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Matt Blais. Courtesy, MAP Photography.
Within a few hours last week, Matt Blais lost more than 20 shows.
The Calgary singer-songwriter realizes that compared to the many COVID-19 pandemic-related casualties happening all over the globe, this may seem fairly minor in the grand scheme of things. But for artists who rely on meticulously planned indie tours, where the profit margin is already razor thin, 20 cancellations is a major hit and one that will likely have ramifications for months to come. Blais was roughly two-thirds through a western Canadian tour when the cancellations started streaming in. He was on his way to Saskatoon to participate in a showcase leading to the March 15 Junos. On March 13, the Junos were cancelled. Soon, social gatherings of all kinds followed suit.
“As soon as the Junos went down, it was a domino effect of everyone, rightfully so, being cautious and wanting to be part of the solution,” says Blais, now back in Calgary. “But overnight, within a few hours, I lost 12 gigs and then a few stragglers cancelled.”
Cancelled gigs, of course, have always been a reality for working musicians. But for indie artists, timing is everything. While musicians may have a reputation for being haphazard planners, indie tours generally need to be well-orchestrated ahead of time. Clubs book far in advance. Merchandise has to be ordered. In some cases, flights and hotels have been booked, which leads to the added nightmare of cancelling and hoping for refunds.
“My worry is that, even when this is done and the world is open for business, that doesn’t mean artists can jump right back to work the next day,” Blais says. “Because it takes two months to build a tour. So, you’re actually going to be delayed more so than some other jobs because of the planning stages.”
“I’m a workhorse and a touring troubadour,” he adds. “So I do make a lot of my money from touring and just from live shows in general. Essentially, I view it as I’m unemployed. I’m taking the time to write songs and update my website and figure out how to build new content. But, really, at the end of the day, it’s all just the kindling to the fire that is my live-show life. Essentially, there is no income at this point beyond fans picking up vinyl or T-shirts online and me mailing it to them.”
Calgary’s T. Buckley was also planning to spend much of the near future on the road. He has a spouse who works full time and also works a part-time job outside of music, which means his economic situation may not be as precarious as some of his peers. But, not unlike Blais, touring is both a revenue generator and the way to maintain momentum in his career. Buckley was nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award, which was going to send him to Prince Edward Island for the April 3-4 ceremonies in Charlottetown and other areas of the Maritimes for some spin-off shows. As with everything else, the folk awards and subsequent gigs were cancelled.
Buckley is keeping his fingers crossed that recording sessions for a new album, scheduled for May in Montreal with Grammy-nominated producer Howard Bilerman, will still go forward.
“Day by day, I’m less and less optimistic it’s going to happen,” he says.
Edward Que, a Calgary-based hip-hop artist who performs under the name Lyrique, has built a following both in his adopted hometown and in the Philippines, where he was born. He came to Calgary in 2014 as a live-in nanny under the temporary foreign worker program but has been focusing on music since becoming a permanent resident in 2016. Que, who has been featured on MTV Philippines, was to make his first trip home in seven years this week for his sister’s wedding and also had a homecoming show planned.
Colleen Krueger owns Landlocked MGMT, an artist management and promotions company, and does work for Music Calgary and the Flemish Eye record label, among other clients. She says there is a push for artists to record their losses and share them with funding organizations. Organizations such as Music Managers Forum Canada, Canadian Live Music Association, FACTOR, Canada Council for the Arts and Calgary Arts Development have all issued surveys to collect information about losses by artists and organizations.
“A lot of people have no contingency plan,” she says. “They have no savings. They are living day to day and project to project. A setback like this, even though we’re only (a few weeks in) is already setting people back six months’ income. It’s scary for them and very stressful.”
Meanwhile, local music supporters can do their part to help, Krueger says.
“There are ways people can still utilize the online resource and maybe do Shopify or Paypal donations for live performance,” she says. “If they have an engaged online audience, now is the time to do it. I’ve been streaming all my artists on repeat overnight as well, just trying to boost their royalties. I think everyone should promote that. Don’t just listen to your records. Stream music. Even if you put it on silent, just keep it going because it really does, over time, add up for artists and it will come back to them.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020