Epidemic City

A look at the communities that are banding together in the fight to keep doors open and spirits alive for local music venues in a post-pandemic city

Alexis Zygan // Contributor

Music venues across Vancouver, namely The Wise Hall, Rickshaw, Vogue Theatre, Biltmore Cabaret and The Imperial, are entering their eighth month coping with the eerie void of desolate stages and empty seats collecting dust. Since doors shuttered in March, the regular scene of sidewalks filled with crowds of laughter and rambles on a Saturday night between sets has faded like the smoke from a half-finished cigarette. The typical Vancouver audiophile now sits at home, scrolling through the memory lane of social media and live streams. Many audience members, musicians and industry veterans like sound technician Kennan Zeigler-Sungur had no idea their last concert was also a farewell to the stage for the foreseeable future. Now, Zeigler-Sungur is imagining a new way to connect the Vancouver music scene—all from his backyard.

A weekend show is an opportunity to blow off steam, connect with friends and support musicians. According to study in the Annals of the New York Academy of Science, live music reduces symptoms of depression and lowers levels of stress hormones like cortisol. The turn of the century schoolhouse walls and beer-soaked floors of venues like The Wise Hall are ground zero for connection and community. Venues are fundamental to the Vancouver cultural landscape by bringing together people from diverse communities. Entertainment is the heart of cultural prosperity, and musicians depend on their local scene to discover and kick-start their career. Without the arts and the space artists inhabit, cities forfeit unique cultural capital in exchange for more of the same corporate monopolized nightlife now populating much of Granville Street. CLMA predicts that in the face of the pandemic, unless something changes, 96 percent of live music companies will go bankrupt without an audience. 

It’s not just musicians that take center stage. The Canadian Live Music Associated (CLMA) estimates that 72,000 employees depend on venues for their livelihood. Booking agents, sound engineers, and bartenders all weave together a pastiche of the live music experience. When the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) ended this past September, those like industry veteran Zeigler-Sungur were forced to find a different path. 

In a home studio out of his backyard in East Vancouver, Zeigler-Sungur muses on 13 years of work as a sound technician.

“Something you don’t realize in the moment is the personal and emotional connection beyond just making a living.”

Zeigler-Sungur’s wife also books bands to play shows at The Wise Hall.

In a turquoise heritage building a few blocks from Commercial Drive is The Wise Hall, a grass-roots joint that’s served the East Vancouver community for over two decades. Once the host of a murder mystery in The X-Files, these days it’s a hub for East Vancouver locals, live music, flea markets, comedians, wrestling and burlesque—occasionally at the same time. Like hundreds of small venues across the province on March 15, The Wise Hall closed their doors to the public. They may be the last to reopen when restrictions are lifted, and some venues like Federicos and Stormcrow Tavern will  never open their doors again. 

The annual Saint Patrick’s Day event with Shane’s Teeth and Staggers and Jaggs was the first to go, according to owner Norm Elmore. “We were hoping for a couple of months, [but] this has certainly been a larger impact than we saw at that time,” Elmore shared. Even after receiving an interest-free loan from the Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA), The Wise Hall struggles to pay bills without a reliable way to make revenue. Back in June when there was a stronger public imperative to slow the spread of COVID, lower case numbers provided a glimmer of hope that venues could reopen with half capacity. “We were developing our plan to do smaller shows, reopen our hall and do some solo artist stuff with social-distancing precautions,” said Elmore. Yet, with cases skyrocketing, provincial health officials announced new restrictions including immediate closure of all nightclubs, banquet halls and prohibiting live music. Now, The Wise Hall hopes to connect with their community through live-streaming.

