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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Stage Shortage

Halifax has lost half its venues for live music.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 20, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The Attic, the Idiot, the Khyber, the Speakeasy, the One World Cafe, the Ceilidh Connection, Peel Pub, TKO, Stage Nine, Cafe Mokka, and Planet Pool.


These are 11 music venues that have permanently closed their doors in Halifax over the past five years. Together, they represent the loss of about half of the city’s venues that regularly hosted live, original bands.


Same thing with the big venues capable of showcasing top groups: the Attic, Planet Pool, and the Speakeasy have all shut down, leaving only Reflections, the unlicensed Pavilion and the recently reopened Marquee.


Why is Halifax losing its music venues? Many familiar with the scene blame a combination of the high cost of liquor licenses, increasing property values and rents in the downtown core, the recent smoking bylaw and an overall downturn in interest in live music.


Among those in the know is Chris Smith, who owns the Pavilion. Smith says that there seems to be less turnout these days for live music. “We’ve noticed a general decline for the past year and half.”


Fans may see fewer out-of-town bands as a result. Big touring acts like Gob and Wide Mouth Mason had frequently done same-night shows at the Pavilion and the Attic, and Smith says that with the demise of the Attic, it will be more difficult to get those bands out to Halifax. “Typically, the Attic was the anchor date for a whole east coast tour,” he says, “so without that show, now it’ll be harder for bands to tour.”


Local bands are also feeling the pinch, says Ian McRuer, a local promoter who managed rock group Sleep to Dream. “I’ve noticed it’s become a little bit harder to find venues for bands and slot things in on a regular basis.” Gus’ Pub, he notes, is booked well through May. “There are fewer places to play but still a lot of bands in town.”


Smaller genres are the first to suffer. The recent closing of the Attic and the Speakeasy, the only large, licensed venues to regularly put on metal and hardcore acts, will have a particularly harsh effect on that scene. “The Attic is a pretty big blow,” says Graham Ferguson, a ten-year veteran of the city’s metal scene who plays with Hellacaust and Terratomb. “Over last couple years, we’ve moved from bar to bar as they’ve closed.”


The Marquee is now Halifax’s only venue for indie acts. Ash McLeod, the Marquee’s general manager, says he doesn’t relish being the last man standing.


“A lot of people mistakenly think that’s good for us but when you’re in the hospital and there’s a guy next to you with the same symptoms and he croaks,” McLeod says, “well, you’re not thinking ‘good, more medicine for me.’”


The Marquee is no stranger to the precariousness of the industry, having closed down two years ago, due to lack of business. McLeod, who once worked there as a pizza chef, put together a proposal with his friend Craig Mercer to reopen the venue. “We had a battle plan that convinced the owners that it was worth doing,” he says. Since then, it’s been touch-and-go. “Maybe it’s not even viable now, but we’re giving it a shake.”


The venue closings may be indicative of wider changes in the Halifax music scene. Recent years have seen the rise of the “do-it-yourself show,” spurred by the opening of two new “multipurpose” venues, the Bus Stop Theatre and the North Street Church---essentially, empty spaces that can be rented out by acts themselves. Neither is licensed to serve alcohol, but renters can obtain special event licenses.


Mark Bachynski, drummer for local group Anew Airship, sees a North End renaissance on the horizon. “I think the whole scene is shifting north,” he says. “The North Street Church is a great example of that.”


Bachynski, who lives in the North End, thinks that the recent venue closings will spur new openings in the less-expensive area of town. “There’s currently talk about a place next to the Army-Navy on Agricola that could become a music venue,” he says. “There are so many fantastic musicians here; people are itching to get together and get things started in this neighbourhood.”

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