Tim Readman talks to Rogue Folk’s Steve Edge about the pandemic and what lies ahead
By way of introduction, for those who need one, Steve Edge is the founder and artistic director of Vancouver’s Rogue Folk Club, which has been bringing quality folk roots music to the masses since 1987. He’s also a radio DJ on Vancouver’s CITR 101.9 FM.
The Rogue presents 50-plus shows a year. It offers audiences the opportunity to see and hear some of the most accomplished musicians and singers in the world in a relaxed, intimate setting.
I caught up with Steve recently via Zoom to ask him how the pandemic has affected the Rogue concert series.
“It’s been mostly disastrous,” he said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a whole bunch of shows lined up for the next two or three months. We had to cancel all that. That left us with a big problem of $14,000 in advance ticket sales that we had to figure out what to do with. So rather than just starting to dish out refunds, we thought we’d give people three options: hang on to the ticket for whenever the bands come back, or make it a donation for the Rogue, or get a refund. Our audience was great. Most of them said they’d hang on to the ticket until the show could be rescheduled. So that got us over the first little hump. But it’s been two years now, so there’s still quite a lot of people that are hanging on to those tickets.”
Having dealt with the problem of how to handle accumulated ticket sales revenue, at least in the short term, Steve’s attention then turned to the thorny question of other ways that the Rogue could present live music. The first idea was to see if open-air concerts might be the answer.
“We started trying to figure out ways that we can make a small outdoor concert series happen somewhere, as a way of keeping the live music going,” Steve said. “Then every time we tried to do that, the Covid restrictions got more strict, and there were other regulations too, so we had to give up that idea.”
We go on to talk about how there’s always an awful lot of devil in the details. What might seem to be a viable solution can rapidly become a non-starter, due to all sorts of unforeseen complications.
“There was a fairly strong desire to do a show, so we were looking for an outdoor venue that we could use,” Steve said. “You don’t want a huge park where you’ve got to bring a big sound system. We figured that a picnic area would be great, because if it rains, it’s got a roof and it’s got open sides. You can put a little stage up, and you can get 50 or 60 people in there. But then you hit the bureaucracy that’s required to do a show now. It just became completely unviable. We would have to bring in security; we would have had to bring in washrooms; we’d have to do all sorts of stuff. We did a live free festival a few years ago, and it was great. We had a beer garden, and there were a couple of food trucks, and it was a very successful thing. It was a sunny day in July. People said, ‘Can you do that again?’ It’s not as easy as it looks, you know? There was always this desire to try to do outdoor events because Covid-19 doesn’t spread as well outdoors. So can we make this work? And no, we couldn’t. But we tried, right? We were knocked back at every turn.”
Undeterred, Steve and his team kept on looking for solutions to the conundrum of how to keep on providing a live music experience to their audience. Eventually they began to look into web-based solutions in order to present shows over the Internet.
“We started to think, well, maybe we could do some online shows. Then Hubcast Media, the company that’s been recording our shows and broadcasting on and off for a while now, said, ‘We just got a grant from Creative BC for some new cameras, and we would like to be able to do a virtual series.’ We had to invest in some lights and that makes it much more presentable, but then the stability of the internet connection became the problem. So we got a dedicated high speed line at the hall. But even that isn’t guaranteed to work every time. We also discovered that, from time to time, when people tune in, they weren’t getting a really good feed; it depends on everybody’s internet connection. It depends on your computer. It depends on all sorts of things. So we began to toy with the idea of not streaming live, but recording it and then streaming it later. Maybe with the added bonus of other content, like if I interview the band as well. And then the whole thing can be packaged, and you sell it after the event. So then the idea is that if people enjoyed the show, they might buy it and see it again, or they can tell their friends around the world.”
Having the necessary technological resources available didn’t help when there were no shows to film, however. Then as the rate of infection declined in BC, a new window of opportunity opened.
“Finally, in September 2021, we were able to start a Rogue Reloaded series. We did, I think, 12 shows in the last quarter of last year, live from our usual venue at the St. James Hall with an audience at 50 per cent capacity to start with. And then for the beginning of November, we were allowed to go to 100 per cent, but we decided to go to 70 per cent to be safer. And that was great. It worked out really well. And we streamed all the shows and archived them and we’ve got these amazing shows now for posterity; they are still available. So that was great.”
The Rogue Reloaded
For Steve it was a reaffirmation of the amazing chemistry that occurs when musicians really connect with an audience, something that is missing when doing a strictly virtual performance.
“We were able again to feel the energy that the audience gives back to the performer and vice versa. As a performer, you need that audience response. That was the frustrating part of doing purely virtual shows, but having the hybrid, then people that were not comfortable going out into a crowd could still see the show. And people that were clamouring for that live shared experience could have it. And we were still keeping people safe.”
