By Howard Druckman
More than three months have passed since self-isolation was imposed by public health regulations in necessary response to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It’s been a hard 100 days for music-makers.
In an era where digital streaming is already the predominant form of listening to music, with meagre royalty rates, live performance was one of the most reliable ways for those who make music to make a living. With live concerts shut down, music creators have turned in full force to live-stream online concerts to survive – whether through digital “tip-jar” contributions, tickets for the performances, or royalties from the SOCAN Encore program.
Even as restrictions begin to ease in some regions of the country, the first wave isn’t over yet, and the possibility of a second wave still looms. So the scarcity of live performances may last longer than initially expected.
The good news is, Canadian ingenuity is conquering isolation with adaptation. A handful of musicians have applied their creativity to the challenge of presenting actual safe, in-person shows during the pandemic. Necessity is the mother of invention, and some of the solutions they’ve come up with are pretty elegant.
Drive-In Concerts. The first planned drive-in concert (a live performance at a drive-in theatre ) in Canada that I heard about was by Québecois duo 2Frères. Then July Talk and Brett Kissel announced theirs, and more have followed, including Ottawa’s RBC Bluesfest with the NAC. It sounds like a good compromise to experience music live in-person, from the safety of your car. I love that it’s rejuvenating drive-ins, which had been languishing in quaint, nostalgic memory. A similar rooftop “drive-in” rock concert was planned for Prince George, British Columbia. Also in a similar vein, new organization Hotels Live is launching the first-ever hotel balcony concert series in Canada, not unlike Martha Wainwright’s balcony singalong in Montréal.
Micro-Concerts. Musicians can safely play to one person, or household clusters of two or four people, at a time. The Festif! Festival in Charlevoix, Québec, undertook a “doorway tour” series where musicians play one song in front of someone’s home, then move on to the next house. Calgary’s Matt Masters is booking curbside concerts for fans from the top of his mini-van to people in front of their homes. His fellow Calgarian Michael Bernard Fitzgerald is opening up his backyard for four-people-at-a-time micro-concerts. In Esquimalt, British Columbia, Jeff Stevenson stands on the bank of the Gorge Waterway, and serenades groups of boaters. Stéphanie Bédard, in Québec, is doing something similar with her “Lake Tour.” Montréal’s Dear Criminals played 72 one-song live shows in three days, at the Lion d’Or club, to two people at a time.
Mobile Stages. Musicians can actually tour, using portable venues that will maintain physical distance. This Fall, Michael Bernard Fitzgerald also plans to play farms across Canada, to 10 people a night, in a travelling open-air venue he built, “The Greenbriar.” Similarly, The Io Project is a new “anti-COVID” mobile stage that can safely allow live shows for up to 250 people, watching in household clusters of two or four people, isolated by plexiglass.
Some Other Ideas.
* How about a series of courtyard concerts, where musicians play in the courtyards of designated apartment buildings, while tenants enjoy the music from the safety of their own balconies?
* Or the inverse of that, where the musicians in a band each occupy a separate balcony in an apartment building, and play together, for an assembly of safely-distanced tenants in the courtyard?
* Perhaps solo musicians could be booked to play at regular intervals along hiking trails, or pathways in public parks, safely distanced, so people getting out for exercise during the pandemic might stop to hear some live music, enhancing their journeys.
* Municipalities across the country might allow restaurants to host patio performances, to further improve the outdoor dining experience (although Toronto ruled against them during its recent relaxation of regulations to combat the pandemic).
* Why not allow live shows at any central gazebos in public parks, as long as the audience maintains (moderately enforced) social distancing?
These smart adaptations prove that different kinds of in-person live shows are still available to us, and offer a few rays of hope that there’ll be more to come. Here’s to the next wave of creative thinking that helps to get us even further back to live.