To get a fix on the current state of the nation's live music scene, FYI recently contacted booking agents, club owners, bookers and artist managers for their assessment.
Their responses were quite varied. They indicate that certain types of music clubs are facing real challenges, while others seem to be surviving - or even thriving.
We began preparing this feature just before news of the Hugh’s Room closure in Toronto broke. The roots music hub is facing insolvency and is now shuttered after 16 years of operation.
There are hopes it can rebound, though. The news spurred the local roots music community to look for a solution, and FYI learned yesterday that a committee has been struck to explore ways to restructure and make Hugh’s Room work in the future. The club informed us that, “there are plans for Hugh’s Room to move forward under a proposed community-ownership structure and the will is strong to make that happen sooner than later.”
Word of the club's problems came shortly after reports that one of Halifax’s most important music clubs, The Carleton Music Bar & Grill, has been sold, and its live music policy is probably to be scuppered.
The Carleton’s owner, Mike Campbell, explained the situation in an interview this week. “I’ve sold the assets of the business to Doug Reid who owns two neighbouring businesses, The Press Gang Restaurant and Lot Six.
"Once the deal is formally done, probably in the next couple of weeks, they want me to continue operating as The Carleton through to the end of March.
“They’ll then close to turn it into whatever they’re planning to do with it. While they are still willing to consider having live music as part of the mix in the new business, it won’t be the primary focus and definitely not a 'listening' room doing acoustic shows as it is.”
Some of the problems plaguing The Carleton in recent years have been local and specific, with Campbell explaining that, “by far our biggest issue the past few years has been the construction of the Nova Centre across the street, which wiped out a ton of street parking in the area and has made coming downtown a nightmare for customers.”
Campbell does note that there are many general challenges facing the live music industry, too. "The economy - at least in our region - has been stagnant for a long time and there just isn’t a lot of disposable income available to patrons; they can’t go out as much as they used to.
“The provincial government keeps raising prices at the liquor stores, which we necessarily have to pass on to our customers, so the live experience keeps getting more expensive. The price of natural gas, electricity and the phone service keep going up as well and need to be part of the equation -- again, driving prices to the consumer up without any benefit to the actual experience of attending shows.”
The challenges facing artists and bands wanting to tour nationally are major, and that also has an impact on clubs like The Carleton and Hugh’s Room.
“We have fewer and fewer artists making the trek to the East Coast,” says Campbell. “People here will still pay to see acts they really want to see, but we might see one or two a month when we used to see one or two a week. If I’ve got nothing on my stage, I’ve not got enough to offer during an average week to keep up with the costs of running a business.”
So-called “listening rooms” like Hugh’s Room and The Carleton rely on food and drink sales to help carry the freight, while larger capacity rooms such as the Horseshoe Tavern, Lee’s Palace and The Phoenix in Toronto do not have to deal with the cost and staffing issues involved in presenting a full menu as well as music.
The problems faced by these showcase dinner clubs may be insoluble in the long run. They appeal to an older demographic that is going out to see live music less and less. To lure a younger demographic, an entrepreneur who could create a hipper, less conventional environment and concentrate on a good wine and cocktails selection and a limited menu - while presenting carefully-curated live music - likely would have a much better chance of success.
The fact that more live music venues are closing than opening across the country naturally causes anxiety for artist managers seeking to get their acts into the clubs.
Veteran East Coast artist manager Sheri Jones of Jones And Co. Artist Management (Joel Plaskett, David Myles, Gordie Sampson, Mo Kenney, Port Cities) candidly assesses the current health of the live music scene in Canada as “dismal."
"I absolutely think venue closures are indicative of the overall live music climate for clubs in Canada and, sadly, I expect we’ll see more closures in the first half of this year.”
To Jones, “the economy is, no doubt, in part to blame for this situation but so is the music industry. Just because you can charge a ridiculous ticket price doesn’t mean you should.”
She observes that, “it is definitely more difficult to find suitable options for our newer artists, and more difficult to book them in a timely manner. Our artists’ careers are driven largely by live performance. If a new band starts to make an impact on the music scene, it can take over a year to get a show scheduled because venues are booking so far in advance. It can have a serious impact on an artist’s momentum.”
Both Jones and Campbell see the severe decline of the presentation of live music in schools and universities as a serious threat to the business. Jones states: “I’ve believed for a long time that it is imperative that we get live music back into schools if we want an audience in the future. That, and more all-ages venues. I know 18-year-olds who have never seen a live show and, worse, they have no idea what they’re missing.”
