Kitchener-Waterloo

2021 may not be a Happy New Year for local live music venues

In August, the CBC reported the closures of two major live music venues in Waterloo Region: Starlight and Chainsaw. These closures were both in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the struggles small business owners and event organizers have since faced. 

One partnership between a promoter and the City of Kitchener aims to help local venues

Rhapsody Barrel Bar in downtown Kitchener is among many businesses that have closed during the pandemic. (Carmen Groleau/CBC)

In August, the CBC reported the closures of two major live music venues in Waterloo Region: Starlight and Chainsaw. These closures were both in direct response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the struggles small business owners and event organizers have since faced. 

Since that initial reporting, downtown Kitchener's Rhapsody Barrel Bar, a popular live music venue that hosted performers almost every night of the week, has also closed permanently. 

These closures have devastating impacts for both concert-goers and musicians alike. Most of these small venues hosted smaller local bands and had inexpensive cover charges, making the live music experience easily accessible and providing opportunities to musicians that were just getting started. 

The connection between live music and the hospitality industry is also worth noting. For places like restaurants, the hit was two-fold as the hospitality industry has suffered greatly during the pandemic.

For a lot of businesses, live music is what brought people in, and food and drink service is what made them stay.

"For musicians, there's been a double hit for many of them [as some] supplemented their income with jobs in the hospitality sector, which is the only industry that was hit harder than entertainment across this country," said Bob Egan, the film, music and interactive media officer for the City of Kitchener.

Nic Nolet, left, guitarist for Kitchener-based 12 Mile Island, said it's hard work to build relationships with new venues when the old ones close down. (Michelle Gerovac)

What's more, the loss of these venues can mean starting over for some of these musicians once live music is deemed safe again, said Nic Nolet, guitarist for Kitchener-based 12 Mile Island, which was playing roughly two shows a week before the pandemic started.

"You spend so long as a band building trust with these venues," Nolet said. 

"[W]hen you have to rebuild all those relationships, that, for me, is going to be a daunting task when this is all said and done."

There are several grants in place to support musicians, Egan said, but for those venues that are feeling the blow of empty seats and dance floors, there aren't a ton of supports for economic recovery. 

Most venues, however, have been eligible for federal small business programs that have rolled out during the pandemic.

Maxwell's Concerts and Events, for example, are receiving money from the Canada Emergency Commercial Rent Assistance Program.

Local promoter teams up with City of Kitchener to try to help

Locally, Good Company Productions in Kitchener has pivoted in a way to support both musicians and small businesses.

For the sake of transparency, I will mention that I volunteered for this company last summer.

Good Company Productions has launched a new version of its Concert In a Box streaming series in partnership with the City of Kitchener and local businesses. (Facebook.com)

The company, which used to put on monthly pop-up concerts in unlikely spaces before the pandemic hit, launched Concert in a Box in May. 

Concert-goers are invited to buy a mystery box, which is delivered to their homes on the day of the concert and contains items such as snacks, drinks, games, decorations and access to a live stream.

"It's still a shared event, that [people] can do in a COVID-friendly way," said Good Company founder Amit Mehta. "The box contents were curated to reflect some of the local vendors and businesses that would typically be involved in a pop-up concert,"

While Good Company has typically streamed concerts from its Gaukel Street headquarters, it recently launched a new version of the Concert in a Box that will see concerts streamed from local venues with snacks and drinks provided by the same venue.

They're set to roll out five such events at the start of the year.

Egan's department at the City of Kitchener is sponsoring them by covering the artist fee, which means more revenue for the venue.

"For us, it's great, because we can get back into different spaces, create more opportunities for musicians to gig, which right now are non-existent," Mehta said. 

"It's also great for these businesses because a lot of them are trying to pivot to take-home stuff, but doing it as an event just makes it a little more special for customers."

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