B.C. musicians and concert venues prepare to go live again after more than a year of hardship

The B.C. live music industry is getting ready to rock again.

Credit: Conor Cunningham

The Zolas—Cody Hiles (left), Zachary Gray and Dwight Abell—are ready to roll

Although industry players are optimistic about the rest of 2022, some ask why their business couldn’t stay afloat during COVID

Zachary Gray, who’s been out of work since the start of the pandemic, is one of many local musicians hit hard by COVID-19 shutdowns. “Vancouver is a place that’s constantly coaxing you to give up music and leave,” says Gray, lead vocalist for the Zolas, a three-man indie rock band. “But in this case, it’s been especially tempting to do that for a lot of people.”

In a city where it was already tough for musicians to earn a decent living, COVID left them unable to perform as the provincial government ordered live venues closed. Unlike bars and restaurants, concert halls and nightclubs couldn’t fall back on outdoor seating. Some owners got the green light to reopen last May, but not everyone wanted to spend money on reconfiguring their spaces, only to be told something different a month later.

That group included the Red Room, which has provided live music to Vancouverites since the 1980s. Although Dale McRitchie had to let his entire staff go after shutting down in March 2020, government funding helped the family-run business hang on. “We’re good to go,” McRitchie says of a likely summer reopening as restrictions lift. “Stock the beers.”

He’s among the lucky ones. As of 2018, B.C. was home to 903 live music companies, most of which operated festivals (44 percent) and venues (36 percent), global consulting firm Nordicity estimates. The sector generated some $740 million in revenue for 2017. But recent projections by the Alliance of Beverage Licensees, whose members include music venues, show that the pandemic could shrink B.C.’s hospitality industry by anywhere from a quarter to a third.

Still, hosts of local gigs are optimistic. Alvaro Prol, owner of This Is Blueprint Entertainment, a manager of events, clubs, restaurants and pubs, predicts that Vancouver will have a good summer and fall season. “We’re prepared for everything and every scenario,” Prol says. “We have been the whole time, just now there’s a bit more clarity.”

Gray questions why the live music business couldn’t find a way to stay afloat during the crisis. “If our industry had the same kind of lobby as food and beverage, which were operating at some capacity the entire time,” he says, “I believe we would have had at least some kind of concerts outdoors.”

Having pushed their national tour back four times since COVID began, the Zolas are hopeful that won’t happen again. “Now we are actually booking shows because people are fairly confident that by the wintertime, we will be able to play,” Gray says.