Calgary musicians and studio owners comment on the impact of the NMC

Studio Bell, the new home of the National Music Centre (NMC), is a project many years in the making — almost 18 to be exact. Its completion in July marks what could be a defining moment in Calgary’s relationship with music, and showcases a commitment to fostering the best and brightest in western Canadian musical talent.

From the architecture, subtle curves reminiscent of the rolling plains and towering heights like the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, to the historic collection of instruments and representations of Canada’s musical past, the building and what lies within it stands as a testament to decades of great Canadian songwriters, performers and industry builders.

It’s more than just a big, shiny building with extravagant architecture. It’s more than a museum, and it has excited many figures in the local music community about the future of music in Calgary, and how this new project may put the city more firmly at the centre of the Canadian music scene.

Dan Owen, seen here announcing the first recipients of the Prophets of Music Emerging Artist Scholarship at the NMC on Aug. 11, hopes that the NMC and the resources within it will help Calgary to become recognized as a star player in the Canadian music community. Photo by Jodi Brak“The investment is here, that building signifies a commitment. It shows that our money is where our mouth is. It shows that we’re legitimate and that we have credibility in the music community,” says Dan Owen, owner and founder of OCL Studios in Calgary. “And we have a tremendous pool of musicians here in the city. Certainly, combined with everything else Calgary has to offer musically, it’s going to show that Calgary is credible, that we can do it, and that you don’t have to go elsewhere.”

The symbolic power of a nationally recognized centre built right in Calgary — in the heart of the East Village,at 9th avenue and 4th Street S.E. — for the creation of music and the preservation of Canadian music history is not lost on local musicians.

“Having a national heritage building in our town really sends the message that we give a shit about music here in Calgary. How much was that building in the end? $191 million? That’s a lot of money that says we’re pretty serious about music in Calgary,” says Matt Olah, marketing director of the Calgary Folk Festival and frontman of local prairie-rock band Cowpuncher. “We almost spent as much on a music centre as we would spend on an overpass in some miserable suburb, and this is actually going to grow Calgary culturally and could lead to people putting roots down in the city.”

Olah also believes the NMC could help broaden the city’s identity beyond the oil-driven prairie rodeo-town stereotype. Calgary has struggled for many years to break free from the white collar, cowtown image, and projects like the NMC could help define the city as a hot spot on the Prairies for art, culture and music.

“Calgary is a brand new city, we’re just over 100 years old, and we’re still young enough that we can develop our own identity,” Olah said. “We can carve out our identity as a city that cares about the creative pursuits of the people within it, and having a National Music Centre shows that we have more than offices and oil companies here.”Matt Olah of the prairie-rock group Cowpuncher, seen here on stage at Wine-Ohs, hopes the NMC may help Calgary establish an identity more closely tied to arts and culture. Despite the extremely active music and arts community in the city, Calgary has long struggled to break free of the suburban cow-town image, and many believe projects such as the NMC will help with that. Photo by Jodi Brak

While some believe the city’s live music scene is one of the busiest in Western Canada, Calgary often goes unrecognized by large promoters, producers and others in the industry who act as catalysts to help grow musicians’ careers. Because of this, many artists find it necessary to move to bigger markets at a certain point in their career.

However, the new resources available within the National Music Centre provide, from recording studios and instrument technicians to music historians and publicists provide a powerful new toolbox to artists that quite literally isn’t available anywhere else in the world.

“One of our main studios houses a Trident recording console from england, there is two left in the whole world and we have the only one that still works. It is state of the analog art, and we are unique in the whole world that three of our recording studios are pure analog, but we also have all the bells and whistles of the digital world, and our entire collection of instruments is available to artists recording here.” says Elizabeth Reade, senior development officer at the NMC.

In addition to housing some of the most powerful in both analog and digital recording technologies, each music space in the NMC, including the performance hall and the concert stage in the King Eddy Hotel, are wired together to allow on-the-spot live recording of both audio and video using state of the art recording consoles. They even have a space set up to allow artists to collaborate with other musicians around the world, with Reade saying that artists recording at the NMC could patch in a guitar player from Russia if they really wanted.This Olympic recording console is the only functioning model of its kind in the entire world, and it is housed in the recording studios of the NMC. Their recording facilities combine state-of-the-analog-art equipment with the very best in digital conveniences, with nearly every sound room and performance space wired together to record on the fly. Photo by Jodi Brak

Brett McCrady, a Calgary based songwriter and recipient of the Prophets of Music Emerging Artist Scholarship, is quite impressed by the quality and attention to detail in the NMC recording spaces.

“I really wanted to just stay in that studio and listen to that analog sound for hours! I think that was the biggest thing for me, just going into the studios and seeing that Trident console and the other analog stations,” he said. “The way that they are trying to wire everything in together is so exciting, we are living in the future!”

