Sid­ney venue sets stage for bringing back con­certs

Times Colonist - - Arts - DAVID FRIEND

Alex Cuba wasn’t planning to be a trail­blazer for the fu­ture of Canada’s live mu­sic scene, but his up­com­ing con­certs might serve as a blue­print in the midst of the pan­demic.

The Latin Grammy Award-win­ning artist is booked to play four nights at the Mary Win­spear Centre in Sid­ney, start­ing on Thurs­day. He will be among the first acts to return to the stage at the venue, or any other space of its size in the coun­try.

“Some­body has to take this step,” the Cana­dian-Cuban mu­si­cian said ahead of the shows.

“If we were go­ing to just crawl into a wall and become fear­ful, noth­ing will ever hap­pen. I want to give my best and I want to make an ef­fort to let peo­ple know that, yeah, there is hope.”

Nearly five months into a na­tion­wide shut­down that crip­pled the coun­try’s in­de­pen­dent mu­sic scene, a grow­ing num­ber of bars and restau­rants are wel­com­ing back mu­si­cians un­der COVID-19 pre­cau­tions. But with­out a vac­cine, un­cer­tainty lingers ev­ery­where.

Huge arena con­certs won’t be pos­si­ble un­til at least next year, which means an evening of live mu­sic will look quite dif­fer­ent un­der strict dis­tanc­ing mea­sures. And while out­door per­for­mances at driveins and gar­den par­ties were all the rage this sum­mer, the cooler weather ahead is push­ing some venues to con­sider ways to safely pro­vide live en­ter­tain­ment in­doors.

Brad Ed­gett, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mary Win­spear Centre, is among those hope­ful his venue will help write the play­book for the live mu­sic com­mu­nity. He booked Cuba as only the second artist in COVID to play the con­fer­ence centre and theatre, which fit 900 peo­ple in its largest hall be­fore the virus lim­ited ca­pac­ity to 50.

Be­fore him, Van­cou­ver coun­try per­former Aaron Pritch­ett stepped onto the stage for a se­ries of four small shows in mid-July.

Prepa­ra­tions for each con­cert start about a week be­fore the show when Ed­gett’s staff be­gin mak­ing calls to tick­ethold­ers with a list of COVID-19 ques­tions:

Have you re­cently trav­elled out­side the coun­try? Been in con­tact with any­one who’s sick? Are you com­ing with your part­ner? Do you live in the same house­hold?

With those an­swers, they group ev­ery­one at ta­bles by their so­cial bub­ble, not un­like they would for a wed­ding.

In­side the venue, snacks and drinks are avail­able for pur­chase through a server, and in­stead of a ta­ble with the artist’s mer­chan­dise, fans can pre-order shirts and al­bums through a dig­i­tal plat­form and have them de­liv­ered to their seat.

Pritch­ett’s con­certs went off with­out a hitch, Ed­gett said, even if some were slip­ping into old habits.

“By the fourth night, the crowd was a lit­tle bit more en­er­getic,” he added.

“We had to make sure they were still stay­ing in their seats, and their lit­tle bub­bles, and not to get on the dance floor.”

It’s not only the fans who have had to adapt. In Cuba’s case, play­ing to a sig­nif­i­cantly smaller au­di­ence comes with a pay cut.

In “nor­mal times,” he would have per­formed one night at the venue, pos­si­bly two if ticket sales were brisk, Cuba said. But dur­ing COVID he has struck an agree­ment with the Mary Win­spear Centre to play four nights for the pay­ment of one. He’s also play­ing with­out his backing band, be­cause a solo performanc­e is the only way the ar­range­ment makes fi­nan­cial sense.

Ed­gett said he has found most mu­si­cians are will­ing to com­pro­mise if it means bringing their mu­sic back to a crowd that’s a frac­tion of their usual size.

“I’ve been able to get them to agree on a price where the artist is mak­ing some money and I am ba­si­cally breaking even or mak­ing a lit­tle bit of money,” he said.

Agree­ments such as these could present new partnershi­p op­por­tu­ni­ties with other B.C.-area venues, Ed­gett said. He imag­ines a model where or­ga­niz­ers work to­gether with per­form­ers to book mul­ti­ple venues around the prov­ince, ef­fec­tively creat­ing a small, co-op­er­a­tive tour­ing cir­cuit.

“It pro­vides the artists with more op­por­tu­nity for rev­enue and it certainly makes the arts and cul­ture thrive in Bri­tish Columbia in a unique time,” he said.

The Mary Win­spear Centre is booked for shows nearly ev­ery week into the mid­dle of November, and Ed­gett plans to turn his attention to the Christ­mas season. He es­ti­mates more than 40 nights will be filled with live mu­sic be­fore the end of this year.

“We’re happy to take the lead and try to educate all the venues on how we can make this work, be­cause it’s in our in­ter­est and in the artists’ in­ter­est … to work col­lab­o­ra­tively,” he said.

Alex Cuba plays four nights at the Mary Win­spear Centre.

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