Live music could return in 2021, but what are we trying to rebuild?

COVID-19 has levelled the Canadian music industry while exacerbating old problems. We look at what to keep, and what to leave behind.

COVID-19 has levelled the Canadian music industry while exacerbating old problems. We look at what to keep

Pop Montreal's 2020 version was a mix of live streams and low-capacity live shows, including this rooftop one from Jeremy Dutcher. (Melissa Vincent; design by CBC Music)

Written by Melissa Vincent.

Before Jeremy Dutcher began his sunset performance on the rooftop of the Rialto Theatre at Pop Montreal last September, the Polaris Prize-winning performer and composer peered into the audience. Returning his gaze were 45 masked spectators, seated on foldout chairs precisely six feet apart. 

Though the sheer strangeness of it all was a glaring reminder of how much things had changed in order to experience live music during a global pandemic, it became clear almost immediately how much was the same. The moment Dutcher began playing, soaring tenor and cascading keys, you couldn't help but call upon the corporeal memory attached to a performance space: a stray toe attempting to keep time with the rhythm; your neck bobbing along freely to a melody; recognizing the uncannily distinct feeling of a particularly wrenching moment wedged at the base of your throat. Midway through, Dutcher requested the audience's participation: the clapping, stomping and singing that's become a trademark of his set. The request felt both forbidden and euphoric. 

"That's the one thing I've missed about this time. Collaboration," Dutcher announced from the stage, pausing to explain. "Each time we gather, each time we're together, is a moment." It was difficult not to marvel at the mere act of having someone to clap for, let alone for a musician walking onstage to wield their command of an instrument and their voice.

Jeremy Dutcher plays to a masked audience at Pop Montreal in 2020. (Melissa Vincent)

It was a bold and brave declaration. Over the last 10 months, our almost entirely virtual lives have forced us to reimagine when a "real moment" is taking place, and augmented our expectations of what "together" means. The fact that Pop Montreal was able to manage any live, ticketed, in-person performances whatsoever was mystifying. 

The result was a discernible case study for how to safely and responsibly execute a music festival in the middle of a pandemic: mandatory, socially distanced seating; strict capacities for shows; limited pre-sold tickets rather than passes; contract tracing at every venue (and temperature checks at some); and the absence of a licensed bar in an effort to both deter movement by audience members, and offset the risk of attendees sidestepping safety guidelines when under the influence of alcohol. 

Dan Seligman, Pop Montreal's founder and creative director, credits production manager Eric Cazes with practising extreme caution to ensure that the festival adhered to a consistently shifting array of regulations. "We were just following the government, but there weren't explicit guidelines," explained Seligman. "We went over and above any expectations." 

To champion live music sincerely means believing that it can look and function differently while still accomplishing the moments of collectivism we expect it to offer.

And still, a week before the festival, Montreal's designation as a green zone shifted to yellow, tightening restrictions yet again, cancelling Pop Montreal's annual flea market and throwing the festival into limbo. Instead, the festival stuck to its plan — which included robust virtual programming in the form of satellite performances and taped panels — and adjusted in real time to produce a music festival for a very small group of devoted fans. 

As a non-profit organization for nearly 20 years, Pop Montreal had access to grants, subventions and sponsors without the pressure of generating a profit. "[The festival] wasn't sexy, or fancy, but we were able to produce an event and do it very, very safely," said Seligman.

To champion live music sincerely means believing that it can look and function differently while still accomplishing the moments of collectivism we expect it to offer; building it a new box, rather than trying to stuff it into a shape our current environment can't support. The ability to stare down a mountain of challenges to enact not just a quick fix but a long-term path forward that honours the spirit of a project has come from organizations, collectives, and artists who have long been aware of these structural issues.

The next 12 months will require that we undergo the long overdue process of holding our environments of live music and art with higher regard, and viewing them as malleable spaces. Right now, it may not always include an in-person music event, with an in-person audience in attendance. Instead the move to build something virtual (or hybrid) has offered an opportunity to understand spaces of live music as holistic cultural events — capable of embodying the mission of an organization, or a group of artists in a more meaningful way. 

Last summer, when Toronto entered Stage 3, concerts were technically allowed under the guidelines. Most venue owners couldn't justify the up-front costs of outfitting their venues appropriately, though, only to cap audiences at a fraction of their typical size to accommodate physical distancing. In a Now Magazine profile from July 2020, Shaun Bowring, owner of The Garrison and The Baby G, summarized the situation succinctly: "Our business model is based on packing as many people into a small space as possible to enjoy music together. That's still unsafe. So it's still a waiting game."

