Breaking Down the Ottawa Music Strategy
Last month, the City of Ottawa’s city council unanimously voted in favour of adopting the first-ever official music strategy in order to build a bigger, stronger music industry in the capital. The announcement is a major step towards establishing Ottawa as a ‘music city,’ and the strategy proposes a three-year plan to enhance the relationship between the city and the music scene so that the community at-large can benefit.
The impetus for the Ottawa Music Strategy was born out of 2015’s Connecting Ottawa Music report, which highlighted multiple strengths and opportunities is Ottawa’s current music landscape. Moreover, a recent Music Canada study suggested that benefits of strong local music ecosystem can include an increased economic impact, music tourism, city brand building, attracting and retaining talent and investment outside of the music industry, cultural development and artistic growth, and strengthening the social fabric.
However, these realizations are not without challenges. The Connecting Ottawa Music report also found that the region’s music industry faces some formidable obstacles, including a serious lack of certain types of music businesses and venues. Most of all, Ottawa’s music industry lacks connection to larger networks in music, business, and government.
The strategy sets out specific recommendations for the city and the music scene, all of which were decided upon by an independent task force of local music industry leaders. Phase one recommendations to be implemented in 2018 include: working towards the establishment of a music development officer; increased operational funding and support for the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition (OMIC); promotion of a music-friendly regulatory environment; promotion of safer music spaces; and the integration of music into future economic development and tourism strategies.
Looking at the strategy’s phase one recommendations—which I focus on because these are to be implemented first throughout 2018—here are some key considerations which should be taken into account moving forward.
The city must trust community leaders to drive change.
The spirit of the strategy is collaborative—in theory. However, whenever dealing with large bureaucratic entities, community leaders are often given the back seat to those working at City Hall. If the strategy is to succeed, the city has to allow the community to drive change. There are regulatory problems that are currently plaguing Ottawa’s progress in growing as a music city, and in order to move forward we must first deal with those first.
The example mentioned in the strategy is the creation of “loading zones” for bands at venues. This is certainly worth looking at, but it goes beyond that. Creating a positive working relationship with By-law is a major goal, and issues such as postering board regulations, noise enforcement, busking red tape, and many more, require serious examination.
The reality is that when it comes to organizing music events, consulting on music-related policies and by-laws, promoting cultural events, community members do it best. The city has many resources and may be able to help in a supportive manner, but if we are to affect meaningful change with current problems, the people who have ground-level expertise need to be given the power to steer the ship.
The Creeps playing at a packed House of TARG in April 2018.
The Music Officer must exhibit expertise and autonomy.
A key recommendation for the city was the creation of a full-time Music Development Officer position by 2020. According to the strategy, the officer must have “extensive knowledge of local music and the broader industry with the ability to navigate City Hall” that will work as a liaison between the city and the industry group (OMIC).
If done right, this recommendation could be hugely beneficial to both the city and music community. Bridging the gap between the two could mean effective and efficient music-related policy development and execution. With an extensive laundry list of tasks and responsibilities noted in the strategy—not least of which are implementation of the strategy and leading ongoing collaboration between the industry and city—this is a big mountain to climb.
The Music Officer must be someone who has an extensive knowledge of the local music community, and understands the ins and outs of the larger music industry. Their tact when dealing with difficult issues, regulations, and diverging interests and opinions, is going to be paramount.
While this position will be funded by the city, the Music Officer must be given a degree of autonomy to carry out their role effectively. Whoever fills this role will be entrusted by the community to relay their interests to the city, and spearhead the implementation of these ideas laid out in the strategy. If the city has a heavy hand in directing the Music Officer, the position could become a farce, with trust diminishing over time. A fair, independent, and collaborative Music Officer will have the biggest impact.
Funding must target all corners of the local industry.
With respect to funding, the strategy recommends multi-year operational investment for OMIC. The Task Force recommended that the city invest $100,000 annually over three years to support OMIC in the implementation of the strategy. This funding is crucial, but equally important is where else money will be directed.
