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Optimism & Spirit at CMW 2019

Longtime Canadian Musician correspondent Kevin Young was part of the team covering CMW 2019, and offers a unique take on the latest edition of the event.

As always, there was plenty to take in at Canadian Music Week, but it wasn’t quantity, or even the quality of the programming that struck me this year; it was the "qualities" that seemed to characterize the conference and music festival - namely, optimism and spirit. The mood overall just seemed more positive about how the industry is moving forward, and where it’s headed.

That was nailed home in The Evolution of Radio and Music: A Perspective from Women Visionaries Who Are Making It Happen and other panel discussions. The prevailing wisdom was that the industry is bouncing back, or at least finding its way forward, after having had a rough go of it in recent years.

Fascinating possibilities were covered, particularly during Thursday’s, "The impact of AR/VR and MR (Mixed Reality) on the Music Fan Experience" and "Programming a ‘Smart Show’: The Future of Tech at Live Events" – both timely issues that, down the pipe, will have a huge impact on how and where we experience live events overall.

So, yeah, the "Oh god, the future is upon us and we’re screwed" feeling seemed like it’s abated some and has been replaced by a "the industry has adjusted (sort of) and continues to in terms of being okay (sort of) with the way people consume music and the technologies/platforms surrounding that." So it seemed all about saying enthusiastically-ish that while the industry isn’t the juggernaut it once was, things are looking up-ish.

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What struck me most was how much CMW 2019 reminded me of festivals past in terms of, like I said off the top, optimism and spirit.

My plan to see specific bands went out the window pretty much seconds before I walked into The Painted Lady on Ossington and realized the band I’d come to see wasn’t performing there. But my haphazard wanderings from that point on were immensely rewarding.

No one act knocked my socks off, but they all – every one – seemed like they were trying to as hard as they possibly could. Without exception, that first night, every show I saw, every artist came off raw, real, and driven by an ethic I love: "nothing fancy, just the rock." All, without exception, clearly had loads of potential, and spirit, and courage.

It just so happens that not a single band or solo artist I heard was running tracks (or even had a laptop or tablet as part of their rig). That is, to my recollection, the first time in years I’ve seen that much live music during one of these shindigs without at least one band stopping mid-song to let a track run for a few bars.

Now, I have no problem with track as long as it supports the show and doesn’t detract from it. I’ve used samplers and soft-synths of various descriptions since the late 1990s, from an AKAI S5000 to my MacBook Pro with MainStage. Still, there’s something refreshingly straightforward about hungry young musicians kicking ass and taking names and doing it old-school – and no more so than The Fame at the Horseshoe, who seemed to channel The Stones, The Who and The Stranglers simultaneously, without sounding like anything other than themselves.

When I see bands just bashing away, doing their level best to rip the roof off, and – god bless ‘em - swilling beers on stage while doing it, it just restores my faith in the universe.

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What I saw on stage underpinned what I heard in the conference, particularly during the Tour Strategy Panel: Artists in Motion and the People Who Move Them and the Bob Lefsetz interview with Michael McCarty (Chief Membership & Business Development Officer, SOCAN, and 2019 inductee into the Canadian Music & Broadcast Industry Hall of Fame). The core thrust of the latter was "trust your guy" - something McCarty has gone with repeatedly over time to great effect.

But what really stuck with me were comments made by Jack Ross (VP, Director, APA Agency, Canada) – about what he, and others in the business of finding and building bands' careers, are looking for. I paraphrase, but essentially they’re not looking for good; they’re looking for great.

Now, fair to say that great is rare, but he did add that another quality he looks for is potential.

The gig for any musician or group is to aspire to great, to work at it like hell, to fail, to get up, dust off and try again; even if it’s a lousy venue with an inattentive crowd. Bottom line – you’ve got to play the shitty gigs to get to the good ones, and when you’re grinding it out on the road, that’s true in every case, whether you’re starting out or well-known.

He also talked about the importance of being resourceful. Say you cold-call or email an agent or manager or club owner or whoever with an eye to winning their support? On the first go, you probably won’t get to the person you’re hoping to, but if you’re talking to their assistant, a receptionist, whoever, bear in mind that they got their gig because the person you are trying to reach also saw potential in them. Convince them you’re worth some time and you’ve just upped your chances of getting noticed farther up the ladder.

Connecting with people on and off stage is, really, the most important part of the gig.

But connecting with your audience, live, is arguably the most important thing you can do. Performance, like songwriting, is a craft. You learn it by doing it – everywhere, every chance you get, for the sheer joy of it – and you learn by watching every other performer you can, by identifying what they do that works and what doesn’t.

I’m pleased to say that I learned something from every single act I saw last week.

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Andrew King is the Editor-in-Chief at Canadian Musician. He is also a co-host of Canadian Musician Radio and NWC Webinars’ series of free music and entertainment industry webinars.