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The Giant Maw and the Fragile Tangent


Ian Tamblyn has written more than 1,500 songs over his lifetime and released more than 30 albums, earning a Juno nomination and a Canadian Folk Music Award in the process.  So we were thrilled here at Roots Music Canada when he offered to share some of his wisdom with us.  Ian has reflected on and written about many facets of artistic life over the years, and we’ll be publishing some of those writings in the coming weeks.  Thank you, Ian!

For the past number of years, I have thought about the Giant Maw and the Fragile Tangent as I travel from gig to gig across the country. 

The Fragile Tangent to me is the thin lattice work of community-based concert venues connected by highway and byway that grow and collapse and then are reborn again across this country.

The Giant Maw (mouth), on the other hand, is the heart of the society, and it remains the main target area for the North American music industry, even in the nervous age of changing platforms, streams, samples and downloads.

It seems to me that a musician has a choice or is chosen to enter the Giant Maw or travel the Fragile Tangent.

When I began as a musician and songwriter forty–five years ago, I didn’t see the differences between these two roads as clearly as I see them now. They offer entirely different careers in music.

The Giant Maw offers many things but its greatest attraction by far is its ability to introduce new artists to a large swath of the listening public through the agencies of “the star-maker machinery behind the popular song.” If the campaign is successful, your name will be known for the rest of your life by the Giant Maw. Your name will have been entered into the general collective consciousness of the society, very much like a Big Mac ad, and, with continued effort and frequent campaigns of re-introduction, your place in the firmament of the stars may be assured. 

In many ways, American and Canadian Idol were perfect examples of carpet bombing the Giant Maw. It does not matter that the format or presentation or even the content might be dodgy; what was important was that money accrued to Idol and the networks while someone was introduced to the mass Canadian public.

And yet, the downside for the artist in the Giant Maw is found in the last sentence – that money first and foremost accrues to the star-maker machinery behind the popular song. This downside is the heartland of bad contracts, unfair publishing deals, agents, publicists, or lawyers, each taking their share of the loot as you – Big Mac – are becoming the latest thing. 

You do have to have some talent, but that talent may not necessarily be musical. Your talent may be the balancing act you maintain between your art and the Maw when, as they say “money gets interesting.” The biggest talent may be your ability to be sold to the Giant Maw.

The Giant Maw has a voracious appetite; one can get chewed up very badly, but it remains the most effective way of getting yourself known to the great centre of society. If you want to be a rock n’ roll star, then the Giant Maw is really the only route for you. For some there is no other route other than down the Don Valley.

If you do not enter the Giant Maw, you may find yourself gigging the Fragile Tangent as your musical road through life. This truly “alternative“ route likely means producing your own records, booking your own gigs, relying on off-stage sales and traveling the road less taken. You will find yourself touring endlessly, often relying on the string of community concerts, bars, and house concerts that exist across Canada. These community based gigs are often supported by volunteers, fans of music and unknown patrons of the arts.

The viability of this Fragile Tangent hinges on the strength of community support. It can be a wonderful and fulfilling experience. Unfortunately, if one community falls out of the circuit, it can jeopardize the whole viability of the circuit. That is why it is so fragile. I remember years ago playing the northern music circuit in B.C. from Prince Rupert to Prince George and then south to Salmon Arm. It was a great month on the Fragile Tangent – concerts nearly every night. However, when the community organizers got tired in a few communities, the whole circuit collapsed. The ebb and flow of the Fragile Tangent is a constant, and it can be the most frustrating part of this journey. My phone book is full of numbers of people lost to a break in the web. However, it is equally true that another Fragile Tangent will spring up again, and I can say at this point in Canada, this “alternative route” has never been healthier – or more crowded.

Obviously I am biased towards this route because I believe it encourages a genuine appreciation by one’s audience; it encourages a greater diversity of music genres, and it is truly supportive of both the artist and the art form. You are not treated as a commodity on the Fragile Tangent, though there is hopefully an honourable level of commodification. The establishment of the Home Roots network across Canada has added some wonderful stability to the Fragile Tangent; it has also provided the network with some structural grounding. Similarly the series called Small Stages brings music to under-used halls and venues. So too the network of Side Door venues.

All these developments in recent years have strengthened the Fragile Tangent, though it remains regretfully ignored by mainstream media. I guess you can’t have it both ways.

The Fragile Tangent has its share of travelers test driving down this road before exiting at the Giant Maw. At this crossroads things diverge and become two very different routes down musical roads.

Somewhere in the middle of all this winds another path through cyberspace: the enormous and still expanding world of social media. This world, through its democratization of access to the public appears to level the playing field a little in that you may find your tweet or Instagram post next to that of Taylor Swift. Except, the economy of scale is not really comparable. However, it is inescapable how much social media can affect your career in the bowels of the Giant Maw or for your next tour to Hornpayne or Hearst. It can make all the difference in the make-and-break world of introducing an artist to the public, or boosting attendance at your next gig, whether traveling down the road to the Air Canada Centre or the community hall. In this respect main streamers and tangenters are crisscrossing more and more, at least in cyberspace.  I will devote more time to this road down cyberspace in a future column.   


  1. I could not find anything online about “Small Stages” as mentioned by Ian. I would love to know more about that.

  2. … I have known Ian for all of those 45 years, and he has been a constant inspiration and a beacon of true artistry throughout. I am only just reading this article now, as I wade ever so tentatively into the fragile tangent… to promote my newest release: “Lone Gunman at the Assassin’s Hotel”.


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