At the height of Rob Ford's crack scandal last fall, Toronto's ever-up-for-it mayor flew off to Texas to party. Or to be more accurate, he flew to the annual Austin City Limits (ACL) festival to find out how Toronto can learn from the Texan capital's profligate and profitable parties.
But as awesome as ACL is, it's an opening act for South by Southwest (SXSW), the bigger and cooler brother to Toronto's own North by Northeast (NXNE). Every March, SXSW brings tens of thousands of music fans, musicians, industry folks and media to Austin's venues, streets and parking lots for conferences touching on music, film and tech.
"Ford is a big supporter of the live music initiative. Unfortunately, of course, his sideshow has detracted and distracted," said Michael Hollett, the publisher of NOW Magazine, co-founder of NXNE and one of the members of the music trade mission in Austin last October.
"Our contacts in Austin have required reassurance that the city is committed to our partnership and building the live music scenes in both places regardless of the Ford scandals. That energy would be better spent on growing our efforts rather than explaining his antics. But it is by no means a deal killer and we are plowing on effectively."
(During the visit when Ford and Austin's mayor signed the alliance, the latter city's manager of music and entertainment
Don Pitts said, "the unfortunate issues surrounding Toronto’s mayor is none of our business here in Austin.”)
Six months later, however, there's not a big presence here in Austin during SXSW, at least no more so than usual with Toronto artists like Broken Social Scene's Kevin Drew, hip-hop jazz trio BadBadNotGood, boy-girl group Jully Talk, Drake producer Boi1da, hard rock heroes Fucked Up and live electronic act Keys n Krates.
"SXSW has created opportunity for Toronto bands to shine on an international stage and in turn brings eyes to the Toronto scene," says Wes Marskell, drummer for rising Toronto indie rockers The Darcys. "That could be said for any band anywhere, though."
But while Marskell sees theoretical benefits in this alliance for Toronto, and hopes that it will "long outlast [Ford's] time in office," he's not quite sure what's in it for Austin.
“Without downplaying the importance of Toronto's music industry, I was a bit surprised that Austin seemed so eager to jump on this. I assume the plan is to grow Toronto's local scene and encourage business from the outside," said Marskell. "The alliance should allow for mutual growth and benefit to both cities, and hopefully promote exchange between the two, which looks to mostly benefit Toronto."
“Obviously SXSW can only function with great support from the local government,” he adds. “I am excited at the possibilities for Toronto and Toronto bands alike. What band wouldn't want efforts intended to foster the Toronto music scene? I would love for Toronto to be known as a music destination, and this seems like the right steps towards something which is already starting to happen organically, but it won't be fully realized overnight.”
Jesse Kumagai, vice-president of talent at Live Nation and part of the newly established 30-member music advisory council, notes there's long been an informal relationship between the cities. This is in no small part due to the SXSW-NXNE connection – the Austin festival inspired its Toronto analogue, and owns a minority stake in it – which he dubs “two ends of a bridge linking the two cities."
Kumagai says what's new is that Toronto city council has finally gotten onboard. “We wouldn't have city councillors talking about the business of music had it not been for a focus on Austin,” says, adding that even Ford's scandal helped.
“In a positive sense, the heightened media attention during the trade mission to Austin last fall was a good thing. Starting a broader dialogue about music as an important economic driver was critical and wouldn't have happened without the support of a diverse collection of politicians and the accompanying media coverage. Music is now on the agenda at city hall, and it's up to all of the councillors and staff to move it forward."
In fact, Ford's infamy has continued to help, however unintentionally. Remember when he recently made worldwide news by “dropping beats” at a hip-hop show? Well, that was actually a SXSW fundraiser for a team of DJs, led by coach Boi1da, who were heading down to Austin for a Toronto vs Texas showdown. And you can bet that The Beat Academy's SXSW Beat Battle Send-Off event wouldn't have caught a lick of media attention, much less mentions around the world, without the Notorious R.O.B. showing up.
At the event, Ford told CP24 “I went down to Austin and saw how successful it was, how many jobs it creates, how it stimulates the economy. We have so many amazing musicians in this city that aren't being recognized and we’re going to make sure they’re recognized around the world.”
However, those plans still seem to be in the works. While the advisory council is now set-up, there's not yet a music commissioner in City Hall like there is one for film. And the city has yet to make a Austin-like investment in its own music scene so that it can reap similar rewards.
“When a city one-third the size of ours outclasses us in economic impact from music, there's a lot to learn. While they are out using music as a calling card to attract tourists and business, we aren't doing enough to highlight the incredible music activity that is already taking place in the city," said Kumagai. "This is a big lesson for us."
Though positive about the progress so far and the eventual outcome of the alliance, Hollett adds that the Toronto government will also require a major mindset shift from considering live music “an inconvenience at best.”
“Put simply, Austin is better at saying 'yes' instead of 'no' than Toronto, in terms of live music. 'No' is still the default position when it comes to bending the rules or fresh thinking. Any noise complaint, even a frivolous one seems like it can shut down a street event, a club or a patio. We need to acknowledge that a vibrant city makes noise – it's the sound of fun, creativity and jobs."
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