Nov 9

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The Future of Live Music and Venues

Is This Model Broken?

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So as a lot of people know, I am a big fan of the hours (9-1am) I used to play in bars back in the 70’s & 80’s for a multitude of reasons. Last week I posed two questions to people on Facebook. 1) Would musicians/patrons prefer the 9-1am hours for live music (or earlier) and 2) Do you like a cover charge at the door.

Let’s deal with #2 question first.

Most people it seems have no issue with paying a cover charge IF it goes to the band performing, which makes sense. In a way it does as the venue owner uses that fund collected at the door throughout the night to pay the band at the end of their night’s performance. To to be clear however, that charge collected at the door does NOT go to the band on top of the bands wage negotiated for the performance – it’s not “extra” money given to the band on top of their wage.

That is not to infer that the venue is not being truthful, that money simply supplements the venue’s entertainment budget for that night – nothing afoul there at all. Now most people have no issue paying a door charge for a good band, makes sense but at the same time it’s a “choice” by the patron to pay the door charge and venture in. If they don’t like the band after paying the door charge well that is a personal preference thing and cannot be held against the venue in any way. As with a lot of things in life it’s a matter of buyer beware, and you have made your choice on your own free will.

Some bands charge the door as in selling tickets and forgo the “wage” being paid to them by the bar – why – because they hedge on selling more tickets than what the bar will pay them as a wage and thus they walk away at the end of the evening with far more money in their pocket. The venue wins as they are not invested in paying a wage and they enjoy the sales from the food and alcohol for the entire night – both parties win.


Now the topic of the hours of live music.

On December 1st, 1996 bars in Ontario moved to later hours for serving alcohol, with that move, live music was shuffled as well to keep in line with the later hours that patron could remain in establishments drinking. That was all good at first, people were thrilled that they could stay out an entire 60 minutes with their friends having a good time and the bands/artists simply jostled their set times an hour later at the start/end times. The caveat to this is that in 1996 while I certainly liked the extra hour of drinking, I was only 48 years of age.

In 1996 the Ontario employment rate was 60.2%, The private sector created 90,000 jobs, while the public sector lost 10,000 jobs. The largest employment gains in 1996 were in the wholesale and retail trade sector, with 44,000 new jobs, followed by the business and personal services sector, up 30,000 new jobs, and the manufacturing sector, up 16,000 new jobs.

Sunday shopping had come into play in June of 1992 so that would explain the spike in wholesale and retail trade sector jobs that would have been fully entrenched by 1996. The economy was slow but one economic rule that always is in play is that when times are hard, people will continue to flock to the movies and restaurants to escape the mundane pressure of tough economic times.

So, we are at a point in time where people had a bit of money in their pocket but a large section of the employment force that would be supporting venues and live music, were now working on Sundays. Up until 2008 people could smoke in designated parts of venues that were dedicated to smokers and of course you could have a beer and a smoke on an outdoor patio without threat of you or the venue being marched off to San Quinten prison as a result.

Everyone was thrilled with the later bar hours for the most part (maybe not the musicians) until closing time. Staff of the venues were required to stay behind to get the venue ready for the next day shift which meant that they were now there until at least 3am. Patrons who flooded the streets had to wait for cabs longer which wasn’t preferential in cold weather, stupid people took advantage of that extra hour of drinking to get some extra courage to fight whoever looked at them the wrong way and venues were making more money from the extra hour of business but were also dealing with the cost of paying their staff for an extra hour, higher insurance rates, the cost of electricity/heat/water and increased inventory cost to make sure they didn’t run “dry” at 1:15am.

Then the one thing that nobody fed into the equation took place – patrons grew older.


Fast forward to now and here we are twenty-two years later – much has changed.

The musicians who played in the nineties and before, have now grown kids, grand-children and habitual naps before going out. The patrons from that era have followed the same track or left the “live venue entertainment” scene altogether.

Employment has changed as well as a multitude of factories has their employees working six to seven days a week and instead of having Saturdays and Sundays off, their “weekends are usually on staggered week days. The cost of doing business for venue owners has changed too. Long term leases have increased as has employee wages, insurance, taxes and the cost of buying product such as food and alcohol from the Beer monopoly at a higher cost than us as citizens pay.

Patrons are more and more stating the same line anymore as to why they either don’t attend live music or leave between 11pm to midnight: “It’s too late to go see a band at 10pm or staying past midnight is simply too late for me anymore.”

What happens here is that a venue loses revenue from those patrons who don’t come out at all or leave early and don’t stay and purchase more food and alcohol. The bands (indie or cover) are playing to less people and in some cases when there is not a full bar, which while it is not their fault, reflects that the band is not pulling an audience to see them live – which is not accurate.

The fixed costs of the venue remain the same yet with declining audiences, they then too have to balance out either to cut back on their staff or cut back on live music – nether of which is a welcomed decision.

I look around town and there is a multitude of venues that start earlier such as London Music Hal, Fireside Grill, Fox and Fiddle, Olive R Twists to name but a few – and they try and make it work so people can come have some dinner and stay for the show.

I’m greatly concerned myself for the two parties – bands that count on filling the seats to justify their employment and the financial stability of venues to continue with live music under the financial restrictions of opening the doors on a day to day basis.

The established bars in the city have an older demographic and is not supported with some exceptions by the under 30 crowd. What happens when the older crowd stop going to see the live acts playing now? They are already on the decrease for the above reason of shows starting too late, what happens in 5-10 years?

I really believe that if venues switched to an earlier format regarding time and they did it together and stayed the course, that it would eventually correct a situation that is only going to deteriorate as time goes by. Bands end at 11pm or 12am and bars can have house music, if patrons want to catch their favorite acts they plan for dinner and the show at the venue of their choice.

The London Music Hall, The Bud – they both have start times of 7-8pm and bring in larger acts and they succeed – no matter the genre or the demographic they are targeting and both are extremely successful venues. Earlier start times might also get musicians to ensure that they promote their shows more and prompt their fans and friends to attend as 50% of that responsibility falls on the band as well as the venue.

Look at some of the most successful bands around town that draw large and loyal followings such as ZED, Swagger, Orangemen, Dave’s Not Here to name but a few. They don’t play that often, have a killer set and do their homework on promo – result – they pack a venue.

Most of London’s long-established musicians no longer do late bar hours such as Doug Varty, Chris Murphy to name a couple – they play earlier sets and their following still comes out and fills the venue as it more suits their lifestyle.

Time will tell but as a good friend of mine told me recently at a show “Something’s got to give” and a lot of people that night had the same opinion and it wasn’t due to the lack of skill from the bands.

People will adapt, question is will there be the will to make a radical change? You can see quite clearly that this model isn’t working anymore, and it was compounded by the disastrous “No Smoking on Patios” policy that crippled hundreds of venues across the province.

In 10 years I won’t be playing but we can’t afford to lose more venues and further impede places for bands to play in the meantime.

-         Jim McCormick