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Canada’s Indie Music Hotspots

This is the first part in a series examining Canada’s music scene, with a focus on which cities have thriving scenes and where artists launch and sustain successful careers. This stems from my interest in music, particular Canadian (indie) work, and from many discussions with friends about which cities support good music scenes.

This also intersects with work I’m doing (and will write about) that identifies what makes a city amenable to young adults. A vibrant cultural scene is a key part of this, and the local music scene is a good bellwether for it. It’s more universal than theatre, more social than reading, and more local than television/film, which tends to be highly clustered. I believe it gives a good read of a city’s cultural scene more often than not. The focus on indie music does miss out on some genres (jazz, classical, country), but captures a vast array of different types of artists, with varying amounts of experience, repertoire, and popularity.

Canada’s Indie Music Hotspots
To start, I’m examining which cities are generating activity in their music scene. I used data from CBC Music (where you get everyone from Arcade Fire to A Tribe Called Red to Carly Rae Jepsen). It’s an open site that allows any artist to create a page and upload their music, so this captures everyone from well-known acts like Joel Plaskett (with over one million song plays on the site) to the artists just starting out who have yet to develop a following. It also captures artists creating and sharing original material, not ones just playing covers of Brown-Eyed Girl at local pubs.

Joel Plaskett
Joel Plaskett of Halifax at Edmonton Folk Fest in 2009.

This post focuses on Census Metropolitan Areas, using data on CMA population and municipalities from Statistics Canada. A subsequent focus will look at which – if any – smaller cities (defined as Census Agglomerations) are generating strong music scenes.

Metros with the Most Artists
This table shows the list of metros with most artists, in raw numbers.

Metros with the Most Artists Per 1000 Residents
This table shows the list of metros with most artists, measured per each 1000 residents.

HUGE Caveat
It’s apparent that Quebec artists are not signing up for CBC’s page in huge numbers, as you can see in the spreadsheet. Aside from Montreal (whose numbers I suspect are much higher), other CMAs in the province barely register. Anecdotally, and through research such as this Martin Prosperity Institute paper, we can be confident that this is not a fair representation of Quebec’s music scene. This is best looked at as an evaluation of Anglo Canada’s indie music scenes.

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Danny Michel of Kitchener-Waterloo at Wakefield (Ottawa-Gatineau)’s Black Sheep Inn.

The Results
You can see the full data for artists and artists per 1000 residents for Canada’s 33 CMAs here. I found a few trends:

Bigger Metros Have More Artists
This was expected. Toronto, by far the biggest metro, produced the most artists (and narrowly missed the top 10/1000 residents, ranking 11th). The rest of the top 10 followed the population rankings as well with slight variance. Only Halifax (7th vs. 13th in population) and Victoria (9th vs. 15th) stood out as outliers.

Matthew Barber
Matthew Barber, originally of Hamilton, residing in (and credited to) Toronto. Here he’s playing at Edmonton’s Haven Social Club.

The second tier in population (Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary, Edmonton) have near identical numbers. They’re all within 200 artists of each other, and 0.11 per capita. The ranking does go Ottawa-Gatineau, Calgary, Edmonton – in that order – in both categories, though.

In the next group down, only Quebec City (as noted) and Kitchener-Waterloo – amongst the 10 biggest metros – miss the top 10 overall. However, of those 10, only Vancouver and Winnipeg – often noted for a strong arts scene – make the top 10 per capita.

The Atlantic and Pacific Reign
Vancouver and Victoria rank high both overall and per capita, and 3 of the 4 CMAs in the Atlantic provinces finish in the top 10 per capita. Given the prominence of live music in the latter’s culture, this shouldn’t be a big surprise, but it does confirm that local artists are generating original content, not just playing cover songs in pubs.

