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COVID-19: how the Canadian roots community is feeling its effects

Steve Edge of the Rogue Folk Club has been forced to forego hosting concerts since public health officials called for an end to large gatherings.

On Jan. 25 came the announcement that the novel coronavirus had hit Canada. In the two short months since then, the country has seen an increase in cases by the thousands and a stern response from the government: stay at home and keep yourself isolated. Predictably, the economic consequences have been dire — such is the cost of keeping the beast at bay — and from coast to coast to coast, restaurants and bars have been forced to shut their doors to accommodate the new policy of physical distancing. But what about the effect this has had on touring musicians and venues? How have the members of Canada’s roots music community been affected by this policy change? In many cases, it seems, the effect has been bleak.

For Americana artist Lynne Hanson, based out of Ottawa, this has meant the cancelation of a European tour she was right in the middle of and a UK tour scheduled for later in the spring – tours timed to promote a brand new album.

 “I do consider myself to be extremely fortunate to at least have tour grants so that I won’t ALSO get hit with the expenses that I’ve already incurred,” she said, “but I don’t have grants for all the shows that are now being postponed/cancelled in the US and Canada.”

She is praying the shows get rebooked, she said, but if the tours disappear, she’ll lose tens of thousands of dollars, money she was relying on to pay for her album and the PR campaigns to support it.

“I’m a little guy, but this timing couldn’t have been worse,” she said, “as these three months were supposed to carry me through till the fall AND pay for all the investment in the new album.”

Mike McCormick of the musical comedy trio the Arrogant Worms echoed Lynne’s sentiment almost word for word.

“This timing couldn’t have been worse,” he said. “We do maybe 10 to 20 shows a year… There are three of us in the band, living in different parts of Ontario. One, Chris Patterson, is a full-time teacher. So really the only time we can do a string of shows in Western Canada is around his March break.”

When the British Columbia government limited gatherings to 250 people – right around March break – it brought to an end the Worms’ plan to play a string of 200-500 seaters.

“Losing these shows was a hit,” Mike said. “We typically hit B.C. every other year, so it’ll be a while before we can make these shows up unless we can find another time that makes sense.”  

Venues, too, have been suffering. Steve Edge, the artistic director of the Rogue Folk Club, said that his staff are worried about losing their jobs.

 “We are trying to keep them on as long as possible to handle refunds, donations, grant reports and applications, and participate in contingency planning,” he said. “We are perhaps in a slightly stronger position than some, as we have operated at or slightly above break-even for over 30 years. Bigger organizations may receive larger grants, but some may also be carrying larger deficits from year to year. As far as I can see, there are no arts organizations still running. Good to see cinemas offering streaming. Something we can look into ourselves, perhaps.”

This notion of getting creative with one’s source of income and exposure has become commonplace in the new pandemic environment. The Dropkick Murphys, a Boston punk band, streamed one of their shows on St Paddy’s Day, and the Arkells, from Hamilton ON, have been offering music lessons through Instagram. In the roots world, everyone from Amanda Rheaume to Valdy seems to be performing on Facebook Live.

Steve Edge is waiting for the storm to settle.

“We’re asking people who purchased tickets for postponed shows to transfer their purchase to a future show rather than obtain a refund,” he said. “We are also asking for donations and advance ticket bundle purchases to tide us over. Our fundraising committee is looking for government grants and rebates.”

Some of these grants and rebates may come from financial aid and stimulus packages passed by the federal government, which include financial aid for gig workers. But how much help is it going to be?

The reaction was mixed. While Steve said that, of course, every little bit helps, Mike is a bit more cynical.

 “Our experience with government programs is that they’re rarely worth our time and effort,” he said. “Perhaps this will be different.”

            None of which is to say that the end is nigh. While Steve suggests that customers consider donations and advanced ticket bundle purchases, Mike also suggests that fans of the band become donors through Patreon or purchase their music through Bandcamp, which has been waiving fees in light of the state of the economy.

            “If you’re reading this on Roots Music Canada, you’re already one of the good people,” he said. “We need more good people. I think when we get to the other end of the tunnel on this one, there are going to be a lot of artists with new material and a desire to get out there. So be ready to hear a lot of great music.”

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