Where have all the venues gone?

With alternative bars closing down, local musicians are struggling for exposure

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Former Alex P. Keaton owners, Chris Magowan and Marc Gammal

Shaun Ding

I DON’T DO SADNESS. Former Alex P. Keaton owners, Chris Magowan and Marc Gammal, chill outside the stoop of what was once an open venue for local music and live art shows. The APK is just one of the many live music-based bars in London that have closed down due to circumstances beyond its control.

Alex P. Keaton is dead.

A haven for people wanting live music off Richmond Row, it came as some surprise when local bar and music venue The Alex P. Keaton quietly called it quits a few weeks ago.

The bar teemed to capacity on its final night last Saturday as bar regulars celebrated the venue in a last hurrah.

“It’s not the popularity,” Chris Magowan, co-owner of The APK, said of the bar’s demise. A crowd appeared again that Sunday afternoon to eat and drink in the unique living room style space for the last time. Sombre renditions of Beethoven and Chopin played in the background as Magowan tried explaining the closure.

“It’s kind of a private thing. It’s because of things that are out of our control.”

The APK is one of many venues to close over the past year. The Wick, the Embassy and the Salt Lounge have all recently gone under. The list of surviving venues in the city is a short one. For local bands it is even shorter.

“I don’t really want to think about [the consequences] if nobody wants to go out there to fight for what’s happening in London,” Alicks Girowski, music and promotions director for 94.9 CHRW, said.

While these other bars have struggled, The APK found a niche among London’s bar crowd by offering unique music and a long list of import ales.

So what happened?

Tony Lima, long-time booker for famous local venue Call The Office, said challenges for live music in London are many.

“Downtown property taxes are higher than almost every other city of our size, and let’s be frank, there are a lot of students who won’t venture past Richmond Row because of the state of downtown,” he argued. “Nobody wants to deal with panhandling junkies on their night out. Downtown is a lot safer than people think, but I think the only venue the city is really concerned with is the [John Labatt Centre].”

Enticing an audience to a venue is only half the battle. Some involved in the music scene argued the biggest challenge is getting the audience to pay, especially in advance.

Girowski knows from experience. As a promoter for CHRW’s recent fundraiser at Aeolian Hall, she found it difficult to sell tickets for $15 despite a city-wide advertising campaign.

“I really hate it when people complain that there’s no music, but they’re the first people who are not going to buy a $10 ticket to go to the show because it’s too expensive.”

She added the community has not recognized their role in supporting local venues like The APK.

Marc Gammal, another APK owner, remained decidedly vague about the reasons for the closure but denied a lack of support for live music was a contributor.

“I know that the various bars supporting live music have shut down because of issues with London being not easily swayed to pay for music,” he said. “[There’s] all sorts of different reasons and complications that made these places close. It’s not simply live music.”

Magowan plans to open a new bar by September, but his focus will be on the restaurant business in order to cover losses from live music, he said.

“It’s a tough sell when [live music is] your bread and butter. It’s not doable with just live music. You lose money on venues and you need to charge cover,” Magowan added.

With the APK closing, other venues will need to pick up the slack if the small-scale music community is going to survive.

“If you’re looking for a small intimate venue or if you’re just starting off, I don’t know where you’ll be able to find that in London,” Girowski said.

The Black Shire is just steps away from the APK and recently started focusing on up-and-coming bands in similar genres. While it has a larger capacity and a full stage, its musical focus is a little different.

“They don’t want to become a DJ bar,” said Geoff Bardwell, who takes time off from his masters degree in kinesiology to moonlight as DJ Boyfriend Material at The APK.

Cindy O’Beirn started booking for The Black Shire in February but is restricted by the type of music she can bring to the venue.

“Although we’d love to accommodate every genre of music the city has to offer, we do need a focus considering we are still, in essence, a pub,” she said via e-mail.

This means booking blues and alternative country bands as well as indie rock and folk bands, she added.

A London resident since 1994, O’Beirn recalls the music scene before 2000 having more support from the community.

