Victoria musicians feel cautiously optimistic about new music plan
In November, the City of Victoria Council approved its final version of a new Music Strategy. More than two years in the making, this strategy outlines the strengths and weaknesses of Victoria’s music ecosystem, breaks down the impact that the music scene has on Victoria’s economy, and suggests programs and policy options that could help grow the music economy in Victoria.
While this new music strategy was released with relatively little fanfare, it could have serious implications for the future of the music scene in the city.
The message in the report is one of hope and confidence. In the report’s introduction, Mayor Lisa Helps writes that Victoria has “got what it takes to be a world-class music destination.” The report goes on to describe the city as “Canada’s seaside hotbed of twee pop and indie rock.”
In creating the music strategy, the City contracted the consulting company Sound Diplomacy to map Victoria’s music ecosystem. Sound Diplomacy describes itself as “the global leading team of researchers, data analysts, economists and strategic consultants, with extensive expertise in the music industry, music economics, cultural planning and placemaking.” The company has worked with other musical cities such as New Orleans.
In Victoria, the company was contracted to do research and did not make policy recommendations, instead they suggested potential policy areas to be revisited or improved upon.
What Sound Diplomacy established, based on their research and the feedback of respondents, was that the jump from playing small house shows and open mics to playing at mid-sized venues is a challenge for independent musicians. A lack of accessible recording infrastructure, equitable pay, and mid-sized venues stacks the odds against ambitious musicians in Victoria.
“What [Sound Diplomacy] brought was their experience with other cities around the world,” said Victoria’s Artist in Residence Kathryn Calder, who acted as the chair of the Music Advisory Committee that was created to advise on the Music Strategy.
As Chair, Calder worked to coordinate meetings with the City Counsel and provide feedback along with her fellow committee members. She is also a member of the rock band the New Pornographers. “Having someone come in from outside is great in one way in that they see the city in a very different way than someone who lives here,” she said.
In response, the City has identified action items to “[c]reate music friendly policies and regulations,” establish more “space for music,” and support “music innovation and the creative economy.”
As part of their goal of understanding the issues facing musicians, Sound Diplomacy held round table talks with local artists, such as Calder, and conducted a survey of interested people and musicians in Victoria.
Sound Diplomacy surveyed 1498 respondents, 396 of whom are musicians. The call for survey respondents was advertised on relevant websites such as Victoria Music Scene and was picked up by local media outlets. Despite this outreach, some folks felt left out.
Bassist Brodie Calis and frontman and lead vocalist Evan Dungate of the Victoria punk band Wet Cigarette said they hadn’t heard of the survey and that the process behind the music strategy’s creation seemed very formal.
Local musician and member of Victoria-based alt psych pop band Cartoon Lizard Trevor Lang seems generally enthused about the prospect of a concerted effort from City Council to help musicians and venues survive in Victoria, amidst rising housing costs, a continued lack of mid-sized venues, and no standard pay policy for musicians.
When asked about the Music Strategy’s Strengths, Opportunities, Weaknesses, and Threats (SWOT) Analysis findings that better education on rate setting is needed in order to standardize pay for music makers, Lang told the Martlet that education is important to create meaningful change.
“If more promoters and show runners and venues were on the same page about how much it actually costs to pay a five-piece band to rehearse for two weeks for a show, I think that’s inherently valuable,” he said.
Dungate feels that it “usually comes down to the artist and what they want to charge.”
Typically “everyone’s fine with making peanuts,” says drummer Alex Mendes from Wet Cigarette.
It is perhaps telling that artists do not even expect to make a significant profit from playing music in Victoria. Both Lang and Dungate say that it can be challenging to find gigs when starting out, especially if the music you are playing is alternative or experimental.
According to Calder, this hasn’t always been the case. She reminisced about a time in the early 2000’s where the all-ages scene she was involved with had access to a plethora of venues, such as church basements and community halls.
Another issue identified in the report is a lack of accessible recording infrastructure in Victoria, which Amanda Dundas of Wet Cigarette considers the primary issue.
“You can’t do music professionally unless you drop a lot of money,” said Dundas in an interview with the Martlet.
It’s a problem many artists face in Victoria and Lang says that in many ways the high cost of quality recording is a “big reflection of what rent is like.” The City agrees; in fact, one of the issues facing the music ecosystem in Victoria which the report identifies is the cost of housing. It is no secret that renting studio and recording spaces in Victoria can be hard to stomach financially.
“It’s one of those things which often takes people off the island,” Calder said about the current recording situation in Victoria.
Although a lack of accessible recording infrastructure is no doubt a major issue in Victoria, Lang, Dundas, Mendes, Dungate, and Calis all say that they would like to see the creation of more mid-sized venues in the City. Dungate emphasizes that “it’s about fostering a good music scene in Victoria” and the consensus across the board is that more venues is where the City should start.
As the City navigates the economic and cultural deterioration of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear the revitalization of the music scene is on its radar.