Cornies: ‘City of Music’ a genuine – and shrewd – move by London

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When I heard last fall about the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s selection of London as an international City of Music — the only Canadian city to receive that designation and one of only 58 worldwide — I thought it was a shrewd move.

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Maybe even a bit of a coup, masterfully achieved by some measure of cunning — maybe even some stealth or sleight of hand.

It was the kind of banner the city could hang over private and public stages, and stitch into its promotional and economic development material. And exactly the kind of feather Mayor Ed Holder could tuck into his cap during his annual state-of-the-city address (he did).

But really. London? Compared with vibrant music centers such as Vancouver, Winnipeg, Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto? C’mon.

When I inquired at UNESCO’s Paris office about how in the wide world London, Ont., qualified to be an international City of Music, spokesperson Roni Amelan pointed to the selection panel’s adjudication. It turns out that, in the view of UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, size doesn’t matter much. Cultural ecology does.

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The network said creative cities, including those designated as a Cities of Music, identify culture and creativity as essential to making human environments safe, resilient and sustainable. They stimulate cultural industries, support creation and promote citizen participation.

Specific to London’s application, the UNESCO panel applauded the extent to which the local music scene is “threaded into the fabric of the city’s activities” and integrated into the city’s urban development plan. It specifically mentions the support of the London Chamber of Commerce, adding the local music sector “boasts 15 recording studios and is home to award-winning recording engineers and producers.” In pre-pandemic 2018, the sector included more than 50 music venues, hosted 4,740 live events, supported more than 900 jobs, paid nearly $14 million in wages and contributed another $6 million to London’s GDP from sound recordings and music publishing.

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Holder is adamant that defining an entertainment district in the city’s core will be essential to building on the UNESCO designation, for the purpose of streamlining entertainment project approvals, identifying opportunities for investment in facilities and incubating ideas by creative people.

UNESCO’s designation doesn’t expire, but it can be revoked.

“If a designation dies, it dies due to indifference. And that will not happen in my city,” Holder said. “You can’t just have a designation of a City of Music and hope that it all goes your way. It’s work.”

While past glories are no guarantee of future success, Holder is quick to name the events, infrastructure, institutions, entrepreneurs and volunteers that have already bolstered the city’s reputation as a musical hub, going back to the turn of the 20th century.

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Cory Crossman, London’s music industry development officer and the quarterback of the UNESCO application, agrees the city’s long history as a music center is as deep as the economic impact stats are wide. The designation of the fastest growing city in Ontario as Canada’s only City of Music isn’t flim-flam, fakery or somehow accidental.

“This is not fly-by-night; this is like standing on the shoulders of generations, decades in the making,” he said.

The music venues that launched the Lombardo brothers to fame, the concert venues of past eras, the music and recording engineering schools at Western University and Fanshawe College and the diverse music venues of today all contribute to the momentum for which the UNESCO selection will act as a catalyst.

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“Our designation as a City of Music connects us to the largest cultural network in the world,” Crossman said, adding that, in preparing the application, his office has already consulted with other music cities in the United States, Britain, Sweden and New Zealand.

The UNESCO earmark, however, is more than just a laurel. It comes with expectations.

“That’s critical to maintaining this,” Crossman said. “We do have to report back on the work we’re doing in London.”

Those expectations have to do with the sharing of knowledge and strategies with other Cities of Music; hosting educational programs and workshops; bringing people together across age, cultural, ethnic and racial groups; and opening opportunities for intra-city projects, showcases and forums.

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The designation will be a boost to more regional efforts too. This week, Folk Music Ontario cited it as part of its rationale for holding its annual conference in London in October. And discussions are underway for London to host a large-scale powwow, planned by Indigenous leaders from across Turtle Island, to highlight the music, dance, art, food and cultural practices of their traditions. Think Sunfest with an Indigenous twist.

“Are we Toronto, where there’s Canada’s largest concentration of musicians and artists?” Crossman asks. “No. But this is a commitment to work collaboratively and make ourselves better — and that’s what makes us unique.”

OK. I buy it.

But snagging that designation from an international organization that permits only two cities per country to have it? Still a pretty shrewd move.

Larry Cornies is a London-based journalist. [email protected]

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