory, visit www.womeninmusic.ca.