Although the creation of an Ottawa Music Development Fund (OMDF) is a phase two recommendation (2019-2020), short-term strategic investments into music industry will help to bolster and enrich the local music ecosystem in Ottawa. When we think of funding for music, most of us think of money invested in musicians for making albums or going on tour. But funding in other areas of the music scene should also be prioritized. Money must be earmarked for music companies, promoters, not-for-profit music organizations, and other grassroots initiatives that normally run with little or no budget.
If the city wants to see tangible benefits and change in the long-term, it must start investing in the community immediately. Passion can only take us so far. Organizers and leaders in the community need funding to fully realize their visions, which will ultimately lead to more activity, more money to artists, and greater cultural participation overall.
Focusing on diversity and safety in music spaces is paramount.
Last, but certainly not least, taking a collaborative and community-led approach to safety and diversity in the music scene is critical. Creating a certification process for safe venues would undoubtedly set a tone at events and spaces. Zero tolerance for sexual and physical violence, racism, homophobia and transphobia, and so on, must be promoted and enforced across the board. This would lead to a more vibrant, inclusive, and participatory music scene that is risk-averse.
While we still have a long way to go, Ottawa could become a global leader on this front. Having the city and community work together to protect individuals—particularly those who are marginalized, and therefore most at risk—could be seen as an functional model to be used elsewhere.
Ottawa is beginning its journey towards becoming a music city, but there will be bumps along the way. If we can learn from the mistakes of the past and maintain a sense of collaboration, we may be able to empower the music community to transform the cultural and economic face of Ottawa for the better.
This article appears in the May edition of Ottawa Beat newsprint in the OSBX column. The full strategy document can be found online here — Ottawa Music Strategy (2018-2020) [ PDF 2.6 MB ]
The Art of Festival Applications
If there’s one thing Ottawa has no shortage of, it’s festivals. Tons of festivals. Festivals, everywhere. Here in the capital, we love to celebrate pretty much everything. Festivals are a major part of Ottawa’s tourism and provide lots of opportunities for local musicians. But how does one navigate the mysterious, and often daunting, festival application process?
It isn’t as hard as you think. Well, not if you are prepared. Festival applications are generally straightforward, but there is a degree a vagueness with respect to what exactly the organizers want from artists. In this article, I attempt to clear up the process and highlight certain aspects that may make or break your application.
Do your research
Festivals come in all shapes and sizes, and draw in certain audiences. Doing some research into who’s organizing the festival and what kind of music they’re programming can go a long way to increasing your chances of success. Do a bit of digging and learn what the event is all about, what kind of music they’ve booked in the past, and how your music would fit in. Do not assume the gender or identity of the organizers, and learn their names if you can.
Think of it like applying for a job with an organization. Would you go in to an interview blind, without learning anything about the company? Chances are, no. The same goes for festivals, and if you’re a solo singer-songwriter, you’re probably not going to fit into the lineup at a punk festival like Ottawa Explosion. If you’re a metal band, CityFolk probably won’t be calling you back. And that’s okay, but save yourself some time and target festivals that can accommodate your sound.
Bio: Less is more
Band bios are tricky. What do you include? How much is too much? For music festivals, less is certainly more. In almost all cases, festivals will ask you to include a band bio in order to get a better idea of what you’re all about. This is where preparation is key. Think about it—do you think organizers want to hear about how you, Steve, Carrie, and Dan met? No, they do not. What they want is a short and succinct explanation of who you are, where you’re from, and some of your top achievements. It shouldn’t read like a detailed history, but more like the synopsis on a book flap. Organizers are short on time and want to know all the good stuff in as little time as possible. So, if you have a long bio on your website, take some time to cut and condense it into under 150 words.
I.D.A.L.G. at Megaphono 2017 (Photo by Els Durnford)
Live videos: The Key
A good quality live video can go a long way. Why? Because it gives organizers an accurate picture of what you’re like on stage, in the flesh. There is nothing worse than vetting bands and having to scour YouTube for poor quality fan-shot videos. They are like nails on a chalkboard.
A well-shot, well-produced live performance or session video can be the deciding factor in accepting one act over another. It’s a worthy investment to hire a videographer or participate in live sessions that are being professionally recorded, as these videos can be put in your back pocket and used as your golden ticket.
