WELL, Winnipeg, you've certainly given yourself a tough act to follow.
When the youth-focused YTV talent-competition series The Next Star visited Winnipeg last year, the open auditions for the show's fifth season resulted in two local singers being selected to join the Toronto-bound field of contestants.
And when the field of 13 contenders was pared down to a half-dozen finalists, the Winnipeggers -- Grace Johnston, who advanced during the open auditions, and Issy Dahl, a wild-card pick -- were part of the Top 6 who stayed with The Next Star until its Season 5 champion (Chatham, Ontario's Brooklyn Roebuck) was crowned.
"Touring Canada so much when I was younger (as bassist with the punk band Closet Monster, he toured across the country more than 15 times between 1997 and 2005), I always felt Winnipeg was an incredible hub for the arts," says Mark Spicoluk, a member of The Next Star's judging panel. "There's a lot of grass-roots organizations and a lot of support for the artistic community, and there's also support between bands that allows music to flourish there.
"It was really incredible last year to see the younger generation, the raw talent, and just how many kids were so good. Who'd have thought that two kids from Winnipeg would make it to the Top 6, to represent the entire country? That's pretty amazing."
This city's young talent pool gets another chance to compete for the title of The Next Star on Tuesday, May 14, when the show's sixth-season audition tour rolls into Winnipeg. The open tryout takes place at the Winnipeg Convention Centre; Next Star hopefuls can begin lining up at 6 a.m., and must be in line by 9 a.m. to be guaranteed an audition.
The competition is open to Canadian citizens and permanent residents who will be 15 or younger on Sept. 1, 2013. Contestants must be accompanied by an adult (a parent or legal guardian, or someone authorized in writing to accompany the auditioner). Full details and participant release forms are available at www.nextstar.ytv.com.
It's Spicoluk's second season as a judge on The Next Star (he and fellow panelists Keshia Chanté and Tara Oram joined the series last year, replacing Suzie McNeil, Steve Cranwell and Christopher Ward), and the punk rocker-turned-music mogul (he started his own label at age 16) says he learned a lot last season and has been applying that knowledge during the Season 6 auditions.
"I'm really excited to be doing this again," he says in a telephone interview during the audition tour's stop in Calgary. "During the first run, we were trying to get our legs under us and figure out what this was all about. And by the end of last season, I think the dynamic among the judges was amazing.
"I'd compare this to getting to go on a roller-coaster for the second time -- you kind of know which parts are going to be the best, and you're ready to have a lot of fun with the whole ride."
Having toured Canada and the U.S. extensively with Closet Monster, and briefly as bassist in Avril Lavigne's band, Spicoluk has a good sense of this vast nation's musical diversity. What has surprised him, however, is the depth of young talent that The Next Star has been able to access during its six-year run.
"The advancement that kids have these days, compared to even when I was that age and trying to play in bands, is astonishing," says Spicoluk, 33. "I think I'd accredit a lot of it to 'the YouTube University generation' -- if you want to learn something and you're passionate about it ... you can learn and absorb anything by typing it in to Google.
"If someone wants to learn to be a great guitar player, they can spend a couple of months just Googling and learning and absorbing as much from YouTube as they possibly can. And the result of this is astounding, and I think it extends well beyond music, into sports and skateboarding and anything else you want to learn about. ... The level of skill these kids have is astounding."
One thing that has particularly impressed Spicoluk on the current audition tour is how diligently some of the returning auditioners have followed the advice given to them at last year's tryouts.
"What I really love to see is the kids who come back from last year, who have taken the notes we gave them and spent a whole year running with them," he says. "It's great to see how far they've come. That had a really positive effect on us as judges during the first few days of auditions. You recognize these kids, and they say, 'You told me last year to work on this,' and then they show us what they've done.
"That's what has been really exciting to me -- seeing what a positive influence this can have. It's not a show that's just about one (winner); it's a show that anyone can get something from if they come out and are willing to work at the process."
The key to any successful audition, he adds, is simply being true to your musical self.
"Have the courage to be yourself," he says. "And I think that extends beyond the audition process and through to life in general. In something like (The Next Star), if you can have the courage to be yourself, you will have fun, you'll give it your best and you'll be able to take something away from it, even if you don't make it through."