The Major Minor Music Project brings all-ages opportunities to the Calgary music scene

Story and photo by Sara Kuefler

I recently had the opportunity to meet and speak with Graham Mackenzie of the Major Minor Music Project, an organization that promotes all-ages access to local music and arts. Mackenzie displays real passion in this work. He is a champion of the local music and arts scene, having started Major Minor Music Project after seeing a need for different groups within Calgary to have greater access to arts and events happening in the city. 

Giving a little background, Mackenzie expounds, “I teach at the Calgary Immigrants Education Society. I found that teaching there for the last 5 years, a lot of people who come to Calgary from all over the world — they’ll buy a house and get a job and they sort of stay in their little area. So, people who have lived here for 10 years have never been to Prince’s Island Park or Fish Creek Park, or any music festival or cultural festival. Nothing.  A lot of people have never been to Stampede.” 

A survey was organized for the students of the Immigrants Education Society to take around, with questions about Calgary such as asking what people enjoy about the city and what they might improve upon. This exposed the students to more people, places and events and opened up more questions. 

One of the points that came out of the survey was a need for all-ages venues. Currently, there is not a dedicated all-ages venue, as Mackenzie notes, “There was one in Inglewood. It got limited funding, it had constant problems with the city and zoning, and it went under. They always seem to go under because they are a lot of work; they are never funded appropriately or at all, and you don’t have liquor sales which a lot of live music is really contingent on, and with those three, those are always a perfect storm and it just kills them completely.”

According to Mackenzie, “It is an integral part of any arts and culture scene in a city to have a place that youth can create music or art or anything, to have that sort of space, and independent [from an overarching organization] as well.” 

The need for an “independent” space comes from a desire for stability. Mackenzie’s goal is to gain enough funding to purchase a space that is not tied to an “overarching” organization that might decide to shut it down should their agenda shift. He wants to create something sustainable, which means a need for a dedicated space, since high rent and taxes will not allow for a long-term solution. 

In order meet this challenge, Major Minor is approaching its goal from a non-traditional angle.

“Instead of opening it up first, we want to create a huge chorus of voices that says to the government that we need to finally do it.  We want the government, all three levels — federal, provincial and the city — to come together and fund an independent all-ages venue.  If we get a capital grant we can buy a space. We are a non-profit society, and as soon as we are eligible we are going to apply for charity status. So, we want to prove that something like that has real value in the city and arts and music culture.”

 Mackenzie’s tactics have been researched and are based on a model. 

“This isn’t us reinventing the wheel; this is something that has successfully been applied in Seattle,” he explains. Mackenzie is referring to the Vera Project, which came from a similar model in Holland, called the Holland Project.  The Vera Project has had immense success. It has been operating for almost 20 years, according to Mackenzie, and attracts multi-million-dollar funding yearly.  Seattle, of course, has a vibrant music scene and the Vera Project is a part of that. From the Netherlands to Seattle, to Calgary, Alberta, Mackenzie is confident the Major Minor Music Project’s approach will win through.

“We think we can have that sort of success here and it can be a very positive transitional thing and it can really rally people.” 

Currently, Major Minor hosts all-ages events in creative spaces, like bowling alleys, record stores, Monster Mini Golf, and even Flying Squirrel – Rock ‘n’ Roll Trampolines . . . sounds like a pretty darn good time! If you visit their Facebook page, you will find a ton of posts plugging local bands as well.

We have a lot of talent in our own backyard, and as you would expect, Mackenzie has some strong opinions on that subject. In part of a response to my question about how he feels about the Calgary arts scene past and present, and the challenges inherent within, he explains, “A lot of the problem with Government, is Governments keep taking money away from the arts, and don’t fund arts and music appropriately. That message that they are sending to all of the population of that city or province is that the arts and music here are not worth our money.” 

He expands, “It creates this unspoken thing where then people have no problem spending $200 to see Garth Brooks 10 days in a row, selling 200,000 tickets, but you won’t go see [a local artist] at the Ironwood.” 

There are a number of live music venues in Calgary where you can experience live music on an almost nightly basis, a few of these being the Nite Owl, Broken City, the Blues Can, and the Ironwood, but as Mackenzie says, live music can be “a tough go” without support and funding.  

But, regardless of adversity, Mackenzie remains upbeat, saying, “I think that it’s like going back to the thing about what is the identity of a city?  The arts and music culture, and culture, are the identity of a city. Not where you go to work. I’m optimistic that Calgary is moving in a very positive direction. I think more people are working hard and dedicating a lot of time to it, so that is creating energy.  Hopefully live music venues can get more funding.”

Well, Mackenzie is certainly one of the people dedicating that hard work, along with the Major Minor Music Project.

Check out the Major Minor Music Project on Facebook to learn more.