Now, over a month into 2021, the national situation is at another turning point. The onset of winter, looser adherence to public health guidelines and fluctuating case counts across the country have necessitated the return of the lockdowns we saw in the spring — albeit with more leniencies, and the onset of pandemic fatigue. As we acclimatize to the reality of the long-promised second wave, the gradual rollout of a vaccine gives cautionary hope for a return to "normalcy." According to nearly every public recommendation available, the large-scale live music events that we're familiar with will be among the last types of gatherings to be allowed. Most optimistically, by late 2021. 

COVID-19 was an unprecedented leveller for a music industry that has mirrored the inequality present in society — highlighting the severity of the pre-existing cracks that many had been sounding the alarm on.

If 2020 will be remembered for the agonizing feeling of trying to claw toward the familiar, 2021 arrives with a bold re-examination: what, exactly, are we racing to return to? And, of equal importance, what are we attempting to rebuild? 

Last spring, when the pandemic forced in-person events to indefinitely shutter, it didn't discriminate between glitzy mega festivals Coachella and SXSW or nightly shows at beloved local venues. It was an unprecedented leveller for a music industry that has mirrored the inequality present in society — highlighting the severity of the pre-existing cracks that many had been sounding the alarm on. 

The indomitable force of streaming platforms (many of which pay artists a percentage of a penny per stream) had forced artists to rely largely on live performances and touring as their primary source of revenue, often leaving them in precarious situations, and privileging those operating at the highest level. Outdated governmental funding guidelines were inflexible, and made it difficult for artists to pivot their ideas to match the emergence of new technology — or respond to a volatile music landscape. Venues of all sizes, battered by soaring commercial rents and insurance rates, were battling imminent closure. For Black, Indigenous, and other artists of colour who experience a range of inequalities, the structural barriers that stagnated — or even steamrolled — their careers were further exacerbated by the pandemic's disproportionate impact along lines of race and class. 

From coast to coast, regional collectives moved to re-establish their role in the music ecosystem to include a new range of tasks. While shows are paused, they're thinking ahead of bureaucratic solutions to instead deliver immediate mutual aid. NuZi Collective, a group "dedicated to providing a platform for Black women, WOC and trans folks in the Vancouver electronic music scene" has devoted its social media platform to mobilizing its audience and boosting requests for financial aid from various community members. In Toronto, artists like Simone Schmidt and Nick Dourado have been the assistive backbone to the Encampment Support Network, which received more attention when nearly 400 musicians from across Canada signed an open letter denouncing encampment evictions

While the swift move toward live streaming has widened the field of programming for all music organizations, much of it assumes that audience members have access to the technological infrastructure required to participate. Since March, Curtis Running Rabbit-Lefthand (Aatsista'mahkaa), the outgoing creative director of Calgary's Indigenous Resilience in Music (IRIM) and festival manager of the Wild Rose Hardcore, has executed virtual performances with Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, and put together arts-based programming for youth. This year, IRIM had to cancel its music festival scheduled at Studio Bell. Instead, it put on a virtual hip-hop and production camp, where students entered an interactive chat room to learn about beat-making and songwriting while being mentored by B.C.-based R&B artist Mamarudegyal MTCH

But before the festival could execute the workshop, Running Rabbit-Lefthand had to build the infrastructure to ensure the programming would reach its audience. Over the summer, through a partnership with the Calgary Public Library and Telus, he delivered laptops and internet towers to different reservations to ensure connection on the days they were programming. 

"If we really wanted to offer online programming or anything like that, there's a handful of youth that don't have access to the internet or to laptops. Without that connection, only a handful of youth would have been involved," said Running Rabbit-Lefthand. 

We have to understand that having art spaces, and representative cultural and creative spaces, is active, holistic mental health, support and care for so many.- Carmel Farahbakhsk, incoming director of Halifax's Everyseeker festival

And yet, grant criteria for projects like this are strict. It's challenging to meet previously agreed upon grant requirements if the finished product looks different from the initial plan— changes that grant applicants have needed to make recently in order to better serve artists during a pandemic. In IRIM's case, only a few funders were "accommodating and willing to adjust," said Running Rabbit-Lefthand, but they pivoted from a multi-day music festival to a remote workshop anyway. 

"There are a whole new number of groups that are realizing that these granting systems are flawed, and the improvement needs to happen, with or without a pandemic," he concluded.

"We have to understand that having art spaces, and representative cultural and creative spaces, is active, holistic mental health, support and care for so many," explains Carmel Farahbakhsk, incoming director of Halifax's Everyseeker festivals. Though much of the Atlantic region has been able to continue small-scale, seated live performances, the summer Atlantic bubble still required a two-week quarantine. So the festival reallocated its 2020 budget — normally spent on accommodation, travel fees and venue rentals — to instead commission experimental project-based work. It's an opportunity to enact a more equitable fee structure, in lieu of a disproportionately tiered headliner system, while also giving artists the freedom to repurpose their work for their own uses, like grant applications or submissions to other festivals. 