College Towns Often Have Thriving Scenes
College towns in the United States are often known for fostering thriving music scenes, and you see evidence of this in Canada as well. Halifax, of course, is well-known for its music scene, and the 6 colleges and universities in the city play a key part in supporting it. The smallest CMAs that showed up in the top 10 per capita all have a university that’s a prominent part of their community – University of Guelph, UniversitĂ© de Moncton, Trent University in Peterborough, and Queen’s University in Kingston. This will be elaborated on in the post on smaller cities, but two Atlantic Canadian cities outside of CMAs but with a strong college presence post a per capita score of over 1.6, better than all but 4 of the CMAs.

Halifax and Victoria Look Like They’re Punching Above their Weight
Related to an extent – they did well in these rankings, and noticeably outperformed their metro size in my ranking of Canadian cities as well. Halifax’s music scene has also been noted for outperforming its size by MPI, amongst others.

Musical Hotspots
What this post measures is activity, not success. Many of the metros that scored high are producing large numbers, but not necessarily large numbers of successful ones (though Victoria has produced artists like Nelly Furtado, it’s light on recognizable indie acts). A future post will look at where the most successful artists are coming from. In other words, there’s no reason for an artist to think that Toronto and Montreal are not two of their best options for launching a successful career.

Yet, this does identify cities that are producing – or attracting – large numbers and/or proportions of creative people. They’ve fostered a scene where someone gets to a point that they are not just creating music – they’re recording and sharing it. It’s a sign of creative and artist activity, and a music scene that contributes to a vibrant city.

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Finding Canada’s Greatest City

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper caused a stir this week with his words at the Calgary Stampede, where he called his hometown of Calgary “the greatest city in Canada”. This kind of civic boosterism is common-place amongst public officials such as backbench or lower profile MPs, or local Mayors, but not amongst national leaders.

What he said interests me less than whether or not there is merit to that claim. I decided to spend the evening trying to determine whether there is, in fact, justification to calling Calgary Canada’s greatest city. And if there isn’t, who can justifiably lay claim to that title?

Calgary Tower
Is Calgary really Canada’s greatest city?

My methods are admittedly unscientific, but I did my best to be fair with limited time and information at my disposal. I decided to rank the 20 largest cities (Census Metropolitan Areas, to be exact) according to 6 categories, and weighted the results to come up with a score out of 100. Their point total for a category was inverse to their ranking in it (ie. 1st in Quality of Life gets 20 points)

Quality of Life (20%) – A natural consideration in establishing great cities. I took the rankings from a recently released paper titled Quality of Life, Firm Productivity, and the Value of Amenities Across Canadian Cities.

Productivity (20%) – The rankings are taken from the same paper, and are the best economic metric I could find.

Smart City (10%) – For this, to evaluate a city’s commitment to education, and use of cultural and educational opportunities, I used the Canadian Council on Learning’s 2010 Composite Learning Index.

Political Leadership (10%) – Great cities produce great leaders, and contribute to public and civic life. I gave each city a point for each Prime Minister it produced who won a mandate (which only excludes the string of MacDonald successors, John Turner, and Kim Campbell), as well as any leader of a party in the House of Commons or Premier who served a minimum of 8 years in that role.

Civic Leadership (10%) – For this, I examined the number of Order of Canada recipients by city.

Travel Destination (10%) – Using TripAdvisor‘s Top 25 Canadian Destinations, I identified which cities are big draws. Hard numbers for visitors to cities and popular sites were hard to come by.

Culture (10%) – While not a fan of the MoneySense rankings (since it’s by incorporated city, not CMA), their Culture category was the best thing I could find.

You can see the full spreadsheet here. Now, the results.

1. Toronto (88)
2. Calgary (82.5)
3. Vancouver (80.25)
4. Ottawa (75.75)
5. Montreal (75)
6. Victoria (73.5)
7. Edmonton (57.75)
8. Halifax (52.75)
9. Quebec (52)
10. Hamilton (40.75)
11. Winnipeg (39.75)
12. Oshawa (39.5)
13. Kitchener-Waterloo (39.25)
14. Saskatoon (39)
15. Regina (37)
16. London (36.25)
17. Sherbrooke (33.5)
18. St. Catharines-Niagra (32)
19.(tie) Windsor (28.5)
19.(tie) St. John’s (28.5)

So. Maybe our Prime Minister isn’t far from the truth. Toronto is the undisputed winner on this list. While that isn’t a surprise, seeing Calgary finish that high, and comfortably ahead of Vancouver and Montreal, is for me. We should probably get used to it. It will continue to rival Canada’s biggest cities so long as it maintains its economic and political clout.

