The National Arts Centre recently named Heather Gibson Executive Director of NAC Presents, a highly successful Canadian music series going into its sixth season. Gibson recently completed seven years directing the Halifax Jazz Festival and comes to Ottawa with lots more under her belt. She founded In the Dead of Winter music festival (Halifax/Wakefield), ran a popular Halifax music venue, The Company House, and as an active volunteer served as chairperson of the East Coast Music Association, The Canadian Arts Presenting Association, The Khyber Centre for the Arts, as well as The Western Roots Artistic Directors.
Gibson and her team of artistic leaders will program more than 50 concerts a year for NAC Presents, showcasing established and emerging singer-songwriters.
In a thrilling interview with Ms. Gibson, she and I discuss the culture of music as it stands today, the role for NAC Presents in new markets, Ottawa’s emerging music, and the impact digital media have had on the music industry.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: The upcoming 2016–17 season has been programmed by outgoing producer, Simone Deneau. How does it feel to carry the torch, so to speak?
Heather Gibson: Well I think Simone has done an excellent job. I’ve seen the program, which is not announced yet. It’s a program that I’m more than comfortable standing behind and it’ll be a great way to be introduced to the NAC. The season I will be programming is 2017–18, which is a great position to come into, to not be scrambling.
Apt613: Will you work with many new artists in the upcoming seasons?
HG: Well I think most of the people who I’ve seen in the new season, I’ve worked with before, so there’s a couple that—I know that I can’t talk specifically about who the artists are, but—there’s a couple that I’m quite excited about that I have had either for In The Dead of Winter Music Festival or at The Company House, which was a venue I had here in Halifax. So I’m looking forward to seeing them again.
Apt613: You’re relocating from Halifax to Ottawa—are you excited or nervous?
HG: Well I mean, work-wise I’m very excited. Obviously, on a personal level, I’ve lived in Halifax for 24 years so it’s a big move for me. I came out here for university and just never left. On a personal level, it’ll be a big change. [Ottawa] actually has summer and winter which is kind of cool. I do In The Dead of Winter [Music Festival] in Wakefield at the Black Sheep and it’s always so lovely to come up there in January and early February and people are doing things like cross-country skiing and enjoying wintertime. I have a tremendous community here in Halifax, so that’ll be tough. But Ottawa is also quite close. It’s not like I’m moving a long ways away.
Apt613: It’s a stressful job. How do you manage to stay calm and cool in potentially stressful situations?
HG: (Laughs) I don’t know how stressful a job it is actually. I’ve been doing this for a long time and there are parts of it that are stressful for sure and often times the stressful parts are the interrelationships. Sometimes it’s stressful selling a show but you know, at the end of the day what we’re doing is representing art and trying to make sure that that artist has an audience that comes to see them and so I take a lot of joy out of that. I get a lot of energy from it. So I’m not really sure that I could see it as that stressful but there are stressful parts for sure.
I’ve watched, and just like most markets, lots of venues have come and gone over the last 15 years and that’s pretty common.
Apt613: Have you seen any shows in Ottawa? What are your favourite concert memories in Ottawa?
HG: Well I’ve seen a few concerts at the NAC and in Ottawa. A lot of my experience in Ottawa has been from the other side of the stage. Working with Amelia Curran, for instance, we’ve toured a fair bit through Ottawa. And some of the artists that I’ve worked with—Jenn Grant, and Rose Cousins, and Jill Barber—we’ve done a lot of shows through Ottawa. You’re always looking at different things when you’re managing the show rather than enjoying it. But I’ve had really great shows in Ottawa with people and the audience there seems to be very receptive and wanting to see new work.
I’ve watched, and just like most markets, lots of venues have come and gone over the last 15 years and that’s pretty common. But it seems even in the last couple months there’s been a few new places opening in Ottawa like Bar Robo. I’ve been to the Mercury Lounge a number of times and it seems to be kind of a main-stay and emerging scene. I feels like, to me, that Ottawa is on the cusp of really breaking out as a music city.
Apt613: What plans do you have for the next seasons? What will be your approach?
HG: Well, as far as what programming in 2017–18 looks like, I think it’s premature to answer that. Some of the things that I would like to expand on have to do with education. I’d love to be working with some of the artists that come through to do both work in the schools and some workshops and masterclasses. Masterclasses amongst themselves. So, not just offering performance opportunities but offering also an opportunity for artists to grow. Perhaps even by bringing songwriters together in a collaborative way. NAC Theatre does this really well, developing new work, and I think it’s something that hasn’t been developed as much in the NAC Presents program.
