making the scene

A century ago, I sat next to one Kim Clarke Champniss as a panelist at the ‘first annual’ Capital Music Conference. I believe we were there to discuss music, or the music industry, or media, or something.

What I do recall is the cynic in me — i.e., me — being skeptical of the value of staging an ambitious conference and series of musical showcases in Ottawa, in the hope of inspiring jaded industry types from Toronto to take notice of what was then a particularly strong local and diverse music scene. Industry types from Toronto, it seemed to me, know all too well the ambitious Ottawa-based artist will inevitably come to them. Travelling to Ottawa need not figure into it.

Little about that reality has changed. Yet, this weekend, Ottawa will play host to its third series of music-industry-inspired showcase performances, seminars and discussions in less than 12 months. The Capital Music Conference is set to present live bands and DJs at a variety of venues, and to offer advice and a sympathetic ear to aspiring artists and presenters during two days of talks at Maker Space North. It is not being billed as the “first annual” OIMC, which is wise. (One should never refer to an event as annual until at least its second year. Just ask Ottawa Freshfest organizers… though, their Bluesfest seems to be doing fine.) Clearly, though, organizers see this as something worth repeating.

Think of it as recognition for a local music scene that is, once again, particularly strong and diverse. We have, despite the ever-present long shadows cast by Toronto and Montreal, built our own thing, in part on the understanding that no one from those two industry towns is likely to take our conveniently/inconveniently placed community seriously. Needs must. And Ottawa’s music scene strives as always to meet those needs.

Reason enough, perhaps, to impart industry wisdom to fledgling DJs and musicians, as well as to would-be promoters and festival-organizers. (And yes, how to assemble a grant-proposal is one of the featured topics.)

Enter the OIMC. Right on the heels of the similarly structured MEGAPHONO and Arboretum events. Panelists and speakers from Toronto, New York and Vancouver. Artists, some of whom will be making their first visit to Ottawa, from as far away as France. An opportunity to learn about the industry from insiders — both local and just-visiting. And a focus on developing a homegrown scene that has defied the odds for decades and only recently caught the attention of bureaucrats — which for now we’ll see as a good thing. (More on that in a future post, dear reader.)

Claudia Balladelli has for nearly 15 years been responsible for upping the local coolness factor via her bookings at the Mercury Lounge. As OIMC’s executive director, she speaks of high hopes for the new addition to the local music/conference scene.

“The conference,” she enthuses, “allows us to bring groundbreaking acts and artists that have never even considered coming to Ottawa before. If music is a weapon, like I feel it is, I wanted to create pure dynamite.”

Balladelli and her co-conspirators have been hard at work putting it all together since late last year. “I had to cut all fun in my life,” she jokes of those preparations. “I created each panel and invited each panelist. I followed my instincts, my experience. With so many years in the music industry and Ottawa being the size that it is, if you keep doing your work as professionally as possible and keep your work ethic, you can build a good reputation and you can always go back to the people you know and they will sure support you.”

That last bit is in part a reference to the festival’s impressive list of sponsors, which includes everything from breweries and a winery to the Embassy of France. That would be the good reputation talking. It would also be nice to think Ottawa’s reputation as a hotbed of gifted DJs, musicians and performers had a hand in drawing those bigwigs from New York and Toronto to offer tips to attendees.

But, well, see natural cynicism, above. Ottawa’s industry is coming along nicely, but we will never be Toronto, New York or Vancouver. Indeed, we will never, despite recent reports to the contrary, be Austin, Texas. That is in no way a criticism.

“Ottawa’s scene is so unique and full of talented bands, DJs and hard-working promoters,” Balladelli observes. “The scene is pretty happening for the size of our town. We (OIMC) can offer so much experience, ideas and incredible projects. So the panels ignite the ideas. We will be sharing our thoughts and experiences. We have a lot to offer and a lot to show.  I wanted everyone in Ottawa’s music scene to know they are important and they are welcome to be part of this project.
“I think the biggest challenge is still to bring people out, so the key is to keep pushing and to keep trying different ways to get people’s attention. Nowadays with all the social media we have, its very hard to get a person’s attention. It’s also very hard to understand what they want, as I think sometimes they don’t even know, so we have to educate them as much as possible with music and keep on pushing.”

It is a mandate that echoes that of the existing MEGAPHONO and Arboretum events. They too serve encouragement and discussion with their live performance schedule. One might wonder whether Ottawa needs or can support three such would-be annual events. One might also wonder whether OIMC has been in touch with organizers of those industry-focused events, to compare notes and notions.

“Of course,” Balladelli reports. “I love those guys and admire their work. I did try to have Rolf (Klausener, Arboretum’s creative director) in one of our panels but he is out of town with his band. DJ Memetic (aka Kwende Kefentse, MEGAPHONO contributor) is our MC, DJ and moderator in a few panels.

“We do overlap, but we are all unique as well. OIMC is featuring diverse styles of music like electronic, Afro, soul, funk, Latin, Brazilian, disco, neo-folk, jazz, experimental… really a great variety of acts. We are adding to our program a series of short films and a film from the Canadian Filmmaker Carl E. Brown — and while the 16 mm film is projected we will have an improvisational dance from Anne-Claire Cauhapé.”

Sounds impressive, no? Certainly, it sounds ambitious for the conference’s first edition. But as the City of Ottawa prepares to welcome a new multi-faceted event to the calendar, it’s difficult to fault the affable Balladelli and her fellow organizers for dreaming big.

Discuss.

As for truly bringing together that diverse local music community, Balladelli admits this is but a first step.

“This won’t happen just with our first edition,” she suggests, “but it isn’t only about being all together under one roof. This is the kickoff time; it’s about networking, sharing experiences, starting conversations and projects — using the conference as a platform for a much longer-term vision: We are starting a movement alongside our colleagues at Arboretum and MEGAPHONO and raising Ottawa’s music scene.”
It remains to be seen whether this can be accomplished without the aid of Kim Clarke Champniss. But I’m betting on Balladelli and company presiding over a second edition of the Ottawa International Music Conference a year from now.
That too will be good news for Ottawa. For now, get out and enjoy.
You might learn something.

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