The Wild West: Why Calgary Is The Place For Entrepreneurial Musicians

How Calgary is becoming a breeding ground for musicians with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Mar 18 2014, 2:18pm

If you look up "Calgary" in the all-knowing oracle that is Urban Dictionary you’ll find that it’s “A grossly overrated, sad excuse for a city that is filled with soulless, greedy individuals who think they are the shit. A town of redneck racists and nerds who think they got it goin on but seriously lack any sense of culture or heritage. A town with no appreciation for little things like or individuality.” While this is an obviously extremist view, it provides some insight into public opinion about Calgary, the city with one of the top performing economies in the world that has come to be known as a great place to work, make money and snowboard ... but not much else.

However, in the midst of all the economic hustle and corporate bustle, a cultural revolution is happening, and people like Mitch Lee are at the centre.

Mitch is an award-winning producer and composer whose one-man studio, Redemption Audio, makes music for television shows, movies and commercials. His list of clients includes Warner Bros., ESPN, Adidas, Nokia and Atari, among other big names. If you didn’t expect a boutique music and sound house out of Calgary to be doing world-class work, you’re not alone.

“There was a few times we almost moved to LA, ” recalls Lee, a husband and father of three. “Everyone said ‘Oh, that’s where you need to be! You’re gonna do music for TV and film? Nobody can do that here.’ I know I’m a bit of a big fish in a small pond, but that’s okay with me.”

Fortunately, this small pond has proved rich in resources for Lee’s career thus far. Along with his work with Redemption, he is also the founder and director of Beat Drop, a school for DJs and producers that has, in less than two years, gone from being a passion project to a fully functioning business with full time employees, packed classes and its very own space on Calgary’s trendy 17th Ave. Beat Drop’s instructors are all working music professionals – respected local DJs, producers and musicians whose livelihood is making and playing music. “It’s pretty cool to be employing people and giving them jobs. But to be able to employ artists who are making their own art and music – I love that we can give them both a paycheque and the freedom to work on some of those things.”

While many think that an infantile arts and culture scene is a detriment, Lee believes Calgary has youth on its side. “In a larger city where there are many more people who are established, the old guard still runs things a bit whereas here the young cats can make the decisions and, more importantly, they make the changes. Calgary has an amazing entrepreneurial energy which transcends into the arts and creative scene.” It’s an energy that Lee sums up perfectly in one sentence: “In bigger cities people might try to take their music to a record label. In Calgary, we start labels.”

It makes sense in a day and age where one has to wear more hats than just “entertainer” to be a successful and employed artist. Gone are the days where a label would scoop you up and empower you to create while they took care of everything else. Now, if you want to make money from your craft you need to be able to make a website, book gigs, balance books and market yourself. “You are your business,” says Lee. “You have to be able to hustle, and Calgary is one of the best places for that. There are so many amazingly creative people, working hard, wearing many hats and doing many, amazing things.”

Lee himself wears many different hats: composer, artist, business owner, community builder, instructor, mentor, friend and most importantly, husband and father. When I ask him what role will be most important in the coming years as he continues to build his two businesses and do his part to cultivate Calgary’s growing cultural scene, he settles on one that he’s been drawn to since his youth – producer, and not just the kind who makes music, like Lee does every day. “When I was young I used to organize street hockey games. I phoned everyone up, found goalies, made goalie pads. I would bring ghettoblasters, make mixtapes to play and we would have the best street hockey games. I did that all the time because if I didn’t do it, nobody did it. To me, Calgary is another street hockey game. It’s another blank canvas that needs producers.”

It’s no easy task, but Lee knows what he’s gotten himself into: “People always talk about balance in life – there’s no such thing, just constant movement between all the roles you play.” While others may shy away from such a challenge, Lee welcomes it with the same excitement and positivity that he’s become known for: “It’s a changing time, but an exciting time. This is the Wild West!”

Josephine Cruz is a writer living in Calgary, she is on Twitter @JayEmKayEm