The Music Is So Damn Beautiful

Me speaking at the Lockeport Fire Hall.

Me speaking at the Lockeport Fire Hall.

I gave this speech at the Lockeport Fire Hall this past summer, on Saturday, July 25 2009 to be precise. I called it “The Music Is So Damn Beautiful.” I think it went okay, I wish I had had time to practice it more, but I had a couple people moved to tears at the end, so what else can you ask for?

Good evening, it is truly an honour to be here.

People always say that don’t they? “It is an honour to be here.” But I mean it, I really do.

Kind of a silly way to start, but I mean every word, and let me tell you why.

Take a moment and look around the room! We are in Lockeport, Nova Scotia, population six hundred and forty six.

We are in a fire hall in Lockeport, Nova Scotia, gathered at an industry dinner talking about music, the music industry.

Seems a bit bizarre, isn’t it? I mean really.

If I tried to explain to someone from New York or Toronto why I was speaking about the music industry in Lockeport, or when we try and explain why Nova Scotia Music Week is happening just an hour and a half down the road in Yarmouth… well… Most of them don’t understand.

Most of them think what we do in Nova Scotia is crazy, if they think about it at all.
But what I think is that a festival like this is wonderful, and I think it is good business for you, and for the Province.

It is of these two divergent views of music I am going to speak about tonight.

In my view, events like this festival are some of the ways that best represent how music is supposed to be performed, and in my view it is an honour to speak to you in a Firehall in Lockeport, because scale, this immediacy, this lack of pretention, this is the future of music and the music industry.

So what I am going to do is kind of put what Tim from SOCAN and Krista form Music Nova Scotia have said in the context of where the industry in Nova Scotia is, how we got here, what the future holds, and what that can mean for Lockeport and the south west shore, culturally and economically.

Music is an important part of everyday life in Nova Scotia, and has a long and diverse history.

The work of folklorists such as Helen Creighton and Cleary Croft, have cataloged a history of folk and traditional music, going back to the establishment of white settlement in Nova Scotia. The Miqmaw, African Nova Scotian, and French all have strong musical traditions.

In contemporary times, music just happens more or less everywhere.

Every town and village seems to have a bar, or a coffee shop, or a tea room, or a legion, or an old school house, where music is performed and enjoyed.

Failing that, we Nova Scotians are known for turning our kitchens into venues and throwing a kitchen party.

The modern music industry in Nova Scotia is surprisingly old.

When one of the first radio stations went on air in Nova Scotia, it was attached to St Francis Xavier in Antigonish.

Naturally, they wanted to broadcast music by local artists, and so they started recording local performers. People listening wanted to buy the music, so the first record label to be founded in Nova Scotia was Celtic Records in Antigonish in the 1930s.

Celtic had two stores, one in Antigonish, and one in Toronto, where they sold records, you remember those? 78s and LPS in plain sleeves.

Even then, celtic was just a piece of the puzzle.

Portia White, an African Nova Scotian from Truro became one of the worlds most celebrated opera singers, travelling the world in 1940s.

Hank Snow, from Liverpool, became a country hero, moving to Nashville and dominating that genre in the 1950s.

There is a common theme in all of these stories. Even at the time of its foundation, our music found its market not just at home, but “away” in Upper Canada, Europe, the Boston States, the South, wherever there were ears to hear, and fans to buy it.

Of course time marches on. Celtic records gives way to John Allen Cameron and Buddy McMaster, and a strong tradition of celtic fiddling throughout the celtic descended regions of the province continues to this day.

Early on, people from Away are moved by what they found here.

Imagine my shock as a child to find out Stan Rogers was not in fact born and raised in Nova Scotia. Summers in Canso were enough to inform his songs that in turn helped define our region.
Jerry Holland, the great fiddle player, who passed away just last week, spent his summers here as a lad and learned to fiddle, and moved to Nova Scotia when he reached adulthood.

