The Mississauga skyline. Photo courtesy of Bob Linsdell.

I was in the Kroger in Daleville recently when The Black Keys came on the public address system. My thought at the time: Wow, this is one rockin’ store. This sure isn’t the bland Muzak system I remember in grocery stores growing up. Now I can jam out to “Gold On the Ceiling” while shopping for milk! Maybe I should get a cart and stock up on some other things while I’m here!

Now I realize my response was all wrong. What I should have thought was: Why aren’t they acting on recommendation 5A of the Mississauga Music Strategy?

OK, Daleville is not Mississauga, so that’s one easy answer, and I can tell by the quizzical looks of some of your faces (the internet knows all!) that I should first explain what the heck the Mississauga Music Strategy is – or maybe even something more basic, such as what or where Mississauga is.

Geography time! Trust me – we’ll get to an economic development lesson here eventually, but first let’s explain Mississauga. No, it’s not Mississippi misspelled. Not anywhere close. Mississauga is a city in Canada, right next to Toronto, close enough that Toronto’s big airport is in Mississauga and not Toronto. With a population of 717,961, Mississauga is the sixth-biggest city in Canada, probably big enough to qualify for a National Hockey League team if it weren’t already in Toronto Maple Leafs territory. Most Americans have never heard of Mississauga because a) it’s overshadowed by Toronto in the same way that Fort Worth is overshadowed by Dallas and St. Paul is overshadowed by Minneapolis, and b) we tend not to think about Canada much anyway.

Mississauga comes to our attention today because it has embarked on an economic development strategy that those of us down here in Virginia might learn some things from.

In 2019, Mississauga hired its first music development coordinator, part of an economic development strategy to raise Mississauga’s profile as a “music city.” Some context: Toronto next door serves as Canada’s cultural capital so already has a lively music scene. (Trivia time: Toronto is where the Rolling Stones have often rehearsed as they’ve prepared for a North American tour. Toronto is also where Keith Richards got busted for heroin back in the ’70s.) It makes sense that Mississauga would want to play off that proximity to Toronto. We’re not just talking about the glitz and glamour of the music business, either – we’re talking hard, cold cash, be it Canadian loonies or American greenbacks. The report says a market analyst estimated that Drake – he’s a famous Toronto-born rapper, if you’re not in the know – “could be credited with driving five percent of Toronto’s tourism industry, which accounted for $440 million to the local economy in 2017. In 2018, Toronto City Councillor Michael Thompson credited the mere mention of Drake’s name to helping bring a tech conference to Toronto that contributed approximately $146 million dollars to the city.” Who needs a marketing budget when you have Drake?

Well, that was then. This is now. The pandemic hasn’t been kind to the music business. That brings us to the recent Mississauga Music Strategy, a 47-page study intended to help the city plot its recovery from the pandemic – and still achieve its goal of making Mississauga a “music city” on the scale of a Nashville or an Austin.

There are some obvious differences in scale between here and there. Mississauga is home to Metalworks Studio, where artists from David Bowie to Guns N’ Roses to Prince to Bruce Springsteen have recorded. We don’t have anything like that. Right now, here in Virginia, we hear a lot of politicians and businesses talking about the need for a bigger and better “talent pipeline” to make sure companies have the skilled workers they need. Part of the Mississauga Music Strategy talks about the same thing, except they’re talking about the need for more sound engineers and event producers to help grow an existing sector.

We’ll skip over those details because they’re not what matters to us. What does matter – and can easily translate to our experience in Southwest and Southside – is this: Here’s an example of a city that sees culture as part of economic development. To that extent, what Mississauga is trying to do is really no different than what Rocky Mount is trying to do with the Harvester Performance Center or what Bristol is trying to do with the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, or what any of the towns on the Crooked Road are doing. More broadly, the arts in general can be economic development. Just try to imagine Abingdon without the Barter Theatre. Or just look at Staunton, where the American Shakespeare Center has driven the revitalization of that city’s downtown. In 2019, the Cultural Endowment in Roanoke commissioned a study to measure the economic impact of the arts in the Star City. The conclusion: The arts drive $64 million revenue each year in Roanoke, enough to support 1,774 full-time jobs and produce $6.5 million in tax revenue for state and local government. Now, that was the arts more broadly and not just music, which is where Mississauga’s focus is, but the point’s the same: Music can help inform a community’s quality of life, which is certainly an economic development driver, but it can also be economic development in its own right. We don’t have to want to be Nashville or Austin – or Mississauga – to find some useful lessons in this report.

