When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the sprint of 2020 and Alberta businesses shut down, the province’s live music industry was one of the hardest hit.
After the federal government announced a $500-million package for arts and culture support in May of 2020, Tyson Boyd was hopeful that the independent music venue he co-owns and operates, the Starlite Room, would be eligible for assistance.
Only it wasn’t. At least not at ﬁrst.
The problem was for-proﬁt venues like the Starlite Room didn’t qualify for assistance in the federal government’s program — only not- for-proﬁt organizations and artists were eligible.
“That came as a real shock to our whole industry,” says Boyd. “We quickly realized that we weren’t actually structured within, or even considered a part of, the cultural and social fabric of this country.”
So, that summer, Boyd, along with hundreds of operators from venues across Canada, started the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition, a group of venues, agencies, promoters, production companies and festivals, that advocates for emergency support funding and an economic recovery plan for the live music and touring industry in Canada.
“We learned that a lot of the government structure for arts and culture in the music industry hadn’t been touched since the early ’90s,” explains Boyd. “This funding structure was set up to support artists, and directly supporting recording was something that the government could wrap [its] head around.”
Thanks to the noise made by the CIVC’s #SupportCanadianVenues movement, which included a petition aimed at the Minister of Canadian Heritage that garnered over 26,000 signatures, the federal government was receptive, and venues were eventually able to receive some subsidies, mostly in the form of rent and wage assistance.
“We’re slowly carving our way back into a place in arts and culture rather than clubs and nightlife,” says Boyd. “We’re essentially rebranding as an industry, which is hopefully helping people understand the need to make sure that for-proﬁt venues don’t all shut down.”
In 2020, the Canadian Live Music Association reported that, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 70 per cent of venues across the country would permanently close without additional ﬁnancial support from various levels of government. By February of 2021, over 80 music venues had already closed across the country.
Edmonton has seen its fair share of closures over the past two years. Dedicated venues like Bohemia
and Have Mercy have shut down permanently.
A 2020 report released by Alberta- based non-proﬁt West Anthem suggests the province’s live music and touring industry is worth $3 billion and employs more than 20,000 people.
That’s when venues are able to operate, of course. The Chvrch of John, which opened in 2015, remained closed as long as it could, hoping to open once and only once. The downtown venue ﬁnally reopened last Halloween after being essentially closed since the beginning of the pandemic. Since reopening, the venue was forced to close its doors once last December before reopening again in March.
“Our landlords, who have been incredible to us throughout the whole pandemic, basically told us we had to either start operating or they would have to start looking at other options,” says Chvrch of John operating partner Kristoffer Harvey.
The response has been enthusiastic, according to Harvey.
“People have been really excited to come back. We invested whatever money we had left to be able to make the space look great, which includes commissioning murals from local artists, so people feel like they’re coming back to a better version of what we had before.”
Just enough of the Chvrch of John’s business has returned to keep the venue aﬂoat — for now. But the situation remains precarious.
“It doesn’t give us a lot of room to breathe, but it’s been enough,” says Harvey. “We’re really grateful that we have the opportunity to be able to keep our staff employed consistently for the few days a week that we’re open. Hopefully we continue to be able to pay our bills and still invest in concerts, touring, and cool events that will bring people back going forward.”
While the audience for live music hasn’t lost its eagerness, and most venues are now open to some degree, hurdles remain for the industry. One of the biggest challenges is the inability for international artists to conﬁdently plan tours.
Many tours are scheduled for this spring and summer, but whether they will actually happen remains uncertain, especially with the continued arrival of COVID-19 variants and the subsequent waves and increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths that invariably accompany them.
“The Starlite Room, like most venues across Canada, is a touring venue,” explains Boyd. “We rely on bringing in artists from other places to survive.”
Another obstacle is entirely unrelated to the pandemic — natural disasters. Boyd mentions how the closing of the Coquihalla Highway due to ﬂooding in British Columbia last year made it difﬁcult for bands to get from Vancouver to Alberta and the rest of Canada.
“We’re attached to B.C. at the hip, so whatever affects them, affects us,” he explains.
This past December, the Starlite Room was back to about half of its pre-pandemic number of shows per month.
“We’ve fought tooth and nail — and we still are,” says Boyd. “A lot of people seem to think that we’re doing well and have survived the pandemic. That’s not quite the case yet, but we are surviving.”
Faced with wave after wave of challenges, how do venues ﬁnd the will to keep ﬁghting the good ﬁght?
“There’s deﬁnitely been days, weeks, and even months where we’ve all felt like giving up,” says Harvey. “But the past two years have reminded us that we’re very much needed in this city. It’s the passion of the people in this community that keeps us going. Edmonton is special. This cold, insane city has got our hearts. That’s why we do this.”
Editor Steven Sandor is a former shareholder of the Starlite Room. He no longer holds an interest in the venture.
This article appears in the April 2022 issue of Edify