Campbell concurs, noting that “there’s no live music in high schools, no live music at universities… I wouldn’t be surprised if the last few generations of students had never even seen a live show! And, as we know, if you’ve never experienced the magic, you have no idea what you’re missing.
“I’ve noticed for a number of years that the university-aged demographic has simply disappeared. When I was doing the MuchEast and Going Coastal shows for MuchMusic, I routinely covered 20 to 25 shows at university campuses across Atlantic Canada; I used to do six-to-10 a year at the McInnes Room (1200 cap) at Dalhousie alone. By the time I was wrapping up my Much career in 2003, I wasn’t covering a single one. Not because I’d consciously decided not to - but rather because there weren’t any. Schools stopped booking live music, period.
“Campus bookers still wanted to do them but students stopped going. Why? Don’t know but there is likely has more to it than the obvious fact that students are, for the most part, broke. Students have always been broke, or at least I was - and school is a lot more expensive now than when I was in university. I also recently heard that Dal closed its student pub, The Graywood, recently and that is shocking, to say the least.”
Robert Lanni is a co-founder of the Toronto-based Coalition Music. The company operates as both a record label (Our Lady Peace, Justin Nozuka, USS) and a management company (Simple Plan, Tom Cochrane, Finger Eleven, OLP, Scott Helman and more).
He is aware of the recent closure of some major clubs across the country and explains, “I am hoping it will create new opportunities for some new and hungry entrepreneurs to want to open new venues, or at least find new and creative ways to put on shows. I wouldn’t be surprised if more venues closed, however.”
Lanni notes that “from our perspective, there is still a decent live scene for most acts, but more and more acts are competing for those opportunities.
“As far as the club scene goes, in many cases, the limited venue options available - plus the short supply of individual local promoters - make it difficult for certain markets to sustain a healthy live music scene.”
Looking at the broader picture, Lanni remains optimistic. “Nothing can replace the live music experience. The appetite for experiencing live music will continue to remain steady as long as artists are able to make a living on the touring side of the business.”
The issue of rising rents caused by the real estate boom in such cities as Toronto and Vancouver is also posing a real threat to music clubs in those cities. In March last year, Vancouver’s famed Railway Club closed down after presenting concerts since 1981.
In announcing the club’s demise, owners and management sent out a Facebook post that read, in part, “A concerted and very public effort to sell the club over the last few months has seen no buyer come forward. Unfortunately, the long-term and persistent combination of relatively high expenses; in particular rent, as compared to business receipts, has left the business unable to continue.
“We deeply regret this outcome and the effect it will have on all the stakeholders, as well the cultural scene in Vancouver. Regretfully, the city has lost music venues and nightclubs over the past couple of years and we hope this trend will see a reversal.”
Earlier this week, The Georgia Straight reported that a new buyer for the Railway has just been found, and there is hope music may return there. Realtor Sadru Parpia told the paper that, “As far as the format goes, I suspect that it will be the same, but again I’m not sure. It totally depends on the new party that’s leasing it.”
Escalating rents are also believed to have played a role in the 2016 loss of such Toronto clubs as The Hideout and Tattoo. Another significant Toronto nightclub and concert venue that has just announced it will be closing is the Hoxton. The 637-capacity venue has operated for six years, presenting major EDM, hiphop and R&B acts. Co-owner Richard Lambert told NOW magazine that the owner plans to redevelop the site eventually, and he acknowledges his rent was high. The Hoxton shuts its doors on Jan. 28.
Another factor threatening the health of the music club scene may well be the proliferation of major summer music festivals across Canada in recent years. We haven’t seen stats to confirm this, but it’d make sense that spending several hundred dollars at each of these events would severely curtail the average concertgoer’s ability to regularly attend club shows the rest of the year.
One industry veteran remaining optimistic about the Canadian live music scene is concert promoter Ron Sakamoto, of Gold and Gold Productions. He concentrates upon the country sector, producing national tours for such stars as Johnny Reid and Keith Urban, and currently planning Stars and Thunder, an eight-day International fireworks and music festival to be held in Timmins, ON, from late June.
He tells FYI, “I can only answer for myself, but I think the current health of the live music scene in Canada is alive and well. The only downfall is our Canadian dollar, but if you are careful (which you should be) and research your markets thoroughly as different acts draw different in specific markets, you should be fine.”
He focuses primarily on arena and festival shows, explaining that, “I don't promote very many club shows because I find with the exchange rate on US acts, even the lesser ones, at the moment it is too hard to make money in a smaller venue.”