Saskatchewan venues lit red to shine light on industry stalled by COVID-19 pandemic

The live events industry was one of the first to close — and will likely be among the last to fully reopen — during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $100-billion Canadian industry has been mostly at a standstill for more than six months, impacting thousands of workers and threatening the future of privately-owned venues.

SaskMusic, which represents Saskatchewan’s music and sound recording industries, said while some people have resumed limited work, many more are being left behind.

Read more: Canadians use social media to shine light on live music industry left in dark by COVID-19

“A lot of our very skilled industry members, we know now, will probably not be able to return to work for perhaps a year in some cases,” said Lorena Kelly, communications and operations manager for SaskMusic.

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According to SaskMusic, the industry employs around 3,000 people in Saskatchewan, not including bartenders and venue door staff.

As of Tuesday, the organization is forecasting a local economic loss of up to $6 million for technicians alone.

“Everyone wants to get back to work. Not only because they feel like they want to be making a living, but they miss their work … it’s also taking a toll on their mental health,” Kelly said.

Karen Gwillim was working for a Regina production company until the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown. She said summer would have been an extremely busy time, especially as a sound technician for live music events.

“We understand there are services that are critical to our survival, and we are not really one of them. This is based on a recreational market, but it’s going to be a long haul,” she said.

“There’s a lot of us who don’t really know what the future holds in terms of how long we can hold out and hope some element of work returns, and how many will have moved on to other things.”

On Tuesday, the industry held a Day of Visibility as a show of solidarity for those affected by the prolonged closure.

Inspired by similar movements in Germany and the United Kingdom, the Light Up Live event asked venues, performers and event workers to take photos of themselves or landmarks with red lighting to share on social media.

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In Saskatoon, SaskTel Centre and TCU Place took part in the event. Both venues were impacted by the sudden cancellation of the Juno Awards festivities and broadcast in March, one of the first major live events affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Regina, Conexus Arts Centre was completely draped in red.

“We’re part of it, our staff are part of it. The contractors and everyone that works with us are suffering through this time. So we are certainly happy to support the cause,” said Neil Donnelly, Conexus Arts Centre CEO.

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At Mosaic Stadium in Regina, Canada’s largest outdoor screen displayed “Light Up Live” in large letters on a red backdrop. The stadium and surrounding Evraz Place site were slated to host the now-cancelled 2020 CFL Grey Cup championship game.

“That’s typically several million dollars into the music industry alone, just from all the live events that happen. All the bars are usually packed. There’s cabarets and all kinds of events going on,” said Kelly.

She said SaskMusic is continuing to advocate for government funding while pandemic restrictions are in place, noting capacity limits of 30 per cent are only a short-term solution.

“Really, it’s not sustainable for a privately-owned business and the reality is that a lot of the shows just can’t be mounted whether it’s theatre, dance, music with that low of a profit margin,” she said.

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Black Cat Tavern in Saskatoon recently resumed live shows on a much smaller scale. Instead of 250 people, the venue hosts a total of 50 – including some staff.

“We’re keeping it just very steady at the moment, and not a high demand because of the limitations. But we also don’t want to totally stop because then we can’t stay open for business,” said Vince Geiger, a booker for the venue who is currently on temporary leave.

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“I’m not getting paid right now. A lot of people in the industry are not getting paid and there are grant programs and a lot of things for people in the industry, but unfortunately, not everyone is eligible for those.”

Geiger said because of the altered guest experience, nearly all of Black Cat’s capacity-restricted shows are free – with the tavern relying mostly on food and beverage sales to stay afloat.

Read more: Saskatchewan musicians play on during COVID-19 uncertainty

Black Cat was also among the dozens of smaller Saskatchewan venues that benefitted from the SaskMusic Venue T-Shirt Project, which is doing a second run in the coming weeks.

SaskMusic acknowledged there are positive signs, with live events resuming within pandemic restrictions. Still, the organization maintains those opportunities are incredibly limited for production staff and performers.

Live music will play on for Regina Symphony Orchestra

The Regina Symphony Orchestra (RSO) is one performance company doing what it can to host a new season within capacity restrictions.

Instead of performing as usual at Conexus Arts Centre, the RSO will host its 2020-21 season at Regina’s Holy Rosary Cathedral.

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RSO music director Gordon Gerrard said the venue, which allows for up to 150 audience members, has enough room to space out guests and performers according to Saskatchewan Health Authority guidelines.

Read more: COVID-19 pandemic affects Saskatoon in more ways than event cancellations

“Everything now is going to be much smaller, more intimate,” Gerrard said, adding orchestra groupings will include between 30-50 players at once.

“We’ve discovered there’s lots of amazing repertoire that really suits this smaller group of musicians and some of it we’ve never played before and may never get a chance to play again.”

To make up for the limited-capacity shows, Gerrard said each RSO program will be performed four times – instead of just once – on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, along with a Saturday matinee.

The RSO has already hosted a couple of test events for around 100 people, all wearing face masks, at the cathedral. The free concerts will continue each Saturday at 2 p.m. until the season begins on Oct. 15.

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