How Ontario musicians and their fans are struggling under COVID-19

Page Street, a usually quiet place in Toronto just south of Bloor, was not so quiet on Saturday August 1, thanks to Dov Beck-Levine and his band Dov’s Scrambled Jazz Eggs.

Beck-Levine and his six-piece band held a live performance outside of his family’s home. His friends and neighbours were able to enjoy the music after the musician decided it was safe to hold a show where audience members wore masks and were seated six feet apart. The performers also stayed six feet apart. The drummer was especially far away from the others: he was playing on the porch.

“It was honestly one of the favourite shows I’ve ever performed. There is something about that neighbourhood connection,” Beck-Levine, 20, says in an interview from his apartment in Boston, where he is now attending college.

His band even ended up playing an impromptu “Happy Birthday” for a young woman in a neighbouring backyard.

Toronto was once a place where rousing live music could be found at almost any local bar. Now, according to the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition (CIVC), 90 per cent of Canadian venues are at risk of shutting down. At a time where it feels as though people need music the most, numerous venues are closing and live performers are looking for income elsewhere.

Canadian Independent Venue Coalition submitted photo.

Many artists have had to put their professional plans on hold due to COVID-19. For his part, Beck-Levine postponed the release of his album. It was supposed to be released in March.

“I had a session booked with 17 musicians in the studio,” Beck-Levine says. “That album has been delayed for a year which ultimately means a career has been delayed for a year.”

Socially-distanced music

Beck-Levine currently attends Berklee College in Boston where he studies music. He finds it more difficult to make a connection with his audience, as he is literally distanced from the music community which he built in Toronto.

It is a dilemma that is familiar to Steffi Goodfield, the organizer for various open mic music events in York Region. She is also fighting to maintain the connection between live performers and their audience and venues.

Goodfield runs the open mic program for Turtle Jack’s, a restaurant in Richmond Hill, Ont. Before the pandemic, Goodfield promoted similar open mic events at four different venues. The other three made the hard decision to cancel live performances just before the first lockdown came into effect.

“There are people who are just dying to play. I have a pretty large list of people, all the people I met at open mics over the years, that want to play and are doing their best to make it work,” she says.

Goodfield represents a variety of artists with varying backgrounds in music. Some performers are amateurs and others are professionals.

Though Goodfield usually makes equipment available to performers, she is no longer able to do so, due to COVID-19. Performers are now expected to bring their own supplies.

Goodfield is doing her best to come up with day-to-day innovations to combat the obstacles COVID-19 has presented. They set up a wall of heaters outside Turtle Jacks after indoor singing was banned, to help protect the performers from the inclement weather.

Fragile system for venues

The Canadian Independent Venue Coalition composed a list of around 30 popular venues across Canada that have permanently closed during the pandemic. It published a study showing that 96 per cent of the overall independent music industry is suffering financially and at risk of closing. The organization started the movement, #SupportCanadianVenues to push for government action on this issue. They are calling for help to amend the “systematic financial fragility” in the business that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic.

York Region was allowed indoor dining until news came out that the province will be put under lockdown starting Dec. 14. Though many of the tables at Turtle Jack’s were full every evening during the summer, Goodfield still noted there was a significant decline in numbers since the initial lockdown in March 2020.

Turtle Jack’s no longer has the financial ability to pay its artists when they perform at the venue. Now performers must participate in this event for free. Goodfield says that the dynamic between venues and artists becomes even harder when artists rely on live performance as their main source of income at a time when venues have no money to give.

“I will give the performers a beer and buy them some nachos, besides that, there is not much else we can afford,” she says.

Virtual open mic

Goodfield decided that the last outdoor open mic event would take place on Nov. 29.

“It was cozy for the performers but packing up in the dark and cold was only going to get more difficult.”

She pivoted to resume virtual open mics that can be watched on Facebook and on the York Region Open Mic website.

Miss ‘getting sweaty’

Lacey Novinka, an avid live music listener, recalls a time of community and vitality that she feels the pandemic took away from her. She now finds her live music through a screen at home, sometimes coming through with a slight delay.

“I miss being with all these people, jumping up and down yelling, getting sweaty. Once that’s all gone, it’s hard,” Novinka says.

Before the pandemic, she had bought tickets to three upcoming concerts, some of which are now cancelled while others have been postponed

Kira, a jazz singer in Toronto, who also happens to be part of Dov’s Scrambled Jazz Eggs, is working as a server and going to school while trying to maintain her music career during the pandemic.

“At first it was cool to see what everyone been doing on social media, the creativity has been really cool, but I’m sure we would all much rather be doing music in person or live,” Kira says.

Kira has been learning how to produce her own music on music software so she does not require other performers to contribute their instrumental tracks. She has also been performing in online shows with her ’50s swing band of about 25 people, which she admits can be pretty hard to organize.

“For the first few months, I was just learning how to use the software and get the sounds I wanted. I still kind of am in that process, but I put up a Sound Cloud [account] just for fun and I haven’t really had a goal, but I’ve had a lot of self-growth,” she says.

Beck-Levine also understands how artists’ “hunger” to get into music during the pandemic.

“I would say it’s always a great time to make music. But now is an incredible time. I went to my local Long and McQuaid and was talking to one of the people there and he said ‘Whenever people get any bad news a bunch of people come in to buy out all our low price, but usable stock.’”

Beck-Levine is keeping busy on social media and used it to promote his recently released new single, Everything Is All Just Things on December 1. He has done various live streams and has recently posted a pre-pandemic performance on YouTube with ten other musicians at his college in Boston.

Though many artists are financially suffering under current circumstances some artists have managed to achieve success because of the pandemic

Kira credited TikTok for having an important role in creating popular artists during the pandemic. The repetition of sounds used in TikTok can cause small artists to “blow up” fast.

This being said, many community-involved artists have still not received their big break and are having to look for wages elsewhere. Steffi Goodfield worries that music in Toronto will never fully recover. She is doubtful that community venues that have been closed since the start of lockdown will ever reopen.

“People are always going to want to play. People are ways going to want to listen. But you have got to have a place to do that,” she says.

Lacey Novinka looks forward to the end of the pandemic where she will finally be able to watch her much-anticipated concerts, in person. Her only hope is that people come out of quarantine revitalized and ready to jump back into the world of live music.

Meanwhile musicians and promoters say there is a need for venues, audiences, and live performers to work together if there is any hope of regaining the vibrant music scene that once existed in Toronto.

Artists giving back

Beck-Levine and Dov’s Scrambled Jazz Eggs used their August live show as an opportunity to collect donations for the organization Arts From Home, a youth-run social justice organization based in Toronto.

Proceeds donated to Arts From Home help minority communities and struggling artists stay afloat during COVID-19.

Arts From Home organized Canada’s first Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) festival. The BIPOC Fest, which took place on December 19 -20, hosted 20 musicians.

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Posted: Dec 16 2020 4:27 pm
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