Music City North? Banding together to give Ottawa a boost

Tom Pechloff
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A new study of the Ottawa music industry calls for the city to “make music one of its priorities for economic development,” and at least one councillor is already on board.

Kelp Records founder Jon Bartlett (left) and singer-songwriter Andrew Vincent say music can actually be a catalyst for economic growth

The study, funded primarily by the provincially backed Ontario Music Fund, also recommends the city “immediately assign a point person for the music industries” to act as a pipeline of communication between the industry and the city.

Local singer-songwriter Andrew Vincent, who co-wrote the study, says the research indicates a thriving music scene is economically beneficial to cities.

“There are studies out there showing there’s connections between high tech and music ... It’s like music is a really great catalyst, I think, for cities, so that’s why cities are interested in it. Now the question is, what can cities do about it?”

Mr. Vincent says one of the great things about music is that it doesn’t always take a lot of money “to make something interesting happen.”

“It may not require huge investments, as it could be something like a point person at the city … that can be there to help (music) businesses navigate the startup phase or if they run into certain problems, how to effectively deal with those problems, so it isn’t a matter of your business shutting down, it’s a matter of putting up a solution and creating new connections.”

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper says such an investment would be well worth it.

“If we can get one person whose job it is to do that, I think it would pay off in spades,” he says. “One person costs the city … let’s say, by the time you set them up, with IT, and all this sort of stuff, it’s $120,000. Could one person generate $120,000 worth of ROI through more proactive outreach, collaboration, working with the Jon Bartletts (founder of Ottawa-based Kelp Records) and Andrew Vincents? I think so.”

Mr. Leiper says one of his top priorities over the next few months will be trying to find the money to fund such a “music office” at city hall. He commissioned his own study shortly after he was elected last fall to look at ways other municipalities have joined forces with local music industries to generate economic spinoffs.

While the full study will be released later, “Austin is the one that keeps coming up,” he says.

Mr. Vincent also points to the Texas state capital as an example of how to do things right. Even before the now-massive South by Southwest Music Festival was launched there in 1987, advocates were already promoting music as a good investment for private businesses in the city.

“The chamber of commerce is one of the biggest influences in Austin’s transformation into what we know it as today, as this kind of music hub,” he says. “They sponsored reports on music, they got involved, they actually had a music liaison person who worked very closely with the Austin chapter of the Texas Music Association to just basically create an environment where music was positioned as an opportunity and part of the Austin brand, essentially.”

There are many similarities between Austin and Ottawa, which are both government towns with reasonably similar populations – metropolitan Austin is home to about 1.9 million people, compared with 1.3 million in Ottawa-Gatineau – and thriving tech sectors. But the key differences, according to Mr. Vincent’s report, are the 18,000 jobs and $1.6 billion in direct and indirect economic activity Austin’s music industry generates each year.

While Ottawa will likely never become Music City North, Mr. Leiper points to the tech sector as another reason why the city should support the industry. The competition for knowledge-based talent is fierce, he says, and any edge the capital can get will help.

“I think a lot of those young knowledge workers whom we’re trying to attract are really interested in good strong culture, the performing arts, visual arts,” he says. “They’re looking for those cultural opportunities, vibrant urban living, and music is a huge part of that.”

Ottawa Chamber of Commerce president Ian Faris says his group is working with tourism industry partners to lobby for more provincial funding for festivals and large-scale events.

He says a recent chamber survey showed that one of the top concerns of local businesspeople was a lack of skilled labour. Innovative companies in any field, including music, will help attract more innovative workers to the city, he adds.

“It certainly works well into the themes that we’re developing and working in,” Mr. Faris says.

“This is one that we can certainly go out and test and we can get into how important is it to the business community to have this integrated knowledge community that wants that ‘play’ attribute to the city.”

Mr. Leiper says he wants to be known as the “music councillor” at the end of his four-year term, and that means more than just helping musicians. He is also pushing for stronger music education in schools and support for music retailers.

While he concedes there is only so much he can do, Mr. Leiper says if he can use whatever clout he has at city hall to generate support for initiatives such as a new mid-sized concert venue, he will.

He says professional services surrounding the music industry need to be bolstered as well. There aren’t a lot of labels, publishers or booking agents in Ottawa, for example.

That was one of the reasons Mr. Bartlett spearheaded the recent Megaphono showcase and festival – to connect Ottawa musicians with these industry types from out of town.

City staff will soon be presenting council with a document outlining Ottawa’s economic priorities for this term, and Mr. Leiper says he is optimistic music will be among them.

“As I talk to my council colleagues about what it is that I’m hoping to achieve, as I talk to staff, both at arts and culture and in economic development and Invest Ottawa about what I’m trying to achieve, I’m hearing huge appetite for it. So I’m not going to predict a slam dunk, but I’m encouraged,” he says.

Mr. Leiper says the chances of landing city funding for music-related projects will improve if they can demonstrate a clear tie-in to Canada’s 150th birthday celebrations two years from now.

“A whole whack of people are going to visit Ottawa,” he says. “How do we keep those people here one more night and get them in to Hintonburg or Old Ottawa South or into Vanier or further afield, Carp, right? If we’ve got a music scene that’s offering something, maybe we can get that extra $180 for a hotel room, that extra $200 in restaurant meals by keeping them here another night.”


Music: Big business in Austin

In 2010, Austin’s music industries produced:

• $856 million in economic output

• $478 million in value-added impact

• $230 million in tax revenues

• 7,957 jobs

Music tourism added another $806 million in economic output and more than 10,000 jobs, for a total economic output of $1.6 billion from music-related activity. The city has about 120 live music venues.

Source: Connecting Ottawa Music: A profile of Ottawa’s music industries


Organizations: Ontario Music Fund, Texas Music Association, Chamber of Commerce

Geographic location: Ottawa, Austin, Texas Canada Ottawa South

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Recent comments

  • Lynn Miles
    March 26, 2015 - 22:19

    In 2007 I stood in front of Ottawa City Council and said exactly the same thing, only difference... I didn't get paid to do it, and nobody listened. Lynn Miles