"I think that understanding arts and cultural funding as a commitment to a social determinant of health is integral," said Farahbakhsk. "If we truly believe in supporting small business and entrepreneurship as part of our financial, national identity, then how are we encouraging and uplifting arts and artists and creatives in our individual communities?" 

The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR), a national non-profit organization that provides significant financial assistance through grants to the Canadian independent recording industry, said they'd get back to CBC Music "presently" for comment mid-January following a few months of interview requests. At the time of publishing, they have not yet responded.

On Dec. 1, 2020, the federal government's Fall Economic Statement revealed that the Department of Canadian Heritage and the Canada Council for the Arts had earmarked $181.5 million to expand its funding to support and provide employment opportunities for "COVID-19-safe events," both live and digitally. It's a necessary first step, but it will be up to organizations to plan accordingly. The most zealous of the bunch — like Osheaga, which has already announced a July 2021 lineup that includes Cardi B, Foo Fighters and Post Malone — are seemingly playing a game of pandemic chess with every other festival in the world. Elsewhere, ticket vendors now have listings peppered with live streams, and "to be determined" live performances pushed to the teetering edge of the calendar year.

At the tail end of last year, the Canadian Live Music Association announced a $250,000 partnership with Kinaxis, an Ottawa-based supply chain software company, in support of a national concert series that aims to put artists back onstage. The partnership comes as local venues in hard-hit provinces try to figure out how to reopen their doors virtually. The gradual reopening of venues has allowed single artists to perform live in-venue to a ticketed virtual audience, thanks to staff who've quickly learned to adhere to strict public health guidelines — like the Drake Hotel's Unmasked series, which evokes the memory of Much on Demand or TRL, with polished artist performances, reimagined in the centre of the room. 

The music industry has been screwing over artists since its inception. One of the valuable things that we had during this pandemic is we hold the cards in terms of when we play our music and how it's shown.- Stefan Babcock, Pup vocalist

When Pup performed live at Toronto's Sneaky Dee's for a virtual audience on Oct. 23, it was an intentional decision to give fans access to the band in a fresh new way. 

"No matter how you look at it, a live stream is never going to be us at a show," said Pup vocalist Stefan Babcock. "Rather than try and replicate the live show, we went into it kind of thinking, 'What sort of advantages does this medium offer us?'" The result was a proudly offbeat performance with the kind of ceiling-shaking energy that felt carnal and communal; one where comedian Brandon Ash-Mohammed opened the show with barbs about abolishing the police, where the chat function repopulated at the speed of a mosh pit; and where fans, already in front of a screen, could seamlessly donate to the charities the band was spotlighting. 

"The music industry has been screwing over artists since its inception," said Babcock. "One of the valuable things that we had during this pandemic is we hold the cards in terms of when we play our music and how it's shown."

The last major music event I attended before the pandemic was the International Indigenous Music Summit (IIMS) at Folk Alliance in New Orleans almost exactly a year ago. At the time, it was impossible to anticipate what the future would hold, which makes me feel grateful I was able to witness an event that fundamentally shifted my expectations of what live music spaces  accomplish. I was able to witness firsthand how a show can enable discernable healing from oppression, and how the fight for sovereignty can be embodied through the construction of a performance. 

This year, the summit will be largely virtual, examining relationships to home and connections to place, through 22 delegates over the course of several months. IIMS founder ShoShona Kish (also the vocalist in Ontario blues band Digging Roots) is confident that this year, the summit will be additive to the overarching mission of the organization.

"I think our ceremonies and our medicines are these really brilliant technologies that have all of this functionality," explained Kish. "We're not able to see the fullness of our body language right now, and perhaps some of the frequencies are missing from our tones that we would never consider. But, we know the difference between when we're feeling an energy exchange with someone. We know when there's something reciprocal happening, and I've certainly felt that in a virtual space."

Perhaps the most sustainable approach is taking some pressure off predicting the future of live music. Rather than resenting what our cultural spaces can't accommodate, we can instead embrace the unique benefits they offer. Because while we can't feel the bass rumble the ground beneath our feet, virtual spaces have finally made evasive all-ages shows a reality, decentralized performances out of Canada's largest cities, and invited elders back into live music spaces. And though it's easy to miss accidentally stumbling into an old friend, the extensive accessibility measures possible at virtual events have made them more valuable than a mere consolation prize. 

At this juncture, it would be in the best interest for the music industry's institutional gatekeepers to interrogate their own dominance, and pay attention to the grassroots organizations and programmers as a powerful example of what should happen next — to bounce forward rather than bounce back.