Hamilton, Ontario is Canada’s Best Music City. Here’s Why.

Hamilton, Ontario is Canada’s best music city and deserves the Industry Award for Music City of the Year.

Here’s why:

1. Musicians and bands.

Teenage Head. Ian Thomas. Crowbar. Simply Saucer. Tom Wilson and his various bands over the years. Arkells. Monster Truck. Terra Lightfoot, composer Robert Bruce, Steve Strongman, Harrison Kennedy, Paul Intson, jazz pianist David Braid, Jeremy Greenspan, Jessy Lanza, Lee Read, Mother Tareka, Canadian Winter, Motem, WTCHS. There are lots of established female artists living in Hamilton: Rita Chiarelli, Treasa Levasseur, Diana Panton, Lori Yates – all Juno nominated/winners, as well as many of our powerful upstarts such as Laura Cole, Ginger St James, Melissa Marie Marchese, Sarah Beatty, Mary Simon, Jennifer Budd, Gillian Nicola, and Mimi Shaw.

1A. Musicians labour.

The Hamilton Musicians Guild, local 293 AFM, is the fastest-growing musicians union local in North America. The AFM’s Canadian Conference of Musicians will be hosted in Hamilton this summer. Hamilton may very well be on its way to becoming the best place in Canada to be a musician. Economic excitement and growth, spurred on by the influx of people moving out of overly-expensive Toronto, is catching on in Hamilton. Well-established music festivals such as Festival of Friends, Seven Sundays in Gage Park, Supercrawl, Dundas Cactus Festival, and several BIA music festivals continue to work openly and respectfully with musicians to pay musicians fairly and adequately. Pay-to-play doesn’t fly in the Hammer.

2. Hamilton has an active and diverse collection of music venues.

Approximately 150 of them in total. They represent all genres of music and all sizes and types of audiences. This Ain’t Hollywood is well-established as a rock and punk venue with top-quality sound production, authentic decor made up of rock/punk memorabilia from the epic days of Teenage Head and Forgotten Rebels (to name a couple of Hamilton – connected bands). Co-owner, talent buyer Lou Molinaro has directed This Ain’t to play a role in showcasing the talent of many local bands, such as Monster Truck and Arkells, and has established it as an important venue for touring bands in the GTHA. Equally effective at bringing local and touring talent to a high-quality performance stage is The Casbah. Owner/manager Brodie Schwendiman couldn’t be more committed to the local music scene, and its artists, while keeping The Casbah in the regional/national circuit for bigger bands. In the area of smaller venues, Zyla’s is fast becoming the go-to jazz nook on the James Street strip. Bigger venues such as the FirstOntario Concert Hall (Hamilton Place) and FirstOntario Centre (Copps Coliseum) have benefited from management that believes in Hamilton as a legitimate destination for large international acts, and as a specific market distinct from Toronto. The Pearl Company is an embattled and successful arts incubator and a leading light and inspiration to its neighbourhood which is undergoing a wonderful transformation. The Pearl has a special focus on artist-centred events of an eclectic, high-quality nature, often with a particular ethnic specialty.

3. Musical performance organizations in Hamilton are world-class.

In Hamilton there is a certain entrepreneurial spirit (get-er-done attitude?) which prompts some organizations to push the boundaries for artistic activity and audience development. For example, The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra, under musical direction of Gemma New, has established the Indie Series which creates performances in combination with local up-and-coming Indie rock/pop bands. Another genre cross-over show is the HPO’s Hamilton Beatles Experience, nearly sold out as of this writing. A second example is the Hamilton Children’s Choir. Under direction of Zimfira Poloz the HCC has participated to international acclaim in countries such as China, South Korea, France, and Bahamas. The HCC partners regularly with local ensembles too. The Brott Music Festival is an economic force of its own. Each summer dozens of young international musicians audition for an opportunity to be in the teaching orchestra which is called the National Academy Orchestra, Canada’s only professional training orchestra. The musicians live and work in Hamilton for the summer performance season. In music education, An Instrument For Every Child is Hamilton’s spectacular effort to transform children’s lives through learning a music instrument. With a well-managed, growing partnership with the local school boards, children in primary grades can meet a real musician, have music lessons on real instruments and experience the authentic benefits of making music. The program has been steadily growing under the capable leadership of Astrid Hepner, whose leadership also has been positively felt within the Hamilton Music Collective – another music education incubator that hosts open jam sessions for kids and “play in a band” opportunities called Jambassadors. It would be remiss of me to ignore our community orchestras such as the long-standing Dundas Valley Orchestra, the Steeltown Symphony Orchestra, Sinfonia Ancaster or the youth orchestras such Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, or the Bel Canto Strings. The Hammer Baroque Series organizes authentic early music performances in acoustically rich halls, drawing a dedicated audience every time. Semi professional choirs such as Musicata and the Bach-Elgar Choir each have their respected and supported place in our music landscape. Other culturally diverse musical traditions are well represented in Hamilton with groups such as the Portuguese Concert Band, the Italo-Canadian Band, and the Polish Symphonia Choir. Weekly Irish music jams take place at Hamilton’s historic Corktown Pub.

