With a rash of closings over the past several years, Montreal's small music venues were already in a precarious position, one that several owners said the COVID-19 pandemic has made even worse.
“I can't imagine a situation where everybody gets closed down or evicted, it just doesn't seem plausible,” said Sergio Da Silva, co-owner of St-Denis St.'s Turbo Haus. “At the same time, if this goes on for four months and I can't figure something out with my landlord, I will, more than likely, have to close down.”
In January, Ontario St. metal venue Co-Op Katacombes closed after 13 years of operation, citing the high cost of rent and business taxes. St-Laurent Blvd.s' Divan Orange closed in 2018 after a rash of noise complaints, the latest venue on the nightlife-heavy roadway to close its doors. Other closed venues over the past several years include Le Swimming, El Salon and Les Bobards while Cafe Les Bobards moved into 2018 and no longer hosts live music.
Small venues have all closed as non-essential businesses, but even before that rule came down from the provincial government last week, they were facing the cancellation of dozens of concerts featuring local and touring bands, with future shows in doubt due to the uncertain nature of the pandemic.
Evan Johnston, co-owner of St-Laurent's The Diving Bell, said his bar was able to survive because a busy concert schedule.
“What's on the table is, how are we going to be able to pay our rent and survive as a business. But the other aspect is we created The Diving Bell to be a space for artists to play,” he said. “If the venue's not there, there's no outlet for artists to play.”
Da Silva said his venue was actually seeing an uptick in business over the past year. He said the fact that the venue has steady bar revenue has allowed them to thrive while others have closed.
“Our rent is like five-figures. It's one thing to be in a situation where it's January and it's slow but you have money set aside to deal with that,” he said. “It's another thing entirely for it to be literally illegal for me to operate my business for a few months.”
Like most venues, Turbo Haus rents, rather than owns, their space. Da Silva said he's optimistic the venue can work something out with their landlord in the short term, with money already set aside for April's rent. But he noted that overhead costs like taxes and Hydro bills are still piling up.
“I feel like the government really wants small businesses and their landlords to try and work this out themselves,” he said. “I don't see a situation where they're going to come in and try to figure it out for everybody else, like pausing rent. Right now, we're figuring out with our landlord what we can do for the next couple of months to get through this.”
Both Da Silva and Johnston have signed onto a crowdsourcing effort on behalf of their staffs, who have been laid off during the lockdown. They have also figured out some ways to fundraise despite the closed doors; at least one band is donating proceeds from t-shirt sales to Turbo Haus while The Diving Bell hosted a livestreamed concert last week.
“We're looking to some alternatives, maybe selling some gift cards or t-shirts or looking for another way to do a stream without having anyone gather. We're kind of playing it day by day just like everybody else,” said Johnston.
Johnston said the federal government's relief package for laid-off workers eased some of the pressure in terms of his staff's future, but that the future of his own business is less assured.
“Even before this happened, the issues are balancing being able to pay rent that's going up all the time and paying a fair price to artists that are using your space,” he said. “A big issue is getting people to come out to shows. Obviously the better shows you put on, the better time you can give to people and the more people who will come. But there's a lot of things to do in the city, even with small venues closing.”
Despite the dire times, Da Silva said small venues remain the bedrock of Montreal's music scene.
“If you don't have spaces like ours, then you don't have bands who end up playing at these bigger spaces that everybody goes crazy for,” he said. “If you don't have a place to cut your teeth and learn how to tour and practice playing in front of people... The idea that only Bell Centre shows are important seems crazy to me. Without these smaller shows, you don't have those big shows. It just doesn't happen.”