TORONTO — Ontario concert venue owners are facing another setback after the provincial government outlawed live streaming shows for the second time this year under the latest COVID-19 restrictions.
Doug Ford’s “emergency brake” plan, introduced on Thursday, prohibits virtual shows in empty concert halls for the next four weeks, even as other industries have the green light to keep operating.
That’s left some in the live music industry frustrated, pointing out shoppers are still permitted to wander malls while TV and movie productions continue rolling in film studios.
“The government is picking winners and losers without any logic,” said Jeff Cohen, owner of the Horseshoe Tavern, a downtown Toronto venue that packed in crowds before the pandemic but turned to live streams over the past year to stay in business.
“The moment we try to do something proactive… we’re just getting hit on the head with a rubber mallet.”
Since last year, Cohen has been chasing ways to keep the lights on at the Horseshoe while supporting Canadian musicians.
Last August, he launched the Horseshoe Hootenanny, a live streaming concert series that went dark when Ontario’s leaders unveiled stricter health guidelines late last year, which made it against the rules to keep the series running.
After dipping into government funding, Cohen recently got the live streaming series back on its feet shortly before the Ford government tightened restrictions again as COVID-19 cases spiked.
The Horseshoe’s virtual concerts originally set for April have all been pushed to May, including dates for the Trews, Terra Lightfoot and Hawksley Workman.
All of that would be logical to Cohen if he didn’t see the province making special exceptions for other industries.
“I’m a prudent guy, so I’m like, ‘OK, we can’t live stream.’ But you can stand in line at a retail store that’s non-essential to buy a skirt?” Cohen said.
“Like, that makes no…sense at all.”
Lisa Zbitnew, co-owner of Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, can relate to those frustrations. She said while she supports the government’s health measures, she doesn’t understand why live music is once again getting the short shrift.
She pointed to film and TV shoots that are moving forward throughout the province, raising the question of how a production crew inside an empty concert hall is any different than one shooting in a studio.
“It’s upsetting that for some reason the music sector is treated a little bit like a pariah,” she said.
“We’re not suggesting we get to do anything that others can’t do. We just always seem to be at the end of the queue.”
Erin Benjamin, chief executive of the advocacy organization Canadian Live Music Association, says enduring another shutdown on short notice has added to an emotionally and financially gruelling year for the industry.
The latest restrictions come only a few months after similar measures were enacted in January, forcing organizers of live streaming concerts to delay or cancel events to meet the province’s stricter stay-at-home orders.
“We’re very understanding of what government is attempting to achieve right now, and we are 100 per cent for keeping people safe,” said Benjamin.
But she added: “The constant navigating (of) changes to restrictions has become a full-time job for these people.”
Mary Stewart, general manager of Hugh’s Room, said it’s been “confusing” to navigate the province’s health guidelines.
The small, Toronto west-end venue was forced to postpone its live stream to mark the 45th-anniversary of the Band’s iconic concert the Last Waltz, leaving a group of local blues and roots musicians in the lurch.
“Artists have a lot of expenses to be able to maintain their craft (and) they don’t have a lot of people sort of rallying for them in terms of performance equity,” she said.
“It feels like they’re sort of being forgotten about.”