Ottawa’s Leiper of faith

Austin, Texas.

The self-proclaimed live music capital of the world.

A key stop on the chitlin circuit. The centre of Texas blues and country. The city of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson, The Flatlanders, South by Southwest, Antone’s, Roky Erickson, Janis Joplin, Lucinda Williams, Townes van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Scratch Acid, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Marcia Ball, Butthole Surfers and many other influential artists.

And, since 1974, home to Austin City Limits.

There is no city like it. But, if recent press reports are to be believed, the next Austin is prepared to make its name on the international music scene.

You know it as Ottawa.

That news likely came as a surprise to many, for Ottawa is not Austin. Never has been. Probably never will be. At least, not until global warming gathers a little more steam.

Yet, Councillor Jeff Leiper (Kitchissippi Ward), known to some as “the music councillor,” is not deterred. Far from it. And if his vision for Ottawa as a city with a bona fide music industry is ambitious, he is quick to acknowledge that this ain’t Austin.

Rather, he explains, Ottawa can learn a great deal from Austin. Specifically, from the Austin Chamber of Commerce’s avowed support for nurturing, promoting and encouraging the Texas capital’s music scene. It’s certainly working. Though perhaps it’s a chicken-and-egg thing, given that Austin’s music scene was alive and well long before city officials got involved. Austin, as its slogan suggests, is weird.

Particularly by Texas standards.

Ottawa, by contrast, is, uh, well the closest approximation to Austin’s slogan has been coined by honky-tonker Slo’ Tom: “Keep Ottawa sick.”

So there it is: Austin, weird; Ottawa, sick. (The ongoing Duffy trial has pretty much confirmed the latter assessment, if we’re talking national reputation.)

But, in Leiper, Ottawa’s music scene has a prominent and passionate champion. And you know that can’t be bad.

He’s also sufficiently savvy in the ways of politics and gladhanding that one should not discount his dream.

Example? Seated at a Hintonburg Bridgehead, he speaks of the need for better public transit to encourage people from the ‘burbs to go to shows. Maybe even to bring shows to the ‘burbs, and let others do the transiting.

“We have really poor public transit to get people to the venues,” he observes. “If you are a university student living in Kanata with your parents, even if you got excited by what you’re hearing on CHUO…”

A momentary glance at this blogger’s t-shirt later:

“If you’re a Carleton student living in Kanata and you listen to CKCU, can you get downtown to enjoy the show?”

Well played, Councillor.

As, indeed, is his vision for Ottawa Rock City. That’s Ottawa. Not Austin.

“Austin is an interesting inspiration,” Leiper notes. “Let’s put it that way.”

“One of the untold stories about Austin is the role the municipality played in ensuring that it was a live music city and it has a live music industry,” he explains. “The role the municipal government can play in helping to ensure that regulations are good. Is there the potential for seed money? Is there the potential for incentives? The zoning… In Austin they created a music office. That office is there to look at the regulations — take a look at zoning, take a look at city-building initiatives — with a music lens. Am I interested in getting the next South by Southwest here or having the kind of live music scene they have in Austin? Of course.”

Me too, when you put it that way. I like to think I’ve been a fairly vocal supporter of my city’s music scene for a while now. And, like Leiper, I miss a certain alternative newsweekly. But while Ottawa’s live music scene has long endured against the odds, this vision of a vibrant music industry in a city situated a short drive from the hub of the nation’s English-language industry and an even shorter drive from the nation’s French-language industry… well, some might be skeptical.

Which brings us back to Austin.

“Austin has very consciously thought through, at a municipal and chamber-of-commerce level, the economic development potential of fostering a great music industry in their city,” he says. “I think we can have a great music industry in this city. I don’t know if it will have the scale that they have in Austin. But certainly I think we can reverse the dynamic right now where if you go to New York or if you go to Seattle or you go to Austin, and say, ‘Why don’t we check out Ottawa in a couple of weeks?’ No one if anything’s going on here. There’s no recognizable scene. I think we can address that, by getting a music industry that has more of the professional promoters, more of the lawyers, the accountants, the venues, the regulations that allow more venues to proliferate… And who knows where it goes from there?

“I don’t think any of us should be going into this saying, ‘How do we create the next Austin?’ I think all of us should be going into this thinking, ‘How do we create a great music scene, that is internationally known, for Ottawa?’ And what that looks like, I don’t know. But I do know there are things the City could be doing.”

One is to try to lure entertainment lawyers and accountants to the city, to deal with that nascent industry. Another, which Leiper has championed, is the establishment of a music office.

“I wanted to find funding for the music industry from city coffers,” Leiper relates. “And the challenge there, and one that I met, was in our economic development priorities. We just passed those a couple of months ago… and one of the sections that’s in there for the first time is the music industry. The music industry is now recognized as one of Ottawa’s economic priorities. It’s a small section of the document, but it’s there in black and white. That was a huge win.”

