Sep 18

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How Do We Make It Better?

Pushing the Needle Forward

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Sometimes you must step away from something in order to see it in its truest form. You can get caught up in the all the flag bearing and numerous “victories” and lose sight of how far you have “progressed” if at all.

This is where I find myself after stepping away from Allstage Crawls for 4 months and coming away from two meccas of Live Music – Austin and Vegas. It also derives from talking to friends from the East Coast (Nova Scotia, Newfoundland) who either came from there in the music industry or are presently there involved in it.

Let me preface this by saying there is lots of organizations and individuals who in their own way are making commendable strides in trying to make the London Music scene viable. Forest City London Music Awards, Woodshed Concert Series, LDN_Reverb, London Music Association, Scott Bollert, London Music Office, Allstage to name just a few. Add to that list the music venues, brewery’s, bistros – there are a lot of players trying to push the needle forward locally and they deserve accolades for doing so – but frankly it amounts to a small splash in a very big pond.

All the initiatives and seminars are admirable that are put into play but in actuality – they are swimming upstream in the current conditions that are the reality as a whole for the local music scene.

Let me explain.

How many people scoffed at my statement above of Vegas being a music mecca? Quite a few I bet. Point is while Vegas is known for their gambling, wild night life, great restaurants and spectacular shows be it Blue Man Group or world class bands in residence – their music scene is spectacular. In most of the Casino’s on either strip you can find bands/artists performing in the casino halls. On Freemont there is stages with local bands playing in 2-3 places each day. In the lobbies of most casinos you won’t see Aerosmith, but you will see some extraordinary jazz, acoustic, rock acts plying their trade at night. At the weeklong AFM Seminar, I attended this past June, each morning there was a local music act performing before the seminar began – their talent was jaw dropping. And talking to people that live there, in the venues off the strips where tourists don’t roam – the local venues are stacked with local live music. All of that is shaded by the tourists that go there to party, gamble and the immense size and glitz of the casino’s themselves but make no mistake – that town is a hot bed for live music.

 

I’ve already gone into depth about Austin, Texas so no need to revisit that but make no mistake – music to them is a culture, a way of life that is very important to them and they take great pride in not only having that world-wide fame but they support it in mass – everything has been made to make it work from the young people flooding the bars, to the excellent musicians who play the stages, to the local and state government who make sure it all works to the benefit of the industry on all levels be it smoking on covered patios, to not charging a venue more for a case of beer than what a consumer pays for it, to keeping regs and taxes manageable and just generally leaving private business to do their thing.

Short of it all – they get it.

 

Let’s flip over to the East Coast of Canada – Nova Scotia or Newfoundland.

If you are a music fan or musician – you’ve hit pay dirt there. Anyone who has visited there has seen firsthand that those who live on the East Coast, live and breathe live music. I’ve been to Halifax twice and it is extraordinary – live music with full bars on a Sunday right thru to a Sunday. Spoke recently to a dear friend who is from there and she echoed what friends of mine who live there say – and that is that they play as much as they want or as little as they want. Go to Halifax which is a university town and see the “dance club” there – I have on a weekend night and its near empty where across the street at the live music venue it’s a line-up – and they are university students wanting to get in not old codgers like me.

Go to George Street in St.John’s, Newfoundland and stand back in awe at all the pubs and live music that are successful and vibrant – again, it’s not a past time it’s a culture to them.

 

The point is that in these cities be it Canada or United States – they dig in and make music a primary focus from the provincial/state – municipal governments to get rid of the impediments for venues and musicians.

The music industry is a huge multi-billion-dollar industry. It supplies jobs to not only musicians but cooks, servers, doormen, security staff – and those people pay taxes and spend money as a result of the industry on everything to make the economic wheel turn. It rakes in billions of dollars of tax dollars through the selling of alcohol and food not to mention business tax, property tax, etc.

