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A pop-up downtown music incubator sets out to hatch a new generation of music legends

Canada's Music Incubator sets out to nurture young talent.

An interior glance at Coalition Music's studio.

Mark Garner is a name-dropper: Oscar Peterson, Rush, Bob Dylan. “Anyone who was in the music industry played Yonge Street in the formation as their skills as artist,” says Garner, Executive Director of the Downtown Yonge BIA. He’s hoping that he’ll soon have a chance to name-drop a whole new generation worth of artists, and that the area’s latest incubator will allow him to do just that.

On November 3, Canada’s Music Incubator (an offshoot of Scarborough music management company Coalition Music) started a new class in a brand-new location. Their newly developed 10-week Artist Management incubator has found a home in Yonge and Dundas Square. It’s an experiment that unites the Downtown Yonge BIA, the City of Toronto, and CMI in a new, location-driven approach to incubation.

“We've been the [music] mecca in the past,” says Garner, and his BIA (whose catchment area includes historic Massey Hall and Yonge and Dundas Square, which regularly hosts free concerts) taps into that. The area's musical history walking tours, hosted by music historian (and Yonge Street Media speakers' series panelist) Nicholas Jennings, sold out last summer.

“You hear about tech incubators, and a lot of people think of as cooperative, shared workspace, but it’s more that than," says Garner. "CMI and Coalition Music do more than that. It’s about the sound technician, the roadie, the contract manager, the roadie. It’s about so much more.”

With this new cohort, Vel Omazic, the Executive Director of Canada’s Music Incubator, says, “We have to be true to our expertise. We do know artists, and we know artists management.”

Coalition Music’s big clients, which include Our Lady Peace, Finger Eleven and Simple Plan, have helped shape them into an award-winning management company; now they’re passing on that knowledge to the next generation. Coalition Music launched Canada’s Music Incubator in 2012 as way of providing business and creative training to emerging performing artists, and CMI has been a stand-alone not-for-profit since 2014.

Over the next 10 weeks, 10 managers, each working with a small handful of performing artists, will spend four days a week in the pop-up space on Dundas Square. They’ll meet with industry mentors, receive training on nuts-and-bolts issues music publishing and touring logistics, and have one-on-one time with Coalition staff, all while continuing to manage their own clients. “We’re helping entrepreneurs manage other entrepreneurs. We’re working at two levels: these managers are building themselves and their businesses, but the way they do that is by developing the businesses of their clients,” says Omazic.

“You have to remember that music entrepreneurs are small business owners. It’s not entertainment or fluff—it’s no different from the bakery or the dry-cleaner or the restaurant,” Omazic continues. He says that, while many people are attracted to the work because of its potential for glamour (“the red carpets and the parties”), the heart of a successful music career is driven by relationships. “Usually, the first relationship an artist has is with their manager. It’s often the first, most important, and deepest financial relationship.”

Growing those relationships will help Toronto’s already robust music industry continue to thrive. “The ultimate goal is to improve the general level, and add another layer, to the music ecosystem. We’ve identified a gap between the beginner artist and the established artist. What we’re trying to do is elevate artists and bridge that gap.” Better management, Omazic says, will help populate that mid-level field, helping artists move into venues and work more effectively in all the nooks and crannies of the music industry, which includes touring, promotions, marketing, legal avenues, and publishing. Garner agrees: “It’s more than about gigs and bands. It’s about the industry as a whole and the economics as a whole.”

The pop-up incubator’s downtown location is no accident. Far from Coalition Music’s location at Victoria Park and Lawrence Avenue, the new, 2,000-square foot facility is located at 21 Dundas Square. “Having this incubator just up the lane from Massey Hall, and across the street from one of Canada’s most famous outdoor venue—a nexus of public spaces, public squares—makes a whole lot of sense for us,” says Mike Tanner, the music sector development officer for the City of Toronto.

The address’s art deco facade earned it a nomination for a 2015 Heritage Toronto Award, while inside, the space has been carefully designed to help support the budding managers. “When we work with artists, we need performance spaces and equipment, and there’s a technical element. With managers, we needed a work environment: desk space, meeting rooms, work stations,” says Omazic.

The pop-up’s 10-week run represents the culmination of an ongoing relationship between Canada’s Music Incubator, the Downtown Yonge BIA and the City of Toronto. The BIA was instrumental in finding the space; the city provided funding for some of the participants, and CMI led the programming. For the BIA, it also represents a logical next step in their ongoing Music Strategy, which includes walking tours and Play the Parks, a free outdoor concert series that exposed more than 35,000 people to live outdoor music.

“Having the incubator down here does two things, “ says Tanner. “It allows the students enrolled in the program having direct and regular access to venues, artists, and so on. and it allows the industry to bring in resources, like artists and mentors, on a regular basis.”

For now, the pop-up is an experiment, but a more permanent location could be in the works. Tanner points out that incubator is close not only to other entrepreneurial spaces at Ryerson University’s DMZ, but it’s also near the city’s vibrant film and digital arts scene. As the music industry moves away from traditional revenue streams like album sales, partnering with film, television, and gaming productions could represent the next challenge—and opportunity—in music management.

For his part, Garner sees the artists and managers coming out of CMI’s incubator as an integral part of the city’s music future. “If we can follow up with them in a year and see that they’re booking gigs and making money in this industry, that’s the desired outcome—that they’re in the music industry and developing talent for Canada, not pouring lattes at a coffee shop,” he says. Perhaps someone in this round of incubation will go on to manage the next Yonge and Dundas Square headliner; it would be the perfect example of how Toronto’s commitment to start-ups and entrepreneurs continues to make sweet music.  
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