Ottawa on the road to becoming a “global music city”

Ottawa is finally, formally, on the road toward becoming a “a global music city.”

The impetus is a report prepared by the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition that was developed with financial support from the City of Ottawa and was passed unanimously by council’s finance committee on Tuesday. It next heads to a full council meeting where it is expected to be adopted.

The report says, in its preamble, that “Ottawa would not be where it is today without its music community.” And it further asserts that, “If Ottawa is to achieve its full creative potential, there must be a thriving music scene, where artists and entrepreneurs flourish, and that’s instantly recognizable to people outside of Ottawa.”

The report notes that cities across Canada and around the world have been investing in becoming “music cities” which are broadly defined as “communities of various sizes that have a vibrant music economy which they actively promote.”

The report’s authors say that, if adopted and implemented properly, the local music scene can boost the economy, increase tourism and help promote the city in other markets. There is also a benefit in helping attract and retain prized young technology workers who are said to value their social life as much as they value their work.

“Indeed,” the report states, “from enriching lives through music education to making our city a great place in which to go out at night; and from creating a sense of belonging to branding Ottawa on a world stage, music is a formidable social, economic and cultural catalyst.”

The report addresses impediments including a lack of certain types of music businesses and venues such as a large downtown concert hall.

It also notes a “sense that Ottawa’s music industry lacks connection to larger networks in music, business and government.”

Currently, the report says, the city supports local music through grants to artists, organizations and festivals. It also presenting local music at venues such as Centrepointe Theatre and Shenkman Arts Centre and it delivers programming through the Community Arts and Social Engagement team. It focuses on creating an environment that is broadly “music friendly.”

The report says that the music sector injects about $1.2 billion a year into Ontario’s economy, a fact that shows music’s real dollar potential.

The strategy focuses primarily on the development of Ottawa’s commercial music industry, which is small in comparison with Canadian cities of similar size.

The music industry, the report says, includes musicians and composers, managers and booking agents, publishers, producers and studio owners, live music promoters sound engineers and other technicians, venue owners, festival organizers, rehearsal space owners, record label owners and music retailers, educators, instrument manufacturers and retailers, graphic artists, photographers and film-makers, technology developers and administrators including union representatives.

Ottawa has, the report says, a strong festival scene, two university music schools, national institutions, two professional orchestras (NACO and the Ottawa Symphony), a growing, young, and educated population of potential local music fans and strong scenes for both French and English music. There are, the report says, world class musicians and songwriters. Finally the city’s proximity to Toronto and Montreal is an advantage and also a disadvantage in that these communties lure talent away.

But it faces challeneges. There are too few high-quality mid-size venues (500 to 1,500 capacity), too few established music businesses (including  managers, bookers and publishers) and limited connections to major industry hubs (such as New York and Los Angeles).

Local artists also lack key knowledge about the music business, the report suggests, and the city lacks a single, broad media source for music news and events.

The strategy was kicked off at the 2017 JUNO Awards by Mayor Jim Watson. But it was built on efforts that began in 2012 when council approved a Renewed Action Plan for Arts, Heritage and Culture. Under that initiative the music industry was selected for targeted development, the report says.

That led to a 2015 report called Connecting Ottawa Music: A Profile of Ottawa’s Music Industries, which, in turn, recommended the creation of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition and the creation of a strategy.

A 15 member group was formed to map out the strategy announced on Tuesday that would make music an “undeniable” part of the city’s brand and a thriving and contributing part of the local cultural scene and the local economy.

To that end the report recommends hiring or appointing a point person in City Hall who knows the local music scene and the broader industry and has the ability to navigate the city bureaucracy and work with OMIC to implement the strategy. The report suggests this be a new position and a person hired by 2020. But in the meantime the city’s  Cultural Industry Development Officer (CDO) be assigned to spearhead work on the music strategy.

It also urges committing $300,000 over three years to operate OMIC which now has more than 180 members, is an active advocate for industry issues and runs programs to help build the local scene.

The report proposes creating a music friendly regulatory environment including measures such as describing music in terms of sound control rather than “noise,” exploring  supportive planning for venues and even designated  parking permits for musicians when they are moving their gear before and after shows.

Included would be an Agent of Change principle to protect existing music venues and mitigate noise complaints, particularly when the community changes and new residential development comes in.

And because culture can play a role in the local economy it urges the integration of music into economic development and tourism strategies.

It is also wants under-used, less traditional city-owned facilities such as community centres, parks, libraries and mobile stages available to music programming of all kinds. And it also urges a paid role for local musicians to regularly animate city events.

The report calls for the creation in 2019 of an Ottawa Music Development Fund with an annual contribution of $25,000 to seed new work that aims to enrich Ottawa’s music scene. This could include music-related non-profits and grassroots initiatives.

It also calls for the creation of Ottawa-Gatineau Music Awards and a Hall of Fame.

Finally the lack of a quality venue seating about 1,000 downtown has long been an obstacle to growth. The report suggests such a new venue be in a Black Box format to allow seated or standing patrons. The report suggests this could be a repurposed space or as part of a new development. This comes as Carleton University is completing a takeover of the Dominion-Chalmers United Church as a music venue for its school and for the wider community.

The music industry has its own tasks to carry forward. The report urges it to undertake a membership drive so OMIC can represent the broadest possible group of musicians, entrepreneurs and other music professionals.

OMIC should continue to hold regular forums to education the industry and the public. and it needs to develop a long-term strategy for underserved communities.

It is also encouraged to advocate for music education.

OMIC would also be tasked with developing the music awards and overseeing the music development fund.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.