A great place to be a musician

Winnipeg may lack major labels and fancy studios, but a low cost of living and excellent funding gives it advantages

Robert Huynh

Whether it’s indie rock, pop, hip-hop or raging hardcore, Winnipeg musicians have seen a surprising amount of commercial success for a city of only 700,000 people.

Yet the question remains: What makes Winnipeg so special?

Rachel Stone, association and communications manager at Manitoba Music, said that despite the common perception that commercial success means moving to Toronto, Stone said the opposite is true.

“We don’t see a lot of artists leaving here because they can do what they need to do here,” she said. “Plus, here [artists] have a low cost of living, a tremendous amount of funding and a really supportive community that a lot of larger markets are jealous of.”

A huge source of that support is Manitoba Music, a member-driven, not-for-profit music industry association. Its main goal is to help local artists develop their skills through industry workshops. The association is also heavily involved in promoting Manitoba talent abroad.

Wanting to dip into a larger market, Winnipeg rockers Tele relocated to Toronto in 2005. The band spent six months in the Big Smoke, touring the well-established golden horseshoe, a circuit of cities including Kingston, Guelph and London that are only an hour’s drive apart, thus allowing Tele to reach a vast number of audiences relatively quickly.

Here [artists] have a low cost of living, a tremendous amount of funding and a really supportive community that a lot of larger markets are jealous of.

Rachel Stone, Manitoba Music

Indeed, one of the major drawbacks of Winnipeg is its geographic location. Bands need to drive at least eight hours to reach another large-ish city.

Tele vocalist Matt Worobec said that although the band’s experience in Ontario was positive, it had to return home due to financial considerations.

“It would be hard to be a musician in Toronto because the cost of living is so drastic there, so you’d have to have a really great job that allowed you to take off for a while. Winnipeg allows you to do that – the cost of living’s not as drastic and expensive here.”
Worobec added that the funding available to Winnipeg artists is hugely important in fostering talent. Tele has received funding from Manitoba Music and Manitoba Film and Sound.

“The resources here are much better than anywhere else in Canada,” he said.

In late 2007, Winnipeg pop five-piece Paper Moon headed to Vancouver to test the waters in a larger city with a much larger population and industry presence. Drummer Chris Hiebert said that he found it difficult to create any momentum in the Vancouver scene thanks to a shortage of venues.

“What we learned was to appreciate what we have in Winnipeg. We have way more venues here. There are maybe three or four out there, but they keep losing them to condo developments, so it’s much harder to make a splash,” Hiebert said.

Despite the low cost of living, plethora of venues, excellent infrastructure and funding available to musicians in Winnipeg, the fact remains that the major music industry is practically absent in the city.

It is on this topic that comparisons with Toronto are unavoidable. Hiebert sees the absence of industry in Winnipeg as detrimental.

“It’s a weakness for sure. There’s a lot of really good bands [in Winnipeg] that could use some noticing. You almost have to move to Toronto – the industry people there have no real reason to look here when they can just look out their back door,” he said.

Glen Willows, who owns and operates local management firm Burning Circus Entertainment, sees Winnipeg’s lack of industry as having a positive effect on the music the city produces.

“Because there’s industry in Toronto, people tend to think in industry terms, like, ‘How do I get an A&R rep to my gig?’ and whatnot. In Winnipeg, people just get together in basements and play,” he said.

On this point, Hiebert agrees with Willows.

“I think we have a scene that rivals Toronto. Toronto’s got quantity, but certainly not quality.”

Published in Volume 63, Number 26 of The Uniter (April 2, 2009)

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