British Columbia’s musicians and concert halls prepare to start again after struggling over a year
Credit: Conor Cunningham
Zolas — Cody Hiles (left), Zachary Gray and Dwight Abell — are ready to roll
While industry players are optimistic for the rest of 2022, some wonder why their business couldn’t stay afloat during COVID
Zachary Gray, who has been unemployed since the start of the pandemic, is one of many local musicians hit hard by COVID-19 closures. “Vancouver is a place that constantly prompts you to give up music and go,” says Gray, lead singer of the Zolas, an independent rock group made up of three musicians. “But in this case, it was especially tempting to do it for a lot of people.”
In a city where it was already difficult for musicians to make a decent living, COVID prevented them from performing as the provincial government ordered concert halls closed. Unlike bars and restaurants, concert halls and nightclubs couldn’t fall back on outdoor seating. Some homeowners got the green light to reopen last May, but not everyone wanted to spend the money reconfiguring their spaces, only to be told something different a month later.
This group included the red room, which has been providing live music to Vancouverites since the 1980s. Although Dale McRitchie had to lay off all of his staff after it closed in March 2020, government funding helped keep the family business going. “We’re ready to go,” McRitchie says of a likely summer reopening as restrictions are lifted. “Store the beers.”
He is one of the lucky ones. In 2018, British Columbia was home to 903 live music companies, most of which operated festivals (44%) and venues (36%), global consulting firm Nordicity estimates. The sector generated some $ 740 million in revenue for 2017. But recent projections from the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, whose members include concert halls, show the pandemic could shrink British Columbia’s hotel industry from a quarter to a third.
Still, local concert hosts are optimistic. Alvaro Prol, owner of It’s Blueprint Entertainment, manager of events, clubs, restaurants and pubs, predicts Vancouver will have a good summer and fall season. “We are ready for anything and every scenario,” says Prol. “We’ve been all the time, just now there’s a little more clarity.”
Gray wonders why the live music industry couldn’t find a way to stay afloat during the crisis. “If our industry had the same kind of lobby as food and drink, which was running at a certain capacity all the time,” he says, “I think we would have had at least some sort of outdoor concert. “
After postponing their national tour four times since the start of COVID, the Zolas are hoping it won’t happen again. “Now we’re booking shows because people are pretty confident that by winter we’ll be able to play,” Gray said.