Music venues work to adapt to pandemic as government aid alone won't keep them afloat

Venues have been looking to create new revenue streams as the months without a full calendar of events drag on, as they say government aid alone will not pay the bills.

Path forward still unclear for small venues without space for physical distancing

Seating now covers the stage at l'Esco, with tape on the floor helping direct foot traffic. The bar, known as a hub for local bands, is now trying to figure out how to put on shows again. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Any other summer, Montreal music venues would be preparing for a full fall calendar of concerts, with fans packing into the smaller spaces to see their favourite local and touring acts as festival season winds down.

Instead, they remain quiet as fans stay home. While public indoor gatherings of up to 250 people are now permitted in Quebec, small and mid-sized venues just don't have the space to keep that many audience members 1.5 metres apart.

At La Sala Rossa, 250 people is the venue's regular capacity. So they are equipping the stage with new cameras and other equipment to transform the venue into a hub for high-quality, live-streamed performances.

"There's lots of people who have funding for projects that they can't do in a normal way, so we're there to offer that opportunity to them if they're interested," said manager Peter Burton.

Across the street at sister venue Casa del Popolo, the small show room has been transformed into a print shop for now.

WATCH | Venue owners talk about how they are fighting to stay open:

Province opening up pocketbook to help small venues

2 years ago
Duration 2:27
Quebec's culture ministry will provide up to $6 million to support concert halls, clubs and theatres struggling under public health directives.  

Venues have been looking to create new revenue streams as the months without anything booked drag on. They say government aid alone will not pay the bills.

The City of Montreal has allocated $500,000 to help small music venues and independent cinemas. A city spokesperson said of the 34 applications it received, 26 are eligible and funds will be distributed in the coming weeks.

Sala and Casa are two of the venues awaiting those funds. A third venue on St. Laurent Boulevard under the same ownership, La Vitrola, shut down in June.

The Quebec government has promised up to $6 million in aid for venues with a capacity of under 2,500 in a program that launches today.

Burton says while it's nice to see different levels of government supporting a part of the music industry that does not normally get funding, what's being offered is not enough to keep these venues running without other sources of revenue.

"It's not a lot of money, and there's a lot of need … $6 million in this province definitely won't do it," he said.

Peter Burton, a manager at La Sala Rossa and Casa del Popolo, says $6 million for all of the province's small and mid-sized venues won't go very far. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

The provincial program is being administered by the Société de développement des entreprises culturelles (SODEC), which sought the input of venue owners as it prepared the program.

Olivier Corbeil, who runs venue operations at Théâtre Fairmount, Newspeak and Bar Le Ritz PDB, was consulted by representatives from SODEC. 

He said that based on those conversations, SODEC seemed to understand the situation venue owners are in, and the necessity of an aid program to help those venues stay afloat in the short term.

"Who knows what the future holds in 2021? But maybe for this year and the beginning of next year, we might just be able to hold on, with their help," he said.

La Sala Rossa is installing cameras and other equipment to provide a space for high-quality, live-streamed performances. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

For now, the venues are adapting as well as they can, hoping that the pandemic does not force more closures in the fall.

Corbeil said they are looking at renting out Théâtre Fairmount for film productions — or even as a larger space for students and teachers to hold classes.

At l'Esco on St-Denis Street, another hub for musicians to network and perform for local fans, they're making changes to the venue to make it easier for a smaller crowd to spread out.

"We're living on hope," said Sébastien Madani, part of the team that runs the rock, folk and punk venue. "But we're pretty stubborn and we'll make it through."

With files from Simon Nakonechny

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