Canada’s Indie vs. Chain Store Battle: Who’s Winning Where?

News broke yesterday that Greenwood’s Bookshoppe, one of two major remaining independent bookstores in Edmonton, will be closing in 7-10 days. This will leave the city with only one major independent bookstore.

“We’re going to seduce them with our square footage, and our discounts, and our deep armchairs”
The closure of independent stores, ostensibly because of competition from chain stores offering bigger selection, lower prices, and more amenities, is nothing new (though today, the squeeze is as likely to come iBooks, iTunes, online retailers, and increased online sharing). That quote comes from the 1998 movie You’ve Got Mail, where the owner of a major book chain opens a superstore on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Of course, his store puts a second-generation independent book seller out of business, and then they meet over the internet and start dating. The tension between chain stores and locally-owned businesses plays into this romantic comedy which I imagine would feel dated to watch 14 years after its release. But I digress.

Books
Flickr/Ricky Leong
A sign in the window at Pages on Kensington, a popular independent bookstore in Calgary.

The Indie vs. Chain Battle Today
With the Greenwoods closure on my mind, I wanted to see what I could find out about the state of book and music stores in Canada. Using information on trade bookstores from the Canadian Booksellers’ Association, and information on participating stores in Record Store Day, I identified a number of independent (and small chain) stores in each major Census Metropolitan Area. In the end, 12 metros (of the 15 largest) had more than 5 combined.

I also wanted to see what kind of relationship existed between independent stores, and major chains. Attrition has left only one major chain in each industry, so I counted Chapters/Indigo/Coles locations and HMV stores as well.

Metros with the Most Independent Book and Music Stores

Metros with the Most Big Chains

The Relationship Between Indie and Chain Stores
With a few exceptions, most metros don’t have a huge variation between the number of indie and chain stores.

Here is a list of the 12 metros with their number of independent and major chain stores:

The first thing that stands out is how both Edmonton and Calgary have a significantly higher number of chain stores. If you want one reason Greenwood’s went out of business, think about this. Metro Edmonton, with a little under half the population, has the same number of Chapters/Indigo/Coles locations as Metro Vancouver.

The rest of the metros on this list don’t see a significant difference (except indie store hotbeds of Kitchener-Waterloo and London, Ontario). Of course, this doesn’t speak to the stability, or profitability of independent stores. It’s also worth noting that Edmonton independent record store ranking is in the second cluster of cities trailing the big three (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver). Perhaps, as Andy posited, the problem in Edmonton is with the shops, not the market itself.

More to the point, as I alluded to earlier, both independent and chain stores are under threat from a changing industry and consumer habits. I wrote about the changing bookstore, with some ideas for future models, in May. Book (or record) stores will be around in some form, but likely in smaller numbers, at least for the foreseeable future.

Given that, what I do feel confident in saying is that, unless they continue to adapt and evolve, consumers shouldn’t be surprised to see their favorite book or music store – independent or chain – close up shop.

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College Towns and Destinations: Canada’s Small Indie Music Hotspots

Following up on my post on Canada’s indie music hotspots, this post looks at smaller centres in the country where large concentrations of artists are making and sharing original music. Once again, I’ve used artist information from CBC Music and data on Census Agglomerations from Statistics Canada.

Two Hours Traffic
Flickr/Threthny
Two Hours Traffic from Charlottetown, PEI.

Largest Census Agglomerations Per Capita

In addition Census Agglomerations, several towns that didn’t make this category due to size had high numbers per capita. The following list is what I call Destination Towns, popular locations for tourism or lifestyle choices.

Largest Destination Towns Per Capita

The list is comprised of (mountain-based) recreation centres, as well as college towns with a small permanent population (Wolfville and Antigonish).

Trends in Small Music Scenes
A few things that stood out:

The Atlantic and Pacific Reign Once Again: Atlantic and Pacific metros stood out in the previous rankings, and it’s no surprise that Charlottetown and Fredericton rank high here. The two Atlantic CAs rank higher in concentration than all but four CMAs (Halifax, Victoria, Vancouver, Guelph).

College Towns – Big or Small – Are Hotspots: Many cities and towns on the list boasts either a university with a strong presence – UPEI in Charlottetown, UNB and St. Thomas in Fredericton, Acadia in Wolfville, Mt. Allison in Sackville, St.FX in Antigonish.

