Edmonton's downtown music scene needs more government support, advocates say

Two major players in Edmonton’s music scene say the city isn’t doing enough to support musicians or venues in the downtown area.

Alberta Music's Brent Oliver, Mercury Room owner Trevor Belsher say some changes made don't affect venues

Brent Oliver, director of the Up+DT Music Festival, says he can count 17 Edmonton music venues that have closed in the last 10 years. (CBC)

Two major players in Edmonton's music scene say the city isn't doing enough to support musicians or venues in the downtown area.

Brent Oliver, vice-chair of Alberta Music and director of the Up+DT Music Festival, said he counts 17 venues that closed in the last 10 years alone.

"A lot of venues ended up shutting down," Oliver said on CBC's Radio Active Thursday. "There doesn't seem to be as much of the administrative or the city support for venues to thrive, whether it's downtown or basically any place in the city."

'I don't think there's a lot of support from the city'

6 years ago
Duration 1:50
Trevor Belsher and Brent Oliver talk about the lack of city support for Edmonton's music scene.

Trevor Belsher, who owns the Mercury Room, a downtown venue, agrees that city support is lacking. He said one example is the licensing hoops venue owners have to jump through.

"There's no business licence for a live music venue, so you just have to fit into where you think you fit in," Belsher said. He said the Mercury Room is classified as a restaurant, which requires him to serve food just to keep his venue legal.

"It's really difficult for someone to open a live music venue and try to work around what the licences are right now."

'Band-Aids onto more gaping wounds'

But it seems help is on the way. The Edmonton Live Music Initiative, started in 2015, includes members of many different communities. The Edmonton Arts Council, Alberta Music, MLA David Shepherd and Coun. Scott McKeen are all members of the ELM Initiative.

"It's become increasingly difficult, in some cases, for even classic music venues that have been around for many years to continue to survive and to find a workable business model," Shepherd said.

He said the ELM Initiative is meant to help change that.

Since the initiative began, several venues have opened up across the city, including the Needle Vinyl Tavern and the Chvrch of John downtown.
Trevor Belsher (left) and Brent Oliver (right) both say there is room for improvement in government's relationship with Edmonton's live music scene. (John Shypitka/CBC)

The group has helped spur changes they think will help the music scene grow; they pushed for music venues to be able to serve alcohol as late as 3 a.m.

But both Oliver and Belsher said that doesn't change much for venue owners.

"This extending liquor hours does not help me as a venue owner in the slightest bit," Belsher said. "I can count on one finger how many times I've cut people off at 2 a.m."

Belsher said in his experience, early concerts are more successful — and artists want them to start earlier too.

But he thinks the extended serving hours will benefit one section of Edmonton's nightlife scene.

"A lot of nightclubs will take advantage of this," Belsher said. "They'll put a singer-songwriter on at 8 p.m. and then they'll be able to extend their hours until 3 a.m."

'At least people are having this conversation'

6 years ago
Duration 0:42
Trevor Belsher and Brent Oliver are hoping all levels of government show as much love to Edmonton's music scene as they do when they are at live shows themselves.

Oliver said though he's happy the conversations between the relevant levels of government is happening, the group didn't get venue owners like Belsher involved early enough in the process.

It's great to see Shepherd, McKeen, Mayor Don Iveson and even Premier Rachel Notley out at live shows, he said.

"We're hoping there's going to be that culture shift where they are able to say, 'OK, we're listening,' " Oliver said.

There doesn't seem to be as much of the administrative or the city support for venues to thrive.- Brent Oliver

Belsher is a little less optimistic. "I think in regards to this Edmonton Live Music Initiative, I think they're little Band-Aids put onto more gaping wounds."

One thing is clear: Belsher, Oliver, Shepherd and the rest of the ELM Initiative all have the same end goal — to steer legislation to make it easier for music venues and musicians to survive.

"It's pretty clear that for a long, long time downtown was not really the hub that it is now," Oliver said. "The best place to have live music is in the core."