Rita MacNeil's East Coast Music Legacy

Today, coverage of the passing of Rita MacNeil is focusing on what a tremendous person she was. Shy and quiet, but friendly and warm, a loving soul who stayed true to her roots. How she overcame many obstacles, and eventually saw her dreams come true in her 40's, becoming an international recording star. What a great songwriter she was, and a great spokesperson for Cape Breton and the Maritimes. That's certainly where the focus should be today. But I'm going to bring up another side to her. It's rarely discussed, but extremely important to the whole East Coast Music scene we know today.

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Money. Ya, money. Not something that immediately springs to mind with Rita, but it was there, she made it, and she made it for others. And you know the expression, follow the money, well if you follow the money from Rita, you'll find how it spread and influenced the developing East Coast music scene.

Which, didn't really exist back in the mid-80's. There were some bands of course, but no stars and no fully developed industry. The music business had developed in Toronto and Montreal, that's where Anne Murray and the gang around her had had to go back in the late 60's, and in the meantime, the Maritimes hadn't joined in the growth. Then came Rita.

MacNeil really broke out in 1987, with her fourth album, Flying On Your Own. First, it became a Canadian hit, going double-Platinum in sales, a Juno winner, a hit single. Then it spread. She became a star in England and Australia as well, with top selling albums and substantial hit singles. Tours followed. Money was made. And guess where a good chunk of that money ended up?

Here. MacNeil had done her stint in Toronto, trying to break out, but she always loved Nova Scotia, wrote about it, was known for it, and came back and based herself there. She surrounded herself with music players, and business players, that were from the area. Any star of a certain magnitude is actually the front person for a good-sized business with employees and a revenue stream. And for the first time, the music business in the Maritimes was reaping the benefits. Follow the money. Management and agents were doing well, and willing to invest in other artists. Musicians were on salary, able to play their own stuff.

Attention was focused on the region, too. Rita's success brought media, and they looked for other artists. Of course, they were easy to find in Cape Breton. Fans too were suddenly proud of East Coast music, and looking for more. I'll always remember the sea change that happened. When I started playing and talking about music on CBC back in the early 80's, people often said to me that we played too much local music, they didn't like all that. After Rita, suddenly people were asking why we didn't play more Maritime music.

Slowly but surely, these artists gained footholds in the fan base locally and nationally. Rita proved a Maritimer could fill soft-seat theatres instead of bars. Her string of hit albums proved audiences wanted to hear songs about the Mira and other Maritime places and people. And that money was around, working its magic. It let new music bands like Sloan find now-seasoned professionals in Halifax who knew about attracting attention and making deals inside and outside the region.

And let's not forget that her tremendous popularity, especially after her TV show on CBC in the 1990's, helped promote Maritime tourism. People were coming to the area to check out all the music they heard from her, and from other East Coast artists, many of whom she championed on the TV show. They'd even plan Cape Breton holidays just to go to her tea room.

It's no coincidence that shortly after Rita MacNeil's breakthrough in 1987, that the East Coast Music Association and awards were started. All of a sudden, there was enough of an industry to warrant it. Isn't that interesting, the most humble, likeable person turned out to be the business engine of the East Coast music world. No wonder everybody like her.

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About Bob Mersereau

Rockin' BobBob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).

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