Emilie & Ogden Megaphono

What’s happening in Ottawa?

With unapologetically activist undertones, Megaphono Festival hints at larger industry sea-changes to come.

- Feb 16, 2016
Photo: Emilie & Ogden at Megaphono. All photos by: Kristel Jax

Ottawa’s music scene is sleepy compared to the rush of Toronto’s or Montreal’s, but that slower pace hasn’t stopped interesting germinations over the past year.

Those were evident almost the moment I stepped off the plane when I landed for the second annual Megaphono, a four day music festival and conference in early February. Megaphono is a new organization finding its identity, but that's part of what makes it so intriguing. As it listens to the community discussions around it and actively engages, the festival is building a socially responsible festival that caters to both the industry and the artists it showcases.

Featuring a modest yet diverse lineup of about 60 emerging acts from in and around the Ottawa region, Megaphono 2016 saw sets by bands and artists including Duchess Says, Darlene Shrugg, Fiver, Michael Rault, New Swears, Andy Shauf, Boyhood, November, and Emilie & Ogden.

Started thanks to a report called Connecting Ottawa Music, Megaphono’s aim is to address Ottawa’s desperate lack of music industry foundations, from band managers to record labels, by venue hopping and scene bridging in its lineups and bookings over several nights, and bringing music industry delegates in from as far away as Europe.

Megaphono invited me to take part in this year's festival based on an article I wrote for Chart Attack's 2015 in review about the rise of social activism in Canada’s music scene, which seemed like a curious reason to get a comp to an industry event. Over the week, I came to suspect it may be becoming increasingly safe to let some of my music industry cynicism bloom into cautious optimism. If Ottawa is any indication, Canada’s music climate, so long deafened by an endless foghorn of flannel button bro-down monotony, is due to get a lot more interesting.

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Music fans at Booth Board Mill

If Ottawa is any indication, Canada’s music climate, so long deafened by an endless foghorn of flannel monotony, is due to get a lot more interesting.

From the airport, I got a lift from Elsa Mirzaei, one half of Ottawa duo Everett, and a member of Babely Shades, an Ottawa collective of artists and activists of colour who have protested against acts like Black Pussy and Viet Cong, and who had recently come under fire in Ottawa for launching a petition titled “Cancel the show for anti-Black and transmisogynist band "The Queers" at Maverick’s” (the Queers show was cancelled, and then rebooked).

As she drove us to the hotel, Mirzaei, who was to take part in a Megaphono panel on safe spaces the next afternoon, opened up up about the experience, and the hate mail she and Babely Shades had been receiving for the petition. Mirzaei’s passion was a primer for what was to come: a festival where social engagement was laced into the fabric of the industry experience.

Megaphono may be a relatively small festival, but its organizers are determined to make good use of its city, keeping people moving from locations grouped in one neighbourhood to another night by night, with some of the 17 venues including a recording studio, an ornate church, and an abandoned mill.

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Booth Board Mill, future condo site

On Tuesday at St. Alban’s Church, Jessica Hopper gave the festival’s keynote speech in her sixth speaking engagement in Canada in as many months — after festival director Jon Bartlett thanked everyone from Hopper to the sound tech and the volunteer drivers, and revealed that Hopper’s book, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, had been “essential Megaphono staff reading.”

While Hopper, former Pitchfork and Rookie editor and now Editorial Director of MTV, would have been an impressive booking for the festival regardless of her politics, she’s been increasingly vocal about the abuses and toxic power structures in the music industry, and her short speech was charged with the radicalism that’s become both her brand and a powerful beacon for non-white and non-male folks in music. ("Folks," a generally accepted replacement for gendered terminology, was a huge word at Megaphono).

Emotional and potent, Hopper described life for marginalized and minority members of music scenes, where “sometimes just showing up is an act of resistance.” She spoke about her writing as a way of refusing to be complicit in oppressive structures and of saying, as a woman in music, "we belong to the world even if that world is not warm to us.”

Hopper acknowledged her many recent invitations to speak in Canada and to be “part of a growing national conversation the music scene is engaging in,” stating “I hope America can catch up soon, because we're not there yet.”

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Jessica Hopper

It should be flattering to Canada that Hopper has taken note of our recent shifts in ideologies. It’s true that in recent months, Canadian music scenes have increasingly tackled difficult issues and conversation, to varying degrees of success, such as protests against Viet Cong demanding they change their racist name, November’s Racism, Power and Privilege Panel and NOW Magazine’s followup spread, and, in Ottawa, the discussions surrounding Arboretum Festival’s position on unceded Algonquin land which led to several panels at the indie fest last summer.

Over the next few days, I took in Mirzaei’s “Making Safer Spaces” panel with Dillon Black (of The Queer Mafia) and Azarin Sohrabkhani (of Ottawa International Animation Festival / Ottawa Explosion), and attended the Canadian premiere of Ross Turnbull’s film Terminal Device, edited by Meg Remy (of U.S. Girls), which, through a pastiche of clips from mainstream movies and a Guy Maddin-esque autobiographical voiceover, probes ableism and the stereotype of “the one-armed-man” in film.

Aside from Hopper’s keynote which preceded a show by popular Ottawa indie rockers The Acorn, it may have been easy for fans to miss, or ignore, programming choices like the above which made Megaphono most compelling to me, especially with the excitement of Montreal’s Duchess Says wrapping an audience in plastic, or a musical tour of Ottawa’s abandoned Booth Board Mill (future home of Zibi condos, itself a topic of scrutiny in region) to see solo sets by Her Harbour and Isaac Vallentin, which participants had to sign waivers just to take part in.

