TORONTO — Indoor concerts are slowly coming back to life in Ontario, but venue owners say the latest COVID-19 guidelines will dampen any significant return to live music in the coming months.
At first glance, new rules that lifted capacity limits in “select settings” last weekend seemed to allow 100 per cent capacity at all live shows.
However, venue owners say they were disappointed to learn the policies only apply to spaces with seating — mostly stadiums, arenas and theatres. That’s left smaller venues without seats unable to hold shows unless they install chairs, a move they say dramatically reduces capacity and makes some planned concerts unfeasible.
Erin Benjamin, chief executive of the Canadian Live Music Association, said the “vast majority” of concert venues are now in a tough spot. Most of the country’s live spaces are “general admission” venues, or standing room only, and tickets for many upcoming shows were sold with the idea ticketholders wouldn’t be seated.
At the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, putting seats into the standing space cuts the room’s capacity nearly in half to 250 people, said owner Jeff Cohen. That’s a major deterrent for bands, especially ones from outside the country, who can’t justify bankrolling a Canadian tour under those economics.
Cohen said independent concert promoter Collective Concerts, as well as Toronto venues Lee’s Palace and the Horseshoe, have cumulatively cancelled 53 shows over the past month after deciding the current seating rules made them impossible to hold.
“That’s a lot of workers, from sound techs to stage loaders not working, and artists having major holes on their tour,” he said.
“Toronto is often one of their highest paydays on their North American tour.”
Other venues across the province say they are struggling to keep acts on the schedule, too.
Paul Maxwell, owner of Waterloo, Ont. venue Maxwell’s, said it’s been “extremely challenging” to predict Ontario’s guidelines and sell tickets without knowing what might be allowed in the near future.
“How do we plan when the rules keep changing it seems like on a weekly basis?” he said of capacity restrictions.
“Having 50 per cent of revenue on anything that you’re normally used to is a big blow financially.”
Lisa Zbitnew, who operates Toronto’s Phoenix and Ottawa’s Bronson Centre Music Theatre, said many live acts would rather book shows in regions with more certainty around their COVID-19 guidelines than Ontario where venues are at reduced capacity. She’s already watched most of October’s concerts vacate the schedule and she’s staring down the rest of the calendar year with much uncertainty.
“These are shows that were announced back in the spring or summer, they’ve been on sale for a very long time, and many have sold to full capacity,” she said.
She expects more international acts will opt to reroute tours away from Canada and into border states early next year, while other performers may delay nationwide tours until there’s more certainty in Ontario.
Some Canadian artists are trying to find compromises that accommodate the venues, their fans and their budgets.