In terms of overall results, they follow the rankings of CMA population pretty closely, which is what I expected – with a few outliers. Victoria is the moneyball of Canadian cities, ranking 15th in CMA population but coming in 6th on this list. Halifax does well too, coming in 8th compared to 13th in population. What does this mean? I’ll explore it further another time.

In one sense, the argument about Canada’s greatest city is silly, and largely a hyper form of boosterism. In another, it can have meaning if we take it as an opportunity to consider what makes a city great, and how we can ensure we are a country of many great cities, not just one. I think we do have several great ones. Whether one is truly the greatest is, to me, probably a matter of one’s taste.

True Patriot Love: A Canada Day Photo Essay

Today is Canada Day, our national holiday marking when we officially became a country, July 1, 1867. I always think of myself as a Canadian first, and am proud to have grown up and continue to live here. I also consider myself fortunate to have experienced much of it – having visited all 10 provinces, living in 3 of them so far, and spending significant time visting 2 others over the years. To celebrate, here are some photos I’ve taken the past few years of some of my favourite places and things across the country. It’s not an exhaustive list – it’s dependent on where I’ve been with a high-resolution camera these past few years, but it has also reminded me of many of the things and places I love, and haven’t been back to see in far too long (hello Montreal, Toronto, Niagra, and Annapolis Valley!)

On Canada Day, I hope you get to spend some time with – or thinking about, your favourite things from this country too.

I suggest you look through these images while listening to Joel Plaskett’s True Patriot Love.

Mountains! Taken in Banff

Mountain Peaks

Calgary Folk Fest at Prince’s Island Park. Slipping away from the action to relax along the Bow River is always a pleasure.

Bow River

Street life on Rue Saint Jean in Quebec City, which turns into a pedestrian-only street during the summer.

Rue Saint Jean

The Waterfront Trail in Ottawa. One of my favourite places to run.

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The coloured row houses in St. John’s is one of the city’s best features.

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Oceans! The Atlantic Ocean, taking off from St. John’s

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…and the Pacific, on a boat near Victoria.

Seals

Speaking of Victoria, the Legislature is amazing at night.

Legislature

The public gardens in Halifax was one of my favourite places to go when I lived there.

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The Market! My home on Saturday mornings during the summer in Edmonton.

City Centre Market

Baseball at Telus Field in Edmonton.

The Pitch

One more from Edmonton – overlooking the River Valley, truly the city’s world class feature.

Saskatchewan Drive

Speaking of world class, the Black Sheep Pub in Wakefield is one of the country’s great music venues, yes?

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Parliament Hill in Ottawa. I get a thrill every time I visit. I hope that feeling never goes away.

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Hiking above Jasper, Alberta, where my family has gone regularly since I was a little kid. Here’s an overhead view of the town.

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Finally, atop the Sulphur Skyline near Jasper – one of my favourite hiking trails. That’s me taking in the view. We truly have a beautiful country.

Admiring the View

Why I’m Betting on Halifax

The Halifax State of the Economy conference occured earlier this week. An initiative of the Greater Halifax Partnership, which leads the development of the region’s economic plan, the conference discussed the progress to date, and initiatives to grow the region, and its economy. Following along on Twitter, I was impressed by most of what I heard coming out of the conference, and what I read of the plan.

The HRM, particularly its downtown core, face many challenges regarding future growth, yet there are many positive signs – even beyond the massive shipbuilding contract it landed last year. As the regional hub for Nova Scotia, and in many ways Atlantic Canada as a whole, growth opportunities abound.

Downtown Halifax
Flickr/wdrwilson

Now, I have a fondness for Halifax, which to some degree skews my opinion. I enjoyed a great year living and working there in 2005-06, and it remains one of my favourite cities. Yet, I believe many of the factors I see working in its favour do hold up to scrutiny.