Destination Towns Can Build a Scene: The places that are not college-oriented are invariably vacation or lifestyle destination spots. The British Columbia cities are clustered on the island or along the coast, or in the interior – opposite Alberta’s mountain towns. The Ontario cities are near mountain destinations, and/or have recognized cultural scenes (Stratford is famous for its Shakespeare Festival; Owen Sound has been named a cultural capital). Several of the cities – Salmon Arm, Canmore, Owen Sound, Yellowknife – also host relatively popular folk festivals.

Being a Regional Centre Matters: The CAs that showed up at the top of the list are all regional centres, and especially in Charlottetown and Fredericton’s case, share many functional characteristics with CMAs.

If You’re Serious About Your Career, It’s Best to Move to a CMA: New music is being created and shared all over the country, but few of the artists outside CMAs are recognizable, or seem to have large following (outside, perhaps, their immediate local community.

Charlottetown Deserves Recognition: It stands out amongst CAs, having produced nationally-followed indie acts such as Two Hours Traffic, Paper Lions, and Boxer the Horse. There are much larger metros that can’t boast even that many recognizable or popular names.

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, Université 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.

Folk and the City: Promoting Music and Community in Western Canada

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Gallagher Park, home of Edmonton Folk Fest.

Thursday is the kickoff of Edmonton Folk Festival, a four-day event that counts itself among the most popular of the city’s many summer festivals. The event routinely sell-out, happening within mere hours this year.

Beloved by many ‘folkies’, it nonetheless has its detractors as well. Some will criticize the lineup for catering too much to baby boomers at the expense of younger audiences (a charge Edmonton’s producer basically admits to); others will note how surprisingly difficult to get to the site can be – despite being relatively centrally-located. Finally, anyone who has ever attended can attest to the fact that even so much as breathing within the vicinity of their hard-fought for tarp spot will upset some of the most dedicated patrons.

Yet, the festival – like folk fests across the world – is a borderline on religious experience for many. It’s a time to relax, revel, and feel re-energized. Festivals have grown to be major events for many cities, and their merits compared to each other are hotly debated amongst music fans. In Western Canada, five major festivals happen throughout the summer – in Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, and Winnipeg. I examine which ones live up to their reputation in terms of delivering big names and value for their audience.

Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers at Calgary Folk Fest in 2010.

The 2012 Festivals
Using data available from Pollstar on average ticket prices, then recent (or upcoming) ticket price information for acts not listed there, I assigned an average price for each artist, assuming it was an individual (or headlining) show. For (usually) overseas artists or special performances (like the Woody Guthrie tribute at Winnipeg) that had no data, I assigned a value of $38, which was consistent with what I could find for similar events.

Edmonton and Calgary are four-day festivals, Vancouver and Regina three, and Winnipeg five. For the price below, I’ve used the value of a full-weekend, regular price festival pass (note: in the first two charts, the value for Calgary goes up about 100% each if you bought an early-bird pass at $145).

Value of Headliners
Looking at just the headliners (main stage acts), here is the value you get:

More Than the Main Stage: Delivering Overall Value

Danny Michel
Danny Michel (and Jill Barber) at a workshop in Edmonton. Danny later joined Loudon Wainwright in singing ‘The Swimming Song’, the kind of moment you can’t get elsewhere.

Now, as any attendee knows, the headliners are just one portion. One of the best features is often the workshops during the day, where artists often collaborate, and/or you hear rarely heard material. However, you also get abridged versions of individual sets, or acts who may not qualify for the main stage. To capture this, I assigned a value of $26 (based on 70% of the rare session value of $38) to each hour of workshops at the festival.

Wondering about the asterisk? Regina offers free admission to the daytime Saturday and Sunday workshops, which attracted 10,000 patrons in 2011, compared to closer to 4000 for the paid evening events. If you count this, it raises the value to $831.74, for an astronomical value of 808%

In summary, Edmonton and Calgary are, by these standards, basically equal, with Vancouver and Winnipeg lagging behind the rest.

Value By Capacity

The Crowd
From the back of the seating area at Calgary Folk Fest.

Now, one last way of looking at things. Every venue is different, and can dramatically affect your viewing experience. This is particularly true at these five festivals, which are all general admission. From experience, I can say that there is a dramatic difference between having a good tarp (which requires lining up, or having a friend willing to do so for you) and a bad one at Edmonton. The difference between good and bad spots in Calgary is less pronounced. So, I want to look at this on a capacity basis, which is a way of looking at the likelihood that you’ll have a good seat for enjoying your experience. Capacity is a ballpark estimate based on reported capacity or attendance in the past (Edmonton was the hardest to ascertain, but has reported attendance of over 100,000 for five-day festivals in the past). The Value By Capacity number itself is by and large meaningful only as a comparison between the five festivals.

