Canada's smaller music venues feel the pinch
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Jan 11, 2017  |  Vote 0    0

Canada's smaller music venues feel the pinch

TORONTO — Mike Campbell didn't want his prominent Halifax venue to join the growing list of Canadian musical haunts forced to close.

But when the former co-host of MuchMusic's 1990s series "Mike and Mike's Excellent X-Canada Adventures" soon hands over the keys to the Carleton Music Bar and Grill, at least he'll know he fought to keep it alive.

The longtime champion of East Coast music tried everything, including a crowdfunding campaign to save the Carleton. His appeal to music fans fell short of its goal and Campbell was forced to give up the dream.

New owners will take control of the space — which has hosted Canadian favourites like Joel Plaskett and Ron Sexsmith — as renovations begin and Campbell eases out of his role.

"They haven't completely ruled out the idea of keeping some sort of live music component," he says.

"But it's definitely not going to be the way it was."

Technological trends, changing listener tastes and a challenging business model are threatening the dedicated performing spaces once home to young hopefuls and grizzled veterans.

Toronto's Hugh's Room became the latest to join the death-watch list when its owner Richard Carson abruptly closed the venue last week to weigh his options.

The 200-person capacity restaurant and music venue opened in 2001 as a stage for both local and international performers, and hosted a hearty list of tribute concerts for Canadian legends like Gordon Lightfoot and Stompin' Tom.

While Carson says nothing is etched in stone yet, he's still hunting for a viable solution that would keep Hugh's Room alive.

Other similar money-losing music hubs have seen their hopes dashed in recent years.

Vancouver's Railway Club left a void in the local music scene when it couldn't find a buyer last year. Its stage, which once welcomed acts like the Tragically Hip, kd lang and the Barenaked Ladies, was recently leased by a new tenant.

And two years ago, Vancouver lost its only jazz club when the Cellar Jazz Club folded.

Having fewer small venues across Canada makes it tough for many independent artists to tour, suggests Toronto singer-songwriter Jory Nash.

The cost of travelling across such a vast country — with long stretches of highway between each big city — is expensive in itself. Nash says a dwindling number of attractive venues makes hitting the road an even bigger gamble.

"You use certain anchor dates to help you when you're planning tours, just to make it work," he says.

"Some of these venues, like a Hugh's Room, can be critical."

While it's impossible to pinpoint a single reason for why Canada's smaller concert stages are under so much pressure, there are a few recurring challenges.

For one, audience habits have significantly changed, Campbell suggests.

A few years ago it would've been common to hit up a pub for drinks before heading to a nightclub, he says, but now many people favour pre-drink gatherings at home.

Or, in the social media age, they may not meet in person at all.

"It's no longer necessary to get together with a bunch of people in a physical social space," Campbell says.

He also blamed a barrage of burdensome local bylaws and years of ongoing downtown Halifax construction for contributing to the Carleton's demise.

Hugh's Room also struggled with declining attendance on some nights and hoped to buck the trend by appealing to Toronto residents with families. Not only did the venue welcome kids, but its performances started and finished early enough to accommodate a reasonable bedtime.

While Hugh's Room shows were often sold-out, Carson says he struggled when artists didn't promote their own gigs. And CD and merchandise sales no longer contributed to the bottom line like they used to.

Independent artists have increasingly turned to streaming music services instead of investing in CDs to sell at shows.

"That used to be part of how I paid my box-office staff," Carson says.

In the coming days, Carson plans to scour the industry for reasonable options that could save Hugh's Room. It may include restructuring the business or the option of embracing a not-for-profit model.

"I'm hoping we can figure out a way to keep going."

Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

By David Friend, The Canadian Press

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