“Music Cities” are for sale but who’s buying?

CMW’s Music Cities Summit highlighted the closeness between industry and policymakers, and the limitations of what a Music City can offer

This year, Canadian Music Week panel discussions and seminars took place inside the downtown Sheraton. Their proximity to City Hall was symbolic of the growing ties between city council and the local music industry. The ways government and industry can work together was a theme throughout many of the panels, and perhaps best articulated at the Music Cities Summit, an all-day event on Friday, April 21.

Here, the closeness between industry and policymakers was on full display – the panels focused on everything from how Milan, Nashville, Kingston and Bogota have become “Music Cities” to how policymakers can leverage their own cities’ music scene to increase tourism. 

As the architect for the event, Music Canada’s Amy Terrill was responsible for organizing the day’s panels and overall focus. This was the second Music Cities Summit hosted by CMW, following last year’s inaugural event and the publication of Music Canada’s The Mastering Of A Music City report in 2015.

Mayor John Tory kicked things off, cracking wise about making a wrong turn at the O’Cannabiz conference and worrying about wearing his Rush T-shirt two days in a row. He took the opportunity to highlight all that the city has done since designating itself a “Music City.” While he acknowledged the current problems with disappearing venues, he downplayed it throughout his speech. If acknowledging something means talking about it and then continuing to backpedal and undermine what you’ve previously said, then the mayor definitely acknowledged the venue crisis.

Tory framed the losses as “growing pains” and noted that major cities like New York and London have also lost a lot of venues, suggesting that the disappearance of scores of live music spaces, and that the factors behind those closures are unavoidable and beyond anyone’s control. It’s all just a rite of passage, apparently. Nothing to see here.

Mayor Tory wasn’t alone in this kind of thinking. Later in the day, Toronto Music Advisory Council chair and city Councillor Josh Colle accused the media of overstating the venue closures with “overly negative reporting,” making it out to be a bigger issue than it really is. (For the record, seven venues closed in the first two months of 2017.) 

It makes sense that these politicians and industry stakeholders would try to deflect attention from the crisis the Music Cities Summit is all about selling the idea of a Music City – that is, a civic body where the music industry and local government grease each other’s wheels – to a room of delegates interested in making the same thing happen in their own cities. There were representatives from Abbotsford, Los Angeles, Detroit, Ottawa and London, Ontario, all looking to roll out variations of The Mastering Of A Music City plan. It wouldn’t instill confidence to see the host “Music City” and model for the Music Canada report in serious trouble.

The keynote address by Melbourne’s Helen Marcou was a great way to test where the idea of a Music City begins and ends. She spoke about how, in 2010, she helped organize and rally 20,000 or so people to save Melbourne venue The Tote. It was inspiring to hear on mobilizing a social movement to fight venue closures and change public policy, a narrative that was on-message for the conference as it supports an idea shared by the city and industry: that the responsibility for saving venues falls to the public and its ability to organize grassroots support, not to politicians or policymakers. 

That idea was later reinforced by Molly Neuman of Kickstarter, who delivered a keynote on the way music communities across the United States have used that platform to save dying venues and fund new ones. But as an artist in the audience pointed out, Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general tend to privilege those who have the social capital and connections to support their campaigns, and don’t necessarily help those whose lives and music operate within the margins of society.

This prompted Marcou to shift gears and talk about her recent work fighting sexual assault and harassment at venues, and she called on public officials to do more to end the culture of sexual assault. It was a brave move you could tell by the looks on their faces that none of the suits in the room wanted to hear this. As with accessibility and drug education, a comprehensive approach to making spaces safer failed to make the cut in TMAC’s Music Strategy, possibly because, unlike affordable housing, the issue can’t be spun to make it only about “the creative class.” 

Marcou also shouted-out the work local organizations like Noise Against Sexual Assault are doing to change the conversation here in Toronto.

The best, most informative panel came last. Moderated by Councillor Colle, How To Work With The Development Community highlighted the tensions many, if not every, music scene faces due to rising property taxes, outdated bylaws and overzealous developers. It was also the only panel during the summit that acknowledged that music venues and scenes have value beyond their economic impact on other industries.

Toronto ex-pat and Sound Diplomacy CEO Shain Shapiro had the rapt attention of both Colle and music sector development officer Mike Tanner when he described his organization’s work with the city of London, England, to identify its venue crisis and formulate a rescue plan for those grassroots venues. The city effectively re-wrote its planning laws to create a music venue land-use classification. It’s now awaiting passage through council, and has been supported by Mayor Sadiq Khan and his team every step of the way. 

Important takeaways from that panel involved progressive ways for cities to support their music scene by making sure developers stay accountable to the neighbourhoods they build in and their prospective tenants. 

But perhaps the most valuable lesson for Toronto was that to effectively deal with and fix a problem, you have to first and foremost acknowledge that it exists. 

music@nowtoronto.com | @therewasnosound

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