This article was originally published in advance of the Artpreneur 2019 event held at Bayview Yards on May 31, 2019. The theme of the one-day conference was “Creative Infrastructure: Media | Management | Spaces.”

Ottawa is in the midst of a transformation. The City of Ottawa is investing more money and political will into building a strong local music industry than ever before. In spring of 2018, Mayor Jim Watson announced the official Ottawa Music Strategy, one which supports a growing local music industry that is flourishing with talented artists, music festivals, and small, unique venues. This three-year plan outlines fundamental next steps in Ottawa’s vision of becoming a global “music city.”

The Vision of a “Music City”

The impetus for the Ottawa Music Strategy was set in 2015, with the release of three crucial reports that shed light on what makes a “music city,” and what some of the benefits and barriers preventing the expansion of local music industries in Canadian cities. The first report was conducted by Music Canada, called The Mastering of a Music City, Key Elements, Effective Strategies and Why it’s Worth Pursuing. Some key findings from the report are as follows:

  • In Melbourne, live music alone generates over 116,000 jobs and more than AU$1 billion in spending at small venues, concerts, and festivals.
  • The Rock al Parque music festival in Bogotá attracted 400,000 attendees to the city in 2014, making it one of the largest music festivals in South America. Since its inauguration in 1995, it has attracted more than 3.8 million attendees.
  • Music tourism in Austin accounts for almost half of their US$1.6 billion economic output and contributes US$38 million in tax revenue to the city.
  • In Berlin, the intermingling of music and technology businesses in the city has demonstrated the way that a successful music economy can attract and retain talent in other industries.
  • And in South Africa, organizations like the SAMRO Foundation have sought to use music to bring people together under a unified cultural banner.

A second report entitled Live Music Measures Up was also released by Music Canada, and analyzes the economic impact of live music in Ontario. Some of its findings include the following:

  • Live music companies in Ontario generated $628 million in revenue from live music activities in 2013 as well as profits of $144 million. Artist management revenue from Canadian artists totalled $34 million in 2013, 54 percent of all artist management revenue, and Canadian artists generated $75 million in ticket sales.
  • In 2013, 558 festivals across Ontario sold a total of 15.7 million tickets, representing 7 million unique visitors. Ontario’s 616 venues have a combined capacity of 3.6 million. The 775 promoters operating in the province in 2013 promoted 81,600 shows, which sold a combined total of 5.4 million tickets.
  • The total economic impact of live music in Ontario’s economy is $1.2 billion. Live music companies in Ontario were responsible for $484 million in total expenditure in 2013 and contributed $432.4 million in taxes to all levels of government combined. The economic impact of live music companies includes 10,500 full-time equivalent jobs, and tourism activity accounts for an additional 9,520.
  • Survey respondents reported that access to tax credits and other forms of government funding, along with the availability of local Canadian talent, were the factors that most positively impacted their company growth. And 83 percent of live music companies in the province expect revenue growth within the next two years
Ottawa Music Industry Coalition Executive Director Nik Ives-Allison spoke during the#MusicCities “Music Cities: When Music Drives Economic Development” panel during the June 2019 Midem music conference in Cannes, France. (photo from Facebook)

Needless to say, a strong local music economy has the potential to have incredible economic benefits for a city—not to mention other offshoot benefits such as overall quality of life, real estate desirability, stronger social fabric and local cultural identity.

The third report is entitled Connecting Ottawa Music: A Profile of Ottawa’s Music Industries, and dives into many facets supporting and subtracting from Ottawa’s potential growth as a music city.

More than 180 albums were released in 2014 and some 2,500 local songwriters collected royalties from SOCAN. The city also has more music festivals than one could possibly count. These are not insignificant statistics, and indicate that Ottawa is healthy in terms of music output.

However, one of the biggest drawbacks is the lack of music industry infrastructure.Ottawa severely lacks labels, management companies, publishers, promoters, agents, and other music companies that connect Ottawa artists to the wider music industry. Out of Canadian cities of a similar size (based on the number of musicians, music businesses and live venues) Ottawa finished last—after Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Hamilton and Quebec City.

And so the reality persists—Ottawa has a thriving music scene, but it significantly lacks in music infrastructure. Since the report’s release in 2015, the strength of Ottawa’s music infrastructure has not improved much. What does that mean, really?

