The latest on how folk/world music promoters across Canada are dealing with COVID
Concert promoters across Canada are adapting events to fit COVID-19 protocols, but they are also operating through continued uncertainty as the Omicron variant becomes of increased concern.
Like many concert organizers, the co-owner of Northern Lights Folk Club in Edmonton, AB, Bill Werthmann, said it has been challenging to constantly shift plans for concert performances.
“All through last year, we did not have a season at all,” Bill said. “We did have a couple of virtual shows, but for the most part, we didn’t really have a season.”
Many artists booked for the 2020 season are rebooked this season, Bill explained. Northern Lights Folk Club typically books the entire season by May of the previous season.
In November, the club hosted two shows at limited capacity with 130 guests, though they were allowed to operate at their full capacity of 230. The Werthmanns decided that their patrons would not be comfortable at the full capacity shoulder to shoulder, Bill said.
No hot chili; beer in cans at the Northern Lights Folk Club
Northern Lights has also chosen to have all staff double vaccinated in an effort to create a comfortable space, he said.
The club can’t serve hot chili to guests like usual, it serves canned beer over bottled, and it opens doors early so guests have time to socially distance themselves and don’t have to wait in line.
The club decided to pay artists their full fee that was originally agreed upon in performance contracts regardless of this season’s outcome, Bill said.
“We know that we’re going to take a financial loss on pretty well every show this season if we keep operating at 130 capacity. Our break even point is around 200,” Bill said. “We knew we had to start stocking a bit of money away for a rainy day, and this is our rainy day.”
They are confident in their ability to adjust as the pandemic unfolds, he said, and the club will be able to weather the storm financially, as it’s in pretty good shape.
Whatever happens with the Omicron variant, they will carry on, he added.
No season tickets either
“I don’t think it will have an effect on our plans, but it may have an effect on our attendance,” Bill said. “Some people are just not going to be comfortable coming out to shows with this new hit.”
This season, Bill chose to put tickets on sale just two weeks before shows in an effort to avoid dealing with cancellations and refunds. He also didn’t put together a season ticket package.
The club postponed the two shows it had scheduled in October, but performers Valdy and Roy Forbes are available at the end of this season, so they are now scheduled to perform in the spring. This is the second time they have been rescheduled due to COVID-19, Bill said
The Acoustic Harvest Folk Club was thrilled to be able to re-open in November with RPR as their first live show, according to artistic director Lillian Wauthier. December marked their 25th year of operations, bringing the finest in acoustic roots music to Toronto’s East end.
Their venue, St. Paul’s United Church, has a mandate separate from the Ontario government’s limiting capacity to around 70 people in a room that can hold 250to 300. The audience is socially distanced, masked at all times, required to show proof of vaccination upon entry. There is also no intermission, no food allowed, and artists have been selling CDs at the end of the show.
Acoustic Harvest show postponed due to Omicron
Unfortunately, the Omicron surge and the resulting public health restrictions have resulted in their next concert, a Jan. 29 show with Mike Stevens, being postponed until May.
The return to live music has been overwhelming for many people in the music industry.
“I know my first night back standing on the stage and saying, ‘Welcome to Calgary Folk Club,’ I burst into tears,” said Suze Casey, artistic director of Calgary Folk Club.
While there are still health and safety concerns – they postponed their Jan. 21 concert with Dave Gunning and Poor Nameless Because of COVID concerns – she said people are excited.
“The artists are thrilled to be back [and] finding it a bit overwhelming because they got used to playing through their phone, and having the energy of people coming back can be a bit overwhelming,” Suze said.
This year marks Calgary Folk Club’s 50th season, but it scrapped its original celebration plans, Suze said. Celebrating with live music is celebration enough, she added.
About 100 people showing up to Calgary Folk Club shows
The club had tucked away money for the anniversary, Suze said, meaning it was able to maintain artists’ contracted fees.
Since reopening in September, Calgary Folk Club has required guests to be double vaccinated.
Suze chose to book artists within driving distance of the club for shows prior to the end of January due to concerns about international travel.
Venues in Alberta are allowed to operate at a full capacity of 370 patrons if vaccine passports are shown upon entering, but Suze said around 100 people have so far been comfortable showing up at shows; masks are optional.
The live streams the club produced before re-opening were very successful, so Suze has chosen to continue these as a bonus to the now-live performances, she said.
“I am absolutely passionate about keeping music live, but this doesn’t mean excluding it any other way,” she added.
Pandemic interfering with international bookings at Small World Music
Alan Davis, who is founding director of Small World Music in Toronto, said he can’t believe the industry is back in the same place it was almost two years ago.
“It’s just so frustrating the uncertainty this causes,” he said.
Like other promoters, Alan said he feels fortunate to not be solely reliant on door or bar sales to make ends meet, but the international travel component for the world music promoter has come to a halt.
The band Tinariwen, a group of Tuareg musicians from the Sahara Desert region of northern Mali, were scheduled to play at Danforth Music Hall in Toronto this season, but Alan said vaccines aren’t necessarily available in their country.
He also said his plans to have a group of Pakistani artists play in March are unlikely to go ahead
“I do feel very badly, and it’s heartbreaking to see the number of venues that have closed and people who have lost their incomes and their jobs in our industry, and I’ve tried to do what I can to support fellow presenters by making our studio accessible to them to give artists opportunities as much as possible. But again, there’s only so much you can do,” Alan said.
Until the most recent spate of public health restrictions, Small World was able to do shows at their venue at about half its capacity, as well as online performances.
Major events scheduled for March to July remain uncertain and Alan said he thinks this is the foreseeable future.
On April 16, Small World Music has a major concert booked, and Alan said it’s increasingly likely it won’t go ahead.
“That’s really shitty because that’s something I’ve put a lot of hope into,” he said. “It’s a major artist with whom we’ve worked for many years, and if that falls apart, that’s going to really hurt. But there’s not much we can do except protect ourselves and do what we’re allowed.”