Kingston music community hopeful but skeptical as music strategy process begins

The City of Kingston hosted an open house for the music industry on February 16, providing an opportunity for musicians and other members of the Kingston music scene to learn about the city’s music strategy which is currently taking shape, and to voice their opinion on the needs of Kingston as a music city.

While the city taking a step to support growth in the industry is warmly welcomed by those within it, some question whether the one being taken -spending $83,400 on a consulting fee to help come up with an overarching music strategy- is the correct place to start.

Jonas Anthony, a longtime member of Kingston’s music scene as the lead singer of The Wilderness among other roles in the industry, said he’s happy to see the city stepping up to support an industry in dire need, but he’s skeptical about paying for outside ideas as essentially a first step.

“When informing and writing the policy that will eventually effect and impact musicians in Kingston, I feel like the musicians in Kingston themselves should be involved in that process maybe directly,” Anthony said.

“I think in order to make Kingston a music city they have to support it at a grassroots level and throwing money at a consulting firm probably isn’t necessarily going to do it.”

Anita Johnson, who has been seeking a new space for Roswell’s Rehearsals since October 22, said she hopes the city stepping up in this manner will truly galvanize the music community and encourage it to take action in a way that to this point has mostly been conceptual.

She, like others in attendance on Thursday night, questioned why the city didn’t at least attempt to work on this strategy from the ground up within the community rather than looking for outside sources.

“I think there’s something to be said for somebody coming in and being impartial and seeing the bigger picture,” Johnson said.

“But at the same time it would have been nice if we’d have just taken that extra step and made it happen ourselves, or if there’d been that opportunity.” 

Instead the city has enlisted the services of Nordicity, a consulting firm with offices in London (UK), Toronto, and Vancouver that specializes in creative industries, arts and culture, and digital innovation.

It’s the second round of consultation for the City of Kingston on this topic, after first consulting with the New Brunswick based firm Stiletto to help determine the potential of Kingston’s arts and culture sector – particularly music, film and theatre.

That consultation led to a goal of making Kingston a sustainable home for Creative Industries.

Kingston’s Director of Arts and Culture Services Colin Wiginton, says there are so many invested parties in this conversation and Nordicity helps to wrangle all those partners together.

Wiginton says from he and his colleagues’ perspective, the strategy needs to be centred around artists and those doing the work itself.

He adds however that to make the conversation realistic, it has to happen within the context of economic development.

“This needs to be grassroots, it needs to be bottom up in order to succeed but we also function within certain constraints,” Wiginton said.

“We have to be able to take something to council and they have to be able to read something that’s a distillation of what the opportunities are so that we can also make a case.”

On February 16 at The Broom Factory in Kingston, Nordicity was represented by consultants Zoe Brown and Caitlin Cross while dozens of Kingston’s music professionals packed the space eager to hear what a music strategy might entail for Kingston, and how they might fit personally.

In the presentation, the firm identified key focuses that tend to be common in most cities including musician friendly city infrastructure, building connections within the industry and adjacent sectors, talent development, and increasing economic opportunities.

For some members of the community, those needs and issues are relative no brainers that could be determined in house.

Co-CEO and managing partner at Nordicity Kristian Roberts said he would agree with that assessment, if the work were to stop at simply identifying those needs.

Roberts says their work will look more into the details of how to make those needed changes in a way that will be accepted by the municipality, and try to kickstart things happening.

“That’s where this process can help push things along,” Roberts said.

“This isn’t a needs assessment, that’s the first part of it… we want to actually see change be affected by the things we do.”

He says those things aren’t necessarily as obvious to the city and need to be packaged in a way that all parties and the eventual decision makers can agree with.

Roberts adds that part of the firm’s work is uniting all those different perspectives into one collected voice.

“A strategy has to touch on all of that, and not make everybody happy, but at least sort of have everybody part of the picture,” Roberts said.

“When that’s true then it has the best chance at success for all parties.” 

Rob Howard, the host of Kingston Live, said after speaking with Kristian that he feels the city has made the correct decision in enlisting outside help.

“Despite their wide and varied realm of responsibility, I do know that the city’s Arts & Culture Services team have fought hard to make music a priority, and that the city’s Integrated Economic Development Strategy has designated Kingston’s music sector an area of significant opportunity,” Howard said in an email.

“Nordicity has deep experience and expertise in creative industries strategies (including music) and a track record of success. They were chosen through an open and transparent bidding process.”

As for that track record, while much of what Roberts touches on in the interview with Howard is relatively intangible, he also pointed out work with the City of Toronto that very tangibly resulted in the extension of a property tax break to include venues in the city under the definition of a cultural space.

This allowed landlords to tap into a break on property tax as long as they passed on the majority of those savings to the venue they housed.

But when it comes to the next step of ensuring those venues actually pay musicians fairly, the answer remains relatively unclear.

Roberts said the conversation around paying artists becomes more complicated with all the voices involved in the conversation needing to come to some sort of understanding.

“They agree upon the principle of fairness, but they don’t agree on what fairness means,” Roberts said.

Things like pay guarantees could be considered too contemptuous to be included in a strategy.

City council voted in favour of creating a music strategy in April 2021, doing so after consulting with a “real snapshot of who actually makes up the industry.”

For the majority of working industry members, the glaring primary issue plaguing the scene is an obvious one: paid opportunities are few and far between and rarely pay enough.

Danika Lochhead, Manager of Arts and Sector Development for Kingston, says the city makes efforts to provide economic opportunities for its existing communities through ideas like Music in the Park and a residency at the Grand Theatre.

She says they intend to continue, but as a whole will struggle to move forward as a creative city without a comprehensive strategy.

“The city and partners do support musicians on sort of an ongoing regular basis,” Lochhead said.

“I think what we’re facing is that without a cohesive, strategic document that considers and presents everything to decision makers, I think we continue to inch along in a way that is important but it doesn’t advance us to that next stage.”

Roberts says while it’s too early in the consultation process to point to exact checkpoints for determining whether the City of Kingston’s investment and implementation are a success, there are a few things to look out for.

He says Kingston should strive to be considered to be a go-to destination for touring artists.

Whether it be due to the venues available to play, local artists to collaborate with, or any combination of factors – Kingston should look for an uptick in traffic from out of town and international artists.

In addition, he says it’s likely the strategy is moving in the right direction if a municipality hires a dedicated staff person.

“You can tell if it’s going well if they hire somebody,” Roberts said.

“If the human resources element to actually do the recommendations actually exists first.” 

He says for Kingston in particular, the city should also eventually better leverage the massive student population, and integrate them more into the music community.

It will be up to the city to implement any findings Nordicity brings to them.

Whether the investment was worthwhile remains to be seen, but as Wiginton adds, it appears everyone involved is hoping for the same result: a sustainable, local industry for musicians.

“I think that’s part of the narrative that we need to emphasize too is that we want to see it be something that is more viable for people to pursue as a legitimate career choice that will see them earn money from their creative efforts,” Wiginton said.

“I think that that’s something that we need to emphasize as one of the outputs of this.”

For now, the ball seems to at least be rolling.