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Study to assess Nova Scotia’s music industry

Musicians, industry experts hope study leads to more investment

5 min read
caption Asif Illyas warms up at Sniggily Wiggily's Saturday night.
Ava Coulter

The crowd was large and loud for local musician Asif Illyas at Halifax bar and live music venue Sniggily Wiggily’s Saturday night.

But only for 45 minutes.

The show started at 10 p.m. with about 60 people. By 11 p.m., the crowd had dissipated to about 20.

“This venue, it’s got one of the best sound systems of the city, but it stays empty a lot of the time,” Illyas said. He played for a group of less than 10 last time he was at Sniggily Wiggily’s.

Illyas has played music in Halifax since 1992, around the time he said the municipality earned the temporary moniker, “the new Seattle,” for its emerging grunge scene.

It’s local artists like him the province hopes to benefit with an economic and social impact study about the local music industry.

Communities, Culture and Heritage Nova Scotia posted a request for proposals Thursday. The research is part of the province’s Culture Action Plan, a strategy focused on growing the creative economy.

caption People rushed to dance to Illyas’s cover of It’s My Life by Talk Talk.
Ava Coulter

“It gives the industry some clout if the results indicate that the sector has a positive impact on our economy and society,” said Scott Long, executive director of Music Nova Scotia and a member of a committee that will be involved in the study.

Having official data can prove what industry professionals know from experience, but don’t have on paper.

People who were interviewed for a 2017 East Coast Music Association study on Atlantic Canadian music said Nova Scotia’s music infrastructure is the largest on the East Coast. It also said there wasn’t a recent study that focused specifically on Nova Scotia.

Is it worth it?

Laura Simpson has been working to support Nova Scotia musicians for years. She’s juried for various events, including the Juno Awards, and founded The Syrup Factory, Side Door, and Make.Do.Camp, three businesses geared toward promoting and backing the local industry.

“Any creative industry is not considered a legitimate ‘big I’ industry until it’s shown and proven to give dollar amount in return on its expense,” said Simpson.

She noted studies done by the Canadian Live Music Association and the Canadian Arts Presenting Association as good examples Nova Scotia could follow.

“In the Canadian landscape, Nova Scotia punches above its weight for sure, when you’re talking about success versus population size,” she said.

Classified, Rita MacNeil and Joel Plaskett are just a few examples of artists from Nova Scotia who made it big.

caption People gathered at the bar at Sniggiily Wiggily’s to watch Illyas on stage Saturday.
Ava Coulter

Both Simpson and Long hope the study will highlight the industry’s faults. They voiced concern about a limited number of venues for artists. Long said that if the industry’s value is proven and these weaknesses are exposed, the government will have a clear idea of where to invest and what needs to be fixed.

Simpson said there also aren’t enough labels or management companies in the province, and the ones that do exist are near capacity. The result is artists leaving for Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, where the industry foundations are stronger and there are bigger populations from which to develop a fanbase.

On the social side, Simpson said thriving arts communities make cities better places to live. She thinks Nova Scotians don’t understand or appreciate the quality of local music.

“Artists are often given a lower step in society, which I think is completely opposite to what we should be doing,” said Simpson.

Long said he hopes social impact will be measured by a lot of consultation with the public. He wants to know how people personally experience and value music.

In 2018, Communities, Culture and Heritage found that of 1,002 Nova Scotians surveyed, 74 per cent attended arts performance events at least once a year, and 81 per cent said culture improved the quality of their lives.

“I feel that we’re going to find that it’s worth more than we thought,” Long said about the music industry in general.

A musician’s perspective

caption Illyas played a one-man show using a loop pedal.
Ava Coulter

Illyas has other ideas about how the local industry could be improved.

“The underground scene has all the attributes of a major label scene, but it’s still underground,” he said.

He thinks Nova Scotia suffers from a global problem: people don’t listen to music as a community anymore. Listeners have personalized playlists on individual platforms like Spotify and Apple Music, which means they have access to a massive music library whenever they want.

Illyas said he will be shocked if the study addresses how much money musicians make. It’s not much for providing people with “something that basically is the soundtrack of our lives.”

He hopes the study will educate and remind people about the joy of seeing music with friends or other fans. He wants to see more funding for events, like live concerts, that attract crowds to little-known, local talent.

The committee Long is part of will include other industry experts who will help review project proposals and give advice to help steer the study. The results will help inform future decisions for the industry.

Communities, Culture and Heritage said in a statement their vision is for Nova Scotia to be known for its “strong, empowered and vibrant communities,” including a healthy creative economy.

The timeline for the study is unclear. More information will be available once a proposal is chosen.

“I’m always a little skeptical, to be honest, until there’s action that comes out of these kinds of studies,” said Simpson.

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  1. B


    Earlier shows are always an excellent idea- how many middle aged people can stay out till 1 a few times a week and feel good at work the next day? I'm not sure more management is the answer- profit margins are slim enough for musicians on the east coast, and unless you want to tour nationally, what venue/festival do you not already know about in the maritimes? For touring musicians it's an expensive and far flung place to fly or drive to and from. There's no getting around a small population without much disposable income. So- Alcohol- I've never lived in a place where musicians bartenders and the rest of the work force in the venues work for so little while selling categorically expensive drinks. There is money, and it is being spent on alcohol. Every major and most minor festivals Ive performed at in North America have been heavily sponsored by booze companies. This has ALWAYS been the case with popular music performances since the turn of the century. A symbiosis. I'd love to see NS's uniquely bizarre antiquated and paternalistic alcohol legislation altered to mandate regular significant funding for performing arts-this could provide performance guarantees offered at more venues, making them attractive to touring bands (who are generally losing money by touring) and creating competition in the local market amongst performers (be good/get better/work/develop), lowering cover prices, and ultimately bringing people out to shows, to enjoy the music and buy lots of ridiculously over-priced alcohol for the venue. This is a working model in American towns and cities. Otherwise, house concerts, and let the regulators and regulated broken model die off- nothing creates community better.
  2. I

    Ian McLaws

    Atlantic Canada needs to adapt to what people want in the same manner that Western Canada bars and clubs have done. Start the band at 8pm...not 10 or 11. People will come out earlier, and can still go home earlier. This basically saved the club scene in the West, and would be beneficial to the musicians as well.
    • M

      Music Guy

      Ask The Carleton, the one venue left that does early shows, how well that's working for them.
      • E


        Hello, I live in Winnipeg and we have moved to a system of gigs on Sunday to Thursday the doors are at 7 the first band is on at 8 and second band on at 9 and show wraps up abour 1030 at the lastest. On the weekends the first band is on around 945 and the show ends at 1 at the latest. So far it's working well and have seen positive changes. The 9-5ers can come hang and if you want to stay out and party you can.
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