What has become an annual showcase for Ottawa music is about to celebrate its fourth festival. MEGAPHONO begins on Feb. 8 and during its three days performers and industry reps will mingle, exchange contact information and maybe even cut a few deals.
For Kelp Records, Jon Bartlett, who was one of the key drivers of this enterprise, there is a certain amount of satisfaction in all this activity.
“It started out (in 2010) as a vehicle for pushing music for film and TV. That’s what the name and brand was,” he said in a recent interview. But MEGAPHONO has grown into something much more than that.
In the beginning, “having a record label based in Ottawa for all the years that I have lived here, one of the big gaps has always been the connection to the (wider) music industry.”
Contacting booking agents, for example, has always been an issue, he said. Inside Kelp Records the question was, “how do we get people in and out of Ottawa.”
After years of frustration, Bartlett and his cohorts, just decided to stop hemming and hawing and get on with it. They decided to bring that industry here.
“It’s all fine and good to go to different festivals or Canadian Music Week or POP Montreal and have bands play, but I think there is something different about bringing people here to your own city and having a band play in a venue they know, not in a hotel conference room. And also just giving industry people the experience of coming here.
Bartlett is a veteran of music showcase festivals.
“They are a different beast. It’s a business conference with panels and with music. It’s a weird melange but they are super effective. Smaller music centres in places like Iceland or like Brighton in the U.K. have been effective in getting a local or regional music story told.”
For example, he points to Halifax that had a music explosion after the label Sub Pop Records came to town.
After four festivals, MEGAPHONO has larger showcase lineups and more industry reps attending.
There have been some notable signings, he says. For example, one band, New Swears, has signed with Dine Alone Records after a showcase.
“Someone in the back of the room when they were playing literally texted the label. That was the spark that got them invited to play on a Canadian showcase for that label.” Dine Alone liked what they heard and inked them to a deal. Now four guys from Bells Corners are touring the world.
MEGAPHONO also makes room for bands from Montreal and Toronto. Last year that paid off for the Montreal band Un Blonde. They played a small show and that led to a signing with the U.S. label Anti which also represents performers such as Tom Waits and Neko Case.
“We have people coming from other cities. We fly them in and put them up. It is expensive to do it but it’s very important,” he says, because “people don’t have a clue where Ottawa is. They spell it with two Os. There is no reason why they would ever come here.
“We think there are a lot of great bands here. I travel enough to know that some stack up well. It’s just about getting someone on the room to see them.
He also knows that conversations today can lead to something three, four or five years down the road.
The event is also one week later to avoid any competition. As a result, “the calibre of people we can attract is really high.” All of which is, he says, to help move the needle for local bands.
Ottawa’s music industry is the focus of some attention today and a good deal of credit should go to MEGAPHONO and its founders.
The very first conference basically ignited the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition, which is establishing a city-wide strategy to develop local music as a strategic entreprise for the economy of the capital region.
In the next few months OMIC will present its music strategy and recommendations to the city for consideration. The losing bid to be the home of the new Amazon headquarters also convinced many of the need for available and interesting music and culture when trying to attract cutting-edge companies.
Bartlett is cautiously optimistic these days. He welcomes the new awareness from the tourism department and applauds the city’s funding of OMIC.
“That has helped to push things forward.”
But, “it has always been hard in this city. Culture has always been treated and funded like it’s a handout. You get a pat on the head and ‘Here’s your kibbles.’ I think that is changing but those changes don’t happen fast enough.
“Now that we didn’t make Amazon’s top 20 list, there is a recognition that we need to get there. So channels opening up around zoning and bylaw enforcement.”
Bartlett also hopes that London’s recent adoption of an Agent of Change ruling will encourage politicians in Ottawa to help protect music establishments from being driven out of their homes when condo developments go up in their vicinity.
One big gap that seems to have existed forever is the lack of private investment, he says.
“We don’t have the kind of risk-taking investors interested in culture and willing to invest in high-risk cultural ventures. A lot of people talk a community game but we don’t see money.”
He says one example of a firm that has put its money up is the high tech company Lixar.
“We have been lucky to find a partner in Lixar. They seem to be one of the only one’s in town to actually put their money where their mouth is when it comes to music. They get it. They put a high value on it with their employees.”
Lixar has invested in an artist retreat program now in its second year.
“If we can get private money to invest in the local music industry can do great things,” Bartlett says.
This year at MEGAPHONO, Bartlett says, there are more artists and more from Toronto and Montreal.
“We only have so many artists here,” he says and “we can’t showcase the same folks every year. Plus I think there is value in bringing in bands from Toronto and Montreal.” Local bands can meet and play with their colleagues in Toronto and Montreal and make important artistic connections.
MEGAPHONO opens Thursday night with a tour of the music spots in the Hull sector of Gatineau.
“Ottawa-Hull has always been a part of what we have done. Quebecois culture seems exotic to” newcomers, especially the Americans,” he says, noting this is another unique selling point of our region that is often under-appreciated.
For all the comings and goings at this year’s event, please see megaphono.tv.