Marketing Ottawa’s music industry amid COVID-19

If Jamie Kwong was looking for a challenge in her latest career move, she definitely found it.

The former executive director of the Orl​éans Chamber of Commerce and the Vanier BIA officially began her new role as head of the Ottawa Music Industry Coalition on Monday. As the new face of the live music business in the capital, Kwong has a daunting task ahead: how do you sustain an industry that makes its money from people congregating in large groups when such gatherings are now banned as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?     

“Everyone’s been told to work from home, but for artists, their work is out in the public in social settings,” she says. “COVID has had a huge impact on everybody globally, but when you look at a sector that primarily depends on live entertainment (and) social gatherings, it’s devastating.”

Kwong, who spent nearly three years as head of the Orléans chamber before taking over as executive director of the Vanier BIA for two-and-a-half years, says musicians ​– like many other entrepreneurs in Ottawa right now ​– are faced with the tough prospect of finding new sources of income at a time when the economy has gone into a free fall.

OMIC is currently surveying its 200-plus members to get a better sense of how much the COVID-19 crisis has cut into their earnings. Kwong says she’s also trying to make musicians more aware of support systems such as MusicTogether, a $300,000 relief fund launched last week by the Ontario government and the Canadian music community that will offer one-time performance fees of $1,000 to musicians who live-stream shows at home.

“For me, I’ve always viewed musicians as independent contractors and business owners in their own right,” she says. “Working with a lot of different artists in the past, they’re so solitary in their work, they sometimes don’t realize that there’s these networks out there.”

Kwong says she’s already seeing local musicians trying to find alternative ways to reach an audience that’s now hunkered down at home. Many artists are turning to social media to promote themselves and playing shows on their Facebook feeds, for example.

“You’ve had to see artists get very creative very quickly in adapting their business model,” she notes.

Although Ottawa isn’t exactly known as a hotbed of live music, Kwong says the industry “plays a huge role” in the local economy. 

According to a draft report prepared by research firm Nordicity, the industry employs the equivalent of 3,600 full-time workers in the National Capital Region and generates more than $115 million a year in economic activity. The study estimates that Ottawa residents shell out nearly $140 million annually on tickets to live performances and spend an additional $90 million on merchandise such as T-shirts and CDs at live events.

But Kwong says she believes the music industry’s true value extends far beyond just dollars and cents.

“I’ve always wanted to promote arts and culture, because I see not just the economic benefits, but there’s a broader benefit that sometimes we can’t even measure, but it’s so ingrained into our day-to-day quality of life,” she says.

Formed in 2015, OMIC is a non-profit organization that works with the city to promote the local music industry and run programs and seminars to help musicians and music-related businesses boost their skills in everything from accounting to booking shows.

The association was formed as part of a long-term strategy to bring musicians, businesses and local government together to grow the industry in Ottawa. Kwong says she sees signs that the industry in the capital is maturing, such as the inaugural Capital Music Awards held at SAW Gallery last month.

“It’s really about acknowledging our talent in the city,” she says. “It’s something that will continue to grow.”

But Kwong says much more needs to be done to put the Ottawa music industry on the map. Once the pandemic subsides, she wants to survey OMIC members about what the group’s priorities should be and continue the organization’s push for more city funding for local artists and music organizations. She also wants to see more music education programs in schools as a way to nurture the next generation of artists.

Local industry boosters have long sought a multi-purpose venue with a seating capacity of between 1,000 and 2,000 people in the downtown core as another means of deepening the pool of local talent. 

Kwong says the project is definitely on her radar, but it will require a solid business case and buy-in from the public and private sector to make it a reality.

“That's absolutely achievable if we put our minds together and collaborate on it,” she says.

“We still have a long way to go, and this is just the beginning of Ottawa kind of taking a first big step in investing in the music industry, so we have to keep that ball going.”