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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.

P1160203
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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Folk and the City: Promoting Music and Community in Western Canada

P1110321
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.

We Should All Be Bruins Fans Tonight

The Vancouver Canucks franchise was in its second season the last time the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup. Tonight, they meet in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. History favours Vancouver as the home team – both on odds, and if you go by recent history, the home team has won every game so far this series.

The other day, one of my favourite sportswriters, Jonah Keri, wrote a piece called Why the Bruins Shouldn’t Win the Stanley Cup. This is a rare case where I disagree. The Bruins are the team anyone should want to win tonight. I’m going to respond to a few of Jonah’s arguments below.

(Full disclosure: I support the Bruins, and all Boston teams. And I’m also a proud Canadian).

No one in Canada wants you to win, of course. Not when a Canadian team might bring the Cup back home for the first time in 18 years.

Yes, this is the case for some Canadian fans, but it shouldn’t be. Also, many Canadians shudder at the thought of how boastful Canucks fans will be after their first Cup win. If you cheer for the Oilers or Flames during the regular season, why should you suddenly adopt their rival simply because they play in Canada? Does this prove we’re somehow superior at hockey because a team that is based in our country, but composed of players from several different nationalities, wins the Cup? Nonsense. We prove our mettle as a hockey nation by routinely winning international competitions. With Canadian born and bred players. Claiming national pride because of the Canucks is based on outdated concepts of nationalism, and as ridiculous as saying Spain is the best soccer country in the world because Barcelona just won the Champions League (on a technical point – they are the best because their national side is the defending Euro Cup and World Cup champion. Just like we’re the defending Olympic hockey champions).

Sure, Boston was once a suffering sports town.

Now? You sound like the douchebag who bitches that(…)

Meanwhile, the Canucks have existed for 41 years and haven’t won jack.

Sure, Boston has won in other sports, but many fans support the Bruins in the way they don’t for other local teams. It would be like saying “I don’t feel so bad for the Expos losing in the ’81 playoffs because the Habs just won 4 Cups in a row”.

Also, looking at their past experience, it’s clear that Boston fans have had it worse. Vancouver has 4 decades of middling management, with a couple of lucky runs involved. Boston has had good teams that couldn’t quite get over the hump, and in some cases lost in heartbreaking fashion.

In their first Stanley Cup finals appearance (1982), Vancouver had a losing record (and overall, 11th best out of 21 teams). They got swept by the New York Islanders, the 3rd of 4 consecutive Stanley Cups they would win. In their second appearance (1994), the Canucks were the 7th seed in the West, and made it all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals before losing to the New York Rangers – who had the best record in the league that year. Neither result says “tortured” as much as it says the team overperformed, and ultimately probably didn’t deserve a better result.

Now compare that to the Bruins. They’ve appeared in 5 finals since, and respectively those teams finished the regular season in 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 4th, and 1st overall. Each time they were a worthy finalist, but couldn’t get over the hump against some of the best teams of all time – the ’75 Broad Street Bully Flyers, the Habs dynasty in ’77 and ’78 (the ’77 club is considered the best of all time) and the ’88 and ’90 Oilers – the ’88 version was Gretzky’s last year with the club, and the ’90 version had much of the dynasty still in tact, and Bill Ranford playing out of his mind in goal.

Now you want to talk torture? Two of their great players – Bobby Orr and Cam Neely – saw their careers cut short due to knee injuries. In Neely’s case, it was after a knee on knee hit from notorious cheap shot artist Ulf Samuelsson. How about the ’79 semi-final, where Game 7 against Montreal turned on a critical too many men on the ice penalty. How about last year’s playoffs, where they led Philly 3-0, lost Game 4 in overtime, then blew the series after also holding a 3-0 lead early in Game 7.

I watched a Bruins-Lightning game this year from the nosebleeds with the diehard fans. It was awesome.

This Vancouver club had the best record in the regular season, but Boston was tied for 7th. Neither is in the final by fluke. You could argue this is the first time the Canucks had a club that legitimately could have expected to reach the final. Maybe they’ve suffered through 40 years of bad management, but so do many teams. This is nothing compared to what Bruins fans have endured.

Those cities have seen enormous sports heartbreak, their spirits deflated as they trudge through January blizzards waiting for their shot at the big one.

That quote is in reference to places like Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Buffalo. Some cities have truly endured heartbreak with their teams. Buffalo lost 4 Super Bowls in a row, when they probably had the better team at least twice. They lost the ’98 Cup final because Brett Hull kicked in the winning goal. Minnesota, the most hockey-mad state in the US, suffered through mediocre management of the North Stars, got lucky and made the final in ’91 (against a much better Penguins team, led by Mario), then watched the team move to Dallas just as Mike Modano was coming into his prime (they won the aforementioned ’98 Cup). In their first decade, the expansion Minnesota Wild have been nothing short of uninspiring.

No one will likely ever be tortured more than Cleveland fans, who came a game short of the Super Bowl twice in the ’80s, losing in such heartbreaking fashion that each game can be described in two words (The Drive and The Fumble), then watched a potential baseball dynasty break up in the ’90s (losing one World Series on a critical error by their 2B). This century? They only had the best athlete to play in Cleveland since Jim Brown break up with them on a nationally televised program.

What do Vancouver fans know about suffering? Maybe losing Game 7 at home, especially if it’s in heartbreaking fashion, will teach them what fans of other teams have gone through. Until that happens, the Vancouver Canucks will remain an unlikable, dirty hockey team. Seeing them win the Cup isn’t something anyone but the most hardcore Canucks fan should want to happen.

What’s so unlikeable about this Canucks club, you ask? I’ll leave the final word to Jonah:

This series should have reinforced pro-Bruins sentiment. Vancouver’s Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron’s fingers was a punk move, one that would have been handled with a flurry of right hooks to the head if this were 30 years ago and the game hadn’t turned away from fighting. Maxim Lapierre’s Game 2 taunt, where he stuck his fingers in Bergeron’s face and dared him to bite back, wasn’t much better.

And there’s The Hit. Five minutes into Game 3, Aaron Rome lined up Nathan Horton, watched him get rid of the puck, took three strides, dipped his shoulder, leapt for the head, and blew him up. However you felt about the hit, you had to feel for Horton, laid out on the ice, his teammates and 17,565 spectators looking on in horror, medics fumbling with a stretcher, trying to stabilize the big Ontarian before the frantic ride to Mass General.

Go Bruins.