Johnny Flynn and the Sussex Wit
About halfway up the hill at Edmonton. Still relatively not a bad seat.

Again with the asterisk on Regina. Assuming you buy a pass and attend the free workshops during the day, a weighted means formula (based on the vast discrepancy in workshop vs. main stage attendance) still gives it a value of $94.97.

With the larger capacity, it’s no surprise that Edmonton has a lower score. Your experience probably matters a lot on whether you have a good seat or not. The other three festivals deliver relatively close value for their size.

Making Sense of Folk Fests
There are a lot of externalities not captured, such as the social bonding aspect, the relative convenience of getting to and from a location, and the quality of food and beverage. And ultimately, the experience probably comes down to one’s musical preferences. If they like the acts, they’ll probably have a good time. What I’ve tried to do here is look at what entertainment value these festivals are bringing to their cities, and whose doing well at it relatively speaking.

What is without a doubt is that all five deliver value above and beyond their sticker price. By my calculation, some – like Regina – punch way above their weight. I plan to repeat this analysis in the future (and possibly for other festivals as well) to see what trends emerge.

Making Folk Fests Work for Cities
The key is to find ways to leverage these events and create additional value to the host city. Vancouver and Winnipeg’s festivals are tourist draws, but if they do not lead to return (non-folk fest) visits or additional days spent elsewhere in the city, it’s a missed opportunity. Edmonton and Calgary’s festivals now promote shows year-round, and Calgary has secured a concert hall that also hosts its offices and provides community space. I see opportunities for both to cultivate greater exposure for the local music scene in their respective cities. As locally-focused non-profits, delivering quality music at great value is important, but just a first steps. The more these festivals expand and contribute in other ways, the greater assets they’ll become.

Pete Yorn in Seattle

For most of the past couple of weeks, I’ve been on vacation, hence the lack of blogging. For 8 of those days, I visited Seattle and Portland. That trip, and observations/thoughts stemming from it, will be the subject of a few upcoming blog posts.

Officially, I had three objectives when planning a summer vacation. First, it had to be relatively cheap. Second, it had to be somewhere I’d never visited before. Third, it had to involve watching major league baseball in person.

Seattle met all three criteria. The Portland side-trip came later once I realized it cost about $60 round-trip to travel on Amtrak between the two cities. Also, once I’d investigated Seattle, and narrowed down a date range, a fourth objective was added to the list: I had to get tickets to one of Pete Yorn’s concerts at The Showbox in Seattle. I ended up attending his show this past Wednesday.

Pete Yorn performs "Black" at the Showbox in Seattle. August 19, 2009.For those of you who have never listened to Yorn, do yourself a favour and get your hands on his albums as soon as possible. I will even lend you my copies if you’re too broke or too cheap to spend $15-20/disc, or too lazy to torrent them. Yorn is one of my absolute favourite artists, and I had never seen him perform live before.

I discovered his music early in 2002, not long after his debut album ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ was released. I heard his first single, “Life on a Chain”, on a compilation/mix CD whose origins I have since forgotten. Hearing that inspired me to track down the full album. Upon acquiring it, it quickly became a favourite.

His follow-up album, ‘Day I Forgot’, is solid, with a few stellar tracks – “Crystal Village”, “Long Way Down”, and “All at Once”. He followed a couple of years later in 2006 with ‘Nightcrawler’. I was initially unimpressed, and didn’t listen to it much for the first couple of years after it was released. In general, I listened to Yorn less during this period than I had for the previous few years.

This spring, I got word that he was releasing a follow-up album, titled ‘Back & Fourth’, and listened to the first single, ‘Don’t Wanna Cry’, which was available online. I enjoyed it, and between it and conversing with fellow Yorn fan Andy Grabia, I started to listen to his music again more and more. I even gave ‘Nightcrawler’ another chance, and it grew on me. In particular, “Alive” and “Ice Age” are strong tracks.

Pete Yorn in Seattle. August 19, 2009.

Pete Yorn in Seattle. August 19, 2009.

‘Back & Fourth’ was released in June, and really impressed me. Many of the songs have a rich sound, and it comes closest to recapturing the earnestness and energy that make ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ such a strong record.

Now, having missed him open for Crowded House in Edmonton a couple of years back, there was no way I was going to miss him if I had a chance while in Seattle.

