Singer-songwriter Terry Uyarak writing lyrics in the Inuktitut language. Photo courtesy of Aakuluk Music.

Canadian Labels: Aakuluk Released Inuktitut Music When No One Else Would

Label: Aakuluk Music
Headquarters: Iqaluit, NU 
Year founded: 2015
Founders: Andrew Morrison
Current owner: Andrew Morrison
Notable artists: Terry Uyarak, Northern Haze, The Jerry Cans, FxckMr, Aasiva

Iqaluit-based folk band The Jerry Cans, which incorporates Inuit throat singing and lyrics mostly in their native Inuktitut language, released their debut album, Nunavuttitut, in 2012. It wasn’t until a year after their 2014 sophomore album, Aakukuk, that singer-guitarist Andrew Morrison founded his own record label, Aakuluk Music, which is said to be Nunavut’s first.

With most of the Canadian music industry headquartered in Toronto, it was an ingenious way of getting much-needed attention for the music of the north, even if it was still an uphill battle for a territory largely ignored by the powers-that-be and told that there’s no place for it.

But in 2016, the The Jerry Cans’ label debut, Inuusiq/Life, earned them a JUNO nomination for contemporary roots album and a group of the year nod. They also performed “Ukiuq” (Northern Lights) on the 2018 live broadcast, alongside fellow Nunavut musicians Josh Qaumariaq of the Trade-Offs, Avery Keenainak and James Ungalaq of Northern Haze, and solo artist Riit.

Morrison definitely felt the tides changing. Releases on the label by everyone from legends Northern Haze — who released their first studio album in 33 years — to young rising rapper FxckMr got media attention, but there’s still a long way to go. The Jerry Cans’ most recent album is Echoes, released during the pandemic.

Karen Bliss spoke with Morrison for NMC’s new series on Canadian indie labels.

The Aakuluk Music record label was founded by members of Iqaluit band The Jerry Cans. Photo courtesy of The Jerry Cans.

Being in a professional band is a full-time job. Why did add to your workload by starting a record label?

We actually didn’t even know what a record label was for many, many years, even though we had a record label. We met the Strumbellas — this was a long time ago now, holy smokes — but we had played a few festivals with them and we started asking them a little bit about how they were releasing their music before they exploded. And they just said that they started their own label and released it themselves. And we were like, ‘Wow, why don’t we do that?’

We sing in Inuktitut; we work with bands that predominantly sing Inuktitut, the Indigenous language up here, and we met with lots of labels that said no, and questioned the marketability of that, which is so funny to say now [laughs]. We’re in a different conversation now because I think it’s extremely important music. But the Strumbellas just said, ‘Well, start your own.’ So we did. We functioned as a label for like two years just in name. We actually really didn’t know what a label actually did. We’re still trying to figure it out [laughs].

So you were like, “Alright, let’s start a label. Who’s in? You do this, I’ll do that”? How did you know what to do?

It was actually really kind of ridiculous because I think that the music industry is a little bit pretentious in a lot of ways. So all of a sudden, we just said we were on a label — that we just invented — and people would listen to us more. It was a bit of a ridiculous situation. And it actually worked though. People were like, “Oh, what’s that?” It started the conversation, but it was just us doing the same thing. And again, I kind of whittled that down to a little bit of pretentiousness in the music industry. We were already doing it, applying for money to record, to market this stuff, to do online promotion, that kind of stuff. So it was stuff we were already doing, but we just formalized it through the name of Aakuluk Music. And we were self-managed at the time, so it was just us doing it anyway, but then it was actually also a very effective instrument to help other bands do what we were doing because we were figuring it out as we went, being based in Iqaluit, trying to figure out how to market the band and network.

When did it go from The Jerry Cans to other signings, and what was your A&R focus — contemporary? Only from Nunavut? Only Indigenous? What was the criteria?

Even at the time, we had no idea what A&R even meant [laughs]. We wanted to help our friends, who were facing the same struggles as us, as Inuktitut-singing musicians and people in Nunavut trying to share their music beyond their community. Those were the main challenges that The Jerry Cans faced. So we figured out a few tips and tricks and funding sources, and met lots of great people and some not so great people in the south, but those were even important lessons too. We got ripped off lots and exploited on a number of occasions, and those lessons were equally important for helping other musicians not make the same mistakes we did. To go and showcase in Toronto for us is $15,000. It’s not the same stakes as I think a lot of other bands face. We were really embedded in the scene and Iqaluit and Nunavut, so we knew the artists that were looking to achieve bigger things. It was just a matter of starting to be open to us helping others.

Terry Uyarak is an Aakuluk Music artist from Igloolik, an Inuit community located north of the Arctic circle. Photo courtesy of Aakuluk Music.

You alluded to it earlier, the then and now, because the conversation has changed. People are not just more aware of Indigenous issues, but I think we want to help. Those of us in the music industry want to help Indigenous artists get ahead and have the same opportunities as other Canadians. What was going on then and what are you seeing now?

