The National Music Centre and how it fits into Calgary's music community
Can a remarkable building and bold vision overcome challenges of introducing local music scene to new home?
This story was originally published Feb. 10, 2018.
Sitting as a gateway into Calgary's hyper-gentrifying East Village, Studio Bell is impossible to miss. With its metallic tile façade, cocooned around the historic King Eddy Hotel and saloon, the facility is a standout structure with an equally bold vision for what it wants to achieve.
The National Music Centre housed within its walls is designed to be one of our city's grand institutions. It promises to be a catalyst for music, both nationally and locally — focusing on exhibitions, recordings, artist residencies and live music.
It has been touted as a focal point for music in our city and beyond — a nexus of sorts — offering a hub for the multitude of communities that create music here and across Canada. From a guy named Earl in his mom's basement, to the rising stars of Canadiana. A place to make music and a place to talk about making music.
Yet grand visions and expectations aside, creating community, or making yourself a focus of community, is complex. It requires time. Building an institution of bricks and mortar (or shiny silver tiles) is the first step. Building community is harder. It's about expectations and results, about forming bonds and earning loyalty.
Calgary has not one but many music communities. Each with its own needs. Church choirs, quartets, philharmonic orchestras, and the one many of us experience much more often — the indie scene. Just a few people with a dream on a riser pounding it out in the Beltline on a Saturday night.
Nineteen months after NMC opened the doors to Studio Bell, the mood in that part of our city's music scene seems to be one of waiting and wondering.
It's difficult to get those in the grassroots music scene to talk candidly about an institution like NMC.
Josiah Hughes has written extensively on culture in Calgary as an editor with exclaim! and was the music editor at the now defunct Fast Forward Weekly. He says in most cities it's difficult to have open and frank conversations, to critique, because those scenes are small and tight-knit.
"Any time you say something critical, it's probably connected to someone you know, and you run the risk of an awkward interaction with them at your next art outing or even while buying toothpaste at the downtown London Drugs," he said.
Some, however, are willing to risk the potential of an uncomfortable toiletries purchase.
"They haven't realized the things they're promising yet," is how Lorrie Mathesson, a local musician and producer, sums it up.
His experience with the NMC has been limited to catching a couple shows at the refurbished King Eddy.
Now, anecdote isn't evidence. But when you talk to people in the grassroots music community, there seems to be a sense that the NMC hasn't yet reached its potential.
Kerry Clarke, the artistic director of the Calgary Folk Music Festival, seems to agree things have been slow out of the gates.
"So maybe when they first opened the doors they weren't quite as ready as they could have been, but they had to open them at some point," she said.
Clark, whose organization is hosting the winter Block Heater Festival in Studio Bell this month, says she's optimistic the NMC can find its footing and start delivering on some of the expectations it helped nurture.
"I definitely think that in a year they'll be doing more, and in two years they'll be doing more, and people will say, 'oh yeah, this is exactly what it was supposed to be, but it just wasn't necessarily when they first opened the doors,' is what I would suspect," said Clarke.
"I mean, you don't build a beautiful building like that with a really great vision and then not ever realize it."
This may be where the mixed feelings and a tinge of disappointment come from.
Perhaps the immediate hopes we placed on the NMC were too high. And maybe they over-promised a bit. Maybe our city got so swept up in brave new architecture that we had outsized expectations of just what the institution could do. Maybe NMC moved too fast.
A Calgary cacophony
The national music scene, and Calgary's smaller version, is a patchwork of interpersonal connections, shared histories and spaces. This band knows that band, which once played with that band, which crashed on the couch of the other band, and everyone together had the greatest show of their lives at such-and-such a venue.
When it comes to the music community, what we're actually talking about are 10,000 itty-bitty social relationships. Hence, that reluctance to say anything negative.
Calgary's scene is composed of dozens of venues, large and small — punk shows in Tubby Dog's small yellow and red room; Tchaikovsky in the expansive Jack Singer; rock 'n' roll, sweat and sketchy draft at Broken City; nostalgia within the quonset hut of the Blues Can, community centres, churches, swanky clubs, and, yes, Earl's mom's basement.
Significantly, everyone who makes music in our city and across Canada has different needs and goals. Different expectations and wants for production facilities, venues, prices. Some of those people will be talented. Some not so much. But in an industry where a lot of people are basically getting paid in pocket change, when you open a swanky new facility and say, "We're here for you," everyone is going to come to you with their own shopping list of demands.
Perhaps it's not reasonable to think one institution, one physical building, can focus, or be a focus, for all this.
Andrew Mosker, the music centre's president and CEO — and its first employee almost 21 years ago, when the organization was still called Cantos — says the slow roll out of offerings is by design.
"It's really easy to just look at the National Music Centre … and 'oh, how come the Eddy isn't open yet?' Or, you know, 'was that by design?' Or 'my first impression has not been a positive one,'" he said.
"It's easy to do that. It's a whole other matter to conceive and build a facility like this and just realizing the amount of time it takes, and effort."
