In the wake of ongoing worldwide protests in support of anti-racist social reform, major Canadian arts institutions have expressed statements of commitment to look inward and address their own programming selections, hiring practices and artistic choices.
Amidst promises to do better, major institutions have the benefit of time and major financial resources to stay afloat; meanwhile, Toronto’s clubs face an uncertain future. Though it is imperative that venues of all sizes think critically about their own internal biases, it is small venues, rather than large, that have the greater capacity to provide space to diverse programming, having a mandate to develop and serve their communities, rather than their donor base.
So, with the advent of summer, and a recent move into Stage 2 of the province’s reopening framework, I connected with representatives of three Toronto venues – The Rex, The Emmet Ray and Burdock Music Hall – to discuss the suspension of live performances, surviving the financial hurdles of quarantine, and moving forward.
On the initial experience of postponing/cancelling shows:
Andrew Kaiser, Owner/Operator, The Emmet Ray: The first thing we did was empty all stock and money offsite. We then called all local suppliers and got them to stop sending any standard orders. As for bookings, we had nearly 14 shows per week; most groups were cancelling before the official lockdown, but [we] got in touch with the remainder of the [acts] that were left and cancelled them. We laid off staff right away, [as] we knew getting E.I. would be something of a challenge and wanted the staff to have the best chance to get it. I also got on the phone with banks and spent a lot of time trying to secure loans or credit lines to get us through. We had no idea what support if any would come.
Tom Tytel, General Manager, The Rex: Unfortunately (or fortunately, not sure) [the process of cancelling shows] proved easier than I would’ve originally assumed. Due to the fact that it was a health-related issue I think most of the people we had to contact were already under the assumption that everything was “on hold” until further notice anyway, so it made the cancellation process more amenable. Laying off the staff proved to be a necessary evil (so they could more quickly go through the EI and then CERB process) and was a very personal and painful ordeal for the ownership and myself. As for the rest of the operation… we are ordinarily open in some capacity 24/7/365, so it was very unusual to have to scale everything down.
Richard Haubrich, Music Hall director, Burdock Brewery: The cancellation emails started rolling in around March 10. We had our last show on Friday March 13 and subsequently closed the Music Hall. The restaurant side of Burdock closed Sunday March 15. Many bookings were outright cancelled, but whenever possible I tried to postpone shows that were already announced and up for sale. Most of our wedding bookings were simply pushed back one year. We struggled with how to handle cancelling all upcoming work for our Music Hall staff. We were obviously very relieved when CERB was announced.
On pivoting, surviving, and building under quarantine:
RH (Burdock): We closed the restaurant on Sunday March 15. On Monday we launched a free local beer delivery service, and by Tuesday morning I switched from Music Hall Director to beer delivery driver and was out on the road with our first batch of 26 orders using a trial version of the top Google result for delivery routing software. Since then we iterated and grew the delivery operation substantially. We also do third party deliveries for various Toronto wine agencies. We converted the restaurant area into a packing and staging area for orders. We have up to five vans delivering and picking up agency orders daily.
AK (The Emmett Ray): The Emmet Ray started Dinner and Show, [for which] we created heat-and-eat meals: roast chicken, vindaloo, lasagna, fried chicken and more. Each dinner came with a couple sides or sauces as well as cookies or some kind of [dessert]. They cost $19.99 each, free delivery and no hidden fees and $5 went to the artist we booked, who performed live online, streaming mostly through Facebook. At first it was a great success: people supported and everyone talked about how great the idea is. However, even with good reviews of the food, it seemed like everyone loved the idea but it took too much planning for people, or they didn’t like the idea of having to heat it up. Whatever the case, we have stopped the program because no one was ordering anymore. However, the online streams and artists seemed to be doing well through direct online tips during the shows. I am in the process of coming up with another idea, but right now we will just advertise the shows booked through or associated with The Emmet Ray and try to get the artists a wider audience and more tips. However, The Emmet Ray won’t see any money from the shows.
TT (The Rex): We’ve taken the opportunity (a terrible word, I apologize, but a realistic fact here) to perform much-needed renovations to help both modernize The Rex and bring us into compliance into what we think will be the new, post-COVID world. While we’ve been completely “dark” on stage (the same stage which we rebuilt completely with new soundproofing and a beautiful wood finish), we’ve tasked our social media directors to build “Rex Performers Story Sessions” so that we can hopefully keep the music alive in the interim. Everyone we reached out to through our platforms (website, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) has been extremely gracious with [their] time and talent, and the feedback from customers has been most appreciated.
On pursuing change and addressing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) representation:
RH (Burdock): In early 2020 I had the opportunity to book two music festivals. There were 46 performances, and more than 80 percent of the performers were white. Obviously this isn’t even close to reflecting the talent in Toronto. Burdock has managed to gain a bit of a reputation for presenting diverse programming but a critical look at the stats shows that we can do a lot better. Burdock is a white-owned business, and I am a white booker. I personally am looking at my position as the booker and trying to figure out how/when is the best time to step aside and leave space for BIPOC bookers. The short-term plan is to develop a ticketing system for livestreaming concerts and work with as many BIPOC presenters as possible. We also hope to take more wedding, book launch, and private event livestream bookings soon. I see my role as a facilitator of this building phase, and passing the booking to others that can better amplify BIPOC voices.
On gratitude, and the precariousness of the gig economy:
TT (The Rex): We feel very strongly that it be mentioned that our wonderful staff and musicians are really surviving this pandemic with a level of grace, professionalism and fortitude that is commendable. This crisis really magnifies how tenuous their employment is in our gig economy (for the servers and bartenders the loss of their tips, for the musicians the loss of their steady performances) and without fail when I speak to almost any of them they are staying hopeful and excited about coming out with us here at the club on the other side of this mess.
The future, in the short and long term: reopening strategies and livestreaming
RH (Burdock): Livestreaming from Burdock has been amazing so far — we are working with Varey Sound who switches between multiple cameras. We have also done a lot of acoustic treatment to dampen the stage sound, making it ideal for live sound capture. We want to offer the best quality and most engaging livestream concert experience for Toronto artists. Indoor gatherings feel like a distant possibility at this time, so we are putting our focus on livestreaming.
AK (The Emmett Ray): I think it is possible that the relationship between venue and artists might be over as we know it. Restaurants might hire jazz groups as a value-added experience, but I am not sure the jazz group as a focal point will be the case. I hate to leave on a negative [note], but finding positives for a live music venue is very hard right now, with so many closing. The Emmet Ray will fight to continue to be a live music venue, but without support we might have to pivot away.
TT (The Rex): I can say without hesitation that I don’t see a reopening process for us here unless we can do it on all fronts: rehiring our full amazing staff, a decent percentage of bar service available both inside and on the patio, full kitchen service, all hotel services and amenities, and some form of live jazz performances. We just don’t feel it’s worthwhile (or safe for that matter) to open up until we can offer what makes us The Rex Hotel in our entirety. We are encouraged by the phased reopening plans of the city/province and are eager to follow whatever directions come our way from health experts. We are in this for the long haul and want to make sure we are reopening for the right reasons… not just throwing some patio tables out there at half speed and hoping for the best.
These interviews have been condensed and edited.
Colin Story is a jazz guitarist, writer and teacher based in Toronto. He can be reached at www.colinstory.com, on Instagram and on Twitter.