Then of course, we get into later years, with such great traditional Nova Scotian players, Rita McNeil, of course, but April Wine, Matt Minglewood, Sam Moon, who in turn informed our current generation from Sloan and Joel Plaskett to Classified and Wintersleep to Gordie Sampson and Jill Barber.

I am almost done the history lesson, I promise!

Something magical happened in Nova Scotia in the early 1990s, with both the largely celtic inspired scene coming out of Cape Breton, and the alternative scene in Halifax exploding onto the national and international stage.

Both resulted in sudden new, or renewed national and international interest in our music.

Again our artists from many genres felt the call of international markets and hit the road, looking to tour, looking for deals, looking for an audience.

Then, shocking to all of us, it mostly went away by 1996.

Anyone know what happened to music in 1996?
Back street boys, Spice Girls.

Audiences change, style change, fans grow up and move on, this is true.

To me, the main issue was that the goal up to that point in Nova Scotia had been almost entirely based on getting our artists plugged into a corporate machine in Toronto, LA, Nashville or New York.

So around that time, the mid 90s, people who cared about music in this province started to think about what we could do to make the industry more sustainable, more vibrant, more independent.

Do you feel things have changed in the last few years? I do.

You know, Joel Plasket can sell 4,000 tickets in Halifax now. He is as big in Australia as he is in Canada.

Wintersleep tours Europe more than Canada.

Old Man Luedeke won the Juno for best traditional album, and three of the five nominiees for the Juno for Rock Album of the year were bands from Nova Scotia.

Last summer, over 50 bands from Nova Scotia were touring Canada, America, Europe.

Music from Nova Scotia is heard around the world.

How did we get here? How did we bridge the gap between the 1990s pop world and where we are today?

When those places stopped being interested in what we did, their support stopped.

Well, there were still fans of these types of music, but how could we get out there and reach these markets?

There were enough artists, managers, record label types around to start to ask questions – like, why do we need someone in Toronto to market and promote a Nova Scotia band in America or Europe? Isn’t it faster to fly to New York from Halifax than Toronto? Can we convince people in Scotland and Ireland that we shared their heritage and get them excited in sharing what we do?

So along the way you start to see things like the East Coast Music Awards being created in 1989 in Nova Scotia, the first regional awards show to be telecast nationally.

International events like StanFest, Celtic Colours, Halifax Pop Explosion and Evolve become established and grow throughout the 1990s. Music Nova Scotia started our own provincial awards and conference, Nova Scotia Music Week.

You see people though out the province working to create events of such high caliber that they cannot be ignored, that are in fact international leaders in their genres.

This is a key piece of what is happening in Nova Scotia because these events are attended by key industry people, have artists come to play, and attract cutting edge fans excited about our bands and our music.

Let me tell you what that means in concrete terms. A friend of mine, Dianne, grew up in Industrial Cape Breton, near a town called Marion Bridge. She has done a bunch of interesting things and has ended up as the Executive Director of the Culture Division, the part of the provincial government that administer culture policies and programs.

I had coffee with Dianne a couple years ago and had just gotten back from attending Celtic Colours as part of her job.

She was passionate and excited about what she had seen. She said “Waye, I was in a show in the Rec Centre in Marion Bridge. It is you know, a small gym. The place was packed with about 200 people! When I lived there no one ever went to Marion Bridge!”

She then went on to say one of the performers had asked the crowd was from the US, and about two thirds of the room put up their hands. In October, in a rec centre in Marion Bridge!

The second piece is having a plan to support the artists and industry.

As you have heard, Music Nova Scotia has been around for a long time. In 1999 they applied for funding to create a “sector strategy” for music. In 2001 we got funded and the work began.

The staff and board of Music Nova Scotia went to work, traveling from one end of the province to the other.

