The Palomino in downtown Calgary. Photo: Jeremy Klaszus

Sprawlcast: The future of live music in Calgary

Can we rebuild performing arts for the better?

Sprawlcast is a collaboration between CJSW 90.9 FM and The Sprawl. A transcript of this episode is below.

JEREMY KLASZUS (HOST): It’s the middle of summer, and as I record this, Calgary folk fest is back. Well, not fully—a scaled-down version happened in the middle of the city at Prince’s Island Park. But live music is returning to our lives after the entire industry was more or less shut down for more than a year. And while the return to live music is good news for artists and workers in the industry, there’s more to it than just that.

MAUD SALVI: And then there's the more intangible, in the sense of, I think what people love so much about live music is the experience, right?

KLASZUS: This is Maud Salvi, the executive director of Sled Island Music & Arts Festival in Calgary.

SALVI: Obviously it's nice to see a band you like perform in the flesh and hearing the sound directly from them playing. But I think, really, the social aspect of it – like, if you were in a room on your own watching a band you like, okay, maybe it could be cool. But I feel like there's really something about being in the room with a hundred, two hundred, a thousand other people who are just as into it as you are. And that really adds to that communal feeling.

KLASZUS: In this mini-episode of Sprawlcast, we’re going to look at how live music creates meaning and community in our lives. How those communal experiences affect our well-being and sense of belonging in little ways that might be easy to miss. And how the performing arts sector might change for the better.

I spoke about this with Kerry Clarke, artistic director of the Calgary folk fest, and Miranda Martini, The Sprawl’s associate editor. Miranda is also a musician. And I asked Kerry: What do you think we lost when we couldn’t gather for events like folk fest?

KERRY CLARKE: Yeah, I guess it's community. It's getting together with people. It's the people that meet each other once a year, when they're in a lineup or in the beer garden. The person that's very first in the lineup that lines up for the nine hours just because it's part of their culture running into the person that did that the year before. And just the chance meetings and the exchanges and interconnections that people have.

And the musicians with those kind of connections too, because, just the sort of regular live music, being able to bring artists from different parts of the world and put them on the stage together and for them to be able to sort of evolve what they do and learn and meet other artists. I think those things.

So it's really the human connection, I guess. That's the long way of saying human connection is really missing, I think.

KLASZUS: Yeah. And what about for you, Miranda? You're a musician; you're a music fan yourself. I haven't asked you this; I'm actually curious: Did you grow up going to Folk Fest? Like, is Folk Fest an important part of your experience of the city?

MIRANDA MARTINI: Oh yeah, for sure. Yeah, my experience growing up, for many years, involved the full suite of taking a shift, waiting in line—never overnight, but waiting in line to be the first tarp runners of the day for folk fest. You know, lots of tarp hopping. What Kerry mentioned about running into the same people. Having friendships—real friendships—that are sort of just located at folk fest. So it was absolutely part of my summer rhythms.

These relationships all scratch different itches for people, and they’re all different parts of feeling like you live in a society.

Miranda Martini,

Musician and editor

MARTINI: And yeah, I think that, as with a lot of different areas of community, those kind of weak ties—or, those acquaintanceships that are still very warm and important connections—you really feel their absence when you have to be much more deliberate about your connections with people. So it goes far beyond the live music aspect.

KLASZUS: Yeah, it's like those connections that you wouldn't necessarily set up yourself, or you wouldn't necessarily reach out to this person or that person and say, you know, "Let's go for coffee," but you might run into them every summer and have fun little silly traditions at folk fest. They're not real close relationships, but they're still very meaningful somehow.

MARTINI: Yeah, those are absolutely real relationships. People say this about online relationships as well. Twitter friendships are real friendships; long distance friendships are real friendships. They all scratch different itches for people, and they're all different parts of feeling like you live in a society.

'There is a hunger'

KLASZUS: You heard Miranda talking about growing up going to folk fest. Experiences like that can be very formative when you’re a kid. And that was true of Jaxon McGinn as well. Jaxon was an intern at The Sprawl this spring. He just graduated from Lethbridge College with a Digital Communications diploma—and while he was with The Sprawl, he spoke with some locals in Calgary about what live music means to people.

