Calgary

Rush back to the road is on as musicians battle for concert slots

Local musicians make much of their income by selling merch and playing live shows. With live music slowly returning to the province, it's quickly becoming a battle to lock down paying gigs.

Bands are 'chomping at the bit' to get back on stage and earn cash, but spots are limited

Calgary-based metal group WAKE was signed to a major label during the pandemic and has been in limbo ever since. They're one of countless Alberta bands hit hard by the pandemic anxious to get back on the road when restrictions lift. (Submitted by Mike Wells)

Arjun Gill spent his childhood listening to Metal Blade Records, a heavy metal record label based out of California.

So when his band, Calgary-based metal group WAKE, was signed by the label in February, he says it was an "absolute dream come true."

"But, it was kind of weird for it to happen during the pandemic," Gill said. "Because we haven't been able to see what the benefits of that are yet."

At the precipice of a massive tour to support a new album under their previous label in March 2020, WAKE instead had to deal with a closed border and a number of sunk costs — unsold merchandise, visa fees, even a new van that has been sitting in storage.

Like most bands in the streaming era, most of WAKE's income is generated through touring in the form of merchandise and ticket sales.

"So if we're unable to do that, we're essentially losing our main form of income," Gill said.

WATCH | WAKE guitarist Arjun Gill talks the challenges of being a musician during the pandemic:

WAKE guitarist Arjun Gill discusses challenges of the pandemic

2 years ago
Duration 0:53
WAKE guitarist Arjun Gill talks about the challenges his band has gone through as plans to tour the group's latest album, Devouring Ruin, were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fortunately for WAKE, the band has the support of a label and is working on a new album to keep its momentum going. 

But when restrictions fully lift and shows resume, Gill said he expects a massive backlog of touring acts trying to get back on the road at the same time.

"Everyone wants to be on a tour package, and there's going to be very limited spots, and it's going to be really difficult to get all those bands out there without flooding the scenes," he said.

"And you know, also doing it safely … we want the shows to be done in a responsible manner as well."

'We don't want the industry to die'

With shows cancelled, musicians across Canada have been forced to get creative to connect with audiences through the pandemic — hosting concerts virtually, through computer-generated technology and even on the video game Minecraft.

In Alberta, festival organizers now have more real estate to work with — under the province's Stage 2 reopening, outdoor public gatherings such as concerts and festivals can proceed with up to 150 people.

Keith Aucoin, an organizer with Alternative Waves Music Festival in Medicine Hat, Alta., said the pandemic has forced the multi-genre festival to scale back to one day this year, featuring only local performers.

Aucoin said bands have been "chomping at the bit" to get back on stage, but space is limited.

"I was flooded with local acts … unfortunately, we can only fit so many in," he said. "But it really showed that people want to get back on stage."

Keith Aucoin, an organizer with Alternative Waves Music Festival in Medicine Hat, Alta., said he's had to scale back the festival this year, and in turn, the number of acts featured. (Submitted by Keith Aucoin)

The pandemic has been a rough time for the music industry, Aucoin said, with festivals like Alternative Waves as well as the musicians who play them bringing in virtually no income.

That experience has been felt universally in Canada's cultural sector — Statistics Canada statistics indicate that employment in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector fell from 450,500 jobs in 2019 to 336,100 jobs in 2020.

Despite that, Aucoin said he sees a good summer incoming for the industry — but only should the province's COVID-19 strategy prove effective.

"Everybody really needs to start making money again. Hopefully we can get shows going again, get venues operating again, get bands playing again, get money in the hands of people again," he said.

"We don't want the industry to die. And it's taken an extreme hit over the pandemic."

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