'The situation is grim': Toronto concert venues look to government funding for survival

Concert venues across the country are at risk of permanently shutting down because COVID-19 has left their live music halls empty, with owners hoping they can make it to the new year. 

Heritage Canada updates eligibility criteria for fund after criticism from industry players

Toronto concert venue Lee's Palace owner says government support and the kindness of landlords is the only thing that'll save venues across the city. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

As music lovers flock to drive-in concerts across the country to get their concert fixes during COVID-19, their favourite indoor venues remain closed — at risk of staying closed permanently. 

The pandemic has left live music halls in Toronto and across the country empty, with owners hoping they can make it to the new year. 

The president of the Canadian Live Music Association, Erin Benjamin, says the live music industry is being challenged in a way it's never been in its history. 

"It's a catastrophe. We're losing venues by the day," she said. 

According to the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition, which has launched an online campaign to support Canadian venues, without government support, more than 90 per cent of independent venues are at risk of shutting down forever.

Some have already closed, like the Orbit Room in Toronto, and the Starlight Social Club in Kitchener-Waterloo.

'Won't be able to survive without help'

"The situation is grim," said Jeff Cohen, the owner of Toronto venues Lee's Palace and Horseshoe Tavern, as well as the Collective Concerts company.

The Horseshoe Tavern has opened its patio, but it probably won't be able to open up as a concert venue until 2021. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

He doesn't expect to be able to produce a concert until April or May of next year. 

Cohen explained that venues are having to rely on the "kindness of landlords" and financial support from the government. 

"We won't be able to survive without help," he said. 

Government funding

Canadian Heritage has set up a $500-million emergency fund to support organizations working in culture, heritage and sport, $20 million of which will go directly to the live music industry, according to an email sent by the department of Canadian Heritage to Radio-Canada. 

Toronto venue Baby G remains closed until further notice because of COVID-19. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

It adds that the goal is to provide financial aid to for-profit festivals and venues that don't ordinarily receive federal funding through the Canada Music Fund for the first six months of the pandemic.

The department did acknowledge in its e-mail that after the initial funding announcement earlier this month, it did receive criticism from industry players who said that many live music industry entrepreneurs are not eligible for the program. However, Canadian Heritage said in the email that since then, the criteria has been adjusted accordingly. 

Cohen hopes to qualify for the fund — as does Shaun Bowring, the owner of Toronto music venues Baby G and The Garrison, and the Transmit Presents promotion company. 

"Right now our goal is to get to next March," Bowring said.

"We just want us all to be here ... So we've got to figure out the finances to do that."

Baby G owner Shaun Bowring says venues like his are pivotal for artists to get their music to the public. He explained that live music halls are an important part of a larger infrastructure. (Robert Krbavac/CBC)

He explained that he's not looking to make a profit, he's just looking to finance the monthly expenses to get to 2021.

Both Bowring and Cohen also cited that Toronto City Council will let performance hall owners get a 50 per cent rebate on their property taxes. 

"I think that is going to keep some of the live music venues and downtown Toronto alive," Cohen said.

A world without live music?

In the meantime, with the current pandemic measures in place limiting indoor gatherings to 50 people, plus the requirement to implement a series of additional safety measures like Personal Protective Equipment, and putting Plexiglass up, Bowring explained that it's simply not economically feasible.

Plus, being in the middle of a pandemic, putting people in enclosed spaces isn't the safest approach for patrons or staff, he explained. 

Cohen feels the same, explaining that the safety measures are necessary during this time, he just hopes the government funding will come through so that venues can be taken care of financially in the mean time. 

Music lovers gathered at Together at the Drive In in East Gwillimbury over the weekend, a music festival enjoyed from one's car. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

Together at the Drive-In at the Stardust Drive-In Theatre in East Gwillimbury brought music lovers together over the weekend to watch films and live shows with local artist and DJs, from the safety of their vehicles. It's an example of organizations looking to fill the gap. 

But industry players just hope that when the pandemic is finally over, the live music infrastructure will remain intact on the other side. 

"There is no industry I can think of that is better equipped, more passionate and more committed to helping Canada with its rebuilding recovery than the live music industry," Benjamin said. 

"It's so hard to imagine, not only the financial challenges, but you know, a world without live music, it's just, for some of us that's just impossible to conceive of."

Bowring added that if live music venues disappear, it'll be a major piece missing in the grander infrastructure of the industry.

"If we're not here, that's a very difficult task on the other side of COVID for artists and musicians to get out and play again — and that affects their livelihood as well."

Cohen remains optimistic that when all of this is over, and live music halls do open up again, people are going to want to see live music again "like crazy."

"Yes, we're in trouble. But we shall overcome," he said. 

Iconic Toronto music venue the Orbit Room is closing for good

3 years ago
Duration 2:34
Toronto music venue Orbit Room announced it will not host live shows anymore at its College Street location due to the pandemic. The venue has been closed for four months now. Lauren Pelley spoke to the owner about the venue’s future.

With files from Nicolas Haddad