Halifax: A musical wasteland?

Torquil Campbell of Canadian rock group Stars performs at this year’s Halifax Pop Explosion.
Torquil Campbell of Canadian rock group Stars performs at this year’s Halifax Pop Explosion.   Benjamin Jamieson

Halifax is Atlantic Canada’s most populated city, yet music’s biggest names are passing the city by.

In 2011 the city was rocked when journalist Tim Bousquet published an article exposing how former mayor Peter Kelly and Halifax’s chief administrative officer Wayne Anstey had loaned Harold MacKay millions of the city’s dollars. Harold MacKay’s company, Power Promotional Events, was in charge of the concerts held on the Halifax Commons from 2006 to 2010. The money was used to help bankroll the concerts. Since the scandal Halifax hasn’t had bands like Paul McCartney or The Rolling Stones come to town.

But did Halifax have any business hosting these mega-stars in the first place?

The city’s population is just a little over 300,000 people. Acts like McCartney and The Rolling Stones are used to playing shows in venues that can hold far more than that. But these large-scale concerts are still happening here in Atlantic Canada. So is Halifax losing out to places like Magnetic Hill in Moncton or is the city’s music scene just fine the way it is?

James Boyle doesn’t think Halifax is losing out at all. Boyle is executive director of Halifax Pop Explosion. Pop Explosion has been successfully bringing musical acts from all over the world to Halifax for more than 20 years. Acts who have graced the Pop Explosion stage over the years include Canadian Indie-Rock super group Broken Social Scene, Stars, Japandroids and July Talk.

“We’re not competing with other places like Magnetic Hill. It’s not a bidding process,” he says.

Boyle says it’s important to do market research and to determine what the public wants because the risk involved with putting on these large-scale shows is so high.

“It’s important to ask if the infrastructure is in place to support the show … Are these events profitable for both the artist and the city? And is it worth the risk? Because there are millions of dollars on the line,” he says.

The Scotiabank Centre in downtown Halifax is Atlantic Canada’s largest indoor venue, holding up to 13,000 people when used for concerts.
The Scotiabank Centre in downtown Halifax is Atlantic Canada’s largest indoor venue, holding up to 13,000 people when used for concerts.   Benjamin Jamieson

Festivals like Pop Explosion do demonstrate that Halifax is a city where music and the arts can thrive. But these shows are on a much smaller scale than the Commons concerts or the shows at Magnetic Hill. There’s no shortage of concert venues in Halifax, but most cater to relatively small crowds.

Robert Logan, the senior director of business development and sponsorship at the Scotiabank Centre, says the city just doesn’t have the population to make the 13,000-seat venue worthwhile for artists.

“Someone like Taylor Swift who’s on her 1989 tour now can do two sold-out shows in Toronto or Montreal no problem, but here they’d have to do way more to get the same return… It just costs so much to put these shows on,” he says.

According to Logan, Halifax is still an attractive market to big names; the city may just have to wait a while for them to come to town. Aging stars like Elton John, Tom Petty and Bob Seger have come through Halifax in the past few years, performing for sold-out crowds.

“Elton John played here a few years ago. He was doing a tour of smaller venues and markets that he wouldn’t have played in the past. He can sell out an 11,000-person show no problem.” Logan says.

But artists who are just starting out or are still in their prime are still choosing to come to Halifax, just not the mega-stars. Later this year the city will host up-and-comers Vance Joy and Arkells along with Canadian staple Blue Rodeo.

Music is an integral part of Halifax, with live music happening somewhere in the city every night of the week. However the acts you’re going to get to see most likely haven’t graced the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine or topped the Billboard charts. It seems for now Halifax will have to make do with the shows we can get. And if Taylor Swift is your favourite, you’ll have to make your way to the big city to catch her in action.

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