Chronicle Herald | Hearing the Music in Opposite Land

Note: This article was published in the Thursday, April 15th 2010 issue of the Chronicle Herald on the Op/Ed page.

Here we go again. Pundits, operators, bureaucrats and politicians across opposite land will mobilize to support or deride the newly revealed government handout for the Paul McCartney concert. Welcome to just another day in opposite land.

In 2006, the Rolling Stones came to Halifax, and just before the show the media uncovered the Province’s handout to a private company for $140,000 dollars to help pay for the show.

Local media, music industry apologists and politicians dismissed concerns about this largesse as uninformed at best, small minded at worst.

The argument in favour boiled down to two things: one, a lot of people went to the show, creating a large economic impact, and two, small-town thinking is holding us back, we need big concerts.

Let’s examine these assertions. For the first point, economic impact is usually calculated using magic, pixie dust and baloney. Who really came to the Rolling Stones, to KISS, to McCartney?

Were the 25- or 50,000 people per show who came all from far, far away descending on Halifax with wallets full of cash? Or was it just a couple of thousand people from away joined by tens of thousands of local residents who, because they are local, would have spent their money here anyway?

Then, if you take more realistic, much smaller figures and deduct the net negative effective of a major star taking $3-5 million out of the economy and sending it to a bank in Bermuda or Lichtenstein, you might start to wonder if there really was much of a net benefit at all.

The second point is even easier to tackle. Only small towns subsidize large rock acts from the public purse. Big cities do not. In Toronto or Montreal, private facilities like the Rogers and Bell Centre are rented to private promoters who put on shows, taking all the risk.

You can rest assured that in big cities, the city and province do not give several hundred thousands of dollar handouts to private promoters, or loan them money conditional on sales, or pay the deposit of $3.5 million to the headlining artist because the promoter cannot afford to. Only very small towns with some serious self-esteem problems are going to do something like that.

But hey, this is opposite land! The Province gave Power Promotions, a local promoter, $600,000, HRM gave them $150,000, and the Province paid Paul McCartney his $3.5 million deposit when Power was unable to do so, though this money was repaid after the show.

The issue is not, as one writer put it, whether you like Paul. This issue is that the government is cutting secret deals with private businesses that will ultimately stand to profit from this arrangement.

There are lots of festivals and events in Halifax, some private, but most are not-for-profit. Many are not-for-profit by choice, because that is the best way to represent a community or group of people. Some are not-for-profit because they have been told over and over that the government will not, under any circumstance, ever ever ever give money to private business.

The Atlantic Film Festival, the Tattoo, the Jazzfest, Halifax Pop Explosion, In the Dead of Winter, and Scotia Festival of Music are all big events with economic impacts in the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars.

The positive effect of these events is well documented and extensive, the reach of these annual events is clear, these events are innovators and leaders, and other cities are jealous of the many great festivals we have here.

It is hard to imagine the Tourism department dedicating a fraction of the advertising and marketing support or providing operating loans to any of these festivals. There are no circumstances where the government would pony up deposits to bands for the Jazzfest or Halifax Pop Explosion this year.

These events are run by dedicated staff, with limited resources, without the benefit of the kind of financial support they would expect in a major city like Toronto, Calgary or Montreal.

In Halifax, Nova Scotia, major not-for-profit festivals, long established, often envied, get minimal support, work hard to get cursory funding through public funding processes, while private business with mainstream acts gets massive handouts and financing through the back door, in secret.

Welcome to opposite land.


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