Ottawa music strategy a sound plan for economic growth, backers say

Council gives go-ahead to three-year blueprint for boosting music-related businesses
Music strategy photo
Musician Andrew Vincent (left) and Kelp Records founder Jon Bartlett are members of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition, which worked with the city to develop the new music strategy. (File photo)

Music City, Canada?

If Jeff Leiper has his way, that will be Ottawa one day – and the region’s economy, he says, will be stronger for it.

“Music is a cultural pursuit, but it is also an economic driver,” says Kitchissippi ward’s representative on city council, who has earned the title of “music councillor” for his commitment to the cause of promoting the local industry.

According to Leiper, a more vibrant music scene would boost Ottawa’s economy in a host of ways – such as creating new jobs, drawing more tourists to festivals and concerts and making  the National Capital Region a magnet for talent in all-important industries such as tech.

“As we seek to make sure that we’ve got a strong, diverse economy, one of the things that we have to ensure we can do is to attract workers to Ottawa,” he says.

“I think a big part of ensuring that we’re an attractive jurisdiction to which knowledge workers might move is to have a good music scene. If you’re 26, 27 years old and you’re coming … out of MIT or Stanford, you can work anywhere in the world. Why would you want to work in Ottawa? I think that having a really good music scene is going to be one important part of that.”

On Wednesday, city council approved the Ottawa Music Strategy, a three-year plan to help boost the fortunes of music-related businesses in the region. 

Key planks in the strategy include hiring a full-time staffer at City Hall by 2020 who will help municipal economic development officials and music entrepreneurs work together to build the industry; creating special “musician loading zones” outside busy venues; encouraging agencies such as Ottawa Tourism and Invest Ottawa to spotlight the industry in their promotional campaigns; and providing up to $100,000 in annual city funding for the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition, a local advocacy group.

Leiper, who helped spearhead the new strategy, says he hopes it will help grow the local music community and make more people aware of how important the industry is to Ottawa’s economy and culture.

“It doesn’t take a huge investment in order to try to encourage a strong music industry,” he says, adding that something as simple as hosting concerts at municipally owned venues such as Bayview Yards or City Hall could have a major impact.

Nik Ives-Allison, the general manager of the three-year-old Ottawa Music Industry Coalition, calls the plan a “massive step” forward because she says it shows the city is taking the sector’s concerns seriously.

Seemingly small changes such as implementing special loading zones for musicians unpacking their equipment, for example, would go a long way to help making musicians and the businesses that cater to the industry feel like they’re a more integral part of the city’s economy, she says.

“It’s those little things that seem otherwise inconsequential that are in fact the most important,” says Ives-Allison, whose organization now has more than 180 members.

“These loading zones can really make the difference between whether a music venue remains viable or not. If vans can’t load into a venue, if they can’t find parking, if they can’t access the venue and get their gear in, they’re not going to be able to play. And if they can’t play, those venues can’t stay open. And that’s a huge blow for our music community.”

Like Leiper, Ives-Allison says Ottawa needs to become a destination of choice for more of the best and brightest young workers from Canada and beyond. And she believes music could help make that happen.

However, a provincially funded study three years ago found Ottawa ranked last among six similarly sized Canadian cities in total numbers of musicians, music businesses and live venues – something that has to change, she adds.

“Economically, music is definitely underappreciated as an industry, and I think we’ve kind of underexploited our potential here in Ottawa,” Ives-Allison says.   

“But I think as the city becomes more confident in our creative industries, as we become more confident in ourselves, we’re really going to be able to show the city and the people that live here and the broader Canadian public what it means to be from Ottawa in a way that maybe ruffles some of the feathers of those who like to dismiss us as that sleepy government town.”

New downtown venue?

OMIC’s roles include lobbying governments on the industry’s behalf and hosting seminars designed to aid musicians with everything from accounting to marketing. Kelp Records founder Jon Bartlett, a member of the group’s board of directors, says the city needs a more vibrant live music scene if it expects to convince aspiring local artists to ditch their day jobs and pursue the business full-time.

“Something I talk about a lot with people is just that our average salary (in Ottawa) is really high, so someone who’s like a weekender or part-timer in terms of music is maybe not as motivated or driven to quit that cushy job and put themselves out there and try to do music full-time, as opposed to their counterpart in Montreal who might be working at a cafe,” he says.

To that end, the new strategy also calls for the city to look at converting municipally owned space in the downtown core into a “high-quality” live music venue with room for about 1,000 people.

The lack of such a mid-sized concert hall right now is “an obstacle for Ottawa’s growth as a music city,” says a city staff report, which suggests that funding it through a public-private partnership could reduce the burden on taxpayers.

Ives-Allison says she’s hopeful the city is “getting closer” to creating such a venue.

“I think the challenge is trying to figure out how to make that work viably without it becoming a traditional theatre, without having to rely too heavily on alcohol sales and having it work for a local audience,” she says.

“We’re probably a few years out from seeing something like that, but I think especially as the LRT opens up new areas of the city to urbanization and makes it a little bit easier to get around, there’s going to be some new possibilities that open up there – things that we haven’t even thought of yet.”

Leiper, however, isn’t convinced the public appetite for such a facility exists yet.

“It is going to be up to the private sector to build that venue when we’re ready,” he says. “I think that means a lot more people have to be going to shows more regularly.”

But City Hall can help, he adds, by hosting local musicians, promoting performances online and in social media and doing more to raise the profile of the industry as a whole.

“I think there is a role for the city to play in just helping grow awareness about Ottawa’s music industry and encouraging people to go to shows.”