Where have all the small concert venues gone?
Three music industry insiders from across Canada weigh in on the decline of grassroots performance spaces
As concert ticket prices continue to skyrocket and the richest pop stars keep getting richer, small neighbourhood music venues — the places where future stars are born — have been shuttering from coast to coast.
Toronto music promoter Jonathan Bunce, Pop Montreal founder Dan Seligman and Vancouver musician/playwright Leah Abramson join Commotion host Elamin Abdelmahmoud to diagnose the root causes of the problem and identify potential solutions for revitalizing local music scenes.
We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.
Elamin: Jonny, I am going to start with you. You recently co-wrote a University of Toronto study about small venue closures across Ontario. When you look at the data, what does that tell us?
Jonathan: Well before the pandemic, anecdotally everyone in the music scene had seen venues close. In Toronto, especially in 2017, we saw venues like the Holy Oak Cafe, The Silver Dollar Room, Soybomb HQ and The Hoxton all close down. We wanted to see what the data tells us: are venues actually closing at a higher rate than normal, or is this just regular business churn? And we did see that concert activity in Ontario peaked around the mid-2010s, and then really started to decline before the pandemic. So it wasn't just the number of active venues; it was also the number of active shows. And then we saw, obviously, COVID shut everything down. Now coming back out of COVID, we saw that in Toronto, 15 per cent of all our small venues closed down permanently.
Elamin: So when we say that kids are not going out as much, we really mean that. They're just not going to as many shows, literally because there's not as many shows available. Operating a venue, Jonny, has always been this precarious business; they've got razor-thin margins to begin with. What feels different to you about this particular moment?
Jonathan: I think we're seeing some changes in audience behavior. There's more of a flight to familiarity, so the large venues and tours are all doing great … but there's more of a struggle than ever to attract audiences for emerging artists in grassroots venues.
I think what's really scary is what's coming down the road, because during the pandemic we saw generous government subsidies that really helped these businesses get back on their feet after these shutdowns and closures. Now we're starting to see funding and subsidies cut back to pre-pandemic levels, but with post-pandemic inflation and higher costs.
Elamin: Dan, you've been running the Pop Montreal Festival for over 20 years now, and your event really helped put Montreal on the global music scene. But to advertise the festival this year, you launched a billboard campaign that read "R.I.P. Mile End," — that's a neighborhood that your festival is centered around. Fighting words, man. What inspired that billboard?
Dan: There's been a lot of talk about small mom-and-pop businesses closing, a potential erection of a large boutique hotel, so it was really in some ways just trying to get people's attention. It's so hard to break through any kind of visual pollution these days; we just wanted to make a statement, and it clearly worked — people are talking about it in Toronto, so that's a good thing.
Previous years, we've had billboards listing some of the artists playing, and people see it, but it doesn't really grab people's attention. Now, with the "R.I.P. Mile End" billboard, people were sharing it on Instagram, etc., so I guess that was the point of it. But it was also to draw attention to some of the issues that we're talking about today: venues closing, all the problems surrounding gentrification. Underground artists are always kind of on the margins. Small venues are always kind of on the margins. And as Jonny was saying, because of the pandemic, it has kind of just pushed things further towards potential collapse. So you've got to talk about it, you've got to draw attention to it in order to save whatever we have going.
Elamin: Something about that campaign resonated with people. Do you feel like you're ready to mourn Mile End?
Dan: I mean, part of it is nostalgia. But I'm not naive enough to not know that neighborhoods are constantly changing. Gentrification affects all kinds of different neighborhoods. The creative class — musicians, artists, festivals — are all part of that gentrification process. I think it's just about being kind of cognizant and self-aware of everyone's place in the process of gentrification and doing what we can do to not only preserve whatever cultural institutions exist, but also engage people in the dialogue of what it means to be a musician, an artist, a presenter and how we all affect each other as a society.
Elamin: Leah, Jonny earlier mentioned that concerts kind of peaked in the mid-2000s. You're a musician who started playing small venues in Vancouver going back to that period of time. What changes have you observed since then?
Leah: It's interesting listening to you two talk about that, because I feel like Vancouver has been going through this for quite some time already. The Olympics came to town and when the development was getting ready, people got pushed out, things got torn down, real estate started rising super high, and we saw a lot of venues closing at that point — and development has just continued…. So we've actually been trying to sound the alarm, and have been struggling. There's been lots of artists who have left and gone to Toronto and Montreal, but the people who stay here are resilient and scrappy.
Elamin: Jon, I just want to give people a sense of what we miss out on when we lose these venues. Neil Young famously cut his teeth in Yorkville in Toronto, a neighbourhood that went from being this artsy hippie hub that eventually gentrified and is now one of the city's most expensive areas. That is a narrative you see over and over again. But when you did your study, Jonny, you weren't really focused on gentrification. You think this is more about the actual small-venue business model. Can you just elaborate a little bit on how that's at play?
Jonathan: Reimagining music venues isn't really about the closures. We were really looking at the entire live music ecosystem in Ontario, and the importance of small venues really shone through in that…. There's obviously a 50-plus year history of art getting pushed to the margins. What came out of the study, though, is a recognition across the ecosystem. We talked to artists, venue operators, promoters, audience members as well — everyone values live music, and pretty much everyone also recognizes that it's endangered.
So we all sort of come to the table with this recognition that things aren't good, and that it's the small grassroots venues, the places under 300 capacity, where artists get to step on the stage for the first time, get to try out new things, get to incubate their craft, and also get to connect with the community. That's the most important thing; that's where the local community is built.
Panel produced by Stuart Berman.