Mosker says Studio Bell has made great first impressions and that there's more to come; including the opening of the Eddy as a bar and regular venue this year. Just when? Well, that's TBA. And "TBA" seems to be where some of the frustration comes from. People wondering when and where the institution might offer them something.
Still, the NMC is making an impact in Calgary.
Two concert series focused on local and regional performers have just started up. Visitation at Studio Bell is up with 124,000 people passing through its doors to take in exhibitions, concerts or events last year. It surpassed its operation fundraising target, and, according to a spokesperson, the organization is forecasting an operating surplus in 2017 and 2018, despite anticipating shortfalls for its first two years of operations.
Mosker says this list of achievements is vindication for the organization; the way it was designed to weather economic storms and to serve different functions.
"This is really key. It's part museum, it's part live music presenter and it's part incubator, and each of those three play into three very different sectors," says Mosker.
It's the practicalities of being an incubator and live music presenter that raise questions among many local musicians.
There's no shortage of recording studios in town. Calgary is littered with live music venues. But NMC hopes it can provide something unique by combining so much under one roof.
Central to that quest is its collection of unique instruments and recording gear. Things like a mobile (now permanently parked) studio designed for the Rolling Stones. And a Trident A recording console built in 1975. (Trust me. It's cool.)
The idea is to put museum pieces to work, and let musicians make new music.
The NMC gear and two new recording studios were on display during a recent media tour. And you can check them out for yourself during tours offered on Sundays. It's a peek behind the scenes for the paying public, but the real hope is that local musicians will put them to use.
In one recording studio, wood finishes dominate the room, with antique pianos, harpsichords and the famous (trust me, again) Tonto synthesizer encircling the airy space. In the other studio, more industrial and heavy, classic synthesizers and the related wires and circuits crowd the room.
A select few will get to set up shop in these spaces as artists in residence, experimenting with new tools and new sounds in the hopes of expanding their craft.
Other musicians can also book these studios, and use the old soundboards, with classic nobs and switches, to craft the next 21st century hit. It's an interesting gimmick that could appeal to some purists or people looking for something unique — whether social cache or a certain audio sound.
But in the age of laptop recording software, such epicurean offerings could be a tough sell.
And the cost — from $150 to $350 an hour, with a minimum of four hours — could be a bit steep for the aforementioned starving musician; slinging booze at the bar while shilling coffee on the side, bloodied fingers working the strings for the love of the art.
The studios will likely draw together some elements of the disparate local and national music scene, while others seek community elsewhere — places like basement recording studios, other professional studios and gigs recorded live at alternative venues.
So while it's true the NMC is serving several music communities, the grassroots musicians in our city, the struggling artist types, may experience some nostalgia for earlier days.
The architectural gem now known as Studio Bell was born from a more modest space, when the NMC was a Calgary institution known as Cantos. It morphed and grew through a vision of what could be, and a whole lot of cash.
Back in the day at Cantos, within the thick walls of the old customs house in Calgary's Beltline, staff stacked chairs, manned the bar and stamped hands at the door as different city music groups programmed shows in the small space.
It was grassroots and grounded in Calgary, and its design didn't suggest you should don a tie before showing up.
Mosker says it's been an odyssey getting from there to here. From the bare-knuckle to the nation's would-be bandstand.
"To transform Cantos to the National Music Centre, it wasn't just taking a small step, it was jumping over a canyon," he said. "A massive scale difference between the two organizations."
He said with the move into the new building came new expectations and standards.
"Scaling up to a national and international mandate, and a very architecturally significant building that has got the attention from people around the world, means that the programming you do in a space like this has to match the quality of the building."
And there we are again. At a sort of merging of physical architecture and theoretical functionality. A pressure to match form and function. And for many in our city's music communities, it's not always clear where they fit.
The programming may be aiming at a higher level, but what is on offer for the little guy not backed by a major festival, and at what cost? What about Earl, with a guitar and a dream?
Mosker says the NMC as an institution will work with any independent promoter to try to find a way to make it work economically for both sides, but adds they have work to do on getting that message out and supporting those smaller presenters.
Another possibility is that it shouldn't.
Maybe that's not a role the NMC needs to play in our music communities. Attempting, or even offering to be all things to all people, can cause frustrated expectations. The NMC is just one focal point of many, and the way we weave it into the community of Broken City, the Ship and Anchor, Commonwealth and the Blues Can, of basement recording studies and garage performances, is something yet to be worked out.
In the end, it will take more than 19 months and more than visitation numbers, financial statements, rentals and booked studios to determine NMC's impact on Calgary's music community.
Music is an art form, one that binds us together, marks milestones, travels aural synapses whether we're alone in a room or taking it in collectively in a concert hall, bar or basement.
But those spaces, like NMC, are simply venues. They are walls and roofs and resources. They find meaning in the music that is created there.
It will be that legacy, that ability to inspire and support the next generation of music makers and mavericks, that will determine whether NMC succeeds.
It will be the music, not the building or the bottom line, that binds place to community and community to place.
Calgary: The Road Ahead is CBC Calgary's special focus on our city as it passes through the crucible of the downturn: the challenges we face, and the possible solutions, as we explore what kind of Calgary we want to create. Have an idea? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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