Esette and Pete Emes on the evolution of Calgary’s electronic music scene

October 30, 2017

For those in the know, Calgary’s electronic artists have been making waves on the national and international stage for quite awhile now. Those who’ve chosen to stay and work in the city have helped to build an industry on their own terms, and cemented the city as an emerging hub for music and a force to reckon with.

The duo behind Smalltown DJs, Pete Emes and Mike Grimes. Photo supplied.

“The country music stereotype in Calgary—I don’t see it,” says Pete Emes, one half of Calgary’s Smalltown DJs. “While I think an outsider might have that point of view, that’s not the reality of Calgary and hasn’t been for a long time.”

Electronic artist Isis Graham, known onstage as Esette, has been DJing, organizing parties and community events for the past 17 years. She is also one of the founders of the Alberta Electronic Music Conference (AEMCON).

Over the years, Graham has seen Calgary and its denizens change, becoming more eager to explore the sounds of the underground and venues that eschew the status quo.

“[Calgary’s electronic music scene has] expanded, grown and exploded. It’s at a really healthy place right now,” says Graham. “The accessibility to do things right now is at a maximum.”

While iconic Calgary venues like the Night Gallery and Detour played a part in shaping the city’s underground music scene in the ‘90s, so too did the emergence of large-scale West Coast electronic festivals, such as Bass Coast and Shambhala Music Festival, whose proximity to Calgary funneled more out-of-town acts into the city, and gave local DJs on their way up access to EDM lovers from across the west and beyond.

With the number of electronic artists and venues growing in Alberta, Graham saw a need for a stronger electronic music industry that could support and keep artists in the province. So, in 2016, AEMCON was born.

“When you put [Alberta’s talent] up against other cities in Canada, it certainly stands at the top of the ranks,” says Graham. “It’s a pretty well-known fact that the musicians that come out of Alberta are usually quite impressive. If we want those types of strong artists to stay in Alberta, then we absolutely need to create an infrastructure that will keep them here. The goal of the conference [is] to stimulate growth.”

Esette on deck at Studio Bell’s After Hours event in April. Photo credit: Michael Benz.

Emes agrees, adding: “There’s a lot of support for people who are promoting and who are throwing events in Calgary—that’s part of the reason why we’ve stayed in Calgary. We’re able to do creative shows with music we enjoy, and people are going to support it.”

Graham hopes that AEMCON attendees this year will also take advantage of the “inspiration, motivation [and] networking” at the conference while also gaining some “clarity on what their future [in the music industry] could potentially look like.”

Integral to the making of a strong music industry in the city are local venues. While Calgary has struggled to keep many of its smaller venues open—a challenge faced across Canada—Emes says spaces like the Hifi Club, Commonwealth, which he co-owns, and Habitat Living Sound, which cater more specifically to electronic culture, are among some of the local clubs that have remained resilient on the strength of a dedicated scene and the supporters within it. It’s also worth noting other clubs in the province, such as Edmonton’s 9910The Bower and Starlite Room and Banff’s Dancing Sasquatch, that have played a part in making the scene thrive.

“We’re constantly looking forward,” says Emes. “As a venue, we’re always pushing the envelope and pushing new music. For us, we’ve just always kept our head down and been dedicated to music.

“We’re booking acts—local and touring acts—that are new and exciting and that are making new music; from our standpoint, that keeps younger crowds coming and keeps them engaged. We’re just doing our best.”

“A lot of our night clubs are owned by DJs, so that also helps [artists] because they know where to support and where to pull their support,” says Graham.

Among the myriad of venues trying to prop up the local scene and collaborate with the artists within it is Studio Bell, which partners with various community organizations to present live music events. The National Music Centre’s previous space on 11 Avenue SE was also a regular stop for electronic shows, and will continue that legacy to some degree with its Studio Bell After Hours nights, which feature many electronic DJs in Calgary.

“Studio Bell is an amazing venue for AEMCON because it’s got everything we need in terms of space, but it’s also got the history, the collection—it’s got so much stuff for people to discover, whether they are coming to the conference or not,” says Graham. “If we’re going to integrate as a culture into the bigger picture of the music business, Studio Bell is the perfect place for us to be.”

Studio Bell’s After Hours event in April. Photo credit: Michael Benz.

Between venues, artists and promoters, collaboration has been a key factor in the development and evolution of Calgary’s music scene. It’s a community that’s grown and evolved as quickly as the city itself, united in its efforts to change stereotypes outside of Alberta, always pushing ahead and doing so by supporting each other.

“One of the outlooks we’ve always had is: the stronger the scene is, the better it is for everyone,” says Emes. “If somebody else is doing well, there’s a better chance that you’ll be able to do well. You could be successful together.”

Stay tuned for AEMCON, which happens at Studio Bell from November 16-19, 2017. For more information on the conference, head to


– Jamila Kanji

About the Author

Jamila Kanji

Coffee connoisseur and art enthusiast, Jamila finds bliss in anything that sparks her creativity and curiosity. She is a public relations student at Mount Royal University and just completed an internship at the National Music Centre, where she launched #myStudioBell.

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