FREE SPACE: THE FUTURE OF LIVE MUSIC IS WIDE OPEN, BUT WHAT WILL WE DO WITH IT?
By: Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham
We heap a lot of importance on concert venues, but places are just spaces, and they’re only as good as what you fill them with. Between March 2020 and the time of this article’s publication, they’ve also spent a lot of time empty, and for a while we didn’t know when—or if—they would come back. Then, 2021 brought gigs back indoors, at least for a moment. With Omicron shutting activity down again, venue operators are back to wondering how to start over, but in 2021, we got a hopeful glimpse of where things will pick up in the future.
The community surrounding venues has been galvanized, organizing quietly and through more formal pandemic-minted advocacy groups like the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition and the National Independent Venue Association in the United States. That means some of the smallest black box venues have broadened their solidarity networks across countries and continents, positioning them to access avenues of mutual aid and support, sharing resources like best practices around livestreaming and safety protocols, or even funding streams only large and mid-sized clubs might have previously had the time to discover, let alone pursue.
Approaching a return to live concerts in 2022, brick-and-mortar venues are similarly positioned to reclaim and re-politicize the future of their spaces as stages for exploring harm reduction and community care, improving the material conditions of the communities that move through and surround them in the process.
With countless concert venues lost as a consequence of so many months without revenue, space is more precious than ever, which means we should expect radical new approaches to how concert venues are utilized. Where protocol will allow, that should include dedicated streams of matinee programming; bluer skies may spring new venues as collectively owned and operated spaces.
In December 2021, multi-arts venue Sous Bas (based in Hamilton, Ont.) debuted a new program called Sous Bas Clubhouse, a collaborative co-programming model where, for the price of $500 a month, members are entitled to 12 hours of private use of the space and have the opportunity to earn a share of cover charges and bar sales. With a mind toward providing a kind of one-stop hub for work-life balance, the Clubhouse membership also affords members access to a stream of collective activity programming, including exercise and meditation sessions, movie screenings, and more.
As spaces that are in some cases already officially exempt from noise bylaws, it just makes sense concert venues explore more creative applications for the infrastructure they already have in place, especially in denser cities where concert venues and practice space is scarce—that said, some local zoning laws might regulate against the use of performance venues for rehearsal space.
Other venues have pursued membership on a patron level as a means of supplementing the risk of walk-up ticket sales and incentivizing guest attendance.
In Fredericton, the Cap launched Project #KEEPITLIVE, a membership initiative and donation drive offering venue members exclusive access to deals, online discounts and merch, as well as presales for records and concerts.
An effort the Cap calls an “opportunity to build something better than before,” it also echoes the venue’s past—in 1998, the Cap’s original owners opened with a $50 annual membership model that gave patrons a two-for-one deal on their first round of drinks and free cover.
“Times were different, but we always recognized how the membership created a sense of buy-in from those patrons,” Cap owner Zachary Atkinson explains over email. “We’d always wanted to bring them back.”
Launched in 2020, #KEEPITLIVE attracted 90 active memberships and raised over $25,000—funds that allowed the Cap to purchase plexiglass barriers for table sections, room speakers that let sound be piped into those barriered sections from overhead, new room and stage lighting, as well as camera gear that helps the venue livestream performances (with or without audiences). The funds also helped the venue replace its old mixing console with an iPad-compatible board, eliminating the need for a front-of-house station and opening up more space for physical distancing or patron capacity, when appropriate.
While the Cap offers memberships as a way for patrons to opt into providing additional support, Vancouver grassroots venue and community organization Red Gate Arts Society has pivoted completely to a membership model, requiring any and all event patrons to purchase a $10 annual venue membership.
“The response has been almost entirely positive, despite the delays that it tends to cause at the door,” Red Gate co-director Jim Carrico says over email. Red Gate has experimented with membership and fundraising drives in the past, he explains, “but it was more of a voluntary donation thing, with perks like t-shirts etc.”
Red Gate’s membership program also improves its negotiating position, allowing the organization to present itself to granting bodies and public supporters “as a large community as opposed to a small collective,” accumulating an extensive list of the patrons the venue serves.
Atkinson and Carrico don’t anticipate their venues’ memberships will have direct input on how they are booked, but membership models also pose unique opportunities for venues and event series to decentralize stewardship and democratically address community input regarding policy and booking practices from the bottom up.
We can’t talk about live concerts without talking about livestreaming, and a return to physical concert-going remains pivotal for communities living with disabilities. They spent years articulating a need for livestreamed concerts prior to the pandemic, only to be glaringly ignored until able-bodied fans couldn’t show up anymore.
Now that we’ve had a hint of the other side, we’ve also seen more of the same.
While many concert venues maneuvered the pandemic’s shutdowns by offering their stages and sound systems to artists performing streamed concerts online, many still returned to operating practices that more closely resembled pre-pandemic routine as soon as local guidelines allowed, abandoning livestreaming elements entirely.
