Let the Music Play
Whether it’s hiring a municipal music czar, repealing an antiquated bylaw ban, or building on local strengths in education, presentation and performance, London is looking to score big by proving great music is good business.
Sweet tunes echo from the Grickle Grass music festival at the Children’s Museum, attended by families and emerging artists. Thousands of Pearl Jam and Dixie Chicks fans trickle into downtown London heading for Budweiser Gardens. Most weekends during the summer, London parks become a sea of musical humanity, downtown streets dotted with buskers. London Music Hall keeps bringing in critically acclaimed artists, such as St. Vincent and Broken Social Scene, and the city’s postsecondary music and industry arts programs are readying a new generation of movers and shakers. The city’s music industry is thriving despite an antiquated bylaw that banned dancing, amplifiers and microphones on restaurant and bar patios — a bylaw, recently repealed, that had become a symbol of a stodginess London had long tried to shake. Cory Crossman, the city’s first music industry development officer, was just nine when the ban on amplified music and dancing was imposed in 1993. The bylaw and all its baggage was a symbolic — and very practical — barrier to making money off music. These days, Crossman spends as much time testing decibel levels on outdoor patios as he does attending council meetings. He says there is mounting statistical evidence that music and commerce make sense — evidence that can no longer be silenced by antiquated oise bylaws. “Can you argue with the fact that live music in Ontario contributes $1.2 billion to the economy and provides more than 20,000 full-time jobs?” says Crossman, referring to a comprehensive 2015 report commissioned by Music Canada that surveyed and interviewed more than 370 major players in the industry. “Or (with) the $8.4 million Canadian Country Music Week generated when it came to London in the fall, much of it staying right here in the city? “Music industries are just good business, like any other successful industry.” Crossman says he and his team are building a sturdy music industry foundation for London, held together by data, best practices, benchmarks and observable statistical results. It is a foundation that will prevent silence from creeping back onto London’s soundscape — or at least onto its patios. He is measuring the economic, social and cultural impacts of concerts, festivals or industry parties that come to town as proof of their success, or as a benchmark for better alternatives. In 1994, one year after the noise bylaw was enacted, Mike Manuel was buying the Dundas Street building that once housed Canada’s original Zellers department store. He would turn it into the London Music Hall. “Once the city decided to invest $300,000 on the music office pilot project, I knew we were headed in the right direction,” Manuel says. “And now we have Cory, a council and a mayor who are forward-thinking when it comes to the music industry.” “But we can’t depend on the city. It will still take all of us in the industry to do the heavy lifting.” Manuel believes Chris Campbell of Tourism London is another of the city’s most valuable music industry assets. Campbell played a huge role in bringing Canadian Country Music Week and June’s Ontario Country Music Awards to London. Manuel calls him a “tireless worker and promoter of the arts.” Campbell says the city has the “bones” to become a music city, with diverse venues and festivals and the perfect blend of grassroots and commercial promoters and organizers. The London scene already is thriving, due in large part to the passion of those leading the way, he says. “There’s something special happening here,” says Campbell. “There’s an organic vibe right now. We have buy-in from everyone involved. Having Cory at the city has also been a huge step forward.” “People need to understand that for a music industry to grow, everyone has to be on board: the police, local businesses, taxi companies, citizens, everyone,” he adds. “We’re seeing this now.” When Crossman talks about the local music industry, he uses words like “incubation” and “ecosystem” to highlight his belief that vibrant music cities must nurture and acknowledge all players on the scene, from grassroots independent artists and promoters, to mid-sized venues and festivals to bigfish players.