But well before that, he had a formative concert experience of his own. Here’s Jaxon McGinn in his own words.

JAXON MCGINN: The first concert I ever went to was Kiss, at the Enmax Centre in my hometown of Lethbridge. I covered my face with Gene Simmons makeup, and even though I went to the show with my mom, I thought I was so cool. I remember that day: July 10, 2013. It was a special day because nothing else mattered in my life that day. The only thing that mattered was listening to Kiss. It made me realize the power of music, especially watching a live performance with a crowd of strangers. Kiss are famous rock stars, but going to local shows to see local musicians can spark that same feeling, while also building community.

I moved to Calgary during the pandemic, so I haven't been able to see any shows. I haven't been inside of any of the city's most beloved and celebrated music venues. But I wanted to try to learn what I could about where Calgarians gather to listen together.

KLASZUS: Now, unsurprisingly, when Jaxon spoke to venue owners in the spring, it was rough times and a lot of them were having a tough go due to COVID-19 and the restrictions on businesses.

Here’s Alan Lindsay of Broken City telling Jaxon what the pandemic did to business there.

ALAN LINDSAY: I mean, it absolutely shattered it. The location of Broken City, it being on 11th Avenue, we're a destination bar, so we don't have a lot of foot traffic; we don't have the benefit of being on 17th Ave, where you get just walkers-by and you can open your doors and essentially be busy and be full. So we have to have comedy on Mondays and trivia on Tuesdays, bands and DJs throughout the rest of the week.

And so essentially, if we can put something on the stage, we're not worried that the bar isn't going to be busy. But once live music and any kind of entertainment is ripped away, it's a total build from the ground up, and just, like, how – what are we possibly going to do to create income?

Venues will close over time, unfortunately, but we just have to keep looking forward.

Arlen Smith,

The Palomino

MCGINN: The Palomino is another music venue that is very well known to Calgarians, located in downtown Calgary on 7th Avenue. The Palomino has seen several challenges since the start of COVID-19, but that hasn't brought them down from the support of many locals around Calgary.

ARLEN SMITH: You know, unfortunately venues sort of come and go...

KLASZUS: Here’s Arlen Smith of the Palomino.

SMITH: And I look around right now and it looks like the majority of Calgary venues will hopefully survive this. But over the years – like, I bartended and managed the Night Gallery back in the day for a while, which is a great venue, and I look around, and, yeah, venues will close over time, unfortunately, but we just have to keep looking forward.

KLASZUS: Jaxon also spoke with Alex Sarian, the CEO of Arts Commons.

ALEX SARIAN: To be honest, I'm not that worried. And not only that, I'm not worried in Calgary mostly. What I've noticed in Calgary and what I've learned from Calgary – and it actually reminds me of a city like Austin – is that there's a hunger to do stuff. There's a hunger to take on experiences. And it's been clear to me just in the year that I've been here during COVID, even though there are restrictions, people are going outside. They're going to the mountains. They're walking their dogs. There is such a need in Calgary, and for Calgarians, to do stuff.

And so when it is safe enough to convene again in venues, as long as we can make it safe, as long as we can put people's minds at ease that it is a safe experience—which we will do—I honestly think people will rush back, because there is a hunger to do it.

Rebuilding live music for the better

KLASZUS: As we start to emerge from the pandemic, people are looking at different ways of rebuilding their sectors. That’s true in a whole bunch of realms—including live music. People are looking at who got to access live music pre-COVID - and how that might change as things reopen. Here’s Rosalinda Hernandez, who’s on the board of Femme Wave, a feminist arts festival which has been going through a bit of a reconstruction.

ROSALINDA HERNANDEZ: The best spaces have always been those that were not venues and then they kind of created venues. I don't know from an audience point of view, but I think that that is just so relevant, right? I think right now, as we are trying to deconstruct and really understand where our organization is going, we are trying to include, or participate with, people who have been excluded. So they don't belong in these venues, you know. They're out on the streets, and they're just in different spaces.

