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Is there a music venue crisis in Saskatoon? Vive’s collapse bodes ill for the Saskatoon music community

By in Culture

At this time last year, it seemed as though nothing could stop Vive Music. The local promotion company was gaining momentum, and fast. They had secured their own venue at Caffe Sola and had a successful third annual music festival, booking acts like Chad VanGaalen, Tim Hecker and Braids. It was looking as though Vive had found its niche and not only was it going to get better, it was poised to single-handedly change the face of the music scene in Saskatoon.

And then it all fell apart.

First, Caffe Sola closed the venue known as Jale for a scheduled expansion of the cafe; all tenants were told to vacate the premises by August. Then, Rich Taylor — co-founder of Vive — left the company.

“My reason for leaving at that point was that I had worked close to full-time on the Jale, maintaining the youth series that we were running…. It was incredibly draining and I got paid not very much in return,” said Taylor. “I left my full-time job and switched to part-time so I could do Vive and then we lost the venue.”

The loss of the venue was just the first in a series of events that toppled the promise that was Vive. At the time Taylor left the company, Vive was destined to carry on.

After Taylor’s departure, Phil Greer, the other co-founder of Vive, carried on business as usual. He spent a large portion of the following months looking for an alternative venue to take Jale’s place.

“No clear and accessible solution to the predicament of being homeless was emerging,” said Greer. “We weren’t looking for an easy solution, but nothing palatable was presenting itself. That didn’t stop us from trying. We forged ahead with plans for [Vivefest 4].”

The Roxy Theatre served as an acceptable placeholder and for a while Vive put on some bigger shows, including Karkwa and Braids. As Greer forged ahead with plans for the company’s fourth annual festival, the event began to take shape.

“By the end of December, Vive had a lot of solid, organized plans for [Vivefest 4], including more than enough makeshift venue space in Riversdale for the festival dates,” said Greer. “Some acts were confirmed though remained — and will remain — unannounced. By the end of December, it could have gone either way.”

And then, as New Year’s rolled around, Greer “had an epiphany.”

“I realized that this project was taking up more time, energy and effort than my life could afford,” he said. “My new resolve to spend more of my limited free time with my family brought the end of Vive.”

“The organization was not developed enough in terms of human resources and structure to survive my departure,” Greer said.

The loss of Vive comes not only as a blow to local music fans, but more devastatingly to local musicians and artists. In the throes of an alleged venue crisis, the closing of Jale hit musicians hard. Being in university, we may not be able to fully appreciate how important it is to have an all-ages venue. But it is. How else is this city supposed to foster young people and inspire them to do something creative?

Sarah Charters plays bass in the local band Feral Children and believes that with the loss of a default all-ages venue, it’s going to be that much harder for younger musicians to gain momentum.

“The city is definitely in crisis mode for venues,” said Charters. “It’s just really hard for new bands. I feel for them. You need a lot of buzz to get going now.”

Having dealt with Vive a fair amount, Charters was sad to see the company lose their venue.

“I loved playing at Sola and it’s really sad to see the one true all-ages venue in the city close because I’ve seen so many new faces,” said Charters. “It was nice for new bands to get the exposure they needed. House shows are so chaotic.”

Alternatively, touring bands also have a hard time finding space to play in Saskatoon. Touring is still an essential part of gaining exposure for bands and for many it is the only way they make money doing what they love. If a band is not well-known or established enough to play Amigos, Louis’ or even Lydia’s it can be hard to find an alternative venue where people will actually pay.

Jonathan Ostrander is a musician originally from Saskatoon who currently lives in Dawson City, YT. His band Three Chords and the Truth has been booking dates across Canada for the upcoming spring, and venues in Saskatoon have been difficult.

“The venue situation does seem a little dismal in town these days,” he said. “In booking this tour, I’ve managed to find gigs in nearly every major center in Canada other than my own hometown.”

There seems to be a divide among promoters and venues over whether or not there is actually a “crisis” of venues in Saskatoon.

“The venue crisis is a much talked about thing and has been for a while,” said Rich Taylor in regards to the end of Vive and the now evident lack of all-ages venues. “There is such a need for [an all-ages venue] that something will happen. There’s still Le Relais and kids will throw shows in their parents’ basements. There’s an ebb and flow to it all. [The venue] is not here right now but it will be back in some capacity. Kids aren’t going to stop playing in bands. It’s a lot easier if there’s a place to play but there’s a certain level of angst in rock ’n’ roll and not having a venue to play in can kind of fuel that a little bit. If it’s too easy it gets boring.”

All-ages shows do not make money. Even in terms of a 16-plus show versus a 19-plus show, a venue will almost always be inclined to accept the latter.

“You can’t really make money doing shows,” said Jason Kovitch, Louis’ Pub manager. “You can’t roll into a high-traffic neighbourhood like Broadway or downtown and set up shop with an all-ages venue that’s going to make it. None of them make it more than a year or two. The key component is always some super passionate person who is going to promote those shows, and then they come to their senses after a few years and say ‘I can’t keep doing this’ and they move on. And then someone else takes over, someone young, usually. And that’s not a Saskatoon thing. I would go so far as to say that it is a global thing.

“The number one reason for us to want to do a 19-plus shows, for all the complaints we get from people who are under 19, is that the people who are of age have a dramatically better experience at the show. I get a lot of complaints from underage people but I get a lot more, harsher complaints from people who are of age and attend 16-plus shows.”

For those of us who have ever attempted to imbibe at a 16-plus or licensed all-ages show, you know that you’re meant to be segregated from the non-drinkers. This is the unpopular method that people of age revile at any given 16 plus show at Louis’. The same could probably be said for the Odeon Events Centre, where a number of licensed shows take place, but it is hard to say as they declined an interview on this particular subject.

If there is one thing most people agree on with this subject it is that there needs to be an all-ages platform in some capacity in order to maintain and nurture a healthy music scene.

“Ultimately if we can get people comfortable in this venue and who like coming to shows here when they are 16 that comes back to us when they are in university,” said Kovitch. “A music scene in any city is always at its healthiest if there are all-ages shows present.”

In the end, it seems that all-ages shows will continue to exist because they have to, regardless of whether they have a venue or not. It’s a hard niche to satisfy and yet most people are certain that there will be a new manifestation of Vive stepping up to the plate sometime in the near future. But it needs to be soon, preferably before young musicians are pushed back into suburban basements or more artistically accommodating cities, never to be heard from again.

“The Vive project was not complete,” Phil Greer said. “Such a venture is never complete. I’m proud that I accomplished all that I did in my four years with the organization…. Now it’s someone else’s turn.”

[box type=”info”]The lights go out at Vive Music right after their last show, a co-promotion with the Broadway Theatre on April 24 (Said the Whale w/ Chains of Love).[/box]

Graphic: Samantha Braun

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