Shaun Bowring can see an end in sight, a hopeful see-you-in-September on the horizon.
“We are booking September, October, fingers crossed. And if we have to shift a month or two, we got to shift a month or two. At this point, it is what it is,” said the owner of two live music venues, The Garrison and The Baby G.
Bowring is hoping that mass vaccinations will have sent the COVID-19 virus sufficiently into retreat by then so he can open the venue doors.
“We thought maybe it would be four or five months that we were going to be down. We’re at over 300 days now,” Bowring said.
“It is what it is. I think we’ll be OK, we just got to make it to the other side,” he added.
But with live music venues shut down since last March and a chasm ahead of ongoing closure, the industry is already in serious trouble.
Storied night clubs like The Mod Club, The Hideout and The Orbit Room are gone forever along with places like 120 Diner, ROUND Venue, The Boat and Alleycatz. The list doesn’t include many other clubs that have DJs or live events occasionally.
A report commissioned by the Canadian Live Music Association estimates Toronto has lost $99 million in Gross Provincial Production (GPP) since last March from the closure of live music venues and the equivalent of 1,480 full-time jobs.
“This isn’t an easy business to begin with. Most people that are in it are passionate about music and are a big part of the music community. It’s heartbreaking to see a lot of the (closures),” said Lisa Zbitnew, co-owner and operator of the Phoenix Concert Centre.
“I definitely believe things are going to come back, but it’s a tough bet right now for anybody,” Zbitnew added, noting booking for the club’s fall calendar is “very active.”
“Live music venues were certainly struggling … before the pandemic. Everything that has gone on over the last 10 months has just exacerbated those challenges. The risk now isn’t just losing dozens of venues, it’s about losing all of them,” said Coun. Brad Bradford (Beaches—East York) and chair of the council’s music advisory committee.
Mike Tanner, the city’s point person for the music industry, said the live music venues have been increasingly squeezed out by rising land values which have driven up rents, property taxes and insurance, while revenues through alcohol sales and cover charges have remained relatively flat.
But Tanner noted the pandemic has also served to “underscore how important live music is and the community-building that live music facilitates.”
“It’s been very evident since last March that, among the many things that people miss, is they miss that sense of community that comes from gathering in a public space to listen to music. The mayor has often said that live music is a bonding force like no other because you don’t even need to speak the same language to enjoy a show together,” Tanner said.
Bradford and other Toronto politicians have stepped up significantly by granting a 50 per cent property tax reduction to 48 live music venues. It was an initiative in the works before COVID-19 and city council has since made it permanent.
Boosters on council include Mayor John Tory, Coun. Michael Thompson (Scarborough Centre), who is chair of the economic development committee, and budget chief Coun. Gary Crawford (Scarborough Southwest), who is also a drummer.
“(The reduction) was a huge help. Our property taxes are quite significant so a 50 per cent reduction has a big impact. So going forward, it just makes it easier to hit that monthly amount we need to be sustainable,” said Tracy Jenkins, general manager of the Lula Lounge.
Club owners say the federal government has also offered significant support to venues across the country through Heritage Canada, which came forward with $500 million to arts organizations. That was followed with a $23 million emergency fund for music venues when club owners across the country formed an ad hoc coalition and lobbied hard.
Jane Noonan, owner of Dora Keogh — which features traditional Irish music — said a federal rent relief program, which subsidized up to 90 per cent of rent and other costs, and a wage subsidy program were lifesavers.
“Without the support from the government, I wouldn’t still be here,” Noonan said.
But two serious issues put any hope for recovery in serious jeopardy, club owners agree: insurance costs and public-health guidelines which may place strict limits on the number of patrons a venue can play host to once it reopens.
“The other thing in the middle of all of this is insurance,” Zbitnew said. “A lot of insurance brokers are basically walking away from this sector and there are venues that haven’t been able to renew insurance. That is becoming a big, big issue because insurance in this sector has already increased by 300 per cent over the past five years.”
Vas Cranis said getting insurance for Bsmt 254, a club he opened in 2019 after managing the Lula Lounge for 13 years, was a major ordeal.
“I went to five different brokers to get insurance. Nobody could even get me a quote,” Cranis said, adding that insurance companies have not renewed policies for other well-established clubs.
Celyeste Power, chief strategy officer with the Insurance Bureau of Canada, said the problem predates COVID-19 and is a result of some global insurers leaving the Canadian market creating a “supply and demand issue” that also affects other sectors in the commercial insurance market including restaurants and condos.
The bureau has a 1-800 business insurance helpline and a website, has hired a risk manager who can work with businesses free of charge, and in late 2020, set up a team of industry veterans who can write coverage for eligible businesses.
“Live music venues are not alone. (Insurance shortage) isn’t because of COVID but it has been exacerbated because of COVID,” Power said, adding she’s confident coverage can be found through the bureau’s plumped up resources.
The second issue facing venues is that while restaurants will have some ability to operate with reduced capacity when public-health guidelines are loosened in the future, the same isn’t true for live music venues.
“I think sometimes people look at the successful nights and think it must be a money-making machine but they don’t see the empty rooms on snowy nights or (when) some bands don’t pull as many people as you expect but you still have the overhead,” Jenkins said.
“In this industry, the only way to make money is to pack the place. It’s really difficult to make money even when you’re three-quarters full,” Cranis added.
“These kinds of rules are the things that could kill all of us,” Zbitnew agreed.
Club owners say live music venues go beyond providing a night on the town, playing a vital role in a vibrant Canadian music scene as an outlet for new artists to prove themselves.
“That’s how musicians learn their craft, learn to interact with an audience. You get to grow, you get to make mistakes, you get to figure out what’s good. It’s really important for the artists. There’s no one playing in the stadium without the little venues (first),” Bowring said.
“Musicians travel from all over Canada and all over the world to play music in Toronto and people travel to Toronto to hear live music. There really is a sense of community,” Noonan said.
And the venue owners also concur that there’s no substitute for the live experience and the sense of community it builds.
“Recorded music is great, we all enjoy it, it’s an important part of our life. But getting together with a bunch of people and really enjoying that interaction is very important,” Bowring said.
“(Live music) was on an upswing in my opinion before the pandemic hit and I think there’ll be a bigger upswing on the other side as long as there are places to go,” he added.
“Pre-COVID, business was thriving and it was growing and to come to a full stop is devastating financially, of course, but you can’t really not talk about the mental impact. The future is pretty uncertain and that can be overwhelming,” said Joel Smye, owner of CODA.
“We have a great fan base that are rallying behind us that are urging us to stay with it and get through it. I’m looking forward to brighter days whenever they come,” he added.
So with a total lockdown firmly in place, clubs are operating with skeleton management. Some like Hard Luck Bar have crowd funding to pay their rent and Hugh’s Room Live — formerly Hugh’s Room — hopes to reopen as a non-profit collective, looking ahead to the day they can crank up operations.
“I challenge any business as to whether they can manage to get up and running after a year and a half,” Zbitnew said ruefully.
Jenkins observed, “All of us are going to come out of this with a lot of more debt.”