4. Music schools in Hamilton are active leaders in the community, and highest quality.

Music education initiatives give young musicians many exciting opportunities. Mohawk College’s Applied Music program produces capable and well-trained musicians ready to engage with all sectors of the music business, be it performance, movie/TV soundtrack composition, management, education or any other area. McMaster University and Redeemer University have undergraduate degrees in music history, performance, and music education. The Golden Horseshoe Music Festival is aligned with Musicfest Canada as a province-wide, professionally adjudicated concert band and jazz band festival. Each spring hundreds of middle school and secondary school students participate, are adjudicated, and receive opportunities to attend nationals. The GHMF has been holding the performance standard high for years. Without these supports and models of success for music education, our educational programs would be failing. Even with acknowledged room for more support, our high school music programs excel across the city. Westmount Secondary School, Saltfleet Secondary School have renowned band programs, Westdale Secondary School has a longstanding strings program. Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School has a powerhouse of a touring choir called Expression. The high schools each run effective music programs with the full gamut glee clubs, liturgical choirs, jazz bands, rock bands, and drumlines. Impact Percussion is a significant player in the ongoing revival of drumline/precision drumming in Ontario. It is based in Hamilton, and sends percussion instructors to McMaster University and several local high schools and middle schools. These drumlines participate in local festivals, sporting events, and parades. In the area of private music academies we have Studio E Music and Arts, which continues to provide a dynamic performance incubator environment. Its motto is Be Bold. The program has benefited greatly from the ongoing leadership and guidance of Brian Melo (Canadian Idol winner) in a coaching program called the Melo Tree. Just one more example of an active, high-quality music school is Avalon Music Academy in Dundas. The quality of Hamilton’s successful music studios arises from the fact that the instructors are active professional musicians. For example, Nathan Fleet is an award-winning composer and filmmaker. He heads up the Hamilton Film Festival and Film Market in Hamilton and is still committed to the importance of teaching the next generation of players. The newly founded Hamilton Music Festival, an adjudicated piano, strings, and vocal festival, is just one more example of how local music teachers are seizing the day to build and grow the audiences of tomorrow. Hamilton is the best place to become a musician. Our community is connected, and the people who live here want to be here and make it better.

5. Hamilton is the home of the Hamilton All-Star Jazz Band.

This is an educational gem. Over 1,000 young musicians have been active in this organization since its inception some 30 years ago. International performers and JUNO Awards winners David Braid and Diana Panton, and Grammy-Award winner Tony Peebles, got their start in the Hamilton All-Stars.

6. Municipal leadership and support of the local music business is real.

Over the past five years public awareness and industry engagement to promote Hamilton’s music business and music scene has increased steadily. In 2014 Hamilton city council approved a city music strategy, and renewed its commitment in 2016. The music strategy document is the concerted effort of local industry volunteers. When it was written it also included input from well-attended public meetings. Participants included local music venue owner/operators, recording industry and management representatives from the Hamilton area, educators, media representatives, music promoters and talent buyers, festival organizers, and of course gigging and hobby musicians. A direct result of the implementation of the music strategy and further consulting efforts is the upcoming launch of a new brand — Hamilton: City of Music. The Hamilton: City of Music brand gathers together all the musical excitement and activity in Hamilton under one banner. Live music venues have joined in an unprecedented way and created the Hamilton Live Music Venue Alliance. Hamilton, due to its unique “smallish” size, is not unwieldy and therefore not too big to develop a strong sense of community and mutual support around all types of music activity. The Hamilton Public Library also sensed the upward surge in the Hamilton music industry. In 2016 the HPL adopted its own music strategy in sync with the city initiative which embraced the motto “music lives here.” Artists, new and established, rich or poor, now have access to digital media tools to produce demo recordings and music videos. In 2017 the Music Industry Working Committee will oversee the brand launch, establish a city music office, and develop ongoing research and support initiatives for music in marketing, venue support, musician support, and music education.

7. Music industry partners are taking notice of Hamilton.

Hamilton-based Indie label Sonic Unyon Records has been here since it was founded by three university students in 1993. The label now represents blues JUNO winner Steve Strongman, Terra Lightfoot, The Dinner Belles, Oh Susanna, and other growing acts. Co-owner Tim Poticic heads up Hamilton’s Supercrawl, a huge street festival that attracts tens of thousands into the city each year. True North Records now has its offices located in Waterdown, a cosy little town that is part of greater Hamilton. A handful of other successful labels are well-established here as well: Maisonneuve Records, Other Songs Music, Schizophrenic Records, Hidden Pony Records.

8. Involved and supportive local media and production facilities.

The Hamilton Spectator has two dedicated music columnists, Rockingham and Turnevicius. Graham Rockingham’s weekly music picks is a highlight. His willingness to feature local talent and local businesses is noteable. Local independent blogs such as Cut From Steel, Hamilton Blues Lovers, Hamilton Musician, I Heart Hamilton cover many new artists, venues, and shows. The View magazine covers print listings. Independent newspaper Urbanicity also features musicians on a regular basis. Greater Hamilton Musician Magazine now has three editions in print, dedicated to telling Hamilton’s music story. The Barber Shop Podcast is legendary, now beyond its 400th weekly video series featuring local talent. Totally made in The Hammer. McMaster University Radio CFMU-FM 93.3 and Mohawk “The Hawk” Radio FM 101.5 also cover and support local artists immensely. Local photographers who specifically track Hamilton artists are too numerous to mention here, but I’ll simply say that they are consummate professionals and respectful of stage etiquette. A wide variety of established and new Music and video recording professionals are present. Of course, the renowned Grant Avenue Recording Studio is in Hamilton, but I won’t try to list any others for fear of getting in trouble for leaving someone very important off the list!
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