Assess the post-COVID recovery of our local arts community and the risks of pursuing a music career in Music City
If there is one word that best defines 2021, it would be risk.
An element of heightened risk, primarily created by a virus with more variants than a Beethoven symphony, has seeped into every aspect of our lives, compounding pre-existing challenges complicating relationships and even threatening the fabric of communities.
Guelph was not immune, of course, and we will analyze and quantify the impact of the pandemic on our community, and the measures taken to deal with it, for years to come.
One sector that has been particularly hard hit is the arts community and specifically working musicians who were already struggling to keep pace with a pre-pandemic trend, the rising cost of living.
According to data from the Consumer Price Index, the cost of living in North America has risen faster over the past year than at any other time in the previous 40 years.
“I would say the increased cost of living has really affected our whole community, but especially those in the arts community, whether it’s music or other arts,” said Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie. “They see the rents continually rising and with the impacts of COVID forcing artists out of work, the cost of living has gone up with no increase in pay, or any pay, in fact, to manage those overheads.
Guthrie and others have worked on solutions like the Music Cities initiative that would include support for the arts and music in any municipal pandemic recovery plan, but for artists like Garth Laidlaw and author -songwriter Jenna Kessler, it’s too little too late.
It would be hard to find a couple with a more typical Guelph story than Laidlaw and Kessler. They met at the Hillside Festival and until recently lived in the neighborhood where they made a modest living creating and selling their art from their home studio.
Laidlaw was born in Guelph and made many connections in the local arts and business community. He understood that a career in the arts is difficult at the best of times and was not averse to risk.
“I like a certain amount of risk in entrepreneurship,” Laidlaw said. “I think it’s extremely important to have that energy, but I’m worried, not just for the future of young artists in Guelph, but for any type of business start-up that has an element of risk.”
The couple’s monthly rent was over $1,800 plus utilities. So they applied for and got a mortgage, but got caught up in bidding wars with wealthier real estate investors who were generally not from Guelph.
“We kind of saw the writing on the wall,” Laidlaw said. “We thought that if we want to have a house in the future, it’s impossible. It’s so incredibly expensive.
They uprooted in May 2021 and moved to Granville Ferry, Nova Scotia, where they were able to purchase a small 11-acre farm for less than the price of a small house in Guelph.
It was a similar story for multimedia artist and musician Ryan Cassidy, who was struggling to pay rent on a two-bedroom house he shared with his partner in the neighborhood.
Cassidy moved to Guelph 10 years ago to be part of the city’s large and vibrant arts community.
“We wanted to stay in Guelph,” he said. “We saved a good chunk and were prequalified for a mortgage, but were outbid by $50,000. Our agent told us there were 26 offers on the property. Same story. People from Toronto with more money.
He, like many others, hoped to build a future here, but in April he packed up and moved to London.
“You’re not just losing that particular person’s work and production,” Cassidy said. “You lose every community project they did, every workshop they did, you become a dorm community overnight and you don’t have a culture.”
Guelph has a well-established arts culture and community and a reputation for supporting and promoting the arts that dates back to the city’s founder, John Galt, who was an author and poet.
“So it’s easy to brag, and we should rightly be proud of our cultural mosaic here when it comes to arts and festivals, music, live music and musicians and so on,” said Guthrie. “We certainly still have that here, but it really highlights for me the issue that it doesn’t matter how big a city we are if it’s unaffordable to live here.”
Guthrie invited Juno-nominated musician and recording artist Miranda Mulholland to speak to Guelph City Council on February 28 about the benefits of designating Guelph as a City of Music.
“Music Cities is a concept that’s been around for a while, but it’s a very important way to harness the power of music both for economic development and also for social and cultural development,” Mulholland said. “There is an online toolkit made by Music Canada www.musiccanada.com this gives seven principles, the best practices in this field and if you follow them, you can unlock some of these advantages.
Mulholland was born in Guelph and lived here until she moved for college. She therefore knows how well the city is suited to this type of initiative.
“Guelph is almost there already,” she said. “You’ve been dating a Music City for so long. Let’s put the ring on it. Let’s make it official. There’s so much in Guelph that’s already in place, but we can’t have a music-friendly city without a musician-friendly city, without affordable housing.
Musician and Guelph Councilor James Gordon sees the many social and economic benefits of designation.
“One of the reasons why this Music City initiative makes so much sense is that we already have an international reputation as a music city,” he said. “We need more attention for this, but we also need to find more ways to support the people who give us this reputation.”
Gordon and Guthrie are typically positioned on opposite sides of the left-right political divide, but they have found common ground with this move.
“It was actually an interesting exercise that Cam and I can collaborate on,” Gordon said. “He’s pretty enthusiastic about it.”
Guthrie, who is a musician himself, sees a role for government and community in making Guelph a thriving music city.
“Government should make it as easy as possible so people can have that entrepreneurial spirit, be able to diversify, take risks,” he said. “Embracing music and other arts is an integral part of our tourism strategy and our economic development strategy.
“But the call to action on the community side is that we need to support our local artists. They are what make Guelph unique and special. artists.”