National Music Centre set to open doors and minds in Cowtown

Canada's National Music Centre is set to open in Calgary at the end of March, just days before the city hosts the Juno awards. It's a week that could put the Prairie city on Canada's musical map once and for all.

From punk to hip-hop, Calgary's music scene is about more than just country music

Set to open by the end of March Canada's National Music Centre is helping to transform the east end of downtown Calgary and the city's musical identity. (George Webber)

Originally published Dec. 13.

Calgary's East Village is undergoing a face lift. Cranes dot the skyline as gleaming condominium towers, complete with trendy restaurants and bars slowly rise from the pavement.

It's a stark transformation for a once seedy part of this city's core, one known more for its boarding houses and dive bars than anything else.

But here in the shadows of the Stampede grounds, Calgary's identity is shifting, one potent example being the soon-to-be-completed Studio Bell, which will house Canada's National Music Centre.

It's a choice of location that has raised more than a few eyebrows, but NMC president and CEO Andrew Mosker says it shouldn't: "Calgary is an evolving city with a very, very, rich cultural scene, you just have to look for it."

National Music Centre tour

8 years ago
Duration 1:01
Featured VideoA behind the scenes tour of the nearly completed national Music Centre in Calgary. The Centre is set to open at the end of March, just before the city will host the annual Juno awards.

Hosting the Junos

When it comes to culture, rightly or wrongly, Calgary has long been known more for its cowboy hats than its concertos. But like this neighbourhood that is changing.

It is a transformation that Mosker says will accelerate once the NMC partially opens at the end of March, just in time for the city to host the Juno Awards.

"We have created this space where all music can come together and collaborate and create together, and where all of those audiences can come together and collaborate and enjoy and learn together," Mosker says.

When the facility opens to the public next summer it will house studios, stages and three halls of fame over more than 160,000 square feet, all designed to both create and celebrate Canadian music.

A great idea, but why Calgary?

Calgary Folk Music Festival director Kerry Clarke shows off some pictures of her favourite moments at the wildly popular summer festival. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Kerry Clarke, says anyone who asks that question doesn't know the city. The director of the city's popular folk music festival, Clarke says Calgary has a strong musical tradition.

"You look and you see cowboy hats maybe around the Stampede, or you see a lot of pickup trucks, but you don't have to scratch the surface very far to find really awesome clubs and little festivals."

What's more, Clarke says that Calgary's cultural awakening has been noticed outside the city, too.

"In 2006, and we are still dining out on this one, the Globe and Mail called us one of the seven musical wonders in the world. The Globe and Mail, based out of Toronto."

Sled Island
Thousands of fans gather at Calgary Olympic Plaza to take in a show during Calgary's Sled Island Music festival. (Allison Seto)


For many places, outside approval is a complicated thing, something to strive for, and recoil from simultaneously. 

Calgary is no different. It is a city that craves recognition as a modern cosmopolitan centre, while still embracing the easy stereotypes of a town dominated by cowboy culture.

As with most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

A short walk from the future site of the NMC is a low-rise brick building that is about as close to the beating heart of Calgary's music scene as you can get.

Recordland, billed as having Canada's largest selection of records has been around in one form or another since the 1970s. Dylan Harrison has only worked here for a little over a year, but he is already well versed in the shop's storied history.

A tour of calgary's Recordland

8 years ago
Duration 0:35
Featured VideoA tour of Recordland one of Canada's oldest and best stocked vinyl shops

"This is one of the biggest record stores in Canada," he says. "We have 1.7 million records."

Harrison and his co workers have their fingers on Calgary's musical pulse, and he says it doesn't beat to a C&W drummer.

"The people who live here, they want to hear heavy metal, they want to hear hip hop, and I feel that is the scene now rather than just that regular country that we are always known for."

That may be, but the annual Calgary Stampede, a showcase for country music and western culture is still the city's biggest draw, attracting over a million visitors each year.

At the same time, the city also hosts the Sled Island festival, a showcase for edgy and alternative music and art for five days each summer, just before the Stampede gets underway. 

Festival Manager Shawn Petsche says the two events have a symbiotic relationship.

"Any time you have a city that is in a general sense a little more conservative ... there is going to be young people who are going to want to actively rebel against that image."

Shawn Petsche runs Calgary's Sled Island festival which runs for five days and features more than 250 bands each summer. (Erin Collins/CBC)

Petsche says its that flourishing art and music scene that drew him to Calgary from Montreal about a decade ago.

"I saw the kind of music that is being played, I saw the kind of visual art that was being shown, and I just thought, actually, Calgary is the place to be. The quality of music and art here is amazing."

Petsche says Calgary's reputation as a musical centre is changing and he says the way the city's musicians see their city and themselves is changing along with it.   

"I have felt a real change in the way people from Calgary talk about Calgary," he says. "There seems to be less of a kind of apologetic kind of angle." 

A little less apologetic and a little more rock and roll, an apt description for Calgary's shifting musical culture and, perhaps, the city's overall identity.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads, such as:


Erin Collins

Senior reporter

Erin Collins is an award-winning senior reporter with CBC National News based in Calgary.