How an underdog became the JUNOS host city

It's not Toronto or Vancouver, but London managed to win the 2019 JUNOS bid to host the big show.

The benefits and challenges of choosing a mid-sized city to host Canada's largest cultural event

After months of prep and drills, this stretch of Dundas Street downtown London is closed to traffic and open solely for Juno festivities for the next few days. (Julianne Hazelwood/CBC)

London isn't the first mid-sized city to host the JUNO Awards.

It isn't the smallest either. St. John's, Newfoundland takes the title, which first put on the big show in 2002.

But even so, London wasn't on the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences' (CARAS) radar, the organization that runs the JUNOS.

London was an underdog. A persistent underdog though.

CARAS President and CEO Allan Reid puts it this way — the local host committee was the presence that just wouldn't let up.

Allan Reid, President and CEO of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, said the success of London's JUNOS could pave the way for other mid-sized cities to host. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

"London had been sort of quietly stalking us, I guess you could say," Reid said with a smile.

"When [the local host committee] first approached me, my initial response was London is too small, because we're usually in a larger NHL-size arena."

Budweiser Gardens, where the JUNOS will be held on Sunday, seats about 10,000 people, compared to the 14-15,000 seat venues the JUNOS often broadcasts from.

Smaller size as an advantage

Despite being able to generate less revenue from ticket sales to produce the live music broadcast, London's size had one main advantage.

"There isn't a person in the city who doesn't know the JUNOS is happening. That doesn't always happen necessarily when you're in the bigger markets," said Reid.

"That's a big part of why we wanted to come."

The city is closing off the flex street downtown to traffic for the festivities. There are three days of live music and the economic boost is estimated to be about $12 million for the city.

Compared to last year's host city Vancouver, or long-time host Toronto, the JUNOS can more easily take over in London, with a population of about 380,000.

Show me the money

The biggest challenge of a smaller city hosting the JUNOS is money.

Less revenue from tickets in a mid-sized venue is part of the issue.

Organizers say ticket sales in London have been strong, but they also admit it's much more of a push to sell tickets when you don't have millions of people in a city to draw on.

So putting on a high quality show with less money from tickets is the potential problem.

The way London has compensated is extra funding from all levels of government.

The bid fee was $1.7 million instead of $1.5.

And Reid points out the London host committee got creative, finding ways to engage more people outside the arena, including a JUNOS viewing party and a series of live-music events in the lead-up to the big show.

Importance of location for artists

The chair of the local JUNOS host committee, Chris Campbell, makes the case that Canadian artists also benefit from a mid-sized city hosting the JUNOS.

His argument is that small and medium-sized cities are the bread and butter for many Canadian acts and getting exposure in different pockets of the country is key.

Chris Campbell, chair of the London JUNOS host committee, emphasises the importance of mid-sized cities for Canadian artists. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

"The significance of these medium-sized markets is integral to the touring of artists," said Campbell.

"It's one thing to get a show in Toronto, but if you're a band touring you're going to bounce up and down the 401 corridor … that's where [bands] cut their teeth."

"We launch a lot of careers, medium-sized cities in Canada," Campbell said.

Mega superstars, maybe not

The lineup of performers at the 2019 JUNOS includes Loud Luxury, The Reklaws and The Arkells.

But big Canadian artists may gravitate more to big Canadian cities hosting the JUNOS, according to music writer Sarah MacDonald.

"If it was in Toronto there is a higher chance of somebody coming through, if it's in a more recognizable city," said MacDonald.

"I think it's important though if you're from this country that you do support the infrastructure that helped you to where you got where you are."

"Maybe one day it'll be Drake going to the JUNO Awards in … North Bay (Ontario). Can you imagine?"

It would certainly take "We the North", a former Raptors campaign fronted by Drake, to a whole new level.

Are smaller cities the future of JUNOS?

Saskatoon hosts the JUNOS next year, the second time for the mid-sized city with a population smaller than London's.

When asked if there will be a trend of more medium and small cities hosting the JUNOS, Reid nods his head.

"Yah, I think it's a big part of coming to CBC. The JUNOS joined CBC last year … Part of the reason they wanted us is we travel across Canada."

So far, the show hasn't been held in Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and the territories.

Another reason London was chosen to host, and a big bonus for other cities that would like the chance, is the novelty factor. It's London's first time hosting.

"Coming to a city for the very first time, there's something magical about that," said Reid.