July 21, 2015
Every year over one million visitors attend The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, the Calgary Stampede, which runs for 10 days in July. They tour the midway that boasts rides, games and a myriad of deep-fried wonders. (Deep-fried donut bacon cheeseburgers, anyone?) Families stroll the aisles of the Agrium building, looking at animals and receiving a healthy dose of 4-H education, and would-be cowboys watch the daily rodeos and evening races at the Grandstand.
Stampede can be a lot to take. It is a jubilant and often exhausting exercise in cheering and partying, where an entire city becomes enveloped in the spirit of community and some mildly cheesy western décor.
But a big part of Stampede doesn’t necessarily involve horses or cowboy hats; it involves dozens of solo artists and bands that take over the city to create what is arguably the largest music festival in Canada.
For 10 days each year, the grounds (a.k.a “Stampede City”) is the third largest city in Alberta. And if you are Rod Tate, manager of programming for the Calgary Stampede, it’s also a music city.
“Music has been part of our heritage since [Calgary Stampede’s] inception over 100 years ago,” says Tate. “Music is one of those things that brings communities together, and we’re a community organization that is really founded on bringing Western Canada together.”
Tate, a born and raised Calgarian, has helmed the music programming at Stampede for over eight years. His background as a musician has made him especially passionate about their programs dedicated to nurturing young talent, and supporting emerging artists. He works as a talent booker and event producer for Stampede, and his role and the role of music at Stampede have both grown tremendously over the last few years.
“My goal is to support Canadian artists near and far through different programs that we offer,” he says. “We work hard on understanding where different musicians are in their career and finding them opportunities to play throughout the year.”
The youth and talent programs act almost like a breeding ground, with artists coming up through a support system that is eager for them to thrive and return to Stampede at different parts of their career. For singer-songwriter Johnny Reid, he cut his teeth on the Nashville North stage, doing three sets a day to rowdy show-goers, before moving on to the Coca-Cola stage, and then returning to headline the Scotiabank Saddledome as an award-winning, multi-platinum artist.
“We want to be involved in the Canadian music scene by looking at what that talent is, understanding where they’re at in their career, find opportunities for them to play and get the exposure that they need,” Tate explains. “But we make sure that it’s also timed correctly, so they can leverage their play to the right audience at the right time. We work with agents and we work with record labels to analyze where they are in their careers.”
The Nashville North Star is a full artist development program that artists can apply to in order to hone their craft and gain exposure. They complete writing sessions and record a single, meet with a record label and agency to get the inside scoop on the industry, and then attend Canadian Country Music Week. For Stampede, this investment in artists is also an investment in the potential stars of the future. The program is only five years old, and some of the participants are already on the festival circuit.
Music programming is an area of Stampede that certainly seems to be on an upward trajectory. Stampede is investing more and more into identifying young artists that are going places, and giving them a venue at each stage of their career. High profile programs, like the Showband and Young Canadians, are complemented by a myriad of other music education and artist development programs, such as the Youth Talent Showcase of which Paul Brandt and Michael Bernard Fitzgerald are alum.
The programming of local, Canadian, and international acts is a delicate balance for Tate and he makes sure to select artists that are prepared for the potential exposure, and that the artist is aligned with the experience they are trying to deliver for visitors. From tipsy two-steppers at Nashville North, to families at the Coca-Cola Stage, it’s all about matching the artist to the audience.
“We definitely want to make sure that we support as much Canadian talent as we can, because we’re proud to be Canadian,” he says. “But if we can find an international artist that is gonna expose our audience to different things, then we support that as well.”
And the music industry is starting to take notice of the influence of Stampede in terms of exposure and artist development. Tate and his team recently received the SOCAN Licensed to Play Award, and, in 2013, the Canadian Country Music Association named them Festival of the Year.
“We have been working hard to just raise people’s awareness around how we support music,” says Tate. “We are honoured and humbled by every award or accolade that we are included in, as there are so many great people in this industry that are pushing to do great things for music across the country and internationally.”
While the awards recognize the programming on Stampede grounds, Tate is eager to point out that it is the city itself that becomes transformed by music during those 10 days.
“There are huge opportunities for us, not only just on park, but throughout the city on how we all come alive,” he adds. “Joe’s Pub down the street might not have a band 365 days out of the year, but for those 10 days they will book a band. That impact that we have within our community to support musicians, that is all the reward that we want to have.”
As for what the future holds, Tate says: “We’re not gonna take our foot off the gas. We see music as being one of the major pillars of what we do, and we’re gonna continue to support it in anyway that we can. Canadian is a focus for us, Calgarian and local is a focus, as well, but it’s also gaining exposure for people through all different genres and types of music.
“It’s not just about country and those big rock shows. We want to try and support in any way we can.”
— Mary Kapusta