Being passionate about your job is a great way to not make money. Artists are a great example. I myself am volunteering to write this article, and several magazines like Marker exist just because their editors believe in what they have to say. In Alberta — where we cross ourselves with the trinity of Oil, Gas and the Bottom Dollar — it might even seem insane to put so much effort into something that promises no fiscal return. But there’s a special cell in the asylum reserved for a particular kind of crazy. It’s a mutant blend of passion, arts and business; a job that eats time, resources and fervour until the hand that feeds is gnawed to the bone. It’s home to the music venue owner.
“I don’t understand the constant pissing on the floor,” says Craig Martell of Whyte Avenue’s Wunderbar. “It’s baffling to me. The shitting on the floor has happened three times. I don’t get it.”
Tyson Cale Boyd, ex-booker of the Pawn Shop on Whyte, says, “I think most people that work in the music industry are just so passionate that [they] start out with high expectations and just find bitter disappointment when people don’t buy into it as easily as [they] do.”
And James Leder of the former Haven Social Club on Stony Plain Road adds, “You need somebody that plans on having no life, doesn’t mind working all nights and every weekend – pretty much living the job — and [who] hopes to win the lottery because they’ll need to find some way to retire.”
And you can’t forget the little joys like fighting with musicians who feel they weren’t paid enough; stopping fights that break out; replacing musical equipment; wondering what that stain is on the bathroom wall and how you’ll get it out; finding time to keep up with what’s new in the scene; and losing clientele to places that aren’t music venues, but are playing host to pop-up shows. It’s not only a job. It becomes your life, and it frequently spits people out on the other side — exhausted, apathetic and poor.
So why would anyone throw themselves into this spiritual wood chipper?
I sit down with Craig Martell two weeks before he announces on Facebook that he will be leaving indie-music-venue mainstay, Wunderbar. The post will receive 190 comments, 160 shares, nearly 1,000 likes and dozens of heartfelt remembrances. When I see him after the post has landed, he’s light-hearted, relaxed, and maybe drunk with the amount of brain-space he has reacquired – brain-space that was once devoted to keeping the venue afloat. But at the time of our initial interview he seemed tired and somewhat ambivalent about his feelings for Wunderbar.
He tells me he didn’t initially want to open a music venue. He wanted to open a bar, and when his partners brought Wunderbar to his attention, he realized it could only ever be a venue; a business he knew was one of the hardest to succeed in. He says he doesn’t know how they survived the first eight months financially, and even now, four years later, with an exponential increase in shows, he’s still not sure why they struggle. He tells me stories about cleaning up vomit, late nights babysitting an empty room, and coming out of movie theatres only to spend the next hour answering missed texts, calls and emails. Each story is a note of a life that doesn’t belong to him, and any selfish expenditure of time he makes is taken back two-fold. Martell also questions if Wunderbar lost its crowd some time ago — a common hazard that venues frequently fall into, as all scenes eventually move on.
“It’s trying to walk this line,” says Martell, “between curating and having some sense of exclusivity, while not pigeonholing yourself too much that your scene dies and you’re fucked. And I still, in hindsight, don’t know if I did that right.”
In recent years, Edmonton has lost numerous venues including Jasper Avenue’s Elevation Room and west Edmonton’s Edmonton Event Centre and the Haven Social Club. This is a continuing trend that began in the ‘70s and ‘80s (a period when Jasper Avenue had a dozen venues that hosted live music). The loss of the Event Centre was especially disheartening, being the only room in the city that could fit 300 to 400 people. However, not only did Wunderbar’s 85-person room stay open, it hosted 350 shows a year at its peak, gained national renown and a local reputation as a hub for local music. Some have gone as far to say that it was a spiritual reincarnation of one of Edmonton’s most often-mourned venues, the Sidetrack Cafe.
“I only knew one or two local bands [when we started],” says Martell. “Then they eventually started flocking to us. Watching that transition happen… you get caught up in that.” Martell tells me of band after band from Edmonton that would tour abroad, and upon returning mention all the bands from Vancouver, Montreal and out east that had played at and loved Wunderbar.
“I wanted it to be a place that’s known nationwide as a place to play,” says Martell. “I wanted it to be a place that was well curated so people knew there was some quality control — a place where you walk in and the band that’s on might not be to your taste, but it’s going to be objectively good. I think I knew pretty early on what it could become, and it became that.” And for someone who never wanted to own a venue, maybe the insanity is that it happened at all.