Five Questions With… Trade Routes' Michael Owen

Michael Owen is a musician, producer, engineer and founder of the Toronto-based entertainment agency Made With Pencil Crayons. For over 20 years, he has supported the development of Canadian music internationally by breaking new ground and developing opportunities for artists domestically and worldwide.

Owen’s multi-faceted business experience in the performing arts sector has given him the perspective to understand the importance of strong alliances, and in just the past year Made With Pencil Crayons has developed strategic national and international relationships with funders, sponsors, corporations and key industry leaders.

Owen’s latest move is the not-for-profit organization Trade Routes, which aims ​to provide a framework of significant infrastructure that will enable borderless collaboration between artists and event organizers. Trade Routes will debut with a new bi-annual music project called the Nomadic Sound Series, an innovative concert experience presenting eclectic music from around the world, and exploring hybrid and contemporary approaches to the global music space.

We spoke with Michael Owen to find out more, and full details are available at trade-routes.org.

What inspired you to create Trade Routes?

Trade Routes is an organization with a focus on developing tour routes for artists going across borders. The organization was conceived out of necessity, partly from trying to navigate crossing borders as an artist myself and feeling as though there was no infrastructure to offer support and guidance. I almost felt a responsibility to help because I’m in a position where I now know how to do it and can help artists who are trying to build successful, cost-effective tours outside of Canada.

It does seem as if we're entering a new era that will make international touring difficult, if not impossible for many artists. How do you see things playing out over the next couple of years in that regard?

Well it certainly does feel difficult in the current moment, but looking forward I am optimistic. We can believe that before long there will be a vaccine available, at which time public sentiment and insurance issues surrounding touring and events will change. Even now, a new sense of normalcy is starting to emerge around how presenters are creating events and experiences, which I expect we’ll see continue to evolve.

Domestically, artists are beginning to get offers again, and I’m hopeful we’ll see limited touring opportunities starting to emerge by mid-2021. If nothing else, the pandemic has shown us that connectivity is important—competitors are in conversation and collaboration is in vogue like never before. It will be incremental, but the music industry is poised to move forward together with safety and resilience. 

Canada has always been welcoming to artists from around the world, but with festivals and venues in trouble right now, what specific things would you like to see being done right now to turn things around?

A lot of what needs to happen is already underway. We’re seeing lobbying for the live music industry so we can save venues, and a lot of people and organizations who may have been overlooked in the past are now having their voices heard and are receiving support. In some ways, the playing field has been leveled, although there is still a ways to go. It will be important to stay united in the recovery of a music scene that benefits all involved, and to see how we can extend these efforts across the border.

Could you explain the Nomadic Sound Series a bit more?

Nomadic Sound Series is an indoor music series that will take place twice yearly, in the spring and fall. It will feature contemporary artists who are making culturally ambiguous or hybrid-genre music, like Lemon Bucket Orkestra, Tanya Tagaq, Vox Sambou and Lido Pimienta.

The purpose of the event, aside from offering contemporary music experiences to an audience that is typically underserved in Toronto, is to support a touring route. We want to give artists who are being presented at neighbouring festivals and events in other markets, like Sudbury or Montreal, the opportunity to turn those opportunities into viable tours. 

Doing all of this work in the midst of the pandemic is obviously challenging. What are some plans you have for when things hopefully get back to normal?

Well, for starters we’re definitely looking forward to being able to host physical gatherings again, hopefully starting with 2021’s Nomadic Sound Series. 

We’re also about to launch a partnership with Circulart in Colombia called Canada Spotlight, which will work to provide exposure for Canadian artists around the world. We’re looking forward to producing showcases and developing networking opportunities at other international events and conferences as soon as we can!

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