And let’s not forget for a moment the LCBO and Beer Store who rake in gazillions from the venues who buy their stock from them – it is a giant financial cog that results in a harvest of tax dollars for government at all levels.

All these benefits and still it suffers from incompetence and apathy.

 

In Austin there is the Heritage District which I described in an earlier blog where a street of a dozen dilapidated homes was turned into bustling venues/restaurants. In Hamilton there is the same little street with the same business model – older homes renovated that are situated side-by-side and present live music along with restaurants. You simply walk out of one and into another with a wide variety of live music be it bands or acoustic acts. In Halifax right at the waterfront there is an old military armory that has been severed down into five or six separate venues with all different genres of music – and on Sunday and Monday nights it is packed.

Three cases, different provinces and countries – all largely successful.

And London – zilch.

 

This isn’t about the band playing in a venue or a musician playing downtown in the summer sun – to move this landscape is going to require heavy-lifting at all levels of government.

The smokers who pay the same amount of money to support a venue and live music deserve the same rights as those who don’t smoke – all they want is a covered area (out of the rain and snow) for smokers alone where they can enjoy their beer AND their smoke of choice and one that has heaters in the winter. I don’t want to hear your whiny arguments of one camp vs. the other – it’s fair and each can decide as adults where they want to stand. If you ostracize one side, then it’s the venue who loses – I see it all the time and many bars have shut their door due to this draconian law – not to mention the cost the venue owner incurs.

Something needs to be done between the local governments and Restaurants Canada to take a stand and battle for the health of music venues regarding liquor policies, smoking patios, taxation rates, etc. There is too much money in this industry and too many people depending on it to make a living one way or another that needs to be addressed in a positive move forward.

There are investors and those with large sums of capital that would open a venue and hire people if the circumstances were right and they knew they could make a run at it without government interference.

Regarding the individual cities and those that have Music Office’s – they too should be digging in as a collective and pressuring the government to wake up to the enormous benefits of the music industry. Bring live music to the forefront from a brick and mortar standpoint and the rest will follow suit. You will see music schools, recording studios, high school students paying more attention to the “culture” of music in their hometown, the proliferation of song writing incubations take place more and more, mentoring by experienced musicians to the younger ones, all prosper.

 

When I stepped back this summer and looked again at the local scene all I came up with was “What the fuck are we doing?”

That’s not a slight on anyone at all (but I’m sure some will get their back up over it). We have a downtown that is a cesspool, and no one wants to go near it in the daytime let alone the nighttime. I talk to business owners who spend their mornings in the core picking up needles and shoveling up feces from the night before. When the city rips their street to shreds for months on end there is no financial assistance as the owners try each day to avoid going broke, bar owners are told to put their “smoking patio” here – they spend the large amount of money to accommodate that and that same person comes back a few years later and says that is illegal and they have to push their paying regular customers into a parking lot like a herd of citizens who have no rights – maybe they should stick needles in their arms and it will give them the special status needed.

Why not create some form of incentive for either London East around Ontario Street, or in Central London for people to buy older homes and create a hybrid of Kensington Market and the Heritage District (Austin) to attract tourists to the city and create at the same time a niche market for live music.

Lastly, after a significant effort has been accomplished to create the foundation – market the city as such with all the steps in place to create a music culture in the city. If you have successful venues popping up, a public that wants to support it and a government that allows free enterprise then you will be on the right road.

Of course, in the summer months you are going to need outdoor music that isn’t hogtied by a minority of people who gripe about anything – but that is for the next blog this week.

What everyone is doing is fuzzy warm and well intentioned, but its not in any way going to make the progress that is needed to really link up all the little initiatives into one cohesive plan.

I’ve lived in London my entire life and all one needs to do to see that the city doesn’t look past next month is drive around town in rush hour.

It’s not going to be easy by any stretch, but the alternative is to be where we are right now.

Certainly, we can do better.

 

Jim McCormick - Allstage