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 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.
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.
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.
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 ]