In this respect, venues like Red Gate and the Cap are leagues ahead of industry ableism, dedicating labour and resources to livestreaming many, if not all, of their post-lockdown shows online.
“We did very much lean into streaming without audiences, and then eventually with reduced audiences once restrictions loosened in New Brunswick,” Atkinson explains. New provincial funding that covered the labour to operate livestreams through the earlier part of 2021 also allowed the venue to pay all proceeds from online shows to the artists.
“Streaming everything is very possible,” Atkinson notes, but with the bustle of reopening, at times it meant livestreaming fell by the wayside. “In all fairness, our streaming efforts did begin to fall short in the spring—our team were also musicians and were looking to be back on stage more often, so that, along with the reduced amount of interest we were seeing online, made us move away from streaming during the summer. We also recognized that more outdoor events were possible and accessibility was more achievable.”
Atkinson also acknowledges some technical limitations. “Streaming with good video and audio takes some diligent work, and no matter how good you are, you’re still at the mercy of your internet connection. Sometimes it just doesn’t want to play nice—we had struggles with it at the best of times.”
Certainly, livestreaming doesn’t come without its challenges, but Red Gate has no plans to leave it behind as live events come back, pushing forward with a new 24/7 streaming platform, Red Gate TV, accessible to venue members and non-members alike.
“Obviously our main priority has been to provide a space for the local scene to gather together and develop in a supportive and collaborative environment, but we have long recognized that to fully support the local scene we should be doing our best to also provide exposure beyond our own little insular communities,” Carrico explains. “There’s a lot of skills and talents in our immediate circle, so we’ve been able to draw on some diverse expertise in lighting, cameras, network and server programming and admin tasks.”
Not everyone is itching to gather indoors.
In a November 2021 newsletter titled “The Shock Doctrine Applied to Dance Music,” French writer and culture critic Jean-Hugues Kabuiku calls the accelerated return to live music a reflection of “disaster capitalism.” Borrowing phrases from Naomi Klein’s 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, which articulates that capitalism exploits moments of crisis or “shock” to advance capitalist goals, Kabuiku argues there is a direct relationship between a premature return to live events and the reassertion of capitalist expressions that were muzzled by early pandemic shutdowns, all the more violent in the context of a pandemic.
With the acceleration of COVID-19 variants like Delta and Omicron, some disability activists have also argued the push to bring back physically attended events is inherently ableist, pointing to COVID-19’s ability to spread amongst the community, and the risk that poses to those with compromised immune systems—a reality that is amplified at indoor events, regardless of legal mandates requiring patrons to provide proof of their requisite vaccinations prior to entry, especially when patrons ignore house rules asking that patrons continue to wear face coverings when not actively drinking. (In a recent presentation titled “Disaster Ableism, Academic Freedom, and the Mystique of Bioethics,” biopolitical philosopher Shelley Tremain also builds on Klein’s concept of disaster capitalism to introduce what she calls “disaster ableism,” referring to “strategies and practices that produce, exploit, and aggravate perceived and actual economic, political, environmental, and social disasters and crises in ways that advance eugenic goals.”)
But with governments abdicating public health responsibilities to businesses while wrapping programs that provided financial support for venues to stay closed and staff to stay off the job, the choice to operate isn’t much of a choice at all. Painting all venues with the same brush denies an opportunity for the intervention of harm-reduction philosophy—a direct retaliation to systemically reproduced capitalist harm. Without alternative venues rooted in legacies of harm reduction and consent culture, the only spaces around are those geared toward consumption and risk-taking behaviour.
The first venues financially situated to bring back staff and reopen under distancing guidelines were laissez-faire and corporately owned. Pivoting directly from livestreaming to in-person events, they circumvented mask restrictions by encouraging their patrons to act poorly by practically pushing alcoholic beverages into their hands at every second. For every such space, there exists an ad hoc counterpart that goes above and beyond the public safety standards established by regional governing bodies directly compromised by neoliberal lobbying interests.
When the COVID-19 pandemic created a need for indoor environments to actively confirm patron vaccinations were up to date, Red Gate’s pivot to a members-only model created protective infrastructure for guests and their communities, streamlining contact tracing in the event of breakthrough cases.
A statement on Red Gate’s website acknowledges some concerns about the membership policy “creating more financial hardships for our already strained community, by adding to the expense of a night out,” but as with their regular attendance fees (typically in the $5-10 range), the memberships are available on a pay-what-you-can basis, with no one turned away due to lack of funds—extending the same material benefits of membership to anyone in the community, regardless of their financial position.
In any viral context—no matter how benign—and in concert with membership systems and sliding-scale admission policies, livestreamed events can also be important implements of community harm reduction, offering a FOMO-fighting consolation for patrons that opt out of attending a gig when they’re not feeling 100 percent about a tickle in their throat.
If we’re going back into concert venues in 2022, the ideological conditions will be staggering. Change is slow coming, but industry players in smaller venues and alternative spots are focused on correcting material inequities at a time when they mean more than ever before. The revolution will be livestreamed, and we’re all invited.