Published Jul 01, 2001I turn 30 years old in October. I have trouble staying awake for more than the first 30 minutes of CBC Radio's "Brave New Waves." My previously invincible body can no longer sustain sleepless nights and a wildly erratic snooze schedule. I live an hour outside of Toronto by car. What does all this mean for the aging rock and roller addicted to live music?
It means that there are sad and frequent occasions when I'll skip a weeknight show if it doesn't start until 11.30 p.m. It means that I'd love it if live music in clubs functioned the same way as concerts, movies, theatre, and every other cultural performance I engage in: a designated start time earlier in the evening. And because I've always had stranger taste in music, coupled with the fact that most friends my age have even less tolerance for late set times than I do, that means that 75 percent of the time I go to shows by myself. I don't go to live shows to hang out in a bar; I'm there to see a performance.
As a recovering musician, I have many fond memories of playing at Zaphod Beeblebrox in Ottawa. For the better part of the past decade, shows there start with the opening band at nine, the headliner at ten, and then at 11.30, the club shifts to a dance format. This seemed ideal for musicians, audience members and club owners: the club makes money on dance whether or not the live band does well, hopefully allowing the booker to take more risks; the audience knows exactly when the performance is scheduled; and the musicians' work is done early in the evening and they can actually hang out with friends and fans afterwards. Plus, when the dance crowd starts filing in during the last couple of songs, they might see something they like and go to see that artist next time.
Zaphod's booker Eugene Haslam explains the concept. "When you go to see a band, in a lot of places it seems like the band is the afterthought. When you promote a band, it should be a concert. When you go to a bar at 11 or 12 o'clock, people are out and drinking is the main activity; the band is in the background. Especially if it's a solo act, or more acoustic and eclectic thing where the volume isn't as loud as rock, people don't pay attention. At any concert hall or large show, you buy your ticket and it says eight o'clock and that's when you go. You don't go to the Air Canada Centre to hang out because it's a cool place. The same thing should be true of clubs. People are there to see a show, and it won't make a difference whether it's eight o'clock or midnight; the same number of people will come."
One could argue that more people would actually come to earlier shows who wants to stay in a smoky bar until two a.m. when they have to work the next day? Yet Yvonne Matsell, who books Toronto's Ted's Wrecking Yard, says that the approach is unique to Ottawa or smaller markets. When she booked Ultrasound in the early 90s, she tried an early show concept from Monday to Wednesday. "It didn't work for me," says Matsell. "People are creatures of habit, and even if I advertised an 8.30 start time, people still wouldn't come out until 11. Unless all the bars do it, it's not going to work. If I was the only one that did it, and my headliner went on at 9.30, then people would come for that and not for the opening band. The financial health of the club depends on two or three hours of drinking. If people only come for the headliner, and they're not there for the evening, it makes no sense at all. My hours are going to be even more restricted as to when I do bar sales, to strictly 9.30 to 11.00, instead of, 9.30 to 1 a.m."