Over the past year, I’ve been speaking to various bureaucrats and community members who enjoy and appreciate music quite a bit, so to speak with PACE members who are so deeply invested in the arts is indeed a treat.

Before we examine some of the current issues facing Edmonton’s live music scene, I’d like to try a little exercise. I want you to take a minute and picture what an ideal Music City would look like here in Edmonton. And be specific…

What kinds of experiences are you having? What kind of gigs are you doing or are you attending? What is the audience support and interest in music like? What do the venues and concert halls look like? How does government and business appreciate the arts? How are the arts perceived by the general public? How are artists doing financially? How communicative and connected are the various parts of industry? What is the city doing to ensure the long-term vibrancy of live music in Edmonton?

Ok great. Thanks for indulging me.

This is how I started the ELM Initiative… By picturing the possibilities that could be built here. I love Edmonton’s live music scene and am happy to make a living playing music here, but in recent years I’ve been asking myself what could be different and better about the scene.

My name is Thom Bennett and I am the creator and overseer of the Edmonton Live Music or ELM Initiative. I’ve been a professional musician based in Edmonton for over 15 years and have been fortunate to tour throughout the US, Canada and Europe and to share stages with Tommy Banks, Kathleen Edwards, Harry Allen and Aaron Neville.  Based on my observations of the live music scene, I created this program in January of 2015 to try and improve the live music ecosystem in Edmonton and throughout Alberta.

To be clear, I think Edmonton does many live music-related things very well. We have an abundance of long-standing, well-attended and well-organized festivals, great post-secondary educational institutions and many successful mid to large-sized venues. So to be clear, the focus of the ELM Initiative at this point in time, is the smaller scale live music scene, since the people involved in that area seem to be struggling quite a bit. I do, however, consider all of these variegated strands of Edmonton’s live music scene as quite interconnected hence the use of the term ‘live music ecosystem”.

Since its inception, the actual scope of duties and concerns of the ELM Initiative have broadened significantly, due to extensive consultation with numerous stakeholders. Whereas the primary thrust of the ELM Initiative was improving conditions for musicians, numerous new concerns which have since been identified have been appropriated under the ELM banner. Given the momentum that the program has had since its inception, it became clear early on that a holistic approach that benefitted the greatest number of people in the industry was wise. For changes to be truly far-reaching, sustainable and long-term the focus of the program looks to common and pressing issues among all sectors of the Edmonton music industry.

However, it became clear that these issues have not just been endemic throughout a variety of distinct musical scenes within Edmonton and Alberta but also among distinct municipalities across North America and Europe. I’ve been in direct communication with numerous stakeholders in Austin, Washington, DC and the UK to share knowledge and problem-solve. Many cities around the world with populations of 1 million people and above are also facing similar issues with outdated bylaws and zoning restrictions, issues of gentrification and revitalization and general valuation of the arts.

To be frank, my approach to developing the program has been pretty self-directed and organic, though I do check in with Alberta Music, the Edmonton Arts Council and my three advisory boards on a regular basis. I have also connected with the following people and organizations to consult about appropriate issues and effective policy building around those issues: the Professional Arts Coalition of Edmonton, Edmonton Economic Development Council, Councilor Scott McKeen, MLA David Shepherd, Music Canada, Titan Music Group, Alberta Music Cities Initiative, the Edmonton’s Musicians union as well as the Musicians Unions of Calgary and Austin, TX, North Edge Business Association, City of Edmonton Planning and Sustainable Development, MacEwan University and over three hundred musicians, promoters, venue owners and other music industry members.

While it’s exciting that there is a lot support for the ELM initiative and it’s fantastic that the specific policies that I’ll expound upon in a moment are actively being worked towards, one of the biggest advantages of these consultations is open communication–between disparate music industry members, between government and the music industry, between the general community/businesses and the music industry–in an honest and open way. The reactions I heard in Calgary while visiting for some town hall meetings with MLA David Shepherd last week, was that even though some of the specific proposals we mentioned could be reworked or improved, many participating members were just happy that someone had opened a conversation and found the subject of live music important enough to be discussed at this level. Similar sentiments have been echoed at various Edmonton-based ELM Initiative meetings. To quote one local promoter: “To consistently get all of these people in a room at the same time talking about these issues is nothing short of a miracle.”

To be blunt, communication is a fantastic thing and an important step in establishing change but I didn’t want to spend three years of time and money on various studies and reports while nothing was happening on the ground level. So, while having open discussions of current issues facing the Edmonton music scene is of primary importance in establishing trust and community, it’s important that actual action is taking place. While visiting with some members of Austin’s music community in July of 2015, I was told that while the city has 135 separate music organizations, in a city smaller than Edmonton, the amount of actual change that they have accomplished is rather minute.

Given the current economic state in Alberta and how politicians have an enormous responsibility with taxpayer dollars it was important for the ELM Initiative to show tangible economic benefits to various political and business leaders in order to bolster the image of the arts as an economic driver and to incent change. It’s important to consider the semantics of money and the arts: I prefer the term investment instead of support. And that’s an easy argument given that the return for investment in the arts is at least 3.5:1 in Alberta.  Aside from the direct, indirect and induced economic benefits, we see plenty of benefit in artist and worker retention and attraction, increased tourism both in numbers and length of stay, innumerable (and sometimes unfortunately unquantifiable) social, community and cultural benefits, benefits to mental health and urban isolation issues…the list goes on and on.

Ok, so on to the specific issues currently being dealt with! I’ve chosen to look at the provincial policies first because they are more broad, far-reaching and frankly more time-sensitive. Most of them focus around Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission (AGLC) policies and we are at a particularly fortuitous time when the NDP is conducting its own internal review of the AGLC.

Provincial policies:

Extended hours to sell alcohol for live music venues.
Underage performers permitted in bars.
Minors permitted/all ages issues.
Private event/hall show restrictions.

City policies:

Use class licensing for live music venues/event rooms.
Zoning and parking variances
Creation of a music district.
Marketing plan to stimulate better attendance.
Creation of a music officer position within the EAC, EDC, City hall.
Matching grant for sound gear/sound mitigation.
Agent of change principle regarding new developments near existing live music venues.
Matching grant program to ensure artists are adequately paid.

I think that the artistic talent pool in Edmonton is ridiculously strong given our size and location. I believe that having many major performing spaces and strong post-secondary music programs means that our relatively isolated northern burg is surprisingly well off when it comes to the number of engaging artists in town. The healthy opportunities that those artists have to perform however, has been reduced over the years, through various means, be they ignorance or malice. Though the cultural, social and economic benefits to both business and community are far-reaching with a healthy live music scene, the thrust of this initiative is truly selfish in nature: I just want to see more quality music connecting with more engaged audiences.

Thom Bennett

Musician

Founder, ELM Initiative

For more information please visit: http://thombennett.ca/

Thom Bennett is a professional musician, producer, recordist and educator based in Edmonton.  He has toured throughout Canada, the US and Europe, has shared stages with the likes of Tommy Banks, Kathleen Edwards, Harry Allen and Aaron Neville and performs regularly around Western Canada. Outside of performing, Thom splits his time between producing and engineering records at Sanctuary Studios, session studio work, accompaniment work at the University of Alberta, MacEwan University and Concordia University and teaching.  Thom’s jazz group A/B trio held the  #1 on the Earshot Jazz charts in 2015 with their release “Out West” and was nominated for a 2015 WCMA for Best Jazz Recording.  Thom is also the creator and overseer of the ELM (Edmonton Live Music) Initiative, which aims to improve Edmonton’s live music ecosystem.