Don’t act like you’re famous
Please do not act like you are famous. Please. There are few things less attractive to organizers than a band that over-hypes itself. Organizers are not dummies—in fact, they are usually music industry veterans that have been around bands their whole careers. So, you’re not fooling anyone. Saying that you are “the next Arcade Fire” or “the best thing to happen to Canada since The Hip” will do nothing to help your application. It comes off as pretentious and unbecoming. In many cases—especially in Ottawa—festival organizers want to find new bands and give them an opportunity to play in front of larger audiences. Talking about your achievements in an honest and sincere way can go a long way.
Try, try again
Lastly, don’t be discouraged if your band doesn’t get chosen for a given festival. There are thousands of applicants that attempt to play festivals in Ottawa. The best thing you can do is learn how to improve your chances next time. Festivals aren’t going anywhere, trust me. Before next festival season, do that video shoot. Hire a good photographer for band shots. Try to get some positive reviews in local music publications and blogs. Go to shows, meet people, find bands that have had success and try to get on a bill with them. The music industry can be a tough one, but if your band can weather the bad times, then you’ll eventually get an opportunity to showcase your music on a bigger stage. Hard work always pays off . . . just make sure you’re working hard on the right things.
This article appears in the February edition of Ottawa Beat newsprint in the OSBX column.
The pay-to-play model has to go
Artwork by Steve St. Pierre
In the world of live music, there are a number of ways in which artists, promoters, and venues can agree to put on a show. For a lot of independent musicians, these deals can seem mysterious and perplexing. These deals can range from very reasonable to overtly exploitative, and the exploitative ones are bad. I mean, really bad.
There are various ways in which a performance deal can be shady and keep money out the of artist’s pocket, but there are a few that I’ll talk about here which are particularly unethical. In the lexicon of the music industry, artists and concert-goers should be wary of the terms “competition” and “showcase.” These are terms that are often used to cover up a pay-to-play scheme—or should I say, scam.
Here’s how they generally work: An organizer creates a showcase festival and says its mission is to promote and support bands. I use the term “bands” because they are usually the targets, although this can also apply to solo artists. Often targeted towards naïve and younger groups, bands can submit their application to play one of several short time slots throughout the event.
In essence, it is a popularity contest where the band that sells the most tickets usually brings out the biggest, most voracious crowd and scores major points with judges.
Sometimes the application even costs money, without any guarantee of a performance or mention whatsoever. Successful applicants are forced to sell as many tickets as possible and are given a short time slot to perform—again, without any guarantee of money. The applicants who sell the most tickets are typically offered some sort of prize. There is usually some promise of leveraging oneself in the industry, or “fast lane to fame” by skipping over the hurdles that prevent artists from hitting it big.
In Ottawa, there are two examples that I would like to examine. First, Landmark Showcase Festival (LME) is a scheme which most local musicians are familiar with, mostly because the organizers encourage bands to apply by email-spamming them on a regular basis. LME takes a handful of submissions and doles out tickets for bands to sell, usually to their dedicated fanbase, family, and friends.
However, the 15 acts playing the event may have nothing in common with one another musically, and industry judges choose the top performers who get selected to win “grants” in the final round. The criteria includes tightness and professionalism, stage presence and performance, originality/creativity, songwriting/structure, and crowd engagement and reaction. There is no criteria for diversity or inclusivity, so the lineup could conceivably consist of 15 bands made up of straight white guys with goatees and bad nose piercings. This is problematic on many levels.
In essence, it is a popularity contest where the band that sells the most tickets usually brings out the biggest, most voracious crowd and scores major points with judges. While runners-up aren’t given any sort of financial award for their efforts, they are allowed to talk to the industry professionals afterward and attempt to give themselves a “leg up” or “in.”
In the case of E.L.E. Festival, which was hosted by the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa in September, the organizers circulated an email to applicants which explicitly stated that the act with the top ticket sales would win the grand prize of $500. Second and third place were to also get a smaller prize, but the next 10 runners-up were only allotted a 15-minute time slot to perform. That’s it. No money, no prizes, nothing.
