Vancouver’s Music on Main series – a decade of performance innovation

Music on Main - Raging Against the Machine Credit: Jan Gates
Chris Bowen
| April 26, 2016

Music on Main, describes itself as “Vancouver’s highly popular series that’s as musically adventurous as it is socially gregarious”. An early starter in programming quality music in informal settings, in 2016 it celebrates ten years of operation. We talk with Artistic Director and founder David Pay.

About Music on Main

Music on Main is a regular classical music series in Vancouver Canada. It offers “great music in casual but stimulating environments, with top-flight musicians, an ear for contemporary tunes, and refreshing concert formats”.

Programming is diverse and includes classical recitals, new music, folk, and an in-house festival. Frequent collaborations range from early music to music theatre, Punjabi Bhangra, and contemporary composers, who are supported with around five world premieres and a composer in residence each year.

Vancouver’s Music on Main – Musica Intima, Modulus Festival image courtesy of: Music on Main

Vancouver’s Music on Main – Musica Intima, Modulus Festival
image courtesy of: Music on Main


David Pay explains how Music on Main came about: “We started in 2006. I first thought I was solving a geographic problem. There was an up and coming neighbourhood that was becoming quite interesting, people were hanging out on Main St, interested in art and literature, but there weren’t many performance opportunities for music.

“There was a venue, it was a little clunky, but it worked, and I decided to launch the series. It was at the time – a fairly fresh concept: drinks at seven, show at eight, over by nine, stick around for more drinks. In that first year we were planning four concerts, then an opportunity came up to program at a jazz club, and we ended up doing 28 concerts. I would never recommend that to anyone!

“We were able to launch a weekly series at a great jazz club that had a dark night. 85 seats, good food and bar. 3 of the 4 first concerts sold out. New music, classical music, great Vancouver musicians, touring artists coming through, it really became about building this community.”

Artistic Director David Pay created the series with a promise of great music in casual but stimulating environments, with top-flight musicians, an ear for contemporary tunes, and refreshing concert formats. Music on Main website

A pioneer in informal classical music presentation

Ten years ago, programming like this in Canada was unusual. Speaking to The Globe and Mail in 2014, David Pay observed: “I look back at how the ecology has changed… It was really novel that you could sit with a glass of wine and listen to a Beethoven sonata; that you could grab a beer and hear some new music. Since then, clubs have opened up around the world doing classical music in this way. Vancouver was part of the beginning. It has become a big global movement – this informal way of listening to classical music.”

Great music – in a social setting

After about a year David realised the gap he was actually filling, was using music to propagate some of his own personal values as a citizen, particularly an interconnected citizenry. This means a place for “people who talk to each other, who really care about each other. I created this whole series that has this huge social aspect.“

“It’s always about great music, great listening. It was about creating an environment where people can connect with each other, get to know their neighbours, connect with the artists, maybe connect with their own self a bit.

He tells The Globe and Mail: “I describe the concerts as classical but most of the world describes them as ‘new music.’ So that’s the aesthetic side of it. But then there’s the social side. For me, there’s an essential quality around the social connection. Using intimate spaces, finding ways to make sure people are really comfortable, where they can connect with each other and the artists. Because I think that when you feel comfortable that way, you can listen better.”

With quality music and listening

“One thing we’ve always had at Music on Main is an exceptional quality of listening.”  David illustrates this point with an anecdote: “In that first year we had some very fine musicians playing. Alisa Weilerstein, an American cellist, came and played a solo concert for me, in this little 150 seat hall, while she was in the same season playing Carnegie Hall and touring with big orchestras.

“She was a little worried it would be like playing at a wedding, there would be a social thing and people would talk through it. But you could not believe the quality of the listening. And we do put that at the head, but always in a framework with a social context.”

A home for artists and for audiences

I think the biggest achievement is creating a sense of community around the concerts

We ask David about the impetus for setting this up – was it to find a home for artists or to find an opportunity for audiences?

I think a combination. I definitely think about the audience with every single concert. And that doesn’t affect the programming. It isn’t about the music I put on stage. It is a little about the artists I put on stage. I’m not interested in artists who don’t want to connect with audiences. It has to be about people who are open to meeting people and sharing more about their craft.

The series has a home venue, it’s called Heritage Hall, and it’s a pillar filled venue on Main St, and a jazz venue in another neighbourhood is also used.  The pattern of performances revolves around a weekly series in different venues – offering something people can come to regularly, where they feel welcome. The audience experience varies, as few of the venues have fixed seating. Concert seating is the norm at Heritage Hall, and programs are also presented in the round, with thrust stage, and cabaret seating. David values these opportunities: “What I think really makes a difference is when the audience can see each other, and feel part of the event.”

Celebrating Ten years of achievement

Ten years on has David achieved his expectations, what are the reflections looking back?

“I think the biggest achievement is creating a sense of community around the concerts and that community includes composers and musicians, people involved in the series, people who are not, and especially the audience.”

Musically, the series has also made a contribution, reaching new audiences and connecting art music with contemporary culture.  As David notes: “I see it as a classical music series, but I see classical music as a living and breathing artform, like any other.  In the first year I asked every musician to play something from their own lifetime.  People say it has made a difference. It has enabled people to offer projects which may not otherwise have a home.”

The numbers are also impressive. Music on Main has produced over 250 events featuring over 500 musicians and staged more than 50 world premieres.

(A Music for Parents program remains on the drawing board, as does a project, Emerge on Main, for young artists who needed platforms, which was piloted for one year.)

People say it has made a difference. It has enabled people to offer projects which may not otherwise have a home.

Distinctive Financing Model

Music on Main receives annual funding from the City of Vancouver, BC Arts Council, and the Canada Council. On a $400,000 budget, 25 per cent is subsidy, 25 per cent from earned revenues, and 50 per cent is from fundraising, primarily from individuals.

This remarkable level of private funding is not typical for this type of non-mainstream organisation, and is testament to the relationships and reputation David Pay has forged. David explains he was afraid of fundraising when he first started, but realised that it was vital if he was to make the series happen. Donors use their support to connect with the community built around the series. This support enables Music on Main to present quality work, and to have a larger impact in the community and with artists. David now teaches fundraising at a local university.

Music on Main in the Canadian music scene

Unlike Australia, Canada has a structure set up decades ago that supports community presenters. As a result there are a lot of presenters. Every city has recital presenters, and there are many music series, often in addition to the venues. Vancouver’s small and mid-tier fine music scene includes a recital series and chamber music series – both well established, a University series, contemporary series, a well-funded established new music scene, and several self-presenting small ensembles. Music on Main positions itself as a presenter / producer hybrid.

In 2016, Music on Main moves its office to a well set up central location, co-located with other like-minded organisations, and rehearsal facilities included.

In 2017 Music on Main will co-host the International Society for Contemporary Music’s annual festival  ISCM World New Music Days 2017.

Music on Main
Vancouver, BC Canada V6B 2R5
[email protected]
Music on Main

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