Back then, it was a completely different conversation. I remember sending our music to CBC, Inuktitut music in our first few albums, and they say, ‘No, this isn’t radio friendly.’ Everybody is saying ‘We don’t think this is marketable. No, we’re gonna pass.’ I find it interesting now [chuckles] because there’s a switch and people say, ‘Oh yeah, I knew them. I knew this band. I knew that band from Nunavut’ [laughs]. It’s a very sharp shift. And that story’s been told a hundred times in the music industry. Now we have an artist we’re pitching to big national radio shows and it’s not like it’s a foreign concept. We don’t have to explain the challenges of Nunavut. We don’t have to explain the importance of creating space for underrepresented artists. Those are moments of progress. There’s still lots and lots of work to be done. Because we want our artists to be included in the communities and the genres that they are a part of. I still think there’s this tendency to establish Indigenous music as a genre, when these artists are all unique. Everybody we work with scratches their head when they’re nominated in a category with such a wide range of music genres, which is great in a lot of ways, but they want to be amongst their genre peers. If that makes sense.

Yes, of course. You want artists to be in, say, the rock category, in the R&B category, in the rap category, and not only in the Indigenous category with artists of all different genres.

Absolutely. And that’s the same on radio programming. I think that there’s still very important spaces that are being created for underrepresented music, but I also think there’s still major work to be done by Spotify, Apple Music, to include those releases on the rock playlists, on the singer-songwriter playlists, on the ones that aren’t necessarily rooted in that underrepresented style. To me, we’re re-emerging in the music industry right now, so we’re just figuring out what’s going on, what’s happening. I’m still seeing that. And I think that needs to change very much. These industry people said to us, ‘Oh no, there’s no audience for this.’ And we’ve totally proved that wrong. There’s a massive audience in Canada and internationally for Inuktitut music, for Indigenous music. It’s very clear. The problem is industry tastemakers. And that’s the biggest challenge now is for them to have that education to playlist these songs and to create proper space for those artists to get their proper representation.

Inside the Aakuluk Music home office and recording studio. Photo courtesy of Aakuluk Music.

Are you seeing what you’ve done trickle down to others in Nunavut? Aspiring musicians or people that want to work in the industry having more hope or starting DIY initiatives?

Yeah. It’s a difficult time for that question because COVID was obviously devastating, but I find the next generation, there’s a beautiful hip hop scene in Nunavut that’s going to explode in the next year. I know it. And there’s an amazing generation that are much more eloquently saying what I just said about putting certain music styles with very different genres in the same categories because of their Indigeneity. And there’s younger people that are saying ‘F**k that,’ and making very strong, passionate arguments for not doing that. And so the next generation is inspiring to me because they make me critically reflect on what the state of the music world is in right now. But yeah, they have lots to say, and there are a few new little label projects in the works that we’re helping mentor and stuff now. So I’m really excited about that. But again, we are moving slowly because COVID really took its toll on the Nunavut arts scene.

Is it true Aakuluk is the first label in Nunavut, or were there any before you?

I really don’t know. Again, I don’t really know what a label is [laughs]. I mean, I think that we were doing those type of things, industry representation, marketing, working with Spotify and Apple Music and stuff. I think that we were the ones that were doing that. I think there were labels that represented Nunavut artists that were based in Montreal and Ottawa and stuff, so that same southern headquarters, whereas at Aakuluk Music, we very much pride ourselves on not being located there. I’m on my deck in Iqaluit right now. I’m so happy that we work from here and we just did our release with the most northern team ever. So we’re really proud of what we’re doing these days. It’s kind of cool. But I don’t know if we’re the first, but I would say that to my knowledge we are first.

Going forward, what would be your hope? When COVID isn’t uppermost on people’s minds and preventing us from operating at full steam, would you like to see more of the music industry visit Nunavut and see the talent you have there and what’s needed?

We had Nunavut Music Week and that’s such an important event, not because of what the artists up here can get out of it, but it’s more so for the industry, people down south, what they learn about Nunavut arts, and the circumstances we’re facing and the basis of the actual art that’s being created. I think that so many people that have come up here in the industry, they’ve had just as much an education as the artists up here have learned from the industry people. That, to me, is what I’m talking about. When I say that the industry needs to understand the little ways that it continues to colonize music in Canada, and that’s something that once people are exposed to it, they’re like, ‘Holy shit, I didn’t even think that I’m doing this,’ but yes, when we’re prioritizing English music, prioritizing mainly white, mainly male artists, those are all major things that are happening. And so when industry people come up here, it’s so important to breed understanding of what the scene is up here and what it needs to put a Nunavut artist on a playlist, how much that can mean to the communities up here. It’s so important for industry education. So we’d love to start Nunavut Music Week Again. There’s whispers of that.

Interview conducted July 2022.