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2008 Maxwell Studentship Recipient - Thomas Cummins-Russell



Indie band Arcade Fire performs at the Ukrainian National Federation in Montréal in 2007.
(Photo: Ryan Remiorz/cpimages.ca)

Montréal’s indie scene
What can we learn about a city by understanding the local music scene? Thomas Cummins-Russell, a master’s student at Montréal’s Concordia University, is using his background in geography to examine the attributes of the independent music industry that are unique to his city.

With the global success in recent years of indie rock bands such as Arcade Fire, Montréal’s music scene has been thrust into the spotlight. And Cummins-Russell is studying how it has evolved, with the assistance of a $5,000 Maxwell Studentship in Human Geography, awarded annually by The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.

So far, he has completed nearly 40 interviews with Montréal’s independent musicians in a variety of genres — from indie rock and jazz to world and electronica — as well as with others in the local music scene, including sound engineers, promoters, producers and label owners. “Many tell the same story,” he says. “To survive in the business, they needed to diversify. Many musicians play in different bands and also go into things like booking, promoting and managing. More connections in the industry lead to more gigs.”

Cummins-Russell joins a number of geographers who are studying the cultural economy of cities, focusing on industries that have emerged in recent years to replace the declining manufacturing sector in some cities of the developed world, such as clothing manufacturing in Montréal. Among the rising creative industries are multimedia, video games, dance and drama. He hopes to be among the first to study the music business through this lens.

His analysis will centre on local factors, such as Quebec’s unique political climate and Montréal’s bilingualism, to determine their role in how the music industry works. Few cities in the world have two dominant languages with such a large bilingual population, says Cummins-Russell. His research reveals that while audiences and venues are often split along linguistic lines, this does not necessarily apply to musicians. “Music is a language that can be understood by anyone of any language,” he says. “It allows musicians to collaborate, whether they are anglophone or francophone.”

— Shawna Wagman
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