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Live Music: When Will it Reopen and How?

by Robert Flis / July 20, 2020

“Live music has been the first to close and will be the last to open.” These words begin the description of Indie Week’s second “Indie Weekly” webinar episode entitled Live Music - When Will it Reopen and How? It’s a statement that everyone in the music industry knows to be true, but to see it put in such simple and direct terms is still a reality check for many.

Like many other organizations within the industry, Indie Week is doing what they can to reinvent themselves for a post-Covid world, and this webinar series is not only an example of that, but it is also a great tool to help struggling artists and industry professionals find ways to do the same.

“By hosting a weekly discussion for the music industry and artists, Indie Week aims to help give some direction during these difficult times while giving people a chance to connect with others facing the same obstacles,” says Indie Week’s founder, Darryl Hurs. It’s a great initiative and much needed support system for those in the industry who are most affected by the pandemic. Last week’s episode was of particular interest to those in the live music scene. There’s no doubt that live music will look very different in the months to come. Changes will impact bookers, agents, promoters, bands, venue owners and artists alike. But what exactly will live music look like when it finally is able to come back, and how are venues surviving in its absence?

One thing that some promoters and venue owners have been able to turn to is government funding. Phase 2 of the Canadian Music Fund’s COVID-19 Emergency Support Fund has been announced and it aims to complement existing support programs with a focus on cultural, heritage and sports organizations. This will include aide for the live music industry, recording studios and other organizations that did not qualify for funding in Phase 1. For more information on the CMF and applications, visit FACTOR Canada’s website. These extra support measures come at a time where provinces and cities are in limbo regarding reopening their music venues. Stage 3 of business reopening in Ontario will allow up to 50 attendees in public venues, but as of now this excludes the Greater Toronto Area. Many are surprised that reopenings are happening so quickly across Ontario, with expectations being that we would only see concert venues start to reopen in the fall. In Alberta and other places that have begun reopening, increases in positive cases have followed, so it will be a learning process to see how Stage 3 will affect different communities.

With these reopenings, venue owners must exercise caution. If venues are forced to close again, the impact will likely be too much for many of them to bear. There are only so many times you can open and re-close before going out of business. Getting proper insurance coverage for venue owners is another legitimate concern that has received little publicity, as most insurance companies will not cover anything COVID-related. “When the switch turns off, and revenue is shut down overnight, even the great minds need support,” said speaker Victoria Shepard of the Canadian Live Music Association. With this continued uncertainty, government support will be key to keeping local music scenes alive across the country. Countries that have offered robust support to artists and venues include Germany and the UK, providing a good example of how to effectively navigate this challenging situation.

Supposing that additional outbreaks do not occur, the economic challenges of dealing with new procedures and restrictions is going to be a logistical nightmare. Overhead costs for venues are notoriously high, and with a cap of 50 people in a venue, the economics of hosting a show just don’t add up. Ticket and alcohol prices would need to go through the roof, and paying bands becomes a huge question mark. “The music industry is highly entrepreneurial, and artists are creators by nature,” says Shepard. “So I think there are measures that can be taken, and hopefully heritage funding can be of support.”

On the artists’ side of things, many have begun doing shows from home and are using digital tip jars for revenue. Tyson Boyd of The Starlite Room in Edmonton, has had a chance to experiment with live streaming shows. According to him, many venues are having a hard time with traction during these summer months where it’s sunny outside and people are not spending as much time indoors. The big question on everyone’s mind is, how do you monetize live-streaming? As fall approaches and the weather gets cooler, live stream shows are expected to become more popular and will likely be here to stay long past the pandemic, but it remains a very new and experimental concept.

All this isn’t to say that there are no positives to highlight. Having virtual discussions on these topics is bringing people together from all over the world, and now more than ever the walls are coming down and people in the industry are collaborating more and working together. It’s terrible that everyone got knocked down, and the industry needs help to get back up, but we are all in it together and have an opportunity in front of us to rebuild a better industry. In the past there’s been a lot of distancing among industry players, so hopefully this will be an opportunity to change and foster a sense of community. Currently, some of the greatest minds in the industry are getting together and sharing free information at virtual events, such as this one hosted by Indie Week.

So what does the future look like in the short term and over the next several years? “Our industry takes many months to plan ahead,” says Shaun Bowring, of The Garrison and Baby G venues in Toronto. “So the recovery period will be anywhere between 12-36 months to get back on track with touring, borders being open etc. It’s a monumental task to get all that rolling.”Monumental, but not impossible. The first tours to resume will be for solo artists and stripped down outside of the local scene to keep costs at a minimum. Local and Canadian artists will be given priority for live shows due to travel restrictions. Hybrid shows (live shows at restricted capacity, and live-streaming), are likely to happen in the fall and through the winter and will become more popular as time goes on. At the end of the day, the only option for the live music industry if it wishes to survive the current situation is to come together and find solutions that benefit everyone. With help from government funding and some outside the box thinking, the industry can come back stronger and more robust than before. Luckily, the music industry is built on creativity and fostering a sense of community, so if they can harness those values and focus them on finding solutions, then there is certainly light at the end of this tunnel.


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