The Covid-19 Chronicles… Canada’s Music Incubator's Vel Omazic

Vel Omazic has been executive director of Canada’s Music Incubator (CMI) since co-founding the not-for-profit organization in 2011. CMI provides customized and ongoing mentorship to emerging artists, managers and industry professionals across all genres of music and advocates for music sector infrastructure development.

Omazic has worked in the Canadian music industry for three decades, having served as Vice-President, National Promotion and Media Relations for Sony Music Canada for 10 of those years. He got his start in the National Promotion/Publicity department at PolyGram Records. Prior to launching CMI, Omazic was VP Marketing & Communications at Green Living Enterprises, an environmental consulting, marketing and events agency.

We caught up with Omazic to chat about how CMI has been working to expand its services online, a move that has coincidently come in handy because of self-isolation. For more information, go to canadasmusicincubator.com.

You recently launched your Online Mentorship program. What's the concept behind that?

First, I should explain that CMI’s core business is providing high-level professional development and mentorship for artists, managers and industry professionals across Canada, regardless of musical genre.

We do so via a suite of “core” programs and “custom” programs, which are partnerships with third-party companies, associations and governments including CARAS/The Junos, FACTOR and the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. We regularly hear from artists, managers and others who want to work with CMI. However, barriers that range anywhere from program duration, work schedules, financial investment, geographic accessibility and family responsibilities, prevent them from being able to do so.

By moving online, we’re eliminating accessibility obstacles and positioning CMI to meaningfully coach and develop as many artists and managers as our capacity allows. If there’s one thing we’ve learned since we started CMI in 2012, and from travelling around the country, it’s that we can NEVER give artists and managers enough one-on-one attention. So, the first of the many online programs we’ll be rolling out is One-On-One mentorship.

In this case, artists and managers or companies, associations and government—on behalf of artists and managers—can purchase a single meeting bundle or multiple bundles. One bundle consists of three 60-minute meetings at $150.  The meetings are scheduled at the pace of the artist or manager, be it a condensed or expanded window of time, with the CMI mentors of their choice, subject to availability. By having artists and managers set the agenda in advance, we arrive prepared and ensure no time is wasted.

The physical one-on-one meetings we’ve been doing since 2018 have worked extremely well and we have no reservations about the move to online. Sure, it’s a major time commitment, but this is what CMI does. Also, based on my personal experience in artist development, there’s simply no substitute for putting in the work.

You were able to set up the Online Mentorship program pretty quickly in the wake of self-isolation measures. What was the process like once you had the idea?

If only we were so efficient! The truth is the timing is entirely coincidental. We officially introduced CMI’s Online Mentorship service on March 9, a week prior to the governmental appeals for self-isolation. We did so with the support of our partners at Mentorly, a Canadian platform dedicated to arts-based mentorship.

The fact is, we’ve been trying to get online mentorship up-and-running for the better part of the past five years. We invested a lot of time and energy into developing a previous online concept, but we never quite made it to market.

There were a few reasons why, the first being our capacity. Five years ago, we were only a team of three people. We’ve since grown to double that size, hiring one new full-time employee in each of the past three years. Second, we simply lacked the skills, expertise and resources required to create something great. Third, and most importantly, our other three business divisions started to take off. We had to give everything we had just to keep up.

The success of our core programs triggered interest in what we were doing from third-party organizations. Suddenly, we were being hired to build and customize professional development programs for others. When CARAS/The Juno Awards approached us to help create the Allan Slaight Juno Master Class, our Custom Programs division was born. Then, as our network of artists and managers expanded, we started getting approached about artist recommendations for live shows and events. Initially, we viewed connecting artists and managers in our network with paid gigs as added value. After passively putting about $60K into the hands of artists, we decided there was a business opportunity. Now, CMI has a Live Events division. We’ve curated over 500 performances, which have collectively paid just shy of $1 million to artists since 2017.

Yes, this was a process. However, like most, the journey was a very long one. Trust me, we have the scars to prove it.

In broad terms, how has the pandemic affected overall operations at CMI?

In broad terms, like everyone else, our operations are now remote. Fortunately, we can afford to withstand a short-term disruption and haven’t had to lay-off any of CMI’s six full-time employees. We’ll be doing everything possible to keep it that way.

While it’s far too early for online mentorship to make up for lost revenues, it will mitigate some of our losses connected to physical program fees, postponed custom mentorship programs and cancelled live events. Equally important at this time, the move to online has lifted us emotionally, providing an invaluable source of motivation, focus and purpose. The work is helping us all adapt to the disruption of our personal and work routines, not to mention easing the mental strain of prolonged self-isolation. We’ve also been given the precious and rare gift of time, free from the stresses of day-to-day operations, to throw ourselves into online. This is an opportunity for CMI to imagine, create and innovate further.

Covid-19 also gave us no choice but to cancel our latest Artist Entrepreneur program. We only had the opportunity to make it through one of eight weeks. It was a disappointment for everyone, especially seeing how quickly this group of artists had bonded. Further, more than 50 per cent of the artists had come to us from out-of-province. They uprooted their lives, spent money on travel and invested into the CMI experience. Everyone was refunded at 100 per cent and guaranteed a place in the future program of their choice, be it in Toronto or Calgary. In addition, they, like all artists and managers that come though CMI programs, can access CMI for ongoing mentorship whenever needed.

The pandemic is also having a financial impact on CMI’s extended family of contracted mentors. A canceled physical program represents lost income for our external team of performance, vocal, producer, technical and business coaches. They all contribute greatly to CMI and we must look out for them.

Do you think the response from governments has been sufficient, and if not, what more would you like to see?

Amid these unprecedented, extraordinary and trying circumstances, it’s impossible for us to assess if the response from governments has been enough. I will say that I believe our government has acted as responsibly as can be expected in the very unenviable challenge of trying to balance saving lives and livelihoods. It’s totally unrealistic and selfish to expect the government to specifically address the music sector at a time of universal crisis. That will come later.

Personally speaking, seeing all levels of Canadian government demonstrate great poise, decisiveness, and empathy has bolstered my spirits. Frankly, it’s this level of leadership, transparency and service to the people of Canada that should be the norm, not the exception.

What do you believe the overall impact of the pandemic will have on the music business once things start returning to normal? 

Unquestionably, the overall impact of the pandemic is and will be devastating. I can’t help but recall the carnage that ensued post-Napster and the overall disruption experienced by the music industry since 1999. It took us the better part of two decades to right the ship.

I also recall how 9/11 changed daily life as we had known it up until 2001. I expect it will be the same with this pandemic. We should all expect that life as we’ve known it will change further. Only when we reach the other side of this will we be able to measure the true impact and scale of the industry damage inflicted by Covid-19. We should expect some businesses to be lost. I fear what that number might be, should self-isolation extend beyond the summer months. I also worry that more of music’s limited and fragile infrastructure, which CMI has dedicated itself to building, will be lost.

As an industry, we will have to do what we’ve all been doing since the turn of the century: Fight for the security and sustainability of the music industry. This isn’t new to us. Crisis is an official “day-of-the-week” in the music industry. It’s my hope that the lessons learned from the crises we’ve already endured, and the resiliency now entrenched in our DNA, will act to galvanize our efforts in the post-Covid-19 world in order to rebuild. Yet again!

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