The Show
The concert was held at the Showbox at the Market, a small Seattle club. Amazingly, Wednesday night’s all-ages show I attended wasn’t full, and there were signs that Thursday’s 21+ show was doing worse. Given that the Showbox is a small venue, and ticket prices were reasonable (I paid $22 plus service charges), there is no reason Pete shouldn’t have filled the place at least one of the nights. The crowd at the all-ages show was pretty mixed, especially age-wise. I was initially worried that the grown-ups would go to the Thursday show, and Wednesday night would be a crowd consisting of me and a bunch of 16 year old emo kids. That was far from the case; the bulk of the crowd looked to be in their mid-late 20s; there were even a couple of grey-haired guys standing near the stage. I ended up about 10 feet away, dead centre from the stage. Best spot I’ve had for a show in a long time, maybe ever.

Opening Acts
JD King was the first opener. Along with his band, The Coachmen, he played a traditional rock style, with a heavy country influence. I’m fairly ambivalent about his music. I would describe it as “okay”. It doesn’t really inspire feelings, positive or negative, in me.

Next up was singer/songwriter Zee Avi. Avi, from Malaysia, plays guitar and ukelele, accompanied by a bass player, drummer, and keyboard player. Avi plays an upbeat, pop-folk style, not unlike artists such as Feist or Sarah Harmer. Her music is very catchy; I wouldn’t be shocked to see her pop up in an iPod commercial or Starbucks promotion sometime soon. If you like the aforementioned two artists, make sure you check out her music. She played for about 30 minutes, going through songs off her new album such as “Honeybee” (which she noted is her favourite song), and “Bitter Heart”, the first single from the album, before ending her set with a great ukelele-driven cover of “I Fought the Law”.

Pete Yorn Set

Pete Yorn performs in Seattle.

Pete Yorn performs in Seattle.

Pete came out accompanied by a five-piece band (guitarist, bass player, drummer, keyboards, mandolin/assorted). Pete himself played guitar, along with harmonica on a few songs.

Pete Yorn plays harmonica at his show on August 19, 2009 in Seattle.

Pete Yorn plays harmonica at his show on August 19, 2009 in Seattle.

He opened with “Black” off of ‘Musicforthemorningafter’, my pick for his best song. Following that, he went right into “Shotgun”, off of his latest album. Pete then switched to an acoustic guitar, and introduced “Life on a Chain”. He was very good at interacting with the crowd, providing a context and backstory to many of the songs. Following this number, he played “Paradise Cove”, “Murray”, and “Burrito”, the last one with just himself on acoustic guitar accompanied by piano. The rest of the set was as follows: “The Man”, “Crystal Village”, “For Us”, “Social Development Dance”, “Closet”, “Bizarre Love Triangle” (New Order cover), “Don’t Wanna Cry”, and “Strange Condition”. A short break ensued, then Pete and his band came out for a three-song encore: “Last Summer”, “On Your Side”, and “For Nancy (‘Cos it Already Is)”, a song which, in his own words, has saved his life many times.

If you’ve read this far into the post, you won’t be surprised to read me say that I enjoyed it immensely. This was definitely one of my favourite concerts I’ve been to.

Some things I enjoyed:
– The aforementioned crowd interaction. I always like to learn more about the background of songs
– The ‘Bizarre Love Triangle’ cover. I like hearing things at a concert that I can’t on an album.
– The exhaustive merchandise stand. Lots to choose from in terms of T-shirt designs, and he had all his albums available on CD, and at least ‘Back and Fourth’ on vinyl. I picked up a t-shirt which you’ll probably see me wearing around sometime soon.
– He played songs from all of his albums. Some artists tend to predominantly play their most recent stuff, which I feel is an attempt to get you to buy their latest CD. The best strategy, in my opinion, is to play your best stuff. If people enjoy your set, they’ll buy your music and merch.
– Further to that point, here is the count of songs from each album he played: ‘Musicforthemorningafter’ – 7; ‘Day I Forgot’ – 2; ‘Nightcrawler’ – 2; ‘Back & Fourth’ – 5, plus the New Order cover.

Pete Yorn in Seattle

Pete Yorn in Seattle

This show lived up to my expectations, and then some. I’m looking forward to the next time I can catch Pete Yorn in concert. It was worth the trip.

New Ben Folds!

Way to Normal will be released September 30th, his album of new material in 3 1/2 years.
Here is the video for the first single. The song is called “You Don’t Know Me”, and I quite like it after a couple of listens. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but why mess with a winning formula?

You can also listen to the song, along with a few other tracks off the new album on his MySpace page.