By Matías Muñoz
Illustration by Dan Metcalfe
Within every live music venue lies a story. Whether that story is new and still in the initial stages of developing its identity, or long since carved out its character over years of performances, each music venue has a distinct role in creating an overall experience for audiences. Yes, the bands are important too—but the difference between seeing a group play a warm, intimate setting and a large, open hall is significant.
We live in a world where pop music is marketed and shoved down our throats in large, gratuitous quantities. I’m talking about the U2s, the Madonnas, the Drakes, the Rihannas, the Katy Perrys, the T. Swifts, and the J. Beibs. In essence, these musicians are a commodity and only part of a grand scheme, and their music is meant to be consumed in mass so that the machine stays well-oiled and running smoothly. Not to mention the scale of the tours for some of these artists, which are behemoths unto themselves.
Yes, these big shows can be fun. Yes, they are really expensive. Yes, getting out of the parking lot can take hours.
There are tens of thousands of smaller, relatively unknown bands in North America alone who perform on small stages in front of only a few dozen people. This “underground” music culture is the backbone for music scenes in cities all over the globe, and has drastically contributed to the rise and proliferation of independent labels and artists as digital media facilitated the distribution of music to audiences in the early 2000’s. While these music scenes tend to pump out incredible musicians, they also support a network of small businesses that offer their space up in return for patronage.
There is a microeconomy that exists surrounding a music scene, and it grows and thrives as small and unconventional venues open their doors to artists. The more musicians there are to perform live, the more places they need to play shows. These spaces are often not venues at all—they are cafes, bistros, legions, basements, warehouses, bookstores, parking lots, rehearsal spaces, and other weird spots that a lot of people might not consider to be ideal for music.
For small venues, usually live music isn’t their primary business. A cafe sells coffee, and bookstores sell books. However, when the PA gets hooked up and the instruments plugged in, the space is converted into a venue where audiences congregate to not only see live music, but drink alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, eat food, and check out the store’s merchandise. A lot of these show-goers are potentially new customers who will come back and spend money later. Thus, the microeconomy grows.
Smaller bands also appreciate when the setup isn’t too extravagant and the sound tech doesn’t cost $250 like at some larger venues. A lot of bands aren’t trying to “make it” in the music industry, and just want a low-maintenance place to play fun gigs once in awhile. DIY culture is pervasive in a lot of local music communities, and having spots that are more flexible about your buddy doing sound, or providing a tech for a reasonable price relative to the size of the show. While some larger places require a fee or take a cut from bands, the smaller businesses just like getting people through the door and will let artists take the entire cut of the door and merch.
For musicians, it also feels good to play to a room that feels full. While bigger venues can house more people inside, it can feel pretty damn lonely if the place isn’t full. Smaller venues offer a more intimate space for bands to play, and break down the artist/patron barrier. Going back to the showgoer experience, some memorable moments can happen when a group of 50 or 60 people come out and surround the stage. Because without a green room, artists can’t run away and hide backstage, leaving you with a perfect opportunity to buy them a beer and get your forehead signed.
The importance of small or unconventional venues to the overall health of a music scene cannot be understated. Places like Mugshots, Pressed, Raw Sugar Cafe (now Bar Robo), and Black Squirrel Books have been crucial to the expansion and diversification of Ottawa’s music community over the last several years. Places like this have more of an impact on the cultural and economic vitality of neighbourhoods and cities than one might expect, bringing people closer to the music, artists, and small businesses that enrich our lives at the local level. •