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Toronto venues say they feel Winterfolk’s pain when it comes to our changing times

Winterfolk promoter Brian Gladstone is not the only one having to adapt to challenges brought on by inflation, COVID-19 and changing demographics, among other factors.

Laura Fernandez, a member of the board of directors of Hugh’s Room Live, talked about some of the challenges Hugh’s Room Live faces as a presenter of folk and roots music.

Post-COVID, audiences at most venues are smaller than they were in the “before times,” she said.

“The pandemic has affected live music everywhere. People got used to staying home. It takes a lot more work to get people to come out.”

Hugh’s Room has had some sold-out shows, but they required quite a bit of artist promotion, she added.

“A lot of artists are just not promoting on social media. We need artists to get the word out as well.”

Artists are overwhelmed having to promote their shows, especially touring artists, who have to promote their shows while they’re travelling, she said. She added that because of inflation, many artists have stopped touring entirely as costs are too high.

Laura Fernandez is on the board of Hugh’s Room. She’s also a singer-songwriter, radio host and real estate agent.

Like Laura — who’s a singer-songwriter, the host of a weekly Latin jazz program on JAZZ FM91 and a real estate agent — many artists need to have other jobs to survive. Having to promote their gigs on several social media platforms adds to the artists’ workload, she said. But it’s a necessity if they want an audience for their shows.

She also pointed out that people of many diverse cultures make up Toronto and Canada’s population, and they’re from countries where they don’t listen to folk and roots music.

“This is part of the reason to present music that is now culturally relevant to Canada,” she said. “Hugh’s Room has made inroads in presenting a lot of international and global music. It’s not just about folk music anymore, it’s about all kinds of music.”

Inflation is another factor contributing to declining audiences at Toronto clubs,” she said. “It’s now standard to charge $20 to go in. I just did a show at Jazz Bistro — we had great attendance because we promoted it like crazy — and the cover was $20. At Hugh’s Room, the shows are $20 and up, at Lula Lounge, the cover is $20 and up,” she said.

“You used to be able to go to a show for $5 or $10. And the drinks have gone up in price, and the food, too. So for an evening out, it’s easy to spend $100 or $150.” – Laura Fernandez

Working in real estate, Laura is aware that the cost of rental housing or buying a home in Toronto has been climbing. Just keeping a roof over their heads has killed discretionary spending for many people.

“People cannot afford to go out to dinner every week anymore,” she said.

Staying home watching Netflix in the evenings is a lot cheaper than an evening out in a club. But with people hunkering down at home, it’s going to be a very different world, she said.

“People have to congregate, people have to meet with each other face to face. We’ve learned during COVID how horrible it can be when you can’t go out and be with people. We’re making that happen by not supporting events where people get together and congregate and listen to music, which is a tribal thing.”

Laura is part of the Winterfolk lineup this year, as she has been in several previous years, and she’s on the board of directors of the Association of Artists for A Better World, which presents Winterfolk. She stressed the importance of taking time to be part of a community,

Lillian Wauthier of Acoustic Harvest with Winterfolk’s Brian Gladstone.

“Hugh’s Room is a community; Winterfolk is a community,” she said. “The thing that was so wonderful about Winterfolk over the years —the artists haven’t seen each other in maybe a year, and then they get to be together in the same area and attend each other’s shows. Artists get inspired by other artists’ performances and songs. It makes you want to go home and write another song yourself.”

For more information, visit hughsroomlive.com.

Lillian Wauthier, Acoustic Harvest’s artistic director, said that systemic problems plagued the music industry long before COVID, but they’ve been considerably exacerbated since the world shut down in March 2020.

Acoustic Harvest’s concert series opened in November 2021 with strict protocols, including limited seating and spacing, and mask and proof-of-vaccination requirements. For the most part, audiences were keen to hear live music again and readily complied with the restrictions. During that season, November 2021 to June 2022, Acoustic Harvest’s venue, St. Paul’s United Church in Scarborough, averaged around 100 audience members for each show.

“I’ve noticed over the years that while people used to come out to hear everyone we featured, now the tendency is to attend only if we present big name and higher profile artists,” Lillian Wauthier.

Surprisingly, their 25th season, September 2022 to June 2023, has so far proved to be more challenging, with varied audience attendance, with some months well above 100 and some months well below.

“I’ve noticed over the years that while people used to come out to hear everyone we featured, now the tendency is to attend only if we present big name and higher profile artists,” Lillian said. “The demand for these artists means radically higher guarantee fee requests, a dilemma for us since we have no access to any kind of operating grants.”

Acoustic Harvest has an older demographic, and Lillian guessed this is likely the case in other folk venues across the country.

“With the advent of downloading and streaming, it’s especially difficult to draw out the younger crowd to hear live music,’” Lillian said. “When young people can download only the specific songs they like or stream a whole concert, why bother going out to a venue? The same holds true, in many ways, for their elders who may be less prone to leave their homes, especially in winter, and who may have less disposable income in these hard times.”

Judy Perly, owner of the Free Times Café, said folk music’s had its day.

Other factors that have a deleterious effect on Acoustic Harvest’s audience participation include the reduction of the city’s TTC services,  rising gas prices and the fact that their venue is still viewed as being in the “boonies or wilderness of Scarborough,” Lillian said.

“Many music promoters and presenters are struggling with these issues. It’ll be interesting to see how the dynamics change and evolve in the future as we all endeavour to move forward.”

For more information, visit acousticharvest.ca.

Judy Perly, the owner of Free Times Cafe, a Winterfolk venue on Feb. 25 and 26, said that after nearly four decades as one of Toronto’s premier folk clubs, she no longer considers Free Times a folk club.

“It’s just one of the things we do. It’s not the majority of the entertainment at Free Times because it’s not viable economically,” she said. “People are not coming out very much for folk music.”

“It’s not the majority of the entertainment at Free Times because it’s not viable economically. People are not coming out very much for folk music.” – Judy Perly

The audience for folk music is an older crowd, she said, many of whom are afraid of catching whatever new variant of COVID is circulating, and they’re staying home. Often when they make reservations, they end up cancelling them.

These days, artists are responsible for promoting their gigs to attract an audience. Judy finds that many older musicians are not promoting their shows through social media and/or selling tickets to their shows on Eventbrite, as the younger people do. “The musicians don’t want to play without a guarantee, and I don’t want to give them a guarantee fee because they can’t guarantee me an audience,” she said.

The number of people attending Free Times’ long-established “Bella Did Ya Eat” Sunday Brunch Buffet featuring live klezmer music is less than half of what it once was, Judy said.

“We used to have 100 people, now we get 40, 50 or 60, with many cancellations” (the brunch on Feb. 26, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. is part of Winterfolk).

Folk music’s had its day

People got into the habit of staying home during the COVID pandemic, and habits are hard to break, she said. Some of them may have cut out spending on entertainment entirely if they’re on a fixed income.

“Their basic needs are more expensive, so they’re spending less on extras,” she said.

The folk music scene is never going to be what it once was, Judy said, adding that the music had its time, and Free Times had its time with it.

“We’re moving in another direction,” she added. “Jazz is much more popular with younger people, and world music is a big thing in Toronto. There’s so many ethnic groups in Toronto that have fantastic musicians, and they bring out huge audiences. And comedy is on fire in the city. Comedy brings in huge audiences. Sometimes we do two shows in a night and each show is packed with 45 people.”

About the change in the type of entertainment she’s booking at Free Times, Judy said, “We have to accept that things have changed and work with that.

“I love my business. We still have amazing things going on. I’m not complaining, I’m just explaining.”

For more information, visit freetimescafe.com.

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