And then there’s zoning. Supporters of live music in the city will know that one Bank Street club has in recent years been forced to stage earlier shows and close its patio in response to (reportedly) a single complaint from a Glebe resident. A Lowertown business, meanwhile, has struggled to get up and running as a fulltime live venue due to a similar complaint.

Leiper is aware of such concerns.

“There is a conflict between music venues and residents,” he admits. “Music venues might imply people standing on street corners smoking. It might imply being able to hear the bass. There are a bunch of sensitivity issues around venues, such that there are not that many places you can put them.

“It’s about thoughtful and courageous policy-making. You establish policies by which you expect people to abide. The analogy for me is patios. Like, Tennessy Willems (in Hintonburg) has a patio. That was highly controversial, because it’s outside and there’s noise. You’ve got residents nearby. And, thankfully, the City took the bull by the horns several years ago and created a patio policy. And it said, ‘Okay, here are the parameters by which patios can operate.’ And they may get complaints about it, but this is Council’s policy.”

A music-zoning study is expected to be completed and presented to Council in 2016. Until then, please keep it down, people.

It is rather encouraging for supporters of the local music scene like you and me. And Leiper has clearly listened to a multitude of suggestions for improvement. Like, say, the establishment of that mid-size venue we’ve long been lacking.

I ask the councillor why he thinks the talk has not inspired someone to give it a go.

“If I had to guess,” he muses, “people in Ottawa are not excited. The vast mainstream of Ottawa is not excited by the music scene. You don’t have the buzz. You don’t have the promotion. You don’t have the education, the opportunities for exposure. You don’t have the music journalism. And if you don’t have people going to the shows you don’t have the dollars to build venues or to sustain mid-size venues.

“I can anticipate the day when the hand is going to come out to the City to say, ‘Okay, build us a mid-size music venue.’ That’s probably not going to happen. It’s going to have to be private dollars that are going to do that and that depends on a market. Do we have the market in Ottawa to sustain a mid-size venue?”

That is the question. And it has gone unanswered now for many a year.

Another question Leiper has faced, not surprisingly, relates to whether his and the City’s expressed support for a music industry can be seen a slight to other local lively arts.

“I’m interested in seeing arts and culture, overall, do really well in Ottawa,” he asserts.

Leiper notes he is actively working with the Ottawa Film and Television Commission to try to attract productions to Ottawa: “The barriers to entry in film — when you don’t have a film studio — and the potential reward are to my mind subsidiary to what we could be doing with the music industry.

“I’ve also been taken to task by some in the theatre community. But there is only so much I can do. I’m not going to be able to make everybody happy. I need to be effective on a few things.”

And to those who voted in Kitchissippi Ward, Leiper has not forgotten what brought him to Council.

“I was elected to bring more thoughtful planning to City Hall, with respect to zoning and planning and development,” he says. “I was elected to try to champion the interests of Kitchissippi residents a little more as we face the disruption and challenges of LRT construction. I was elected to bring a more progressive perspective to environment issues. I was elected to bring a more progressive view to housing issues. So if I take a look at what resonated at the door, what people are telling me – ‘I’m glad you got elected because you are x, y or z’ – those are the issues I got elected on. And that’s a full plate right there.

“But we have to pursue it all. I’m accepting that the music project, for me, is side of the desk. I wasn’t elected to do this. But you’ve got to want to come to work every day. We’ve all got to pursue something that we’re interested in and passionate about. I’m willing to put in the energy, in the hope that something will emerge. Yes, I think there will be naysayers, but this isn’t high-stakes bingo. If it doesn’t work, we’re going to be hard-pressed for anybody to say, ‘You never should have done it.’ The chance is there.”

And the goal, he reiterates is not to recreate Austin. This is about Ottawa, a city with a healthy live music scene that could be healthier. Certainly, when it comes to music, this is a city with talent to burn. Moreover, our celebrated summer festivals confirm there is an audience for live music. What we need is to bridge what Leiper sees as the “chasm between the music fan and the Ottawa music scene.

“For the artists who are doing it for the love of the art, and for the audiences who are deeply passionate and feel engaged with those artists and feel part of the artistic community, that’s great. We have an arts and culture strategy. We have funding for the festivals. There’s a lot there. What I’m trying to do is to look at it from that cold-hearted, mercenary point of view, which is if we built on that we could make it an economic tool. We could attract tech workers, so that our technology companies, when they are wooing that 26-year-old out of Ryerson, have a great scene to offer and they know about it and there’s buzz around it.”

Worth a try, eh?

“I think the effort we’re going to put into this is worth the odds,” Leiper concludes. “We’re going to put some seed-funding into a new music group to help develop that capacity that we would need. Our planning committee has picked up on this, so for zoning we have a study that’s going to be coming up in this term at Council about venues and zoning and regulations. That doesn’t cost a lot of money; it just takes some leadership.

“It would be easy to say it’s not going to happen: the barriers are too many; the challenges are too many; we’re not going to be able to make this happen. But it’s the energy of a few key passionate people and a very small number of dollars, on the chance that it could pay off really big.”

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