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Vancouver rock band OSWALD puts on a show for a broadcast at the Rickshaw. Photo: Kelli Rothwell Piccini.

Vancouver’s indie music venues turn to virtual concerts as pandemic wears on

Vancouver’s venue owners are partnering with local musicians to broadcast performances to virtual audiences, as the live music industry struggles under pandemic restrictions.

By Amelia Williams , in City , on December 7, 2020

Vancouver’s independent music venues are helping local up-and-coming musicians broadcast performances to virtual audiences, despite facing uncertainty as pandemic restrictions force them to remain closed.

The Fox Cabaret in Mount Pleasant is offering musicians the chance to use their space to live-stream concerts, giving artists a way to connect with their fans despite cancelled gigs. The staff at the Fox have also used their closure to shoot a feature film showcasing performances from 15 local acts, which will be released soon.

The Fox’s Director, Darlene Rigo, says playing at mid-sized venues like the Fox is a crucial step in the development of new musicians.

Adam Fink, Darlene Rigo, and Noah Kamis of the Fox Cabaret.

“That’s how these bands get nurtured, how they grow, and then eventually they can start touring,” Rigo says, stressing the importance of replicating this experience even when musicians can’t perform live.

Like the Fox, the Rickshaw in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside has been providing local bands such as OSWALD and Wrecked Beach with a space to record their performances. Owner Mo Tarmohamed explained that the venue has held virtual versions of music festivals that had been planned before the pandemic, and hosted one concert that drew over 1,500 viewers.

Ryan Dyck, the manager of Vancouver-based indie label Mint Records, says that places like the Fox and the Rickshaw are crucial players in the local music scene, as they are committed to giving new musicians opportunities to play to crowds.

“A lot of the mid-sized venues are good training grounds for local bands,” says Dyck. “They can be playing every week and it just accelerates their growth.”

Local musician Mary Ancheta agrees. She also emphasizes that Vancouver’s independent venues provide an important support system for local musicians.

“It creates an environment where people could come together and, you know, network and meet each other, but also grow creatively,” Ancheta says.

Shutdowns pose a long-term threat

While these broadcasting initiatives give musicians the chance to keep performing and connecting with their fans, they don’t alleviate the financial burden of long-term closures on the venues themselves.

The Fox Cabaret had to close its doors just after recording its most profitable month ever in February. Their landlord did not apply for rent relief, so the owners have been relying on grants and donations to pay full rent without generating any revenue. They’re planning on hosting a silent auction and an online fundraiser, in an effort to stay afloat long enough to eventually reopen.

A donation request sign from a concert broadcast at the Rickshaw. Photo: Kelli Rothwell Piccini.

And while the Rickshaw’s broadcasts have been reaching a wide audience, they have generated minimal revenue, and the business has largely been relying on grants and merchandise sales to survive.

Traditionally, independent venues have provided important opportunities to newer artists, leaving insiders worried about the long-term impact on Vancouver’s music industry if these businesses don’t survive the pandemic.

Many of Vancouver’s most iconic venues, such as the Commodore Ballroom, the Biltmore Cabaret, and the Vogue, are now owned by large entertainment companies like Blueprint and Live Nation. Venues owned by big companies tend to have a set roster of artists they work with, making it difficult for up-and-coming bands to earn stage time.

The Rickshaw and the Fox Cabaret were the only two independent mid-sized venues in Vancouver operating primarily as concert spaces before the pandemic.

The show goes on somewhere

Gastown’s Guilt & Co. is a small enough venue to remain open as a bar and restaurant under the current health orders. While the most recent restrictions prohibiting socializing between people from different households have decreased the number of customers, other health orders have created new opportunities for artists.

Booking manager Paul Clark says that limits on music volume have forced the bar to book only one- or two-person acts. This has allowed band members to experiment with solo performances, and has led to new partnerships with musicians who have never played at the bar before.

At the end of the day, it’s the commitment to local music that keeps these venues operating in whatever way they can.

As Clark says, “we’re certainly not making any money and we’re really only open to hopefully provide some work for the artists, and to kind of give people something, and it just feels great.”

To support the Fox, the Rickshaw, and Guilt & Co., visit their websites here, here, and here.

For more ways to support independent venues and Canadian musicians, visit the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition and the Canadian Live Music Association.