And then the other piece for me is if we can work in the world of digital streaming and talk about, “how do artists get out to the rest of the country?” and, “what is the role of NAC Presents in new markets?” There’s markets all across the country that you can’t get into. Possibly it’s just financially restrictive. But then there are markets where you need to have some sort of audience-base to even earn a spot to play. And so, does the NAC have a role?
NAC Theatre does this really well, developing new work, and I think it’s something that hasn’t been developed as much in the NAC Presents program.
And how can they do that so that people, new audiences and young audiences, are accessing music digitally? People are sharing and accessing music that way. The first point of contact is not necessarily coming to a show. It’s usually because [the audience] has seen something three or four times on the Internet. I think if the NAC were to get into that sphere of things with the commercial artists and with NAC Presents, I think that would be really good for both sides.
Apt613: What is your opinion on the culture of music today?
HG: Wow. (Laughs) That’s a really huge question! You mean like, in terms of live music?
Apt613: Yeah! All of it—releasing music, the way digital media impacts music, and the way artists are releasing their music. It just all seems to be changing.
HG: Yeah, we’ve been changing I would say for about the last eight years or so. Some of it has been a slower change than our audiences are moving. Our audiences are usually moving faster than us. For instance, there’s been a resistance by many commercial artists from streaming. Every time a new streaming site pops up there’s talk about how [the artists] are being paid. And so there’s been resistance to some things and some things have been wholeheartedly embraced. I mean, the idea of releasing digital albums versus hard albums. You go to the SOCAN Awards a couple weeks ago and there’s artists who have very rarely performed live that they are people who almost entirely exist in their digital realm, so that’s new.
…at the end of the day, what I’ve found is that people who perform and who put on a show, the audience will still come see that. But you can’t recreate that in a digital realm.
I think it’s really exciting I think that there’s a whole bunch of things going on with commercial music right now and I think that the key to it is going to be staying slightly ahead of what the audience is doing and how they are looking. I mean, say in live music and festivals: you go to festivals ten years ago and people weren’t holding up their iPads and their phones—and artists are concerned about that stuff. I think it’s really interesting that technology and digital have changed some things, but at the end of the day, what I’ve found is that people who perform and who put on a show, the audience will still come see that. But you can’t recreate that in a digital realm. And so, there are lots of artists who can put together a great music video and they can put together a great song and people want to see that online and they share that. But there’s definitely a tipping point when you get to a certain amount of people where there’s a certain artists and they need to see them live. They want to see them live. And in some cases, if you think about the shows that have been, say, the highest ticket prices, it’s because that person is a terrific performer and is engaging.
You know, we just had Lauryn Hill here [at the Halifax Jazz Festival] last week and all this negative stuff that she gets in the media about not showing up [to shows] is just bogus. She was so professional and so on time. And then, we had a delay because of a lightning strike and she came back and absolutely nailed [the performance]. And there’s such a tremendous difference between an artist who, you know, she went off stage during the last lightning strike and she just kept saying ‘we gotta go back—we gotta go back. I want to go back,’ and she was super keen on it. And when she came back out, she knew that she had to start with all the hits, and she absolutely killed it. The whole performance thing is a craft in itself. It’s beyond just the songs and the songwriting, which is really important but, somebody who can actually connect with an audience that way, it’s amazing.
Dallas Green did it two nights later with City and Color and people are just totally enwrapped and want to hear everything that comes out of that guy’s mouth. And that has to do with that level of performance. So I don’t think that we’re in a place where digital has replaced live music at all, it’s just a matter that it’s evolved some of the other parts of the industry and that out of those, how do we use that evolution to continue to develop artists’ careers and their performances? That was a big question! (Laughs)
Apt613: What advice do you have for young Canadian musicians?
HG: Play as many shows as you can, is the first thing. I mean go and take the gig that pays 50 bucks. Play three songs opening for somebody. And not just because you need to play and perform and be on a stage and learn that side of what your art is, but the other part of it is that you need to meet people. You need to go out and meet the artist who you’re opening for and the other artists that are in the room. You need to develop an audience. It starts with twenty people at Bar Robo and you build on that. And those people talk to each other and next thing you know there’s forty people at something. And then, the next thing you know, you’re playing to a hundred-and-fifty people at the Black Sheep Inn. I think that’s the biggest thing—just get out and play and don’t be too precious about it.
Heather Gibson will introduce the 2016–17 NAC Presents season Friday, October 14.