We are trying to include, or participate with, people who have been excluded… They’re out on the streets, and they’re just in different spaces.

Rosalinda Hernandez,

Board Member, Femme Wave

KLASZUS: Maud Salvi of Sled Island also thinks the festival sector can look different as it emerges from the pandemic.

SALVI: I think that during the pandemic – and not so much because of COVID, but more so all of the social events that have taken place during the pandemic – I'm hopeful that we're going to (and the "we" is we as a sector) rebuild something that is more equitable and more diverse. There's been really a lot of discussion in the arts community about the really urgent need at this point to really make efforts so that the arts community better represent the population at large. And so maybe—I don't know if I'm being naïve or just hopeful, but I think that there are some good things that might come out of that.

KLASZUS: But as we go back to more in person events, there’s something to be said for keeping an online element, too, alongside the live component. Because it makes it available to more people—and they can participate in those meaningful experiences that we all love. Here’s Miranda Martini speaking to this.

MARTINI: One thing that I've become more aware of throughout the pandemic and this is something that I've really seen indie theatre folks modelling well – is there's a kind of privilege in being able to have Zoom fatigue right now. Like, if you're a person with mobility issues or who gets fatigued really easily, or some folks with families that they need to care for, it's online or it's not at all, and having an online aspect or a hybrid aspect makes live experiences more accessible to some folks. So there are lots of elements of those online experiences that for me as a performer, gave me the same feeling of performing in front of a live audience—that kind of electric feeling.

I’m hopeful that we’re going to rebuild something that is more equitable and more diverse.

Maud Salvi,

Executive Director, Sled Island Music & Arts Festival

Returning to favourite spots in the city

KLASZUS: There’s definitely something to be said for online. But I know that I want to be in person as much as possible. I want to be in the room—or on the island—with friends and strangers who are there to connect over the same thing.

That’s where memories get made. Iron and Wine closing out their set on Prince’s Island with The Trapeze Swinger. Or, in the case of Jaxon McGinn, Kiss playing Lethbridge.

MCGINN: That day will always be remembered. It was very special because nothing else mattered in my life. The only thing that mattered was listening to Kiss and worrying about the little things in my life later. It made me realize that the little things in my life might be challenging during that time, but I always remember to enjoy life to the fullest. Music, to me, paints the picture in my head to bring up happy memories in my life.

Having live music moves you, improving your life based on the dancing, enjoying the moment, and having a sense of togetherness. When you attend a local show, you are supporting the members of your very own community. Not only is it super fun, but you are also basically helping your neighbours feel happy and fulfilled as well.

KLASZUS: We’re going to close out with Kerry Clarke of folk fest and Miranda Martini of The Sprawl.

JEREMY: Obviously different people have different comfort levels—the jury is still out on where this is all going to go. But is there a venue in Calgary in particular that you're looking forward to returning to?

CLARKE: Well, I would say for sure the National Music Centre, really looking forward to being there and being at all their different venues, and certainly the King Eddy. The Ironwood I really miss. I spent a lot of time at the Ironwood. So those would probably be two—and, of course, I have to plug our own Festival Hall. But those would probably be some of the venues, as well as seeing a beautiful concert at somewhere like the Jubilee, would be some of the ones I'm looking forward to.

KLASZUS: How about yourself, Miranda?

MARTINI: Yeah, the Ironwood for sure. I have some great memories both performing and taking in shows there. The Palomino. I'm really excited to get back there.

CLARKE: Oh, yes. Me too.

MARTINI: Yeah. I also love Festival Hall, and I've played some of my favorite shows there. It's a great space. Yeah, I moved right before the pandemic to the 17th Avenue kind of just off of the Beltline, partly to be close to a lot of my favourite music venues, so I'm excited to go back to all of them and give them a hug pretty soon.

Jeremy Klaszus is editor-in-chief of The Sprawl. Miranda Martini is associate editor. Jaxon McGinn interned at The Sprawl in the spring.

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