It’s a little comical to think that local singer/songwriter, music event producer and arts correspondent Ryan Donn chose Silent Night to be his next big hit.
Silence is not something he gets much of these days.
Seated in the Bean Scene on Bernard Avenue sipping a latté, he’s still characteristically soft-spoken, even as he darts from topic to topic on a cultural tour of Kelowna that’s part mania, part management.
The average artist earns just $14,000 annually, he says, so he’s come to embody the 21st Century buzzword “multitasker” in order to support his family.
“Seriously, the music business is done. In my estimation the actual sale of music is over. So, I no longer look to that for any sort of income,” he says.
Admittedly, watching a 30-something music aficionado, presumably someone reared on grunge-era values like anti-consumerism and antiestablishmentarianism, espouse the virtues of corporate interplay feels vaguely incongruous. Stationed in one of the city’s only independent coffee shops, dressed in a well-loved jacket that might fit well amid the retro-’90s attire now blasting through high school hallways, one suspects he knows what he’s talking about.
The artists of his youth weren’t coping with the diaspora of independent music that the Internet has made possible. The real dough in song-making these days isn’t only in one’s creative prowess, he explains, but the intangible ability to court a corporate audience and break bread with the Apples of the endorsement pie. All without loosing sight of the music, of course.
“So we had a band here that played a gig during Pop Okanagan, Behind Sapphire, and they’ve got a song in a commercial. I guaranteed they made more on that ad than they made in any other performance they’ve done in the last year, and possibly even made as much in that ad as they made for the whole year,” he says.
This is where Donn is developing his niche.
From Telus to Interior Savings to Canada Council and beyond, he’s learned to source funding from the most unlikely of places—and he keeps learning. Barely five minutes into the interview, a resource room teacher from Kelowna Secondary School stops at the table to suggest that if the pair move a planned project from the resource room of the school to the gymnasium there are federal funding grants available. They agree to talk later and Donn quickly explains he’s just been to a grant workshop for updates.
“Originally, I was just trying to find ways to get my friends songs on the radio,” he says, as he tries to explain how he’s come to this position. “But it’s kind of grown from there.”
Now writing for Castanet providing cultural information, he sees his role moving forward as more of a cultural facilitator and hopes to help other artists find valuable means of earning a living without leaving the community.
Silent Night is a prime example of how this works. The musicians he sourced for the soundtrack had a dual role in his world. Playing one gig in town? Come help with this project, he would cajole. Even the choice of music, a traditional tune given a more uptempo beat, took some consultation and forethought. Songs earn the artists money on radio and commercials through music rights, so what he chooses needs to be something that could withstand the test of time.
“The problem for radio stations is that most Christmas music is too slow. They need something more upbeat. They need you to make it fresh,” he says.
Donn gets lots of practice writing and refreshing. In addition to his own work, he routinely does artist-in-residency programs in the local school system, helping students pen their own music. Each school he works for gets four songs written and recorded with the kids and then he writes one on his own and donates it to the project; CDs sell for $5, proceeds going to the schools.
He’s also developing his own music festival, Global Music Fest, this year taking his tried and tested formula for connecting with the community to the next level by asking six local artists to write six original songs for non-profits who’ve applied to participate.
“You need to get connected to the community so you’re not just thinking about yourself,” he says. “And then, if you look a little broader, you’ll be in the community and the people you need to notice you are there.”
Working community events, like the Terry Fox Run, helped Donn get his music on the local 101.5 EZ Rock station, primarily because he’d already made the connection to get his music noticed when he dropped it off.
And the spinoffs have been truly wild.
This fall, he was glued to Twitter, working social media for the Walter Gray campaign on the recommendation of his former manager, Shelley Gilmore, who noticed his marketing prowess. When Global Music Fest came through town last year, the totally unknown project, which uses art and music to promote the United Nations millennium goals, closed the night with Olympic poet Shane Koyczan—a pretty hefty name for a small town bill, even if he is local. And this year, he’s looking to add world music and a second night to the event.
Silent Night, he says, will be used by non-profits for fundraising projects and, in turn, it will raise his profile, helping him garner more attention for his projects, particularly the music festival.
And as they say in the music world, the beat goes on.