Arts & Culture

Is Ottawa a Music City? (And what does that mean anyway?)

Live music contributes around $1 billion to the Ontario economy, but the Ottawa area only accounts for about 12 percent of this. Home to an impressive array of arts festivals, not to mention one of Canada’s largest – RBC Bluesfest — it seems realistic the city should boast a bigger percentage.

As the capital, Ottawa already receives a considerable amount of arts funding, and moreover, the city consistently produces well-known musicians (A Tribe Called Red, Fevers, Blakdenim, Her Harbour, Pony Girl, among others). As such, Ottawa has the potential to be musically wealthy, but this potential has yet to be tapped.

In light of this thinking, Jim Watson and the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition — a not-for-profit dedicated to growing the city’s music industry — announced a $30,000 plan last March to “galvanize” Ottawa as a music city, waxing poetic about live music as a cornerstone of Ottawa’s cultural identity and vowing to draft a strategy by the end of the year. It’s now 2018, we’ve yet to hear further on the subject.

When asked to elaborate for this article on the city’s proposed strategy, Watson deferred to the OMIC. His deflection gave the impression that perhaps his March 2017 announcement was more about capitalizing on a hot subject in a year of cultural celebration (and funding, no less), rather than a firm, well-thought out commitment.

We Need to Shed Our Rep
Regardless of whether Watson has a solid plan in the works or not, no viable government initiative will address all the hurdles Ottawa must tackle to become a “music city” in the way we think of cultural focal points like Toronto or Montreal. Both of these are considered to be music cities largely because they’re home to venues of all sizes, boasting some of the most popular midsize and large spaces for live music in Canada (excluding arenas), which makes it possible to support a wide-range of musicians.

Most OMIC members and venue owners agree that if Ottawa is to shed its reputation as a stopover for national and international music acts between the two cities, the city needs at least one more venue around the 1,000-person capacity mark. (NAC’s Southam Hall does feature more mainstream acts and has a capacity of 2,000+, but it tends to be somewhat selective in the kinds of bands it shows.) Presently, we have a litany of small clubs, only one mid-sized venue (the Bronson Centre, capacity is 850), and a stadium. In other words, as a local musician looking to grow, you’d better hope that the Bronson Centre isn’t booked up or your sound ‘fits’ with the NAC.

Musical ID
Though mid-size to larger venues are lacking, Ottawa maintains a strong small-venue scene, which is essential for giving young acts opportunities to get off the ground. Live! on Elgin opened its doors in June 2015 as an affordable venue that mimics Wakefield’s bustling Blacksheep Inn, maintaining local art on the walls and a commitment to good sound. When the beloved Zaphod’s closed – a touchstone venue that’s hosted countless up-and-comers over the years — new ownership took over and renamed it the 27 Club, while maintaining Zaphod’s commitment to quality live entertainment. Venues like these champion serious musicians working hard to generate revenue beyond bar tabs. They’re part of our city’s musical identity.

Outside of Zaphod's before it closed and reopened as Club 27. Photo: Remi Theriault
Outside of Zaphods before it closed and reopened as Club 27. Photo: Remi Theriault

What’s next?
But those opportunities can only take musicians so far. Along with a need for more mid-to-larger sized venues, musicians would benefit from increased promotion and changes to bylaws. OMIC, working with Ottawa Tourism, says it plans to help musicians by promoting local artists on the airwaves and by modifying bylaws to allow venues to host live music events later. There’s even talk of a map-based app that would collect events happening in the city, which would make it easier to find shows.

But we’ll have to wait and see. OMIC plans on releasing specifics in time for MEGAPHONO, a showcase/conference that connects burgeoning musicians in Eastern Ontario/Ottawa-Gatineau with industry representatives. It’s a crucial ground for bridging the gap between culture makers and those holding the cheque books.

MEGAPHONO happens from February 8 -10, 2018