HALIFAX’S FAMED LIVE-MUSIC SCENE IS UNDER SIEGE
When Mike Campbell moved to Halifax in 1993, the music scene blew him away.
“You could go to a number of places and see live, original music and there were lots of people there,” he says. “The other thing I really liked about it is the bands all came out to each other’s shows, so when you walked into a show by one band, you’d see pretty much every other band in town … The scene was very cohesive and supportive.”
Even some of the local universities had live music shows. Dalhousie University’s McInnes Room typically hosted more than a half-dozen concerts each year, while the university’s Grawood bar hosted shows each Friday. Vinnie’s Pub at Mount Saint Vincent University was also booking acts.
In the early 1990s, Halifax was often called “Seattle of the North” because of its music scene that was exemplified by bands like Sloan and Thrush Hermit, while grunge in Seattle exploded because of bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Campbell worked for MuchMusic for 18 years until 2002 and over the years he hosted a number of shows looking at the Canadian music scene. Halifax was a fertile ground for content.
In the early 2000s, Halifax’s music scene kept humming along and there were lots of venues for artists to play.
In 2008, Campbell opened the Carleton Music Bar & Grill. In December 2016, he announced the bar’s sale. The news came months after the bar went under creditor protection. It was a blow to Halifax’s struggling music scene. “There’s not really a hell of a lot of places [offering original, live music],” says Campbell. While the new owner will keep the Carleton as a music venue, the situation highlights the tough situation live venues face.
A combination of changing consumer preferences and technological disruptions have made live-music venues scarcer, which are factors not unique to Halifax. Halifax’s economy hasn’t exactly boomed either.
In the days before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Spotify, people didn’t have as many entertainment options. Back when MuchMusic actually played music videos, the only other way to hear a band’s music, besides owning a recording or hearing them on the radio, was to see them live.
Now, without leaving the comfort of your home, you can watch full concerts on YouTube. To be fair, these full concerts are not going to be of up and coming Halifax acts, but the sheer volume of music available through platforms like YouTube and Spotify means people have never had so much access to music. Halifax’s music scene faces more global competition than ever.
Before he was a Halifax city councillor, Waye Mason was immersed in the city’s music scene as a record label owner, executive director of the Halifax Pop Explosion, and a professor in NSCC’s music management program. He says while rock and pop once dominated, there are countless genres people are interested in these days. “There seems to be less of a focus on guitar music,” he says. Traditionally, live music in Halifax was built around the guitar.
Victor Syperek has been at the centre of Halifax’s music scene for about 20 years. Besides being the former owner of the Economy Shoe Shop, he owns three live music venues (the Marquee, the Seahorse Tavern, and the Local) all housed in one building on Gottingen Street. “We’ll have a bigger crowd for a ‘90s dance party than we will for four very good bands,” says Syperek. Not only will it draw a bigger crowd, but it’s cheaper to pay one DJ than 14 musicians.
Syperek says today’s younger generation isn’t discovering music at live shows like it was when he opened the Marquee 20 years ago. “In the beginning, we’d have music seven nights a week, bands playing and people would come out supporting the music,” he says. “Nowadays, unless they know the band, we’ll get eight [of their] friends out.”
Social media has meant people can socialize without even going out. Apps like Tinder mean people can meet new people without going to a bar.
These things aren’t unique to Halifax. They’re just part of a changing world, but there’s no doubt Halifax loses something when music venues close. “If this part of the country is known for anything besides the requisite frickin’ lighthouses and fishing boats and shit like that, it’s music,” Campbell says. “Our ambassadors to the rest of the world are our musicians for the most part.”
Today, musicians like Joel Plaskett and Matt Mays dot their songs with local references that help paint an image of where they’re from. Songs and the musicians writing them help give places an identity. Without them, Campbell argues places lose their individuality and become more alike. “If citizens are basically listening to the same mindless crap people are listening to everywhere else, what differentiates your burg from another one?” he says.
On top of all these things, many downtown businesses struggle as endless construction projects scare people away. There’s hope that the downtown construction boom will result in people moving back there and the Nova Centre will fill with out-of-town guests eager to explore the downtown.
Worry for Halifax’s live music scene is nothing new. Every few years, there’s talk about its supposed death. Syperek is optimistic though. “In my experience, most things are cyclical and they come and go,” he says.
CORRECTION: Due to a fact-checking error, an earlier version of this story stated that Victor Syperek owns the Economy Shoe Shop; he no longer does own it. The story above has been corrected.