The festival is “designed to be a stepping stone event between bar gigs and some of the city’s larger festivals like Bluesfest, CityFolk, and Escapade.” In fairness, when it started a few years ago, the lineups were curated more fairly and it was run independently with some money going to charity. However, in its current form, it is difficult to see how larger festivals or promoters could take E.L.E. applicants seriously when its entire local lineup is based on ticket sales and not vetted by quality of music. Ultimately, E.L.E. scrapped the pay-to-play idea last minute after a harsh backlash from the music community in Ottawa.
Any deal that doesn’t guarantee performing bands some set monetary fee or percentage split of the door is unethical, exploitative, and toxic to a music community.
In both of these cases, all applicants are put to work in order to sell as many tickets as possible, yet only the top few receive a cash prize. Moreover, both events promised the runners up a chance to leverage themselves in the industry, gaining “exposure” with industry professionals larger festivals. The last time I checked, there is no official currency called “exposure,” because that isn’t a real thing.
Having bands sell tickets under the guise of “self promotion” without any guarantee of payment or returns is fundamentally unethical. This is exploiting their labour solely in the interest of driving revenue for the organizers, sometimes without a guarantee that the applicant will even be allowed to perform, let alone get paid for their work.
“Pay-to-play” doesn’t necessarily mean bands must literally pay money to have a shot at playing on stage (although forcing bands to fork out cash to apply is the absolute worst—e.g. Sonicbids). It can also mean they pay with their time and effort by being forced to sell as many tickets as possible for an obscure chance to finish at the top for some prize. Bands put a lot of effort into their music. It takes time and money to write songs, buy instruments, rent studio time, record albums, and make merchandise. Any deal that doesn’t guarantee performing bands some set monetary fee or percentage split of the door is unethical, exploitative, and toxic to a music community.
It is my belief that the best way to “make it” in the industry (for lack of a better term) is to come up through the local scene, focus on being part of the community, work hard, and pay your dues. That includes supporting other bands, meeting the people in the community who actually give a shit about music, and most importantly, about musicians. These good folks often include small venue owners and bookers, independent show promoters, community radio station personalities, record store employees, music journalists, and, of course, musicians themselves. These people are usually in the game for the same reason—because they care, and music is their life’s passion.
This article appears in the October edition of Ottawa Beat newsprint in the OSBX column.
Spotlight Series: Ottawa beat music newsprint thrives
In 2012, Ottawa said goodbye to (x)press, its once-homey hub of alternative and independent arts journalism. Since then, a vibrant collection of music blogs, art collectives and start-up companies have scattered across the capital, but nothing truly filled the void of the weekly arts newspaper- until this past summer.
In June, Ottawa Beat, the monthly, independent, locally-created paper was born. Run by Luke Martin and edited by Adella Khan, the publication has since developed a circulation of 5000; reaching hands via indie cafes, record shops, clothing stores, and more. The paper’s articles and illustrations – all crafted by capital region artists – cover concerts, festivals, and arts events, provide commentary on music culture, and spotlight local bands. With each month that goes by, the paper develops a larger readership and covers a wider scope relating to local music; Beat’s latest issue (November 2016) featuring an interview with renowned Canadian artist Tanya Tagaq.
The paper’s beginnings are parallel to the recent changes in Ottawa’s music industry. While the past few years have seen a number of beloved venues close down, new and innovative spots have taken their place – a quite literal example is the closure of Raw Sugar and the opening of Bar Robo. While the city still struggles with accessibility, all-ages shows are on the rise thanks to inviting venues, outdoor festivals, and what seems to be a slow but prominent shift in the attitude of Ottawa’s music scene. Ottawa Beat is a near perfect embodiment of these changes – its eclectic writing spotlights underground music but is inviting to everyone. Supported by small advertisements, the paper is a thriving model of near-independent success, curated by a growing number of local artists who are bound by their appreciation of music and belief that (even within a stereotypically cold government city), local music is a gift, one that needs to be shared.
Creating a music publication was something that Luke Martin, the owner of Capital Rehearsal Studios and Gabba Hey, had thought about since the end of (x)press. A quiet but integral member of the Ottawa music scene for two decades, Martin saw the need for a new music publication, one that would better encompass the city’s young and growing industry.