Some events didn’t get it right, like a panel on Ottawa’s “musical glory days” which were, apparently, almost completely the domain of white dudes. But other, subtle choices were at play too, such as Megaphono’s booking outspoken Toronto artist Simone Schmidt, aka Fiver, or starting a festival’s first night with two solo(ish) female acts back to back pre-Acorn flannelry (Pipahauntus’s chill pop electronics, followed by Emile & Ogden’s harp majestry).

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Pipahauntus

Socially progressive programming can occur naturally with the right bookers, but rarely happens by sheer accident. I asked Megaphono’s Rachel Weldon, also of Ottawa promotion collective Debaser, if Megaphono is an activist festival.

“That’s a good question,” Weldon responded via phone the day after the festival. “I think the social mandate is not one of social change, but it’s something that we all try to be sensitive to, what’s happening in the music climate nationally and locally. It’s been a really turbulent year with a lot of new conversations — it’s not like marginalization in music is a new phenomena, but people are talking about it a lot more, and that has meant a lot of difficult conversations and different processes of self-effacement for folks who have always had the power and the privilege in the music scene.”

“I think it discounts it to call it the theme of the festival,” Weldon continues, “as though we think it’s trendy or something. We wanted to use the resources that we had available to the festival to be able to stage and amplify certain ideas and certain voices.”

But, she says, this socially conscious mandate shouldn't be unique for Megaphono. “I think all presenters and promoters should feel that responsibility, and you can’t stage events in an apolitical vacuum. It really bothers me when people try to ignore or be negligent of the social and political conditions when they throw a party. It’s not separate whatsoever."

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Making Safer Spaces panel

A festival that cares about its artists shouldn’t seem like a radical idea, but unfortunately in Canada, it often is.

In the nation’s capital, where it’s easy to get turned around because most of the downtown Tim Horton’s locations look identical, several microcosms of national battles play out at once. On the Making Safer Spaces panel, Dillon Black of activist group the Queer Mafia spoke of troubling incidents at local venues: racist or homophobic interactions with staff, clubs with quotas for people of colour. Then, many of the artists I spoke with in Ottawa described a lack of practical opportunities, craving (and, in many cases, planning to relocate for, if they had not already) the bigger challenges and increased opportunities of larger markets.

“I’ve been [in Ottawa] 18 years now,” Megaphono and Kelp Records founder Jon Bartlett told me on Ottawa’s lack of music infrastructure. “There’s always been a really good music scene — the more I travel, I realize that we’ve got a lot of talent that could stand up to anywhere else, but no industry really.”

“I can count on one hand the number of managers, or labels, agents, anything like that.” Bartlett continued, “we did the Connecting Ottawa Music report last year which is a pretty good background for why we’re doing this. There’s a lack of industry and know-how for artists coming up to figure out how would they move toward having a career. The point was to bring industry from away and help to create new connections and expose the artists and people in music to new opportunities.“

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Her Harbour

Still a fledgeling operation, Megaphono takes inspiration from M For Montreal as both a music conference and festival, as well as several European events, but does not align itself with Toronto mega-fests like CMW or NXNE — and only in part, it seems, due to Ottawa’s smaller size, news which came as a relief to me, as did the knowledge that all Megaphono artists are paid for performances and given access to all shows, panels, and industry events and mixers.

“I think with some of those bigger music festivals sometimes, it’s segregation between artists and industry. It drives me crazy, it makes me really angry,” Bartlett laughs. “The artists should be the focus, the artists are the reason people are there, and should have the same treatment and access.”

A festival that cares about its artists shouldn’t seem like a radical idea, but unfortunately in Canada, it often is.

“We’re trying not to do too many things at the same time, so the shows don’t compete with each other,” Bartlett assures me. “It’s really important to us that the artists have a good showcase, and if we have five other shows going on at the same time, it doesn’t really do them a service. I think it’ll grow a bit, but it’s always going to have a down-homeness. I hope.”

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Isaac Valentin

I pose my earlier question to Bartlett: is Megaphono an activist festival? He tells me that while Megaphono’s first year mostly focused on industry, he hopes it will increasingly become a home for conversations on social issues.

“There have been lots of these conversations in the past year in our community over racism, accessibility, and all of those things affect our music community,” Barlett says, “if an artist doesn’t have the same access as another artist because of these issues, then we want to do whatever we can to fight against that and create those opportunities.”

“Is that activism or is that common sense? To me, it’s common sense. I don’t think what we’re doing is groundbreaking. It’s lacking, sadly, in a lot of the industry, the same as lots of cultural industries. It shuts out certain communities. It’s small steps, what we did, but it would be great if that was a growing piece of what the festival is.”

After watching yearly blunders in Toronto via artist-stomping goliaths NXNE and CMW, and a trend emerging of panels which perhaps exist just for the sake of adding a non-music element to a festival rather than making progress or addressing community needs, it’s Megaphono’s overall attitude as a young event actively following and engaging with national conversations and trying not to be fucked up, rather than trying to get by under the radar, that gives me hope.

Megaphono_Zibicondos

Sometimes I feel we live in a country on the brink of dissolving, of an emotional collapse, held together only by the tensions contained within it. Walking through the capital, I wondered what ultimately happens if we pursue meaningful investigations into these tensions while also supporting the artists in our midsts. What happens to the anxieties and power structures which keep progress and innovation in mainstream Canadian music moving at the same slow, monotonous pace of Ottawa’s sidewalks?

Sorry folks, I know it's icy but y’all need to speed up.

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