GAME ON, GIG OFF: How hockey can hurt (other) live entertainment

Musician Earl Pereira (The Steadies) expresses joy the NHL lockout is over

Musician Earl Pereira (The Steadies) expresses joy the NHL lockout is over

Musicians and other performers are deeply conflicted over the end of the NHL lockout – judging from the gust of passionate comments on social media after Sunday’s good news.

Amongst the expected grumbles of “who cares?!” and cheers of “yay! drop the puck!” was a nagging worry that the return of Edmonton Oilers games will have a negative impact on live shows around town – especially on Saturday nights. It is the Holy Canadian Sabbath: Hockey Night in Canada.

Former Edmonton performer Wes Borg summed up the fear nicely, “Oh hoorah! Now all our live shows will have smaller audiences because the TV show about the millionaires who skate is on again!”

Is this really going to happen in Edmonton? Some say yes.

“I can guarantee that the first month the NHL is back, especially on those late games, it’s going to really affect those Saturday night shows,” says Brent Oliver, who is the perfect guy to comment on this. Now the Alberta Legislature entertainment co-ordinator, he’s a hockey-loving musician and longtime Edmonton concert promoter who spent a couple of years in Winnipeg, which was without an NHL team for 15 years and therefore a test tube to see the effects, if any, of professional hockey on other forms of live entertainment. He remembers the scene when hockey came back in 2011: “I’ll never forget it. The people shut down Portage and Main. It was insane, old people hugging young people, just tears and happiness,” he says. “Hockey means a lot.”

Oliver says that the Winnipeg Folk Festival, a major promoter all year long, saw a subsequent drop in attendance at their events, up to 50% on game nights. The Winnipeg Free Press reported in December 2011 that local arts organizations across the board suffered lower attendance since the Jets came back. It was mainly from “walk-up,” i.e., the purchase of tickets that aren’t part of a subscription, even with the ballet and the opera. Really?

“Hey Bubba, couldn’t get Jets tickets, let’s grab a quick beer and hot wings and catch Tosca at the Centennial Concert Hall …”

It doesn’t seem to make sense.

The idea that money spent on hockey tickets will mean less money for concert tickets doesn’t really fly in Edmonton, says Rexall Place venue director Brett Fraser.

“I don’t think the NHL makes much difference in this town, due to economy, but also because of the high season ticket base,” he says. “Season ticket holders pay in a lump sum, which doesn’t deter spontaneous buys later year.”

Roughly 15,000 of the 17,000 available seats to each Edmonton Oilers game are held by season ticket holders. The rest are sold out well in advance, with a line-up of fans on the waiting list. So much for talk of an NHL boycott. You could make the argument that fans who spend all their money on hockey games might not want to include Tragically Hip tickets in the annual family budget, but it’s hard to measure. Millionaires who play guitar are certainly as big a draw as millionaires who skate. Fraser says it depends on the demographic.

“Some special events that want the older demo that are season ticket holders will steer away from hockey nights,” he says. “Younger demo events don’t tend to even start by the time a game is over, so they may watch the game and then go to the show.”

Shania Twain shows where her loyalties lie

Shania Twain shows where her loyalties lie

You can’t always avoid scheduling concerts on a Saturday night. Upcoming local gigs conflicting with Hockey Night In Canada include Marilyn Manson at the Shaw Conference Centre on Feb. 9 – not sold out – and Herman’s Hermits at the Century Casino on Feb. 23, which did sell out, so they added a second show. Too early to tell. The end of the lockout isn’t even official yet, for crying out loud. Check the walk-up.

But one can try to get along. When Oliver was a full time promoter, he says kept the Oilers schedule close at hand, and avoided booking Saturday gigs wherever possible. When he was one of the owners of the Sidetrack Café and oversaw a move from its old location, the grand re-opening happened to coincide with an Oilers’ playoff run. It wasn’t the only reason the new Sidetrack failed, but it was a big one, at least from a morale point of view.

Some Edmonton musicians have managed a détente with their biggest competition.

Local band Raygun Cowboys offered this comment: “Hockey helps bands. If you are playing on a Saturday in any town the crowd is way bigger if the home team wins. And rule number 1 is NEVER start the show until HNIC is over!”

Folk musician Maria Dunn, who points out the loyalty of folk fans, hockey or no hockey, along with a number of folk songs glorifying hockey, says she has delayed the start times of her concerts due to playoff games. “Why fight it?” she says.

FatDave Johnson, of the band the Fuzz Kings, writes this: “I don’t know how deep the conflict goes for me. I’m not a hockey fan and I don’t try to scapegoat the NHL for any possible low numbers at the door of my gigs. I will say that a self-sufficient business like the NHL shouldn’t be soaking up the ‘arts funding’ dollars that they are, since they DO fall under that umbrella … but the Canadian Government hasn’t kicked in any dough for any record I was ever involved with, either.”

If hockey means less gigs, it follows that no hockey means more gigs, doesn’t it? It certainly seemed that way in Winnipeg, but that was an anomaly. A 113-day lockout, and it’s happened twice before, simply isn’t enough to measure the effect on the already chaotic and fickle live music business in this town. The sports bars sure suffered, though. During this labour dispute, some establishments reported revenue losses in the high five figures.

So the little guys got hurt with the lockout, and a different set of little guys may get hurt with the end of the lockout. Sounds like a lose-lose situation. Par for the course, as they say in hockey.