And he’s not alone in that view. Brian Ohl, manager of Budweiser Gardens, who hangs his hat on Grammywinning talent and selling thousands of concert tickets, understands that when Pearl Jam hand-picks London to rehearse and launch a world tour, it’s a win for the entire local industry. “I think of us as not one venue, but a London market comprised of all of us, grassroots to the top, all of our venues,” says Ohl. “If we work together, it’s good for us all. You can have a template for a music city, but it comes down to the people in the market. In London, we’re on the right track, we’re growing, getting bet - ter, but we’ve not reached our potential.” While Ohl crunches the numbers after a Dixie Chicks concert in April, Savanah Sewell, a former Bud Gardens employee turned local event promotor and co-founder of Winter Spectacular and the London Girls’ Rock Camp, is at London Children’s Museum putting the final organizational touches on the Grickle Grass music festival, held in late May. “Building a music city usually starts from the bottom up, a grassroots evolu - tion,” says Sewell. “I have ties to Budweiser Gardens. I loved working in that building and for the music community as a whole, big acts are important, there’s a ripple effect. So many bands that I’ve seen at Bud Gardens have given shout-outs to smaller venues in London where they got their start. I’ve heard that so many times.”
Another valuable aspect of London’s music industry, says Crossman, are thriving post-secondary education programs that serve almost 1,000 students a year. Fanshawe College’s Music Industry Arts program was a Canadian first when it launched in 1970, and Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music boasts more than 5,000 alumni. And Crossman notes that the music industry’s scope extends far beyond musicians, venues, organizers and promoters. “We have video game design companies who need music, there are sound designers, event planners, there’s music marketing, social media experts and graphic designers,” he says. “When you begin to pull back the layers of the industry, you see London as a hub of music industry education that goes far beyond the stage. Think of the 1,000 unfilled tech-sector jobs, as well. We want to attract the young skilled workforce to our city. Their economic impacts are huge.” Many music industry arts students end up among the 35 active volunteers at LondonFuse.ca. Headquartered in the old Novack’s building on King Street, LondonFuse.ca and its leaders, Nicole Borland and Pamela Haasan, are helping volunteers build portfolios as music writers, critics, promoters and photographers — portfolios vital to building a career when they graduate. As well, LondonFuse.ca has become London’s premier grassroots, independent platform for promoters and artists to reach the marketplace. Nowadays, many concerts and music events are held in basements, living rooms, abandoned properties, or churches. LondonFuse. ca’s goal is simple, Haasan says: to provide an accessible place for music and the arts to happen, be promoted and celebrated. “An incubator is a nice way to put it. Or, like we are water to these amazing, burgeoning artistic seeds . . . looking to develop their crafts, or to break into the industry. That’s our greatest motivation,” says Haasan. Borland also believes that hiring Crossman was an important symbolic step in advancing the local industry. “He’s a fantastic mediator,” says Borland. “The progress he and the city have made in nurturing the grassroots scene is awesome. But, let’s not pretend that we’re there. We are still a silo industry, but things are moving in the right direction.” Falling somewhere between London’s commercial and grassroots scene are several outdoor festivals that draw thousands of locals and out-of-towners every year. The success of the Home County Music and Art Festival, Sunfest and Rock the Park – organized by Jones Entertainment Group, which in some form has managed and booked acts into Centennial Hall for years – have paved the way for newer events, like Manuel’s Trackside Festival. Sunfest is an important economic generator for the local music industry, says Mercedes Caxaj, the renowned festival’s programming associate and artist recruiter. She says Crossman’s mediation between promoters, industry organizers and city hall has had major impact. “Cory has reached out to the community in a big way. What he did is put our business into perspective by showing city council how the people who are passionate about the industry and earn a living through it are not rich,” she says. “We don’t make millions of dollars. Most of us reinvest our profits so that we can operate another day, another year.” What many Londoners don’t realize, says Caxaj, is that Sunfest draws music fans from all over the world. Two music tour groups from Columbus and Dayton, Ohio, and another from Detroit pack onto buses and spend the four-day festival in London, living in hotels, eating in restaurants and shopping in the mornings. As the temperature in London heats up, so does another festival and patio season. And with the heat comes the hope that this year will be the best yet, economically and entertainment-wise. “Tucked between Toronto and Detroit, we are becoming another vital stop on the music map,” says Crossman. “Why not?”