Wunderbar: Dead Bar Walking

Wunderbar GigCity EdmontonOn the morning of Wednesday, July 15, Craig Martellica, owner of the beloved Wunderbar Hofbrauhaus off Whyte Avenue, made one last plea for clemency. He launched a Go Fund Me campaign called Keep Wundi Alive for a Bit, asking for help in paying rent by the end of the day – without which, despite a very patient landlord, the struggling club would be forced to close immediately.

By Wednesday evening, the fund had reached its $4,500 goal. More than a week later the tally stands at more than $14,000.

What the heck just happened?

Wunderbar is already for sale, and has been for months. Martellica, a social media rock star, has said he wants the venue sold to someone who will keep it as a music venue, but has since changed his tune and will now take offers from anyone. By his own account, attendance has dwindled, and those who have showed up have just not spent enough money to meet the bottom line.

Martellica says, “It’s nobody’s fault. Our time has just come.”

Wunderbar GigCity Edmonton

One of the many bands that have played Wunderbar

Obviously the people donating represent fans and friends of Wunderbar, people who either don’t get to come as often as they want, or don’t get to spend as much money on booze. It happens when you grow up. One’s “show-going years” are very limited, 10 years, tops. Donor Ryan Kenny says that normally he would just support Wunderbar by being a patron, but he’s recently become a father, and you know what happens then.

Is this just an example of throwing good money after bad?

“I wouldn’t have donated my own money to a successful business,” Kenny says, citing the fact that Wunderbar was for sale as part of his reason. He just doesn’t want to see it close.

Payment as penance

Donating to crowdfunding campaigns seems to have turned into an act of public penance, a way to absolve guilt – for stealing music from the Internet, for instance, or for not going to Wunderbar enough even though you call it one of the best venues for live music in Edmonton.

Tip jars at Wunderbar

Tip jars at Wunderbar

The success of many such campaigns suggests there’s a new system coming into place for patronage of the arts. Alas, it comes too late to save others that have passed on. The story of Edmonton venues closing is a familiar one. There’s a long list of deceased whose most recent additions include the Pawn Shop (integrated into the Union Hall, owned by the same company), and The Artery – shut down to make way for the LRT – though the latter is still working on opening its new location. It’s a bit sad that a recent local documentary called Dead Venues – profiling a number of defunct clubs like the Sidetrack Café and the New City Lounge – is such a talker around town.

This is really a story about a failing private business that remains open from donations rather than profits. Is it irresponsible to ask for money in this way to keep your venue open even though the writing is essentially on the wall and they’ll be closed or the venue sold to someone else soon enough? As it stands, Wunderbar’s windfall should keep the club open at least long enough to honour the contracts for bands booked in September. After that, who knows?

In his statement, Martellica admits, “I’ve come to realize that we’ve likely just progressed to a natural end, but I’ve been too stubborn to admit it.”

Craig Martellica Wunderbar GigCity Edmonton

Craig Martellica at the Edmonton Music Awards

It might be helpful to make a comparison to other dearly departed businesses that aren’t music venues – and that don’t get Go Fund Me campaigns. It’s an even longer list. One of my favourite places to go in Edmonton was Bullwinkle’s Restaurant on Fort Road. It closed 20 years ago but still remains one of the best places to go in the history of this city. Next to Disneyland, it’s probably one of the most magical places I ever visited as a kid. If crowdfunding existed when I was nine years old I would have given all my allowance to keep it from closing, but sadly, nothing short of time travel will ever bring it back from the dead.

Why did it close? Its time had come. Sometimes businesses just close for business reasons – so maybe being in the business business isn’t the best way to support musicians and run a music venue in this city.

Steve Steffler, who runs Bohemia downtown, has a story similar to Wunderbar’s: a small live music venue, dwindling attendance, constantly struggling to make rent, and a patient landlord. Steffler says Bohemia is currently looking at new ways of generating revenue such as a VIP program and subscription model. People would pay a monthly fee via a site like Patreon that would help Bohemia’s expenses and in return would receive VIP treatment at any shows they attend.

Profit is not the motive.

Don't go into the light ...  inside Bohemia

Don’t go into the light … inside Bohemia

“We aren’t running music venues because they are great business proposition,” Steffler says. “It’s definitely not something you get into for the money, but rather to support art and artists, especially local ones. It’s a labour of love, and seeing the love people gave for Wunderbar was really gratifying.”

It seems inevitable that the future of venues like Wunderbar and Bohemia may be with a model that isn’t a strict ticket/alcohol sales model. Maybe non-profit is the best way to truly support the local music scene. Steffler says that arts grants would go a long way to helping his venue, but there’s only one catch: they sell alcohol at Bohemia (you know, to make a profit and make people happy), and that disqualifies them from any possible arts funding.

Steffler has to know that what Bohemia is doing isn’t sustainable, and yet everybody is tiptoeing around the idea of not-for-profits, collectives, cooperatives. It’s like they’re dirty words. Artists these days, especially musicians, are being forced to do everything themselves. They do their own promotion, raise money for recordings and merchandise, and basically act as their own management. So why not take the next step and find other like-minded musicians to help take control of the best way you make your money, which is through live shows? Wunderbar and its colourful owner have always had the best interests of the bands are heart, and have been practically canonized for the lengths they go for the musicians that play their venue, though again it hasn’t really panned out that well for the business model.

The time has come for meaningful change – and if it doesn’t happen soon then we’ll have a couple more venues to add to the Dead Venues cemetery.