A Realistic Business Plan
I’m often a skeptic of economic plans, yet I found myself impressed with this one. In particular, the things that stood out for me are:

– The focus on clusters, which I see as one of the more reliable ways of growing a region’s economy.
– The importance of people and place, and how this can’t be separated from the economy.
– That it’s measurable. The Halifax Index provides a fair, region-specific way of tracking progress.

Owly Images

Best of all, I find it realistic. It assesses the region’s strengths and weaknesses, and has a cautious, incremental plan for growth. There’s no betting on the next big thing, or a magic solution to turn things around. Cautious, steady growth feels realistic and attainable to me.

Universities and an Educated Population
The HRM is home to a relatively large concentration of universities, which only grows when you consider schools such as Mt. Allison, Acadia, and St.FX are all within a few hours drive. The region has a highly educated population too, providing the basis for a growing creative economy. Right now, the region struggles to hold on to the large number of international students who attend its schools (as the report notes). There could also be greater integration between the schools and the economy, encouraging R&D and spin-offs.

Yet, the sheer number of students who come through the region – domestic and international – is a huge plus, and is an opportunity that can always be built on. It exposes a large number of people to the region – many of whom wouldn’t have come if not for school. While it won’t retain all of them (or maybe even most of them), it gets the city on their radar – as a place to live, or to do business regardless of where they settle. Of course, more can be done to retain students – and the other factors identified will help with that.

Appealing Urban Form
The local consensus is that the downtown needs work. Yet, a new report outlines many advantages of Halifax’s downtown. In particular, it cites the downtown’s density (at 42 residents/ha) as an asset. It’s also very compact and walkable, which is becoming more and more of a popular feature in any city – especially for younger residents, and a lovable (in my opinion) architectural style. Add to this great public places like the Public Gardens and the Commons, and the HRM boasts one of the most appealing city cores anywhere in the country.

I stayed overnight in Halifax earlier this month, my first time back in 6 years. I was impressed with the changes, in particular what seemed like an increase in popular international retailers and vendors (they now have Starbucks, and I did not expect to see a Lululemon on Spring Garden Road). Many of the successful independent shops remained as well (seeing Bookmark still there warmed my heart), and new ones had emerged. Regardless of one’s feelings on chain stores and restaurants/cafes, it’s a sign of confidence in the city’s downtown to see them moving in there, and not just in the Shopping Centre or one of the power centres in the suburbs.

Thriving Cultural Scene
Halifax is famous for its pub scene (who isn’t familiar with the Lower Deck?), and has boasted a strong independent music scene for the past 20 years (producing arguably the best indie-rock band of the ’90s – Sloan, and the ’00s – the Joel Plaskett Emergency, along with one of the best festivals – the Halifax Pop Explosion). These features and amenities will continue to make it a popular destination for tourists (and to host conferences and conventions), and for people and businesses to locate from a quality of life aspect.

Strong Culture and Sense of Identity
One of the things that has always stood out for me amongst Atlantic Canadians is the immense pride they have and express in where they come from. This is as true when you encounter ex-pats across the country as it is in their home region. It’s infectious, in the best possible way.

Out west, we’ve seen reverse migration to Saskatchewan as that province’s economy has picked up in the past decade. I foresee a similar trend to the Atlantic if the right economic circumstances presented themselves. Additionally, Halifax enjoys a positive reputation amongst most Canadians (at least, those who have experienced it). As quality of life becomes a greater consideration (especially for Gen Y), this factor will again play to its advantage.

Betting on Halifax
At the moment, Canada’s economic growth is being fueled by a resource boom. That will in time ebb (if not go bust), and the country will have to look to other industries for recovery and growth. The fundamentals are there for Halifax to keep growing its regional economy, and be one of the most successful centres in the country. With a little more success in retaining grads (and bringing back ex-pats), holding on to more students from other regions, and scaling up some of the economic diversification already going on, it will happen sooner than most of us think.