Keeping live music alive: This Westfest host has a unique perspective on the music industry

By Bhavana Gopinath – 

Erin Benjamin, the Executive Director of Music Canada Live, has been closely involved with the music industry in Canada and is a passionate advocate of the transformative power of live music. She serves on the Board of The Unison Benevolent Fund, has worked with Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, the Canadian Arts Presenting Association (CAPACOA), and has been Co-Chair, Ontario Live Music Working Group, Co-Chair, 2017 Conference, Canadian Music Week, and the Vice-Chair, Host Committee, for the 2017 JUNO Awards.

Meet Kitchissippi resident and one of the hosts at this year’s Westfest, Erin Benjamin. Photos by Ted Simpson

A love of music took hold in Erin early in her life. As a child, she listened to Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan, and enjoyed singing and music at her summer camps. At the age of five, she dreamt, very vividly, about playing the guitar. On her insistence, her parents bought her an El Degas guitar for $100. She took lessons from neighbours, started to write her own songs, and thus began her life-long bond with music.

Erin earned a BFA with a specialization in vocal performance from Concordia University, and had planned to act professionally, but then realized that she was in good demand as a vocalist. In her career as a touring artist, she has played with the likes of Holly Cole, Lawrence Gowan, and Burton Cummings. In her own words, Erin has “met incredible people, played at amazing venues, and made a bunch of recordings.” Her songs resonate with themes, such as women’s issues, that are close to her heart.

With her experience as an independent artist, Erin has a unique perspective on the challenges faced by performers and the music industry. In her work with the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, CAPACOA and Music Canada Live, she has used her leadership positions to advocate for better funding, and a better business and regulatory environment for the industry.

Erin says she is fearless and doesn’t mince words when it comes to promoting music and speaking up for the people in the industry. For instance, she has set up a network for women in the business, like emerging, or mid-career and senior artists, administrative staff and media. Erin believes it is important that women in the industry have a space where they can identify their issues and challenges, and share experience, knowledge, and wisdom. She grew the network out of a personal and professional need and also from a sense of social responsibility. As a board member of The Unison Benevolent Fund she also helps organize financial help for members of the music industry that need such support.

We take music for granted in our lives, she says, and we don’t value its place in our daily existence. The shared experience of live music is a force for good, she points out, with proven economic, social, and cultural benefits; our lives would be poorer without music. Erin is concerned that as venues close and people go online for music, support for live music decreases with less access, funding, and infrastructure.

In that context, Erin says the music scene in the Kitchissippi area is “fantastic.” On a recent after-dinner stroll in the neighbourhood with her kids, she realized that many of the restaurants and bars in the area had bands performing, even on a weeknight. Kitchissippi, she says, has the right mix of cool restaurants and shops, and engaged residents who actively participate in developing the community they want to live in, and try to keep vibrant spaces affordable. Erin says that the local leadership, including Mayor Jim Watson and Councillor Jeff Leiper, understand the cultural and economic power of live music.

“I’ve been incredibly lucky,” Erin says. As the countdown to Westfest approaches, Erin and her fellow Kitchissippi residents are indeed lucky to be at the right place and time, to have live music in the fabric of the local community, and with talented musicians.

See what some of the other Westfest hosts are looking forward to at this year’s event at Laroche Park from June 2-4.

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