Vancouver concert venues worry about their ability to survive the pandemic
VANCOUVER -- There is growing concern about the survival of Vancouver's independent music venues as their doors remain closed indefinitely because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The last show at Vancouver's Rickhsaw Theatre was more than three months ago, and since then, the independent concert venue has been silent. Owner and operator Mo Tarmohamed says about 70 shows have already been cancelled at the venue, and he's deeply concerned about the future of his business.
"Our last show was March 14, and a couple of days later, we were informed by the B.C. health authorities that all mass gatherings were prohibited," he said. "We were…given direction that we could not open until further notice, so essentially we went from being busy with concerts one night and then the next night, a complete shutdown."
Provincial health officials have previously stated mass gatherings, such as concerts, would likely not be allowed to take place again until Phase 4, when there is a vaccine or widespread immunity, something Tarmohamed describes as being "never-never land" at this point.
"Costs just pile up, and that's not going to go away, and we have zero revenue," he said. "We're selling merch and stuff like that but that's a pittance compared to what we would be earning right now."
Venues across the country have formed the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition to lobby various levels of government for support. They are also encouraging Canadians to write letters to federal, provincial and municipal government officials to ask for financial support for the industry, as well as sign a Change.org petition.
In a statement, the provincial government said $7.5 million has been invested into Amplify BC to support the province's music industry. It also notes a one-time operational support offered to companies that produce live music, as well as funding for projects that help pivot their business model, such as livestreams.
Tarmohamed says he is looking into doing some livestreaming and has made the venue WorkSafeBC-compliant.
"But those are just kind of minor, mitigating actions that we're doing. We're not expecting anything from that in terms of revenue," he said. "But for us right now, it's just finding ways to access any government funding so that we're ready when the time comes when things get back to normal."
A spokesperson for Canadian Heritage said in email statement Thursday that $500 million was set aside in the Emergency Support Fund for Cultural, Heritage and Sport Organizations and is described as a "temporary relief measure."
Funds are to be distributed in two phases, and as part of the second phase, the government says it has set aside up to $20 million for organizations in the live music industry, including those that don't currently receive funding from Canadian Heritage or the Canada Council for the Arts.
"We are currently developing the parameters for that envelope and are engaging with the music industry representatives to ensure that it meets the needs of the sector," the statement says. "Further details on Phase 2 will be announced over the coming weeks."
But for venue owners, it's about more than just the possible closure of their businesses. Tarmohamed says the loss of these independent venues would cause a ripple effect throughout the music industry and cripple the development of artists across the country.
"It is literally the demise of live music venues," he said. "I don't think a lot of people realize what it is to run a music venue. We're just integral in the development of artists, which I think the Canadian government realizes is an important thing, but they don't realize…if we go, the house of cards just falls apart.
"The mere foundation of music and live music and the growth of that industry literally falls apart."
Darlene Rigo, the managing partner and director of the Fox Cabaret, says they had record-breaking sales in February before they suddenly had to close and lay off their entire staff the next month because of COVID.
"Not really knowing when we're going to be able to reopen and not really having a plan for that made it really, really difficult," she said, adding that she continues to pay her full rent "with basically zero revenue."
Some nightclubs are making plans to reopen, but Rigo says that even if the Fox were to open its doors again tomorrow, for venues like hers and Tarmohamed's, they would still be faced with the challenge of finding performers to fill their calendar as their bookings usually get confirmed weeks or months in advance.
"Even if we can open up, and even if some of the restrictions get removed, we still have a challenge of filling in those nights and we're going to have a number of many dark nights," she said.
"It's looking dire not just for us but for all of these venues across the country. And I don't see how most of them can survive without government funding. And that looks like immediate emergency aid to kind of save us now."
Rigo says that while the majority of the bookings at the Fox are live music, she does have some variance such as comedy, cultural events and dance nights. But there are still ongoing expenses, and she also has concerns about the development of future Canadian artists.
"One of the comparisons I came up with is, you know, these (hockey) rinks that these kids grow up and play on with their teams. They're going to be there after this pandemic and the lockdowns are over," she said.
"They're owned by communities and governments, whereas you know, the live music business…all artists start in these small local stages and aren't government owned, they're privately owned. And so if we lose this infrastructure, I think it doesn't bode well for our artists."