Concert venues get shut out as Ontario COVID-19 rules prohibit live streams

By David Friend

TORONTO – Ontario concert venue owners are facing another setback after the provincial government outlawed live streaming shows for the second time this year under the latest COVID-19 restrictions.

Doug Ford’s “emergency brake” plan, introduced on Thursday, prohibits virtual shows in empty concert halls for the next four weeks, even as other industries have the green light to keep operating.

That’s left some in the live music industry frustrated, pointing out shoppers are still permitted to wander malls while TV and movie productions continue rolling in film studios.

“The government is picking winners and losers without any logic,” said Jeff Cohen, owner of the Horseshoe Tavern, a downtown Toronto venue that packed in crowds before the pandemic but turned to live streams over the past year to stay in business.

“The moment we try to do something proactive… we’re just getting hit on the head with a rubber mallet.”

Since last year, Cohen has been chasing ways to keep the lights on at the Horseshoe while supporting Canadian musicians.

Last August, he launched the Horseshoe Hootenanny, a live streaming concert series that went dark when Ontario’s leaders unveiled stricter health guidelines late last year, which made it against the rules to keep the series running.

After dipping into government funding, Cohen recently got the live streaming series back on its feet shortly before the Ford government tightened restrictions again as COVID-19 cases spiked.

The Horseshoe’s virtual concerts originally set for April have all been pushed to May, including dates for the Trews, Terra Lightfoot and Hawksley Workman.

All of that would be logical to Cohen if he didn’t see the province making special exceptions for other industries.

“I’m a prudent guy, so I’m like, ‘OK, we can’t live stream.’ But you can stand in line at a retail store that’s non-essential to buy a skirt?” Cohen said.

“Like, that makes no…sense at all.”

Lisa Zbitnew, co-owner of Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, can relate to those frustrations. She said while she supports the government’s health measures, she doesn’t understand why live music is once again getting the short shrift.

She pointed to film and TV shoots that are moving forward throughout the province, raising the question of how a production crew inside an empty concert hall is any different than one shooting in a studio.

“It’s upsetting that for some reason the music sector is treated a little bit like a pariah,” she said.

“We’re not suggesting we get to do anything that others can’t do. We just always seem to be at the end of the queue.”

Erin Benjamin, chief executive of the advocacy organization Canadian Live Music Association, says enduring another shutdown on short notice has added to an emotionally and financially gruelling year for the industry.