Unfortunately the window of opportunity that allowed the Rogue Reloaded series to occur was unceremoniously slammed shut with the advent a of a new and more highly contagious variant of Covid-19.
“Then of course, in December, Omicron came in and we had to cancel the last two shows,” Steve said. “We moved some shows forward but can’t really move the Christmas show to another time of year. So we just did that in the Hubcast Media studio and webcast it, and that went really well. So that remains an option that we can still do a virtual show in there or we can do it at another venue.”
One of the questions this pandemic has thrown up is about the future of live folk roots music and how we will connect performers with their audience. When I ask Steve where can we go from here, he laughs and pulls out a tiny glass ball and jokes that he needs a much bigger crystal ball to answer those kinds of questions! In these highly challenging circumstances it is perhaps the uncertainty that provides the biggest challenge of all.
“It’s a struggle because you can’t really plan anything,” he said. “You book something, and then you find that the restrictions are such that you can’t have an audience or it’s not safe to have an audience. Our first show event in 2022 with Jim Burns – nobody bought tickets because they were terrified. We have had to push that one back as well.”
A lot of people have suggested that the music business is never going to be the same again. I ask Steve for his opinion about that.
“It’s an interesting thing, because the music business has never been the same from decade to decade – so it changes all the time. I really don’t know what the future holds. This virus seems to just come up with a new version of itself and keeps getting worse. So if we’re still battling that, then obviously the music business is going to change. It’s going to be very hard for people to tour because you’ve got different restrictions in different countries or different provinces, different states and different borders. And you get some bands where there are the refuseniks who don’t believe in vaccinations so then the band has to change their lineup or stop touring all together right? There’s been a couple of bands who we’ve had to cancel or band members were replaced because they refused to get vaccinated.”
One of the other factors to consider is the business side regarding payment and contracting.
“For somebody that wants a gig, we’re gonna say yes, we would like to do a gig; we’ve got this date available, but we may not be able to do it. We won’t be able to let you know until the 18th of January or whatever. And even then, we might not be able to. Now the contract has got a proviso in that if we’ve got 50 per cent capacity, we can pay you this much. If we’ve got 70 per cent capacity, we can pay this much. But it’s unlikely we’re going to go to 100 per cent. So how the hell do you phrase that kind of a contract?”
I ask what he thinks about the idea of permanently modifying indoor concert venues and festival venues so you have some kind of partitioning or sectioning.
“It’s really hard because even if you do that, people still have to go to the same washrooms,” Steve said. “They still have to go through the same entrance and the same exit door or into the bar and to the CD table. If you put up screens you’ve got reflective surfaces and the sound is going to travel differently.”
Finally we talk about another significant pressure coming from the need to reduce our carbon footprint in view of the climate crisis.
“Venues can’t change the way the world works, we’re just going to change the way our little microcosm of the world works,” Steve said. “Obviously, if we’re doing virtual concerts, then that reduces the carbon footprint. It’s going to make a huge difference if people are not flying anymore. So I think that is going to change the music scene because if it becomes impossible to do international travel, then you have to go virtual. You can’t keep doing international tours without damaging the environment. So everybody’s gonna have to think about how to get around that.
As our conversation progresses, it becomes clear that, when it comes to predicting or shaping the future of live music, you can have all the ideas in the world, but when you drill down into them, there are often simple practicalities that make them very difficult to implement. It’s apparent that there’s a willingness to be creative and try almost anything, but it’s extremely difficult to imagine how you could ever replace the experience of a live audience and a live performance. In a future without touring artists, if you want to see live music, then you’ve got to see people who live nearby.
“Well, we did that in the fall,” Steve said. “We had all BC acts, and you know, the music was great, and everybody that came to the show was happy. All the bands were really thrilled to bits that they could play for a live audience again. So we were able to feed people, but it wasn’t a banquet of international cuisine. It was all locally produced and farmed materials. But it was tasty, and it was nutritious, and it was good for you. ”
Before we end our call, I ask about what’s coming up next for Steve and The Rogue.
“We just don’t know and we can’t know,” he said. “There isn’t a ready-made answer. I think what I would like people to do is to keep going to our website, keep listening to my radio show, and see what is coming up. We may have to put things off a bit further, but don’t give up on us because we’ll keep on bringing music to you however we can do it. As for my crystal ball – I’m going to get a bigger one. We’re all going to need one of them. I think that’s going to be the big selling item at the next Folk Alliance Conference. I think that we have to keep making music; we have to keep doing what we love doing. We also have to be aware of what we’re doing to the planet. So we have to lower our own carbon footprint, reduce waste, don’t use plastic all the time. It’s a very scary place that we live [in] right now, but it’s also a beautiful place. Music always makes it a happier place. So we have to keep it going!”
It’s comforting to know that, despite the outrageous slings and arrows of these Covid-19-infested times, there are still people like Steve Edge who are determined that live music will continue. With a resounding “Amen to that” let us all hope for better times ahead!