“It wasn’t necessarily that the bands were better then than they are today,” she explained. “It was the fact that there was so much support for live shows. Everybody knew each other. The energy was amazing.”

Venues like Call The Office were the best place to meet likeminded people a few years ago, Lima recalled. But things have changed.

“With the advent of online social networking, a lot of this interaction takes place online, and this added convenience has a minor negative effect on the live music scene.”

House shows may be a solution. Two houses near downtown have started hosting pay-what-you-can shows on a regular basis.

A larger Victorian-style living room East of Richmond Row is home to the Yale Speakeasy. Indie bands like Ghost Bees and Forest City Lovers have played to audiences larger than The APK.

Forest City Lovers drew a large group of music enthusiasts who crowded the kitchen, squeezed through the doors and sat cross-legged on the floor. More than 80 people filled the house by show time.

A few roommates started the Yale Speakeasy when Montreal band The Winks found themselves in London without a venue last year.

“It kind of opened up a new possibility. We don’t really need venues anymore,” Speakeasy resident Paterson Hodgson said. “Anyone can do it. Anyone can put on a show in their house if they have a band and an audience.”

Promoting only through Facebook, Hodgson and her roommates found an audience willing to pay the suggested five dollars or pay-what-you-can cover " all of which goes to the bands. Their most recent shows were so successful, the group cut down on advertising, Hodgson said.

“It’s almost become too big. We had to under-promote the last couple of shows because we didn’t want so many people coming. You could never tell how many people were going to come. Now like 100 people come every time.”

Dylan Smith, a hardcore punk rock enthusiast, started hosting shows at his Richmond Street home when the Salt Lounge and Embassy were in its dying days.

“I felt a sense of desperation in regards to venues in London,” Smith explained. “Very few other venues were booking bands even closely related to the genres I’m interested in, so it seemed like a do-or-die moment as far as hardcore in London.”

The result was a not-for-profit collection of likeminded punk rockers who ‘pay what they can’ to bring underground and hardcore punk bands to London.

Smith said the contradiction between closing venues and thriving house shows may be explained by the close-knit feeling created by the house setting. While The APK was converted from an old house, Smith argued the bar failed to create a supportive atmosphere and even turned its back on live music.

“I don’t think the long-awaited demise of The Alex P. Keaton will reflect negatively on the local music scene in any way. If anything, I would consider it a blessing,” he said. “The APK was a flavour-of-the-week hipster bar first and foremost that did nothing but perpetuate trends and steer people away from supporting live music.”

Smith added The APK started focusing on live DJs and dance nights and less on live local talent.

Another alternative for local bands may be found with the few larger venues that are thriving.

On the same night The APK was closing, Call The Office hosted a sold-out show for New Jersey rockers, The Gaslight Anthem.

Among all the dying venues in the city, CTO appears to be doing quite well. The historic music venue on York Street was voted to CBC Radio’s list of top 10 venues in Canada along with London’s Aeolian Hall. CTO’s plain black walls and wide stage have hosted bands like Radiohead back in 1995 and indie favourite Basia Bulat in 2007.

Smith said access to the larger venue is difficult for smaller acts who have less draw.

“You’d be extremely hard-pressed to even come close to filling Call The Office without a larger touring act or two on the bill,” he said.

As CTO’s booker, Lima decides who gets on stage and when.

“Good bands have a better chance [of getting booked],” he said. “Ninety per cent of the local bands who get in touch have little more than a MySpace with a bunch of friends and want their own show on a Friday or Saturday only. This really limits you.”

While local acts may get spots as openers, Girowski argued this is happening less often as bars refuse to take chances on local talent.

“I think there are people out there that know what good local bands are, and I think bar owners and club promoters should be trusting those people,” she said.

Despite the difficulties facing new and current music venues, Girowski said London should treat the situation as an opportunity to be creative and use new spaces.

“I’m very optimistic about it. There’s people here in the city that want to foster and take care of the scene,” she said, pointing to new groups forming in the city to promote local art like the East Village Arts Co-op.

“I love the group work. You go off to do your own thing. I think people are starting to catch on.”

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