The city’s strategy to build on momentum of local music picks up speed

As summer slows to the finish, the building of a city strategy for Ottawa’s music industry is about to become more intense.

The process, announced by council this past spring as a legacy project emerging from the JUNO Awards, is supposed to have recommendations in front of council by the end of the year and that means four months of hard work.

The goal is to identify key needs to preserve and build upon a surge of musical momentum in the community, said Kwende Memetic Kefentse, the city’s outgoing cultural development officer.

The first steps were taken this past June when a committee was formed of community representatives and city officials. The committee includes: Bear Witness from A Tribe Called Red; percussionist and professor Jesse Stewart; the editor of Ottawa Beat magazine Adella Khan; Trevor Mason aka DJ Mace; John Evenchick (Live! on Elgin); Erin Benjamin, executive director of Music Canada Live; Martin Arsenau, director general of Reseau Ontario, Robin Moir, Local 180 of the Canadian Federation of Musicians; Andrew Peck, executive director of the Glebe BIA; Mark Russett, general manager of Newcap Radio; Shawn Scallen of Spectrasonic; Kelly Symes, general manager at the Ontario Festival of Small Halls, program co-ordinator at RBC Ottawa Bluesfest and CityFolk festival; Kitchissippi councillor Jeff Lieper. It’s chaired by Andrew Vincent, executive director of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition (OMIC).

The point of origin for all this activity was in 2012. At that time, the City of Ottawa began to think about a new strategy for arts, culture and heritage. Within that there is a plan to develop cultural industries in partnership with economic development, Kefentse said.

Music was seen as a place to start. In 2013, music industry leaders were invited to a meeting that was a catalyst. Over the next se real months, an industry conference was organized called Megaphono, a report was prepared called Connecting Ottawa and OMIC was founded. Now in 2017 there have been two more Megaphones and a lot of momentum and a sincere desire at City Hall to see all that energy leveraged into something more concrete and permanent. The recent closure of several venues, including the legendary Zaphod’s (which is to reopen in the fall under new management and a new name The 27 Club) in the community indicates that momentum isn’t enough.

The first step, Kefentse says, is “setting a vision for what we want the industry to look like in 2030.” And what is needed to realize that vision. It will be tested by focus groups and surveys will seek community input, he added.

“Each person around the table is a leader in their own right. And they will be tasked with developing an aspect of the strategy.”

Kefentse acknowledges there might be impatience in the community for action as performers bump up against the limits they face in making a living making their art.

“I’ve experienced that of course in my other professional life,” Kefentse says. He’s also DJ Memetic, a producer and a multi-instrumentalist. “But I think that what is happening is exciting, that we are in a state of growth and a real state of high potential. At this point, people’s imaginations are starting to out-pace the rate we are growing at.” He says the strategy is an attempt to get ahead of that.

Since 2012, growth in the music industry has been large, he says.

“So many acts have broken nationally and internationally, or are just on the cusp right now. From A Tribe Called Red to Pony Girl, there are a number of acts who are popping at a really high level.”

Kefentse says that a city benefits when bands decide that it is a place that they want to be.

“For the people who live here, it instills a sense of pride about the place they live in.”

He says that the massive crowds that turned out to see the giant dragon-horse and spider of La Machine is an example of the fact that “people want to engage with creativity.”

For the local industry, “if we are able to connect the dots … the people of this city will engage with creativity almost every night.”

In effect, he says, the strategy is really about creating an environment that fosters creativity.

“We know there are conditions that encourage creative work and there are conditions that stymie it. We need to work in a way that we get benefits from all creative work happening around us.

“I get sense that whatever vision that emerges, there will be a line about what will be needed in terms of support (money,  infrastructure) and that will be put forward.”

Kefentse has been looking at the cultural potential of the capital since he moved here to attend Carleton University about 16 years ago.

“I saw fertile soil when I came here. That’s why I stayed. And I still see fertile soil.”

The strategy will be a success “if we have a document that both city staff and council can get behind and all members of the task force not only believe in the vision but see themselves in it.”

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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.