The Missing Puzzle Piece: Music Industry Infrastructure

It means that one of the biggest challenges Ottawa will face in our quest to become a “music city” is that there are very few active music companies here to support musicians and their careers. In this city, the number of job opportunities in the music industry—outside of being a musician—are few and far between.

This causes more and more artists to adopt a DIY approach to everything they do, including recording, production, marketing and promotion, design, video, and more. There’s nothing wrong with taking the DIY approach to music, in fact I argue that a strong and healthy music scene that nurtures artists from the get-go must have a robust DIY ethic at its core.

But a strong DIY culture is not mutually exclusive with a strong professionalized industry, either. Unfortunately, Ottawa lacks sufficient representation of the latter.

In high school we learned about the phenomenon of “brain drain” regarding the departure of educated or professional people from one country, economic sector, or field for another usually for better pay or living conditions. Just like in economics, we need to recognize the “push” and “pull” factors that affect artists’ decision-making when it comes to where they choose to base their career out of.

SXSW is an annual music festival and conference in Austin, TX. It is one of the major hubs for activity in the music industry. (Photo by Dan Taylor)

The departure of highly skilled musicians seeking better opportunities is a similar phenomenon, and contributes to a situation where music industry cities that are “hubs” attract the most business and artist development and erases the potential benefits that those artists or companies could have offered to their hometowns, and instead become part of the industry machine that already exists in larger markets in order to try and take a shot at success.

There are many “pull” factors for these larger cities that act as industry hubs and attract artists from out of town. The perceived “Journey of Hope” where an artist or band packs their bags and heads to uncharted territory to chase success is a story we’ve heard for generations. The pastures are greener there because there’s a perception that more music companies and industry activity equals a greater chance of success.

With the constant evolution in the way we communicate, consume music, offer services, and make money, smaller cities like Ottawa are on the losing side of a tug-of-war. This happens because larger cities—particularly LA, Toronto, and New York—established themselves as music industry hubs a long time ago and have robust and intricate networks of jobs that support music activity in those zones. In Toronto, music companies like Dine Alone Records, Arts & Crafts, Buzz Records, Paper Bag Records, Paquin, Coalition Music, Royal Mountain Records, Hand Drawn Dracula, Re:Sound, Freshly Pressed PR, Hype Music PR,to name merely a few, are all helping the city’s musicians reach global heights never before seen.

Music companies—including labels, managers, agents, bookers, and more—are a fundamental building block for growing into a “music city.” In order for more of this city’s musicians to have viable and long-lasting careers, they need these companies to support and professionalize their work so that they can connect to more music markets outside of Ottawa. Right now, most Ottawa musicians make their careers by playing local gigs and festivals, reinforcing the insular nature of our music scene.

2019-2020: Breaking the Hamster Wheel

So what’s the solution? There’s no easy answer. But there are steps the City of Ottawa (if political will remains intact) and its music community can take to increase the number of music industry jobs in town.

The city must incentivize new businesses and support growth opportunities for the few that currently exist in Ottawa. This could be done through the proposed phase two Ottawa Music Development Fund initiative, whereby municipal funds are invested in local music companies to aid in their growth and viability. Whether this is to be carried out through grants, job creation programs, student credits co-op programs, or something else altogether, remains to be seen. By this I don’t mean throwing small sums of money at musicians. Funds must be invested on an ongoing basis into job creation and companies that support musicians. It’s already 2019 and no whispers have been heard about how this fund will be carried out, which means we’ll keep on running in the hamster wheel that is the status quo if nothing is done.

There also has to be a driving force that incubates entrepreneurial spirit and offers hope to those who consider the notion of starting a company that supports the local industry. If everyone who wants to make a full-time career in music—be it in PR and marketing, label representation, management, and so forth—education is paramount to success on this front. Algonquin’s Music Industry Arts program is a great start, but that is not accessible to everyone. And what is being done to keep those skilled graduates in Ottawa afterwards? The knowledge and skills are out there, but there needs to be a stronger push for incubating music industry entrepreneurialism and investment in expertise in those fields.

Ultimately, time will tell if the return on investments already made into the Ottawa Music Strategy pay off. But Ottawa will continue jaunting on the hamster wheel for the foreseeable future unless concrete, assertive action is taken to stimulate the creation of our local music industry infrastructure.

Matías is the founder and Editor at local music news website and promotion not-for-profit Ottawa Showbox, supporting Ottawa music since 2012.