The current situation with the Artery is a freak occurrence, in that the city was vying for the spot to increase public transportation. This was not a fight The Artery was going to win. Also, the building was progressively aged, and while I loved The Artery, it is not worth risking someone’s personal health — let alone an entire crowd of people at a show — to keep the building afloat. Fortunately, a venue is not just a building but a community, which isn’t confined within cement and mortar. The Artery will continue to live on, whether in a new venue or in the spirit of the community it mothered.

Artery4Sustainability in Edmonton music venues has been an issue in Edmonton since the 1970s at the introduction of disco. Seriously, your suspicions are true and disco wrecked everything.

Imagine for a moment every bar in Edmonton you know today that has a DJ Friday and Saturday night. Now imagine that those DJs were live bands. That was Edmonton in the 1970s. And it was glorious.

Long story short: In the 1970s, the Alberta Game and Liquor Board (it has since replaced “Board” with “Commission”) made it so, should a venue want to be open past midnight, they needed to have live entertainment. This meant every bar wanted to be a music venue, they made more money because they could stay open longer, and musicians were earning a living wage. Everybody was winning. Then disco was introduced — a music movement that was played primarily by disc jockeys — which slowly replaced musicians, because why pay five people when you can pay one? Musicians in turn started to lower their costs just so they could play because they’re crazy like that.

Then bars found out that strippers were included in the terms of what fell under “entertainment.”

Then bars found out that having a single VLT could produce more money than a bar with a full band filled with people. Can you see where this is going?

The live music scene took a serious blow, never recovered, and we’ve been left with the aftershock. The easiest way for a venue to make money is to become a bar with a DJ (for further commentary on this from venue owners, you can read another Marker article on what it’s like to own a music venue here.)

The issue with music venue sustainability is systemic from a number of issues. The first mentioned here is the reliance on alcohol sales. Ticket sales primarily go to the band (rightfully so) and staff that run the venue, and given your average local show often only costs $10 a ticket, there’s little money left over for building upkeep.

I’m going to propose three things that can be done to improve Edmonton’s music scene: The first two are some of those hard truths I was referring to before, and the third actually has a chance of returning Edmonton to its glory days of the 1970s.

Continued on page 3.

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7 Responses

  1. Terry Evans

    Excellent article…Holding EVERYONE accountable. I am very interested in the ELM and would love to be a part of the process. One suggestion? VLT’s killed LIVE music but VLT’s can be the rebirth. All revenue from VLT’s should be legislated to paying quality performing musicians so they CAN have a living wage by performing and reaping reward from their trials and tribulations. I fucking hate VLT’s. I will learn to love them if they pay the band fairly for their efforts and PERFORMANCE. Not just standing there playing an instrument. And PEOPLE!! Get off your fucking wallets and pay to see live music! This is the best economy in North America and most certainly can support the music industry. People have no problem paying $200+ for a fucking hairdo but you won’t pay $15 to see three bands. SHAME!! Holy SHIT you got me fired up on this!!


      Not a bad idea. But personally, as a musician, I would rather take money from someone who is there to enjoy my performance rather than someone with a possible addiction. And yeah, the $15 thing is annoying beyond belief.

  2. Randy Reichardt

    .: Great article, and much needed at this time. In addition to the great venues you listed that we have lost over the years, let us not forget the City Media Club and the Power Plant, two fantastic venues no longer functioning. I work on campus, and remember the days when the Power Plant was packed every day. I have yet to hear a reasonable explanation as to why the Students Union shut it down. It angers me to this day.

    I agree with your three proposals. I’ve been in at least 8 different musical projects since 1986, and never once have I “phoned it in.” But it’s important to point that out to those who do. Nothing deflates crowd energy more than a band or act that appears bored or distant on stage.

    Where is there information about the Edmonton Live Music Initiative? A ‘net search reveals nothing so far.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful and articulate essay.


      Hey Randy. As mentioned, the ELM initiative is just getting figured out — like, no timelines/money amounts have been figured out at this point. But I’m talking with the leader of the initiative and they are meeting soon (next week) to discuss. Wheels are turning at least.

