Return of Montreal's nightlife linked to city's economic recovery, promoters say

People like to think nightlife is part of what defines Montreal, but there are questions about how it will bounce back from the pandemic.

DJs and festival organizers eagerly awaiting their chance to get back to normal

Michelle Ayoub, co-owner of Turbo Haus, poses at the bar and music venue in Montreal. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Downtown Montreal bar and music venue Turbo Haüs has begun to reopen after one of Canada's longest COVID-19 lockdowns, but remaining restrictions mean last call is at midnight, patrons must remain seated and dancing is forbidden.

Like many other small music venues in the city, Turbo Haüs isn't putting on concerts.

Things are "still a long way from being back to normal,'' co-owner Michelle Ayoub says.

People like to think nightlife is part of what defines Montreal, but there are questions about how it will bounce back from the pandemic.

Daniel Seligman, the creative director of POP Montreal music festival said putting on a show at a small venue wasn't particularly lucrative before the pandemic, and health restrictions have only added costs and lowered capacity, reducing potential ticket revenue.

"It makes putting on shows in smaller venues financially much more difficult,'' he said.

He's planning a few concerts over the summer, including some performances outdoors. This year's festival is scheduled to go ahead, as usual, in September, but it will be in a more limited form, he said.

Most artists will be from the Montreal area due to uncertainty around border restrictions.

"One thing I've learned this past year-and-a-half is instead of planning to do things four months from now, five months from now, you can only really look a month, six weeks in the future to have any kind of real idea of what is possible,'' he said.

In 2020, POP Montreal had to make adjustments to its programming due to the pandemic. For 2021, organizers have learned not to plan too far in advance. (POP Montreal Press Photo/Coralie Daigneault)

Ayoub is also getting ready to start presenting live music but is moving slowly due changing restrictions.

"We're not rushing to book the shows, but we are very eager and we're already starting to slowly but surely look at dates and take holds, but we're going very cautiously,'' she said in a phone interview.

Nightlife is in Montreal's DNA, said Mathieu Grondin, the co-founder of MTL 24/24, a non-profit organization that works to promote the city's nightlife.

"Montreal has always seen itself, portrayed itself and sold itself as a nightlife city,'' Grondin said. "A good part of the tourism that comes here are night tourists, they come for the nightlife [...] there won't be an economic recovery of downtown Montreal without the recovery of nightlife.''

But he said that despite the city's reputation, other cities have become more open to nightlife than Montreal.

Toronto, for example, has since 2019 had a "night mayor,'' a member of city council who is responsible for promoting the night-time economy, and Grondin said Toronto has also become more open to extending closing time for large events.

Grondin said he hopes a recent conference he helped organize with the City of Montreal will help change the city's approach.

Among the ideas discussed at the conference were the adoption of the "agent of change principle'' in noise bylaws.

That principle — which London and several large Australian cities have adopted — sees new arrivals in a neighbourhood responsible for mitigating their noise impact.

"If I open a bar next to your house, I have to make sure that my bar is not causing you any problems,'' Grondin said. But at the same time, developers converting commercial buildings into condos in a neighbourhood of nightclubs and bars are responsible for soundproofing their buildings.

Another suggestion was moving some elements of Montreal's nightlife out of increasingly residential areas in the city centre, he said.

Heidy Pinet, a Montreal DJ, said she thinks that's a good idea, as the city becomes more gentrified and smaller venues close.

Pinet played her first gig since September on June 11, and while she said it felt good to be back performing, something was missing with a maximum of two people per table and no dancing allowed.

"If we look at New York, right now they are fully reopening and they're letting clubs and concert venues run at full capacity with no masks, but they do ask for proof of vaccination, which I think is a solution that we should consider,'' she said.