With future of live music uncertain, Montreal music venues risk closing for good

Some venue owners say it's logistically and financially impossible to recreate the intimate atmosphere of live concerts while following health guidelines. And even if they manage, it's unclear whether people would come.

Health guidelines and likely second wave leave businesses 'hanging on by a thread'

Montreal band Bodywash performing at The Diving Bell Social Club in February. The small venue is now trying to figure out how to safely hold events during the pandemic. (The Diving Bell Social Club/Facebook)

While Montreal's music venues can now legally reopen, a full calendar of live, indoor concerts could still be months away — and some venue owners aren't sure if they'll be able to last that long.

They say it's logistically and financially impossible to recreate the intimate atmosphere of live shows in small and mid-sized venues while reducing capacity or having clients sit at separate tables, as required by Quebec's workplace health and safety board depending on how the establishment is licensed.

And even if they are able to navigate those guidelines, it's unclear if people would come.

"We couldn't have picked worse businesses to own during a pandemic," said Olivier Corbeil, who oversees venue operations at Theatre Fairmount, Bar le Ritz PDB and Newspeak.

"Every business is at zero revenue since the end of March."

His venues are licensed as salles de spectacle, which were allowed to reopen as of June 24. Bars across the province were permitted to open a day later.

In a business that requires weeks, if not months, to plan events — and when turning a profit often requires packing a room with people — he says he just doesn't see how his venues can operate.

International acts aren't touring, and promoters would only be allowed to sell tickets for a fraction of Theatre Fairmount's 600-person capacity. So the venue's calendar is empty for 2020 — and if a second wave hits this fall, the same could happen next year.

Corbeil says that if it wasn't for federal aid programs, they would be out of business already. But as the economy reopens, it's uncertain how long they will be able to survive. 

"We're hanging on by a thread," Corbeil said.

Other venues have already decided to close for good, including the House of Jazz in downtown Montreal and La Vitrola on St-Laurent Boulevard.

The owners of Casa del Popolo also announced on Monday that they have removed the stage in the bar's back room temporarily, to make room to sell prints and other artwork.

A cautious approach

Many of the city's smaller venues are licensed primarily as bars. And a resurgence of new cases in the United States is leading owners here to take a cautious approach.

"It's just hard to know even which way to be focused," says Austin Wrinch, the manager and co-owner of the Diving Bell Social Club, a small venue on St-Laurent Boulevard that puts on concerts, drag shows and other events.

He says that while venues can legally open, he isn't sure if it would be socially responsible to do so right now.

"Our whole business is based on positive energy and vibes," he said. "And if everyone is freaked out and wearing hazmat suits and whatnot it's going to be hard."

He says they are looking at putting on cabaret-style performances with small, seated crowds, later this summer.

The City of Montreal announced earlier this month that it will provide financial support for music venues as part of a $22-million plan to revive the economy.

Sergio Da Silva, co-owner of Turbo Haüs in the Latin Quarter, hopes that small venues aren't forgotten.

He says live shows are out of the question at his venue at least for the next several months.

With most of their revenue normally coming from putting on concerts, the bar has been selling T-shirts and other merchandise to help make ends meet until they reopen this summer.

Turbo Haüs applied for a terrasse permit last fall. They plan on reopening this summer offering outdoor bar service, but concerts are out of the question for now. (Turbo Haüs/Facebook)

While it was closed, the bar constructed a terrasse for outdoor service with reduced hours.

"For me, I'm looking at it as a pretty good opportunity to really train and flex those muscles in terms of service and becoming a better bar," he said.

"I can put the shows and all that stuff on the back burner…. God knows when that's going to come back."


Colin Harris


Colin Harris is a digital editor and producer based in Montreal.

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