With revelations about venues around the world closing up shop, it is important for us to think about the issues facing music venues as we approach 2020—both financially and culturally. I posed a question to my Facebook friends recently: What do new and existing small music venues need to take into consideration in order to adapt to the changing live music landscape?
By Matias Munoz
One of the issues that has been most widely discussed in recent years is the time that shows take place. Should venues adapt to the reality that a lot of people can’t go to 11 p.m. shows, especially on weeknights? In 2017, NOW Toronto surveyed 1,000 readers on their concert-going habits for their Vanishing Venues cover story. Thirty-four per cent of respondents preferred headliners go on between 9 and 10:30 p.m., and another 27 per cent preferred 10:30 to midnight. Interestingly, only 2 per cent chose midnight or later.
Toronto promoter, publicist, and manager Mar Sellars wrote an article for NOW last year that argued that earlier start and end times could very well encourage larger, diverse audiences that include more 9-to-5ers, suburbanites, parents, students, and seniors. In this article she notes that in the UK live music generally ends at 11 p.m., and at 9 p.m. in Japan. So what is it about North American markets that are stopping us from having earlier shows?
Lots of business that also double as music venues have already figured this out. Places like Bar Robo, Pressed, and The Record Centre already have earlier shows. But they’re also not solely music venues, which means that establishing a music culture that occurs within a defined period in the evening can give customers an idea of when “cafe” time is, and when “music venue” time is. Ending by 11 p.m. means that more people who work in the morning get a chance to at least experience some of the show and, hopefully, spend some of their hard-earned dollars. In a city with one of the highest median incomes in Canada, there are lots of people with disposable income in Ottawa, but they may be limited by show start times. Don’t we want these people to come out and support the music culture?
Music culture is the key factor here. Should all shows start earlier? Probably not. Certain venues like House of TARG draw a late-night crowd who are used to late shows, and are okay with that. They, as a venue, have built a music culture that thrives in the early morning hours.
The 27 Club ends shows at 11 p.m. and then allow people to come dance and party to DJs afterwards until late. This marks a shift in culture from “live music” crowd to “nightclub” crowd, and the business adapts to both. Perhaps it’s time for more venues to realize that earlier shows could mean more business, more inclusiveness, and ultimately more participation in that culture.
Another hard reality music venues are facing is higher overhead costs for operations. Just like the housing market, the cost of rental or ownership of a space is inevitably rising. This poses the question: is a business that solely operates at night for live music viable?
A recent study found that one-third of venues surveyed as part of the UK’s first live music census (2017) reported struggles with increased costs. While findings confirmed that money spent on live music events contributes hugely to local economies, and that many people attend events in smaller spaces, small and medium-sized music venues are still the most at risk for closure.
Dependence on alcohol sales is a primary challenge that venues face. With more and more venues closing their doors in cities all over the world, it is becoming more apparent that small and medium-sized places with diversified revenue streams are more able to weather the storm. Being open during the day and finding new ways to bring in money might be a key way for live music spots to survive as we move towards 2020.
Places like House of TARG offer perogies and a pinball experience for families during the day. Bar Robo and Pressed are study havens with delicious food and coffee offerings. Black Squirrel operates as an indie bookstore and cafe. The Burdock in Toronto is a craft brewery adjoined to an intimate performance space. To an extent, diversification relieves some of the pressure of having to sell high volumes of alcohol and night time shows, enhancing the viability of the business.
The truth is mainstream live music culture will be centred around late nights and heavy alcohol sales for the foreseeable future. But things are changing. If more business owners find ways to bring in revenue from alternative sources, it could open the door to more community-centred spaces, new audiences, enhanced inclusivity, and a sustainable model for the next generation of live music venues to work from.
* Matías is the founder and editor of the local music blog Ottawa Showbox.