Weekends spent drinking beers and listening to live music at familiar community hubs have vanished in life post-pandemic; replaced with Netflix and sourdough starters. COVID-19 deepens a pre-existing precariousness of Vancouver venues, namely the dependence on a hazy mix of filled seats and pints to turn a profit. The integration of alcohol into the sales model hinders accessibility for listeners of all ages. “That is not a sustainable business model. The musician becomes a glorified Duff Man,” Zeigler-Sungur shared, drawing on over a decade of experience working in the field. “[Venues] didn’t have the resources to keep going beforehand, let alone doing it at half capacity.” Financial support in the form of comprehensive compensation from Creative BC could cover expenses to ensure all residents of Vancouver, not just the ones over 19, could attend. However, the first and perhaps most existential challenge is recognizing the cultural importance of stable music spaces. 

Rising rent that prices out valuable spaces is an ongoing challenge for the local scene, only made worse under the weight of the pandemic—many venues collapse under the financial pressure. Impermanence defines performance spaces in Vancouver, with a large swath of shows that are hosted in abandoned warehouses for a few months before development begins. In 2019 alone, Vancouver lost 333, Index and Stylus Records. Each of which hosted a variety of artists from hardcore, electronic, folk, indie and funk. Also, restaurants that feature live music require everyone to remain seated. “One person gets excited and starts dancing and the place can get a fine—I have seen that happen. You need a cabaret license,” he said. Dance is an expressive way to connect with the music and should ideally be tolerated in all spaces where musicians perform. 

To stay connected with the community during quarantine, Zeigler-Sungur, with the help of his friend and videographer, hosted semi-acoustic, short length shows from his intimate home studio. Be Wells Sessions is in collaboration with 100.5 FM CO-OP Radio, as part of the 2020 Virtual ArtsWells Festival—connecting people in film, musicians and other performers. Musicians gather in the studio with their gear, after forsaking practising over the past few months, to take a moment to bounce back into rhythm. Jen Davidson boldly plays the saxophone, while Mary Matheson softly strums the guitar while singing brassy folk melodies about whiskey next to her. Bigger bands play in the backyard to adhere to social distancing guidelines. Missy D performs a sultry acoustic rendition against mandala tapestry and prayer flags draped against the house. 

“Going to shows [makes] you feel normal,” said Zeigler-Sungur, reminiscing. COVID pushed creatives to focus more on documenting their local music scene through audio and visual recording.Through cataloging, there is a lot of value for the growth of our unique culture on the West Coast,” he said. Readers interested in watching performances videotaped from the Virtual ArtsWells Festival can access them through CO-OP Concerts, a catalogue of fifteen artists from a variety of genres. 

For venue operators, musicians, and music fans alike, there’s not quite a happy ending on the horizon, particularly after the Canadian Medical Association published a study that social-distancing may last until 2022. As a community, all we can do is implement mutual aid to support struggling musicians and gig workers. The Wise Hall plans to use part of their grant money to organize a fundraising campaign. “This has certainly been a larger impact than we saw at that time,” notes Elmore. Through united community support, Elmore is hopeful The Wise Hall will make it out alive.

While we as a country tackle COVD-19, Vancouver’s local music scene is undergoing a crisis that underpins many of the same unaddressed problems; among others, the unsustainable business model of music venues and lack of all-ages spaces. “It’s a really hard time to know how to do things, most of the things these folks are good at organizing involve events and people,” said Zeigler-Sungur. Purchasing merchandise from local musicians, donating to mutual-aid campaigns, and sharing on social media to promote comprehensive local art organizations all help keep the scene, and the people embedded in it, afloat. 

Kennen Zeigler-Sungur’s radio show No Apologies Necessary shares interviews with Canadian musicians, airing on CRFO 100.5 FM Wednesdays between 2:30 pm-3:30 pm. There’s still unexpected obstacles that may make hosting online shows near to impossible, like Facebook’s update which blocks musicians from sharing and live streaming their music. Right now, however, that’s not something he’s worried about. “Creative people are good at figuring out different ways of doing things, and in those problems where there is a challenge sometimes, it creates new opportunities to do different things.” He leans back and pauses for a moment; it’s an interlude of quiet much like the halls of venues around the city.“Sometimes, that only benefits the establishment, which isn’t always great.” 

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