Owen, the studio owner, and others within the local music scene, hope the NMC will both draw bigger players to the city, and give local musicians at a pivotal point in their career access to more resources and networking opportunities, allowing them to remain in Calgary while still advancing their career.

“Calgary may never be Nashville, but hopefully we will become a place people want to go. The NMC … it has a buzz surrounding it that people throughout Canada and hopefully North America will come to recognize,” Owen said. “When you say ‘The NMC,’ they will know what you’re talking about. I want to hear artists say, ‘Oh yeah, let’s go do this record in Calgary so we can go use Elton John’s piano at the NMC.’”

While there are high hopes that this porject will help push Calgary and the musicians who call it home to a more prominent position in the Canadian music scene, Devin Purdy, guitarist for the progressive stoner rock band Chron Goblin, suggests the project could also work wonders for fostering an appreciation of and respect for music in the youth who will be the next generation of Calgarian singer-songwriters.

“I think Calgary is at a point right now where our music scene is thriving and I don’t think it’s ever been stronger. To have a nationally recognized centre to celebrate the musical and cultural heritage of the past, present and future in one spot is fantastic,” he said. “I feel like if the National Music Centre is really able to embrace a role as a hub for youth, then you get them in when they’re young, and they realize all the amazing things that have to do with playing music, or being part of the music scene or industry in general.”Devin Purdy of the progressive stoner rock group Chron Goblin is particularly excited to see how the NMC will embrace a role as mentors for youth who are interested in music. By providing expert guidance and a realistic view of what it takes to work in various parts of the music industry, Calgary’s youth musicians could be empowered by the resources available to them. Photo by Jodi Brak

Purdy believes the NMC will provide a safe space for youth to participate in music and learn the ropes of things such as performing, recording and writing music. He also suggests that the experience of learning from people deeply knowledgeable in several aspects of the music industry will show youth the career possibilities of music in a more realistic light.

“I think once you are able to get them from that sort of young level, that as those participants grow older they’re just going to have more respect and more passion for music within Calgary. And they will develop respect for an organization and a place that allowed them to come and kind of form a community there,” he said. “The impression that pairing a youth up with an experienced and maybe well-known artist will have … I think that’s a life-lasting impression. If they were able to do some mentoring with some youth, what a fantastic thing to have in our city and to be a part of.”

And, in fact, the NMC began its youth programming before their doors even opened to the public, hosting weekly after-school music clubs on Thursday evenings. These programs offer youth a chance to learn the basics of writing and performing music, as well as the opportunity to share their music in a safe place with like-minded people. It’s more than a guitar and singing lesson because participants are encouraged to learn from the NMC’s exhibits and fully utilize all the tools at their disposal within this massive new monument to Canadian music.

“I’m all for giving the youth an opportunity to have a safe place to go to be themselves, and I think it’s really cool with all of the amenities they have there,” Purdy said. “They can come in and not just learn about how to play guitar. They can learn a thing about mixing, producing, running lights and sound, running the stage, they can see all in this one building that there are so many different facets of the music industry and I think that helps build respect and a more realistic view of what it’s like to work in music.”

In addition to these youth programs, the NMC has partnered with the Boys and Girls Club of Canada to offer youth programming in the future, and also houses a new all-ages concert venue. This is something that Purdy believes is sorely lacking within Calgary’s music scene after the closure of several all-ages venues in recent years, including The New Black, which shut its doors in 2013. The concert hall at the NMC being open for patrons of all ages provides not only a prominent stage for young musicians to play, but also a measure of stability in that it likely won’t disappear like many all-ages venues in Calgary.

Showcasing their commitment to preserving the history of Canadian music, the bricks from the King Edward Hotel were dismantled, refurbished and replaced in the exact same spot they were taken from. The NMC offered their supporters a chance to leave their own mark on the historic venue, placing an engraving on the bricks in the King Eddy at the price of a donation. Photo by Jodi Brak From the ground up, the NMC is symbolic of Calgary’s recent commitments to fostering the growth of music and arts at a local level: to invest in something that will help the city flourish as a cultural hub and dispel the age-old stereotype of white cowboy hats, 9-to-5 office drones and dreary suburbs.

With the amazing talent that calls Calgary home, the dedicated music fans who hit the clubs week after week to see their favourite and next-favourite artists, and now with a nationally recognized centre to bolster the musical reputation of the city, the next generation of Calgary performers will hopefully have all the tools they need to make their musical dreams become realities.

“I don’t think we want to have musicians in Calgary feel like they can’t make a go at it here and feel forced to move to Vancouver or Toronto,” Olah said. “They should be able to say, ‘I’m from Calgary, I want to make music, and have all the resources for that here,’ which I think the NMC will help with.”

Thumbnail photo by Jodi Brak 

jbrak@cjournal.ca