In search of partners with a writing background, mutual friends led Martin to Adella Khan, a graduate of Carleton University’s journalism program. “She’s a community builder,” he says of Khan, who was previously Editor-In-Chief of The Charlatan and a contributor for CanCulture. Her writing experience, logistical knowledge, and understanding of local arts culture were the set of skills needed to materialize Martin’s idea. Khan works with a growing number of contributors to create the monthly paper; an undoubtedly difficult project, one that she’s handled gracefully.
While Capital Rehearsal Studios has recently closed its doors as a venue (known in the community as Gabby Hey), Martin continues to offer an accessible place for local independent bands to get their footing. Not limited to Gabba Hey, his business endeavours in the Ottawa arts have provided the necessary support for young and self-sufficient artists to thrive.
Supporting young artists remains Martin’s main goal in his managerial position at Ottawa Beat. In Ottawa (unlike larger, more perceptibly “artistic” cities like Toronto), there remains an anxiety around promoting one’s music and seeking a following. Martin hopes to break that barrier down, not only through promoting artists’ work, but also by providing the resources needed to grow. Gabba Hey’s rehearsal space was arguably the best example of this, and it will be difficult to replace. But with the city’s growing number of intimate venues, community music events, and independent recording projects, the future looks bright.
While the paper stays true to its catchphrase, Ottawa’s Music News, it encompasses a wide scope of issues pertaining to the local arts, with essays written from a range of perspectives. Examples include articles providing insight into entertainment law (a monthly piece in the paper’s Music Industry section, written by Byran Pascoe), the struggles of making time for music (The Art of Balancing Family, Work and Music by Adriana Ciccione), and the difficulties of establishing a band (How You Can/Why You Should Start/Join a Band by Brittany Neron and Sofia Shutenko). The paper also features a Babely Shades column, bringing awareness to inequalities in the music scene and providing a much-needed platform for local minorities to reach a wide audience when voicing their experiences.
The paper’s categories (which include Photography, Food, Comics, and Radio, among others), maintain a broad artistic scope within the context of local music, providing a unique collection of stories each month. In this sense, Ottawa Beat should be confident in their future – specialty print can be repetitive, but the paper’s versatility and scope ensures a wide readership and room for growth and change.
Ottawa Beat has also quickly established itself as a means of interconnection and communication within the local arts community. The paper features a monthly itinerary of local shows, uses original artwork for each issue’s cover, and shines light on both the developments in the local music scene as well as its pitfalls and need for improvements. Its newfound prominence in the city provides an incredibly accessible platform for artists to meet, converse, share their opinions, and promote their work; regardless of age, background, genre, or experience. Beat prides itself on its safe-space mentality, arguing for more equal and inviting opportunities for minorities in Ottawa and ensuring the paper remains an engaging platform for artists of all kinds. Providing a communicative space was important to Khan, who says many artistic hubs in Ottawa may be exclusive to a certain group or genre. With Beat, she hopes to provide a place for “interconnectivity within these scenes”.
Ottawa Beat has only been around for a few months, but its rapid growth is obvious. As each month goes by, the paper seems more cohesive, while maintaining the individuality of a local, small-scale and specialty publication. Its articles are refined, even when the paper runs a few pages longer than before. It balances lengthy, almost academic essays and interviews with shorter, informal pieces such as concert reviews and original comics. It provides an alternative, realistic and unapologetic portrayal of Ottawa’s music industry, a young scene that still struggles with exclusivity and judgment.
For the future, both Luke and Adella look forward to growth, as do Beat’s readers. The paper recently hired a Social Media Coordinator, and Khan says that employing more writers is a critical goal going forward, as is inviting more original work from visual artists and photographers. While Beat’s first growing pains may be over, it will certainly continue to evolve along with its readership and context.
Ottawa Beat is not only an example of local success, but of community. Both Martin and Khan stress the importance of variety and support in the paper’s future, promoting the work of musicians but also highlighting the behind-the-scenes work of producers, technicians, and businesspeople through the paper, its affiliates, and local programs. Just as local musicians and venues have leaned on Ottawa Beat for promotion and awareness, the paper relies on activity within the music scene in order to flourish. As more independent venues, companies and coalitions come forward, the interdependent relationship between Beat and the city’s music scene will only get stronger, and the paper will undoubtedly continue to grow. Adella Khan says it best herself when asked about the future of Ottawa Beat – “It’s only getting better”.