      • Randy Reichardt

        .: Thanks for the additional information on the ELM project, Caleb, much appreciated. I look forward to learning more about it soon.

  3. Martin Kerr

    Thanks for writing about this Caleb, and Thom for getting this new initiative rolling. But what kind of venues should we be investing in? One thought I have is that many, if not most small music venues only cater to a certain sliver of the population: grungy 20 and 30-somethings, mostly without kids. Many if not most in this age-group prefer more polished night-spots with DJs and fancy food and decor, where they spend 100s of bucks every weekend. Older folks also pay plenty of money for live entertainment at bigger, more comfortable venues, like the Winspear and the Jube. Sadly, most local acts will never have the profile or draw to play this size of venue on their own bill. Whilst there’s certainly a place for small, grungy venues like the Artery and Wunderbar, their aesthetic is never going to appeal to the vast majority of Edmonton’s population. What is missing is something inbetween the two extremes. ie. venues of about 100-200 capacity with a soft-seat area where people can come and catch a show, and a separate social area serving quality refreshments for those who want to hang out, perhaps divided from the stage by a big glass wall so they can still see the bands but not disturb the show. Instead of putting on a show a month like a folk club, the venue would have bands on 4-5 nights a week. It needs to be in the right place of course, street level on Whyte Av or downtown would be ideal. The Haven came kinda close to this, but was definitely in the wrong part of town. You need a location with foot-traffic, where people can stop in and see who’s playing tonight as they walk by. There also needs to be quality-control as to the bands presented, perhaps each night (or each venue) could be sponsored/curated by a different agency – Alberta Music, AFA, Edmonton Arts Council, CKUA, CBC, MacEwan….people who already have their finger on the pulse of the local music scene, could draw a crowd and would benefit from the partnership. The radio stations could even have a live broadcast from the venue. Scheduling and paying the acts could be taken out of the hands of the venue, who would just focus on creating and maintaining a welcoming, beautiful space with great refreshments. The artists could also focus on putting on a great show, rather than having to spend much of their time promoting/spamming their friends to drag them out to see them play at a venue that never draws its own crowd.
    Ok, that was more than one thought, but any response would be appreciated!


      1. The start-up costs to craft this room would be enormous. As in, beyond the scope of reality.
      2. While the Artery and Wunderbar cater to a certain sliver of the population, they can sustain themselves on that sliver. The venue you’re describing wouldn’t be able to sustain itself on the similar sliver of soft-seater appreciators, because the costs would be through the roof from the rent alone. That’s why you see a lot of Artery’s and none of the venues you’re describing.
      3. The only place in Edmonton with real foot traffic is Whyte Ave., and that demographic is 18-25 who are interested in bars, not venues. Things might change with the new downtown but we’ll have to wait and see. Also, we’re a winter city, so relying on foot traffic means death for any establishment.
      4. I have no comment on the radio thing as I don’t know the realities of having a venue with several frequencies competing with radio frequencies. I’ve seen it be a nightmare. But more importantly, where’s the money coming from to do this?
      5. While I understand the logic behind the glass wall, my gut reaction is to be offended by it. It’s essentially turning live music into television (you can talk over it and not offend anyone) which isn’t the point of live music and destroys its strengths and what makes it unique. And I’ve heard enough stories about bands in soft-seater situations being talked over that it’s a behaviour we need to reeducate people on, not encourage.

      This kind of thinking is really entrenched in the “artist-first” mode. It doesn’t take into consideration any revenue streams for the venue (how do you ensure that people are drinking? Also, soft seater crowds don’t typically drink more than two drinks a person, so is that going to be enough to sustain the venue? Are the “refreshments” going to have to be priced so high that no one will pay for them?). Professional musicians can’t just look at these issues from their own side anymore. We need musicians with business degrees who understand how this industry functions and can work inside the box to expand it. It’s what Tommy Banks and all the guys did in the ’60s. They made their own opportunities.


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