With flights purchased, hotels booked and bags packed, Jason Whelan was set to embark on a two-month tour of Western Canada with The Punters.
That is, until the cancellations started to come.
“They dropped a bomb on us three days before we were supposed to go,” said Mr. Whelan, a founding member of The Punters and Connemara who now runs a recording studio. “And that’s not really uncommon.”
Whelan says about 80 per cent of that 1996 tour was cancelled with little notice, which he calls “a wake-up call.”
Watch the video below to hear from Mr. Whelan about the challenges professional musicians face in the local music industry.
“What do you do at that point? You can’t find [replacement gigs] that quickly. Essentially, we were out of money. I think we actually went in the hole on that.”
Industry threatened by instability
Musicians face many challenges when trying to forge long-term careers in the music industry, which threatens the stability of the industry as a whole, says Dr. Rebecca Franklin, assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the Faculty of Business Administration.
Dr. Franklin has been researching cities in the U.S., Australia and Canada that are renowned for vibrant local music scenes.
Aside from St. John’s, she’s also looking at Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in Australia, and New Orleans, La., Tulsa, Okla., and Austin, Texas, in the U.S.
“Many [musicians] . . . have to work a job that’s outside of the music industry just to support doing what they love.”
Each centre offers lessons to help bolster thriving music scenes, and there are common themes between all of the locations that can help inform public, private and individual decision-making regarding participating in and supporting the industry.
“For one thing, it’s important for musicians to get a living wage. So many of them, especially in smaller cities, have to work a job that’s outside of the music industry just to support doing what they love,” she said.
According to the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, musicians and singers across Canada earn an average of just $9,394 each year. That’s in spite of the significant effect the music industry has on local, provincial and national economies – one that has an estimated $61.3-million impact on the gross domestic product of Newfoundland and Labrador, for example.
Community and venues are key
In order for cities to support vibrant and sustainable local music industries in which participants have sufficient opportunities to earn a living wage without having to seek non-industry jobs, there needs to be a strong sense of community, plenty of quality venues for live performances and dynamic districts that are attractive to tourists and local residents alike, says Dr. Franklin.
“One of the really important things, and this is something that’s consistent in every region where I’ve interviewed people, is a sense of community,” she said.
That can look like musicians supporting each other, sharing resources, going to each other’s shows, inviting each other on tours or more experienced musicians mentoring less experienced musicians, she says.
Good venues are also key.
“They have far more power than we give them credit for. Part of that is being able to pay musicians and providing them a place where they can build that community.”
Dr. Franklin says having different styles and sizes of venues is also important. Creating “pockets of creativity” that includes art galleries, locally owned restaurants and a variety of local shopping options, all of which are easily accessible by foot, bicycle or quick vehicular transportation, are all part of a successful music scene.
That’s one aspect of St. John’s that has Dr. Franklin concerned.
“It’s really important for the whole area to be vibrant,” she said. “It’s a really cool downtown here. For a city this size, the number of opportunities to go see live music is just fantastic. But the things I’m seeing with places closing downtown recently worries me a little.
“It’s a slippery slope,” she added. “One day it seems great and then things start happening, businesses start struggling and if you’re not paying attention, all of a sudden you might be like, ‘What happened?’ I think the city needs to be careful about that.”
Dr. Franklin’s research, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, shows that the province’s music industry also needs more participants in the management and booking side of the business, and that government can play a bigger role in supporting the industry through funding, grants and reducing bureaucracy.
“I think what’s available here for grants and other funding doesn’t come close to what’s available in some places,” she said. “And red tape that creates barriers or adds extra expenses for music venues can really hurt the scene.”
“… red tape that creates barriers or adds extra expenses for music venues can really hurt the scene.”
One idea, she says, is for governments to offer tax breaks or incentives for businesses to be located downtown.
“If those venues are downtown, if they’re having tax breaks, they can continue to operate and they can pay musicians more. Locally owned businesses such as restaurants, art galleries and unique shops that add charm and personality also need to remain downtown to sustain the vibrancy.”
Mr. Whelan also sees government as playing a greater role, that it could fund performance, either directly or indirectly . One example would be a contingency fund that offers reimbursement for venue owners when they’re forced to cancel an event.
“I think there’s a role for government to support the arts, whether it’s music or dance or visual arts.”
“That would help massively because people would be a lot happier about signing contracts when they figure they’re not going to get hung out to dry because of a weather event or something,” he said.
“I think there’s a role for government to support the arts, whether it’s music or dance or visual arts. There are lots of organizations and funds that do exist, so I think they should keep doing what they’re doing [but] expand on it and create some kind of funding so that people who employ musicians can get some backing.”
Music, downtown vital to province
According to Dr. Franklin, a vibrant music industry as an essential part of a dynamic downtown core is important to the future sustainability of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We want tourists to come here, and music is a fantastic reason for them to come here,” she said. “People get bored with cities that are homogenized and everything’s the same, including the gift shops and restaurants. The more interesting and iconic the downtown is in St. John’s, then the better it is for everybody, in not only this city, but throughout the entire province.”