Live music scene quiets down

Major concert venues scale down their booking as audiences scatter

Audience members take in last Friday’s Al Tuck and Old Man Leudecke show at The Artel, Kingston’s newest live music venue.
Audience members take in last Friday’s Al Tuck and Old Man Leudecke show at The Artel, Kingston’s newest live music venue.
Quinn Richardson

Only a couple of years ago, music fans in Kingston had to expertly budget both their time and money in order to balance their concert calendars.

But lately it seems easier on the wallet and the datebook to get to just about every show in town.

Even The Grad Club, a local live music staple, is scaling back the number of shows it books in a year.

Now that the beloved live music venue is only booking concerts Friday and Saturday evenings, replacing regular Thursday night music with a trivia night, 2007 will see about 64 shows at the venue, as compared to about 96 a year for 2004 and 2005.

“Three nights a week was oversaturating, I think, for the Kingston market,” said Virginia Clark, manager of The Grad Club. “I think two nights is fine ... it’s actually paid off. There’s a huge following for Trivia Night now.”

Clark said that since she scaled back her booking to two nights a week, all her shows have sold out.

“Because it’s a campus, it’s a transitory demographic, right?” she said, referring to the ebb and flow of the local music scene. “Every four years you have your musicgoers, and then you have people that just happen to come to the shows, and then maybe not all of them, they’re just occasional concertgoers ... but then that changes, people leave town, and I think it’s trickier in Kingston just because of that, for the music lover.”

Clark is booking some all-ages shows at the Sydenham Street United Church, such as Final Fantasy on April 10, but said using such a venue poses new obstacles.

“It’s expensive, the overhead, to do things that are outside of the bar and don’t already have the setup.”

The Grad Club’s capacity is around 150. Clark thinks the 5,000-seat Large Venue Entertainment Centre (LVEC)—which is scheduled to open in December—may allow Kingston to book larger acts such as The Tragically Hip, but that Kingston also needs a smaller, all-ages friendly option if the city hopes to draw more people out to live shows.

“It’d be great for music to have, if not a church, a space, a public space where all-ages can come,” she said. “ ... There’s so many interesting buildings already in Kingston that could be turned into a venue, like with the church in Toronto [The Music Gallery], or gallery venues, something like that too—just a bit bigger.”

While The Grad Club has reduced the number of shows it books by about a third, Rock Crew Productions’ drop in shows has been much more dramatic. Booking mostly at Elixir, which has a combined inside and outside capacity of just under 500, Rock Crew mounted 83 shows in 2004, 98 in 2005 and just 35 in 2006, 29 of those before the company’s founder, Chris Morris, retired from concert promoting in May.

Morris sold the company to Bryan Dewar, who took over in September 2006 and has been putting on a couple of shows a month.

Dewar said he thinks the Kingston music scene is cyclical and that it may be entering a downswing. “So I was wondering if I was taking over a sinking ship, which was pretty much my concern,” Dewar said. “But [Morris] was like, ‘No, if you promote the show, you can do it.’ And having done it now, I agree that if the show is what people want to see, and if you promote the show, you can get people out to it. It might not be as successful as it used to be, for whatever reason, but you can still do well.”

Like Clark, Dewar thinks Kingston’s live music scene would benefit from a venue more purely dedicated to concerts, with a smaller capacity than the planned LVEC.

“Right now, everything is its own entity, and then a music venue on the side. For example, Elixir is a bar, and a music venue on the side every now and then. Or The Grad Club, or even Clark Hall Pub, they’re their own entities and then they book shows on the side.”

While Dewar attributes some decline in audience numbers to the loss of first-year university students, who are now underage, a lack of all-ages venues has had the most serious impact on Kingston Punk Productions, operated by Marc Garniss.

“We used to do a lot of shows down at The Scherzo [the Wellington Street bar which closed in March 2006], and it was a really easy place to do shows. Like, they had a PA in there and they never charged bands to use the room ... and they were cool with doing all-ages from time-to-time there. ... Over the last couple years, [it was] sort of mismanaged into the ground, and a lot of people who went out to shows could definitely notice that.”

During its Scherzo years, KPP put on about 50 shows a year. In comparison, Garniss estimates that he put on barely half as many last year.

“[Now] we use the [Time to Laugh] Comedy Club a lot, because with the KPP shows we generally try to run them as all-ages shows. ... We have to rent it, and bring in a PA, and staff it, so there’s all these costs. So you don’t wanna just do a show for the sake of doing a show, or you’re going to lose money ... In terms of other bars letting us do all-ages, it’s pretty limited.”

