McNutt Against the Music has covered the Halifax Commons megaconcert discussions rather closely, from last year’s Rolling Stones show to this year’s gossip and failure to attract a big-name star to town. Today, after extensive rumours, it was announced that Celine Dion will be playing the Commons on August 23 of next year. Here, in the form of an open letter to the key actors involved in this decision, is my response:
Mayor, Halifax Regional Municipality
CC: Fred MacGillvray, Events Halifax; Halifax Regional Municipality council
RE: November 7 announcement of Celine Dion’s Concert on the Commons next August
Dear Mayor Kelly et al.,
It is not a total failure, and it certainly can be remedied, but right now I’d have to call the announcement of Celine Dion as next summer’s first (and currently only) megaconcert on the Halifax Commons an error in judgement, one that if left unchecked fails to achieve the potential that such a large event could earn. You may think that my disgust with this decision has to do with my distaste for Celine Dion’s music, but I assure you that my personal likes and dislikes are decidedly beside the point. I write this as a passionate and invested citizen who shares the vision of Events Halifax: to see Halifax and Nova Scotia as “an event destination within Canada and around the world.”
As much as I dearly love my city, it’s often a frustrating place to live as a music fan. While we have a wonderfully vibrant local music scene, we suffer from a number of problems when it comes to becoming a concert destination for touring bands – geographic isolation, limited facilities, and a smaller population than other major markets. Coming of age as a music fan in the late 1990s, I had to put up with the constant disappointment of seeing every major band end their Canadian tour in Montreal, leaving Halifax empty-handed.
But the last couple of years have represented a paradigm shift for this market, and 2006 was something of a tipping point. Hardly a month went by without a major concert event, and the breadth and diversity of the artists was downright astonishing: OK Go, Motley Crue, Rob Thomas, Sam Roberts (twice), Great Big Sea, Bedouin Soundclash, Broken Social Scene, Feist, Alice Cooper, INXS, Our Lady Peace, All-American Rejects, MSTRKRFT, Metric, Final Fantasy, The Dixie Chicks, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Live, the Goo Goo Dolls, Sarah Harmer, Wilco, Billy Bragg, Randy Travis, Bryan Adams, and everyone associated with the Juno awards (from Coldplay to Nickelback). These were hardly all to everyone’s tastes, but there was truly something for everyone. Thanks to the efforts of Events Halifax and local concert promoters, we finally started to seem like a destination worthy of being included on the touring map.
Of particular note was 2006’s megaconcert on the Halifax Commons. While it suffered slightly from a lack of originality – hey, let’s do exactly what Moncton did! – I have to compliment Events Halifax for the decision to bring that concert to town. As a draw, the Stones are a fantastic choice: cross-generation appeal and a great cache of cultural relevancy (even if they haven’t released an important album in decades). Even better was pairing them with Kanye West, one of this decade’s most popular and exciting pop stars. It was a lineup that made Halifax a cool, hip destination across generations, age groups and geography. We had made it.
And it’s in light of that success that the decision to host Celine Dion in the same venue is a giant step in the wrong direction. It’s not necessarily the wrong show per say, but it’s certainly the wrong venue and format. What exactly are the problems with a Celine Dion Commons megaconcert?
1. Market familiarity: While she hasn’t toured extensively while working on her Vegas show, Dion is no stranger to Halifax, having played the Metro Centre several times during her two-decade career. The beauty of the Stones shows in this region was the novelty: a rare chance to see the world’s biggest band (while the Halifax show wasn’t quite the same because they had been in Moncton, the show pulled a large number of Halifax patrons who had missed the first show). There’s limited novelty in a Celine Dion show; it’s a definitive sense of “been there, done that.”
2. A complete lack of cross-generational or cross-cultural appeal: When I looked out over the crowd at the Stones show, I saw people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, with young kids standing side-by-side with their parents and grandparents. If I were to find myself at a Celine Dion show, I might be the youngest person there. Dion is a joke, a punchline to the majority of people under the age of 30 (and many older folks too), leaving her fan base predominantly middle-aged white baby boomers. There’s nothing wrong with that, but how on earth does that demographic have enough strength to justify an outdoor Commons concert on a venue designed for 50,000+ people? Which brings me to…
3. The wrong audience for an outdoor, standing-room-only venue: The middle-aged white baby boomer demographic is narrow, but still large, and Dion’s caché amongst that group is quite large. The problem? Those are exactly the audience who are less likely to frequent an outdoor concert, one without seating, without air conditioning, and requiring them to stand on their feet for hours on end. I just can’t see 50,000+ people willing to go through that for Celine Dion, especially considering the other problems I’ve mentioned.
4. Fundamentally uncool and unhip: This may seem trivial, but it’s at the core of the problem with this decision. I want my city to appear forward-looking, innovative and progressive. I want us to be a cultural mecca for the east coast, a key destination for relevant, groundbreaking artists. By choosing a performer with no youth appeal, who is for all intents and purposes is fundamentally “uncool,” Halifax fails in presenting itself as that vibrant, relevant destination.
What makes this decision doubly-painful is that the names that have been circulating in the newspapers and the gossip rolls were infinitely more appropriate for the venue and far more exciting for our city. I’m no Eagles fan, but they’re probably the biggest act touring right now, and their audience has enough roots in the hippy-esque side of the 1970s that I think an outdoor concert would work well for them. And U2 would have been a sensation – as big as the Stones and, unlike Mick and the gang, still musically relevant. They could have sold 60-70,000 tickets, easily.
Instead, we’re stuck with someone who’s played out this market several times before, who has limited demographic appeal, a fanbase not at all suited to an outdoor standing-room-only venue, and which fails to make our city seem culturally relevant. I may eat my words on this, but I can’t see Celine Dion selling more than 40,000 tickets in a venue that can handle almost double that (and I think I’m even being generous with that number). On what grounds can this decision be seen as anything less than a mistake on the part of the city and Events Halifax?
The only amends that can be made is if there is another concert in the works to accompany the Celine Dion show next summer/fall, one that brings in a broader audience and positions Halifax as a vibrant and exciting touring destination. According to rumours, the may be the case. If that happens, then we can talk forgiveness. But if HRM and Events Halifax expects a Celine Dion concert to serve as a true megaconcert, 2008’s dominant cultural event like the Stones concert was two years ago, you’ve got another thing coming.
Bring on Ms. Dion, but I hope for the sake of this fine city that you’ve got something else up your sleeve.