Calgary: A Music City?

The Practice Collection

Listen for the canary …

Deep in the coalmines of yesterday, the miners would carry a canary in a cage. The ecosystem in a coal mine could become toxic at any time and a canary that stopped singing was essentially a music artist that was telling you that your environment was not healthy. If you can push the metaphor to our cities and imagine them as ecosystems very susceptible to toxicity and poor health, then you might consider Shain Shapiro as our canary. He is a former Canadian musician/thought leader, now living in London and going around the world advising cities on how to become Music Cities. Now he is not some music enthusiast who just wants us to appreciate music a little more, he is truly concerned that our lack of big music strategic thinking and policy development has left our cities short changed in their economic, social and cultural health. As an example he is working with Mayor Sadiq Khan of London England to build music policy in London with the same weight as their roads policy or sewers policy. Music Canada’s report at the Music Cities Summit this year highlights why we might want to pay more attention. The report finds that successful Music Cities with vibrant music economics generate a wide array of benefits for cities, from economic growth, job creation, and increased spending to greater tax revenues and cultural development. Here are a few examples:

  • 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.

Shain work challenges us to start to see music and other arts way beyond the starving artist, the struggling garage band and the tortured poet depictions. These images may indeed still exist, but our thinking about music and art must go much deeper. Our cities need to be music incubators, where music does more than exist … it grows and flourishes. We may see music as an industry but he challenges us even further. “Music is an ecosystem he suggests, a very large system that is fully entwined with all the other systems in a vibrant city … sounds like a line from a Carter Family song.

I would suggest then that we learn and apply the basic principles of “systems thinking.” For example, when we look at music in our city we may see it, like so much of our bad systems designs, as a number of silos. We have music events silo, music business silo, music education silo, music therapy, music tourism and so on …

Think about this … the thought, planning and effort we put into building a school in a city is a given … but would we give energy, thought and planning into a new music venue?

You need vision …

Austin Texas decided back in 1991, that they were going to be the music capital of the world. They may not be there yet but the fact that they found and crafted that vision and then started to live it … took them a long way.

they still roll up the streets at night …

Traditional city thinking has always kept banker’s hours. Most economic social and cultural planning has been geared for the daytime economy. After all, doesn’t everyone just go to sleep at night? Well … no.

As an example everything in the daytime economy is positive and proactive, much like a Chamber of Commerce slogan. Moving forward, let’s get ‘er done. The nighttime economy, which is big, has often been identified with a more negative, reactive approach. Shut down those businesses earlier. Licensing, rules and regulations consistently scream, “These people should be in bed!” Millions of people work in the nighttime in our cities but most transportation system shut down, the noise complaints go up and youthful energy becomes a problem instead of a joy.

Shain argues this is costing us millions …

By the way, the number one music city in the world is not Austin but Katowice Poland … I know I know … Katowice, it seems, developed a full-blown music strategy that identifies and maps their own music ecosystem in the city, provides the city with tools and policies that support music and music making in Katowice.

It worked.

the phantom photo …

Imagine, if you will, a photo of one of our local favorites, Tom Phillips, playing his heart out at the Ironwood, here on the Music Mile in Calgary. How much economic activity is going on in that picture? At first blush, just a musician with a gig … second blush, perhaps a soundman and oh yes the wait staff and the godfather of local musicians, the owner Pat.

But keep going … someone owns the building, someone built the stage, and someone designed the lights and other technology. Someone supplies the beer, someone designed a poster, someone drove a cab to get a patron down there, someone has a job on a radio that promoted the evening, someone fixed Tom’s vintage tube amp last week and so on … you get the ecosystem idea.

Our little experiment with the Music Mile was a systems eye-opener. Our simple premise was to put an amplifier on what already existed. The neighborhoods of Inglewood, East Village and Victoria Park already had a sold footing in the music world but it was more of a bunch of individual efforts rather than an ecosystem of music.

The simple idea of starting to see it as a music district, a whole greater than the parts, began to take hold. At first there was some pushback. Musicians were concerned that there was not enough work to go around now and why add more into the piece. Venues were in a free market world where other venues were more of a problem than part of a new solution. Citizens and other businesses, remembering the Red mile and Electric Ave just saw drunks at two in the morning.

However, today all of those folks will tell you that they would rather work more together, than by themselves, to stop fighting over a small pie and work together to create a bigger pie. So we now have a music district, a music community and a music incubator if you will. Out of that incubator, we already see young leaders like Kate Stevens who formed Young Musicians of Music Mile or YoMomma and they have real gigs at the Blues Can and Gravity Café. The Lantern Church has a Music School. Studio Bell has a weekly Jam Club, the Stamped has their youth Campus and the Ironwood has the youth Jazz series. This is an incubator for live music indeed. However it is the expanding ecosystem that intrigues me. Cafes who thought they were just in the food business now have music in their strategic plan, the same for art galleries and hair salons. This incubator/ecosystem idea seems to have some real potential in our neighborhood … imagine the possibilities if the whole city became a music incubator?

A local musician, Matt Masters is leading the way to Calgary becoming a Music City and I can hear the canary getting louder …