Down but not out: Artists find creative outlets during their forced break

Montreal musicians who made it through the digital revolution face fresh uncertainty. How will the industry — especially smaller venues that are the lifeblood of the scene — recover?

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What a long strange trip it’s been for local artists over the past six months.

But artists are a resilient bunch. They’re used to adversity.

Even prior to the pandemic, many of them saw their revenues drop big time as a result of the digital revolution. Maybe that’s why folks in the entertainment milieu are cautiously optimistic even though the COVID-19 crisis has wreaked havoc with every aspect of the arts business.

Montreal singer-songwriter Jason Bajada remembers exactly where and when he was when he realized the world had changed. He’d been living in Los Angeles during the winter, wanting to spend more time in a city he loves, playing occasional gigs. He played a small club in Hollywood during the first week of March and everything seemed to be going fine for him.

The pandemic hit home March 14 at the Chateau Marmont, a legendary L.A. hotel known for its rock-star guests. He was there with fellow Montrealer Matt Holubowski, who’d just played a show in L.A.

“We were on the patio of Chateau Marmont having brunch on the 14th. It was a Saturday morning, and there was no one at the restaurant,” said Bajada. “We were the only ones. That’s when we thought: ‘Oh this is pretty serious’.”

Hearing the call for all Canadians to try to come home, Bajada and his girlfriend packed their car two days later and zipped across the continent as fast as they could, arriving back in their home town three and a half days later.

One immediate effect of the health crisis was to zap the incomes of musicians. Public gatherings were cancelled in most jurisdictions, including Quebec, and so all tours had to be nixed. This was particularly tough for musicians, given that concerts have become their main source of revenue now that record sales have virtually disappeared.

Bajada was lucky in the sense that he didn’t have big touring plans for 2020 and was at work finishing a new album. Like many musicians, Bajada began posting songs on various social-media platforms. He misses concerts, both as a performer and a fan, but he’s not sure they’ll return in the same form as in the pre-COVID world.

“Just picture me at Osheaga, I think it was two or three years ago, I’m in the pit, like right up front, watching Wolf Parade perform, and it’s super hot and I literally have sweaty bodies moshing against me and rubbing up against my arm,” Bajada said. “I’m already someone who likes to preserve my perimeter. I can’t imagine (in a post-COVID world) being at a concert squeezed up against a sweaty armpit.”

The provincial government ordered the cancellation of major cultural and sporting events in the summer months, which shut down all festivals, like Osheaga, the Montreal International Jazz Festival and Just for Laughs. Some, like the jazz fest, presented smaller online-only versions. Most just decided to wait for summer 2021. Just For Laughs will hold a mini online event this fall.

Some promoters booked concerts at drive-in theatres. The Royalmount Drive-In Event Theatre opened in late June with a mix of live music, comedy, movies and fundraising events. Quebecor also produced around 100 concerts at five drive-in locations across the province over the course of the summer.

The forced break led musicians to find other creative outlets. Montreal band Half Moon Run began making what they called Covideos, videos of their songs recorded with each of the four members in their respective homes. Their label Glassnote Records just released an album featuring 11 of these songs. The downside is they had to cancel a few of the biggest shows of their lives, notably a show in July on the main stage of the Festival d’été de Québec, on a bill with The National.

“It’s upsetting for sure,” said Half Moon Run multi-instrumentalist Dylan Phillips. “But as with anything, a crazy thing happens and it gives you an opportunity to learn from it. … But it really made me miss live music. It made me think there must be so many people dying to get out to a show again, both on the musician and listener side. So I have to believe it’s gotta come back. I’m sure we’re going to have to do a lot of adapting. It’s hard to imagine major festivals with over 80,000 people being able to function if the pandemic is still happening.”

The consensus in the concert business seems to be that major shows will be back in the summer or fall of 2021, but no one really knows. The major concert promoters will survive, but many fear the big losers here may be the small clubs that can’t book any shows at all due to social-distancing rules. Mauro Pezzente, co-owner of Casa del Popolo and La Sala Rossa, said in August that to follow those rules, Casa’s concert capacity would be limited to just 12 people.

Nick Farkas, senior vice-president of concerts at Evenko, said it’s been a roller-coaster ride the past six months. What Farkas sees is a gradual reopening. Evenko reopened its venue L’Étoile at the Dix30 in recent weeks and they are booking 250-capacity concerts in the 1,000-capacity venue in Brossard. The company had wanted to open a reduced-capacity site at Jean-Drapeau Park, where it holds festivals like Osheaga and ÎleSoniq, but that fell through. Evenko will survive the storm but he worries about small indie venues.

“I hope that the smaller clubs can make it through this because they’re the lifeblood of what happens in the industry,” Farkas said. “Support for the small venues is going to be key over the next six months because it’s already been very difficult for them. The feeder system for everything we do starts in the small clubs.”

Cinemas had a particularly difficult time. They had to close in March at the start of the pandemic and most reopened in Quebec in July but the biggest problem is that Hollywood stopped releasing films. The much-anticipated Tenet finally hit screens in Canada in late August. But there are still almost no blockbusters coming out. Disney released its live-action remake of Mulan on its streaming service Disney+ rather than in theatres.

Guzzo Cinemas president Vincent Guzzo said that when his cinemas reopened in July, the first people to come back were families with young kids, but he says the core demographic of 20-to-35-year-olds hasn’t returned.

“Ultimately the biggest problem will always be content,” Guzzo said. “We are a content-driven business. You’ve got the right movie, everybody is running to watch it. You’ve got the wrong movie, nobody’s in the theatre, pandemic or no pandemic.”

The pandemic also put a major damper on film and TV production in the province. Some production has resumed, but it’s no easy task given social-distancing regulations, and many producers are simply postponing their shoots until 2021.


On the six-month anniversary of the start of the lockdown in Quebec, the Montreal Gazette’s reporting team looks at the changes the pandemic has wrought, and what it will mean for the future of the province. This is the fourth instalment in the series.

Part 1:  Six months in: How the pandemic has transformed Quebec