Here are the parts that caught my eye – or ear.

  1. Play more local music in city-owned digital and physical spaces: Again, Mississauga is looking to make it easier for musicians to make a living in the city. Mississauga really does seem to want to be the Nashville of the north. That’s probably not something local governments here are too concerned with. But let’s set aside the jobs aspect and just focus on the cultural part. The report suggests that when people call city hall and get put on hold, that the phone lines play local music. Is that cool or what? (The correct answer is “yes.”) Basically, anywhere that Mississauga’s local government is playing music – be it on phone lines or city-produced videos – the report says it should be playing local music. What if we did that? What would that do to help highlight our local music scene?
  2. Create ready-made playlists for businesses: The report suggests that somebody – it’s a little unclear who – should put together playlists of local musicians and supply those to businesses that play music. So that’s where we get to my example above and Mississauga’s Recommendation 5A. Instead of Kroger pumping out The Black Keys, why not local bands such as Low Low Chariot or Monster Atlantic? Or 49 Winchester, the country-rock band from Castlewood that’s now hitting the big time? Conveniently, we have a head start on this. Virginia’s Blue Ridge, the tourism agency based in Roanoke, already has three playlists on Spotify. One features local musicians and is conveniently called “Virginia’s Blue Ridge – Local Musicians & Bands.”  The other is more focused on the Crooked Road – see “The Crooked Road of Virginia.” The Mississauga report recommends the creation of a “stamp/seal for businesses to display to show they support local music.” All those signs that say “buy local” could also say “we play local.”
  3. Pilot business licensing fee incentives to play local music: Here’s something many people don’t understand: copyright law. Whenever you stream a song on Spotify, somebody’s getting paid (through ad dollars, if you’re not paying for the premium ad-free service). They may not be getting paid as much as they’d like – that’s a whole separate issue – but the point is musicians expect to get paid for their work just like everybody else. Somehow, somewhere, The Black Keys are getting a cut from Kroger for playing their song. (Well, probably not directly; the store probably pays some service, but eventually some money is changing hands and The Black Keys will get a royalty check.) So don’t expect local musicians to offer up their music just for “exposure.” No restaurant serves up free meals for “exposure.” No plumber shows up to fix your leaky drain for “exposure.” The Mississauga report suggests discounted licensing rates for businesses that play “a defined percentage of local music.” That’s where things start to get complicated. This one may make more sense there than here, but I offer it up for consideration anyway.

These seem like three pretty nifty ideas. None of them is going to jump-start a music industry here but they might help strengthen an existing music scene and emphasize our cultural scene. Let’s figure out ways to emphasize the things we already have. No, I can’t put an economic development metric on that but it all fits into the general goal of promoting our quality of life. You want culture? We have a very specific culture – and here’s some of it.

Finally, there’s one other suggestion worth importing from this Mississauga report – one that I’ll take the liberty of quoting almost in full:

  1. Conduct music exchanges and trade missions: “Present Mississauga artist showcases at festivals and conferences beginning regionally then building to Canadian and international events … to promote Mississauga artists, music assets, venues, and the city as a favorable place for music businesses. Identify municipalities with similarly emerging music scenes and hold music exchange programs including performance, collaboration and professional development programming.”

That sure sounds like an invitation to the Crooked Road to me. What could we learn from Mississauga? What could ’sauga learn from us?

Or, put another way: Which of our communities will be the first to mirror Mississauga and adopt a music strategy?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.