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Can Guelph still be a Music City?

Assessing 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 defined 2021 it would have to be risk.  

An increased element of risk, primarily created by a virus with more variants than a Beethoven symphony, seeped into all aspects of our lives compounding pre-existing challenges complicating relationships and even threatening the structure of communities.

Guelph was not immune, of course, and we will be analyzing and quantifying the pandemic’s impact on our community, as well as the measures taken to address it, for years to come.  

One sector that was hit especially hard was the artistic community and more specifically working musicians who were already struggling to keep pace with a trend that pre-dates the pandemic, the rising cost of living.

According to Consumer Price Index data, 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 cost-of-living increase has really hit our entire community but especially those in the artistic community, whether it be music or other arts,” said Guelph Mayor Cam Guthrie. “They are seeing rent continually increase and with the impacts of COVID forcing artists to not be able to work, the cost of living has increased with no increase in pay, or any pay, actually, to handle those overhead costs.”

Guthrie and others have been working on solutions such as the Music Cities initiative that would include support for the arts and music in any municipal pandemic recovery plan, but for artists such as Garth Laidlaw and singer songwriter Jenna Kessler it is too little too late.

It would be hard to find a couple with a more quintessential Guelph story than Laidlaw and Kessler. They met at the Hillside Festival and until recently lived in the Ward where they eked out a modest living creating and selling their art from their home studio.

Laidlaw was born in Guelph and established many connections in the local arts and business community. He understood that a career in the arts is challenging at the best of times and was not averse to risk.

“I like a certain amount of risk in entrepreneurship,” said Laidlaw. “I think it is incredibly important to have that energy but I’m worried, not just for the future of young artists in Guelph, but any kind of business start-up that involves an element of risk.”

The couple’s monthly rent was more than $1,800 plus utilities so they applied and were approved for a mortgage but were caught in bidding wars with wealthier real estate investors who were typically not from Guelph.

“We kind of saw the writing on the wall,” said Laidlaw. “We thought, if we want to have a house in the future, it’s impossible. It is just so unbelievably expensive.”

They pulled up roots in May of 2021 and moved to Granville Ferry, Nova Scotia, where they were able to buy a small farm with 11 acres for less than the price of a small home in Guelph.

It was a similar story for multi-media artist and musician Ryan Cassidy, who was struggling to pay the rent for a two-bedroom house he shared with his partner in the Ward.

Cassidy moved to Guelph 10 years ago to be a part of the city’s large and vibrant artistic community.

“We wanted to stay in Guelph,” he said. “We saved up a chunk and were pre-qualified for a mortgage, but we got outbid by $50,000. Our agent told us there were 26 bids 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 don’t just lose the work and the output of that particular person,” said Cassidy. “You lose every community project they were doing, every workshop they were hosting, You become a bedroom community overnight and you don’t have a culture.”

Guelph does have a well-established artistic culture and community as well as a reputation for supporting and promoting the arts that goes back to city founder John Galt, who was an author and poet.

“So, it is easy to tout, and we rightly should be proud of our cultural mosaic here when it comes to arts and festivals and music and live music and musicians and so on,” said Guthrie.  “We definitely still have that here, but it really brings to light for me, the issue that It doesn’t matter how great of a city we are if it is unaffordable to live here.”

Guthrie has invited Juno-nominated musician and recording artist Miranda Mulholland to speak to Guelph City Council on Feb 28 about the benefits of designating Guelph a Music City.   

“Music Cities is a concept that has been around for a while, but it is a really important way to harness the power of music both for economic development and also social and cultural development,” said Mulholland. “There is a tool kit online made by Music Canada www.musiccanada.com that gives seven principles, best practices in this area and if you follow them, you will be able to unlock some of those benefits.”

Mulholland was born in Guelph and lived here until she moved away for university so, she knows how suited the city is for this type of initiative.

“Guelph is already almost there,” she said. “You’ve been dating a Music City for however long. Let’s put the ring on it.  Let’s make this official. There are so many things in Guelph that are already in place, but we can’t have a music friendly city without a musician friendly city, without affordable housing.”

Guelph musician and city councillor James Gordon sees the many social and economic benefits of the designation.

“One of the reasons 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 that, but we also need to find more ways to support the people that are giving us that reputation.”

Gordon and Guthrie are typically positioned on opposite sides of the left-right political divide, but they have found common ground with this initiative.  

“It has actually been an interesting exercise that it is something Cam and I can collaborate on,” said Gordon. “He is pretty keen about it.”

Guthrie, who is a musician himself, sees a role for government and the community to make Guelph a successful Music City.   

“The government should be making things as easy as possible for people to be able to have that entrepreneurial spirit, to be able to branch out, to take the risks,” he said. “Embracing music and other arts is embedded within our tourism strategy and economic development strategy.

"But the call to action on the community side is that we need to support our local artists. They are what makes Guelph unique and special. So, as much as people have heard me almost every other day say, support local that also means our artists.”