Garniss has also found that his all-ages crowds are getting even younger.

This year, Garniss has been booking shows that he predicts will attract “an older crowd” at Clark Hall Pub. While Clark Hall has a similar capacity to The Grad Club, holding 160 people, outgoing Entertainment and Marketing Manager Matt MacLellan has been putting on more shows this year, not fewer.

“I think I changed the position a lot this year. We’ve always been an events-based bar, and I was soliciting bands a bit more I think than has happened in previous years,” he said.

MacLellan said Clark Hall has had more live music this year than in the last school year, with Thursdays and Saturdays being most consistently popular. Besides The Cowboys on Monday nights, Clark Hall has live music three to four nights a week.

“We’ve had a minimum of three live music events a week since I started … and we’re open a lot more. Last year we were closed a lot of Wednesdays and Thursdays.”

MacLellan identified the requirement of having non-students be signed into the bar as discouraging to potential concertgoers.

“It’s hard because we have to get people signed in. Like, the Fucked Up show, there were a lot of non-Queen’s kids there.”

MacLellan echoed his competitors’ sentiments by suggesting that Kingston needs an all-ages venue.

“There needs to be an all-ages venue [in Kingston] that is good, that has a decent capacity and isn’t separated down the middle or anything, like ‘You can’t go down this side with a drink.’ ”

Still, MacLellan is optimistic about Clark’s chances for growth as a music venue next year.

“People are starting to think of Clark as the place to play, and a lot of bands said, ‘Oh, this band told us to play here.’ ... So a lot of bands starting up in Toronto and Ottawa and Montreal create a network where they wanna come. So, the bands have found it, and now the people have to come. ... I think it’s on the upswing, but there’s a ways to go ...

“What’s really helped us is actually working with KPP, we’ve made a lot from that,” he said. “... I think that’s part of the building thing, like if everybody works with everybody else, it’s going to help.”

The Artel opened in May 2006 and began booking The Artel Concert Series last fall, featuring musicians such as Julie Doiron and Nathan Lawr. Most shows have sold out. The next concert in the series is Ottawa’s Snailhouse on April 28.

Artel shows are all-ages, often don’t serve alcohol, and begin around 7:30 or 8 p.m. to accommodate a neighbourhood of young families.

Greg Tilson, who helped start the Skeleton Park Music Festival last year, has become the music contact for the small gallery space, which has a capacity of less than 100 people.

Artel shows are all-ages, often don’t serve alcohol, and begin around 7:30 or 8 p.m. to accommodate a neighbourhood of young families.

Tilson said the Artel has been promoted as a concert venue mainly by word of mouth.

“It’s just getting a really good reputation as a place where you’re treated well and it’s a really quiet, receptive audience,” said Tilson. “The Artel’s certainly leaning more towards acoustic solo acts, because it’s so intimate and beautiful there—however, we did have The Bicycles and ohbijou, and that was awesome too.”

However, demand for The Artel as a music venue may be eclipsing its capacity or desired function.

“The Artel is still first and foremost a gallery, and so we’re still trying to determine in what role we want music. We don’t want music to eclipse the art—we want music to accentuate the art and bring in audiences to see the art and have a good balance there.”

Tilson is also booking upcoming shows at the Wellington Street Theatre (Amy Millan), Central Public School (Nathan Lawr) and possibly a summer rooftop show.

“I’m all about the alternative spaces because they’re more meaningful, and they’re more about the musicians and the interactions with the community,” Tilson said. “... Something that’s accessible is important, something that allows good interaction with the musicians and the audience, something that is aesthetically pleasing is nice too ... but I’m finding what makes a good venue is usually the people; how into the music are the audience?”

While Tilson acknowledges the arts community in Kingston is small, he characterized it as very supportive.

“I’ve only been here three years, and I still don’t understand how this city works. ... I know back in the ’90s of course during all The Hip and Sarah Harmer and that scene, it was thriving. And talking with people down at The Toucan where they’re like, ‘You know, I remember when there was music every night here,’ or any night of the week you could see live music downtown—and of course that’s not the case—it’s like the opposite, now,” he said.

“But I’m sensing, like, I’m sensing that it’s coming around. I’m sensing that there’s huge support for the music scene in Kingston ... but it will be different than it was in the ’90s.”

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