$45K rent and no fans: Toronto's Phoenix Concert Theatre survives Covid but for how long?

Lisa Zbitnew is the co-owner, operator and president of The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto. Like other live performance venue owners across the country, she's spent the year trying to keep the lights on in an empty building.

The venue’s last booking was on March 13, 2020 and since then has been sitting mostly empty

Tokyo Police Club perform at The Phoenix Concert Theatre, pre-COVID. (Nick Tiringer/Submitted by The Phoenix Concert Theatre)

It's been a year, almost to the day, that The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto was packed with fans to see a popular Ukrainian singer-songwriter called Monatik.

Night after night, the iconic venue brought in acts from all over the world, from towering rockstars like The Foo Fighters to Canadian indie darlings like Tegan and Sara.

Now it's hard to imagine when The Phoenix will be at full capacity. The 18,000 square foot building, which can host just over 1,000 people, has been sitting mostly empty since the pandemic lockdown began last year.

The Phoenix Concert Theatre, which can host just over 1,000 people, has been mostly empty since the pandemic began. (Submitted by The Phoenix Concert Theatre)

"If I knew then that it was going to be a year of closure, I don't know that I would have had this strength or courage or fortitude to keep going," said Lisa Zbitnew, co-owner, president and operator of The Phoenix, in an interview with Tom Power on Q.

"I remember thinking at the time… as long as we can save May, because May is one of our biggest months of the year… and then SLAM! Here we are the following March."

Live music venues across the country have been hurting over the course of the pandemic. The Canadian Live Music Association, an advocacy group for the industry, reports that at least 75 music venues have permanently closed their doors.

Lisa Zbitnew is co-owner, operator and president of The Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto and Bronson Centre Music Theatre in Ottawa. (Submitted by Lisa Zbitnew)

Despite not being able to put on shows to live crowds, venues still have bills to pay. Zbtinew's got a $45,000 rent bill to make for The Phoenix every month. She said subsidies from the federal and municipal government are helping to pay that cost and keep her management staff on. But employees who are hired on a show-by-show basis, like audio technicians, security and bar staff, have had to rely on CERB. 

Smaller venues have been particularly hard hit, said Zbitnew. She's concerned by closures like the Orbit Room because these places, which bring in crowds of around 200-300 people, are essential for new talent.

"My big fear coming back into this is... it's the smaller rooms that are about getting artists on stage while they develop their career," said Zbitnew.

"I don't know how that's going to happen without the full ecosystem of the supports for artists."

Managing the booking calendar is now a full time job for Zbitnew. One of their regular bands, Dwayne Gretzky, has been re-scheduled 7 times. The Phoenix's calendar is filled up until 2023.

Zbitnew has also been hearing from artists who are struggling to make ends meet. There are many who rely on touring income. Streaming hasn't come close to filling that void for artists, or for the venues that host their online performances.

"Streams don't add up to much. Most artists are doing well if they're streaming 500 people," said Zbitnew.

"Of course, as a venue, our revenue is really about the patrons — the ticketing, the bar and merchandise. Without that we don't have a sustainable model."

With four COVID-19 vaccines approved for use in the country, there is a sliver of hope on the horizon. But Canada's slow start compared to other countries has Zbitnew worried.

Fans lined up for a live show at The Phoenix Concert Theatre, pre-COVID. (Submitted by The Phoenix Concert Theatre)

"The U.K. right now have festival tickets on sale and the U.S. are talking about putting festivals on sale for the summer because they're both vaccinating," said Zbitnew.

"If we're not fully vaccinated for September, and they tell us we can't operate until the fall or even 2022, that's when things get really scary [for The Phoenix]. Sustaining for another 9-10 months is impossible.

"And again, it's going to depend on how many people we can physically put in a venue because we can't operate at 10-20 per cent. We need to actually have a reasonably full room of people in order to make sure that we're not actually losing more money."

Despite this, Zbitnew remains hopeful and says she can't wait for the Phoenix to reopen.

"Anybody can be on stage… and I'll be in tears in the back of the room."

This interview was produced and written by Jane van Koeverden.


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