No place to play: Bleak future for live music as venues struggle to survive

“If we don't get any emergency support by September, October, we're going to see a lot more close down. …  I'd say like 90 to 96 per cent of venues across Canada will be closed.”

Upwards of 90 per cent of Canadian venues at risk, says Edmonton owner

Music venues across Canada were dealt a massive financial blow when the pandemic halted live performances, says the owner-operator of an Edmonton club. (Shutterstock / Andrey Armyagov)

Without missing a beat, Tyson Boyd describes himself as pretty optimistic and describes the prospects for his business's survival as pretty bleak.

It's no doubt a familiar tune for artists, musicians and venue owners as the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down their major sources of income, creeps toward the six-month mark.

Boyd, an owner-operator of Edmonton's downtown music venue The Starlite Room, said the abrupt halt of touring concerts dealt a massive financial blow to his operation.

"I am very optimistic but it's pretty bleak, to be honest. There's already a lot of venue closures happening in the eastern provinces, primarily in more expensive rental areas," Boyd told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM on Wednesday.

"If we don't get any emergency support by September, October, we're going to see a lot more close down."

Awaiting permission to relaunch

Within a few weeks of the pandemic being declared on March 11 by the World Health Organization, Alberta ordered bars, restaurants and other non-essential businesses to shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

At the time, Boyd thought it would just be for a couple of weeks, maybe a month. 

"Nothing like this has ever really happened before with the touring music industry," he said. "Touring wasn't as developed, I guess, in the music industry as a whole the last time that we had a pandemic — you know over 100 years ago.

"We're all just kind of trying to figure out what a safe reopening looks like and trying to deal with the timeframes that we're given, which is a constantly moving target."

The province began its staged reopening of some businesses in mid-May, then lifted restrictions for more types of operations in mid-June.

Music venues like The Starlite Room are included in the final stage of the Alberta relaunch strategy, along with nightclubs, arts and culture festivals, vocal concerts, major sporting events and industry conferences. There has been no hint as to when those operations will be able to return to normal. 

Or at least a reasonable semblance of normal.

'Reconfiguring' artist agreements

Before COVID-19, music venues operated on slim margins, needing attendance of at least 70 or 80 per cent to break even, Boyd said. At 50-per-cent capacity — such as what restaurants are allowed — "you're basically running yourself at a loss already," he said.

In July, Canadian venue operators received the green light to apply for federal arts and culture funding. Boyd said applications have been submitted and "we're anxiously awaiting to see what kind of support levels that might be."

As well, some venues have been able to get breaks on their rent through the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance (CECRA) program for small businesses, he said. 

But when live shows do resume, there may need to be some "reconfiguring" of the arrangements with artists, depending on the bottom line.

"We're all kind of crunching numbers in our spare time right now," he said. "It's going to be a little give and take, I guess, from the artists and the venue … to even try to consider what might be possible."

Brian Fauteux, a University of Alberta professor, told Edmonton AM the pandemic has already shed light on unfair systems of artist compensation from streaming services.

"My biggest hope is that, through this, we collectively really come to understand the importance or the role of art and music in our daily lives," Fauteux, who specializes in popular music and music studies, said in an interview that aired on Wednesday.

Through the pandemic, the Starlite Room has been trying to keep that spirit alive.

In the spring, its Starlite Sessions livestreamed performances done by musicians playing onstage at the empty club. This summer, it has been booking patio shows with the River City Revival House, a restaurant located in the building, and hosting some pop-up concerts on the Starlite's rooftop.

"We don't announce the shows because we can't really encourage large groups of people coming around," Boyd said. "But it really does help the mental positivity."


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