They conducted town hall meetings in Bridgewater, Yarmouth, Halifax, Truro, New Glasgow, and Sydney. They had a large industry focus group meet in Wolfville. They solicited our members for input via email and through out quarterly newsletter. They posted information on our website. They met with government agencies, departments, and NGOs, like the Cultural Federations of Nova Scotia and the Moving Images Group. They traded information with the eight other provincial and territorial music industry associations in Canada.

At this point I got involved and I ended up writing the darn thing. We did over eighteen drafts. The final document is over 10,000 words. The process of writing this document took 18 months.

The key thing is that we tried to have the broadest possible consultation with everyone who cared about making music for a living in Nova Scotia.

This meant that when we went to government we were able to say that the everyone agreed that this was the plan we needed, and that everyone was behind it. This was a very powerful political combination.

Our strategy was presented to the Minister and senior staff in the Department in October of 2002. Then, the work began!

Honestly, none of us had no idea how much work lobbying and negotiating with government would be. I will spare you the grim details but about two long years later, we got what we asked for.

Krista talked about some of what we got from what the programs are, we have support for Emerging and Export Ready artists. We asked for a lot of things, we got a lot of them. We asked the government to create a Music Business program at NSCC, to help increase professional development. Five years later I got the job of teaching in the program, so that worked out well.

So, it is not very rock and roll, but what is making Nova Scotia music such a big deal right now is we have a plan. The industry, government, educators, have a plan to make Nova Scotia the centre of independent music in Canada.

I met a fellow from University of Toronto a few months ago. He is doing research on the music community in Toronto. “I asked him how is that going?” He said “Well, its horrible. Musicians are leaving Toronto and moving to Halifax, and also Hamilton and Montreal.” I said “Oh that is too bad” but I couldn’t keep the smile off my face.

What does all this mean for Lockeport and South West Nova.

So what does this all mean to you? Artists, fan, municipal or provincial government official, here on this fine day in southwest Nova Scotia?

At the beginning I said it was honour to speak to you in a Firehall in Lockeport, because scale, this immediacy, this lack of pretention, this is the future of music and the music industry.

What is happening in the industry is a whole other presentation, basically, the internet has changed everything. Fans can access whatever obscure music they want from wherever they are in the world.

The traditional gatekeepers in Toronto and LA cannot control what becomes popular as they once did.

Tribes of music fans, from traditional to hip hop, from rock to country, are springing up with artist created and fan created content driving a community of fans that does not care one bit about commercial radio or much music.

And these fans love live music and they love qwerky venues, house concerts, and out of the way festivals that can be”their little secret special thing.”

Most of what has brought the traditional Ontario based music business to its knees has created opportunity and access for business in Nova Scotia.

This immediacy and new relationship with fans, combined with the amazing amount of music coming out of Nova Scotia, is what means that we can be here in Lockeport at the Harmony Bazaar festival of Women and Song.

Given time and patience, you will see people from all around the the world come to attend this event. There are Germans and people in Vermont who would love to be eating here in this firehall!

What makes these new fans excited is authentic and unfilted experiences, contact with artists, and an excellence in live performance that is excellent, moving and sincere.

One last story. I am also the Executive Director of a festival, the Halifax Pop Explosion.

About six years ago, we had one of Canada’s most renown songwriters, Ron Sexsmith, play at the festival at the Marquee club.

The show as going so well, Ron is just so great. When you run a festival, you are constantly patrolling, trying to anticpate problems, maintain the event, make sure everyone is having a good time.

As I swung through the back of the venue I saw a friend of mine, in his mid 30s, sitting on a table, with his face was in his hands, his shoulders shaking. He was weeping.

I went over and said, Rob, are you okay? I was thinking beer, fight with his girl, you know, the usual.

He looked up at me and smiled and said “Waye, its fine, I’m fine.” I said “well then what is it?” He said “the music is just so damn beautiful.”

That is what we can offer. Business, hospitality, economic activity, numbers, dollars, to be sure.

At the centre, what real matters, what people crave, is to be moved.

The music is beautiful, lets give it to them.

Thank you.

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