Booze laws will not help live music!

Prohibition GigCity EdmontonLegalizing live entertainment in licensed beverage rooms is NOT the answer to Saving the Edmonton Music Scene!

It will foster an infestation of “cover bands,” choking off the artists who write and perform their own music. Art will be judged on how much alcohol it sells. It will herald a hegemony of dreaded “booking agents” who will make a killing on the sweat of hapless entertainers forced to play Proud Mary. And it will see an increase in general drunken hooliganism amongst local citizenry.

What’s next? Allowing gentle-men and unescorted ladies to drink together in the same saloon? Lowering the drinking age? God and Queen forbid.

It behooves Premier Manning and his cronies to take a good hard look in the mirror before considering such drastic changes to liquor laws designed to protect us from ourselves. Better to see their cirrhotic veiny red faces befuddled by the evil spirits they so obviously crave above the well-being of the good people of Alberta.

We were better off under prohibition!

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It’s easy to imagine the above (fake) editorial published by the Edmonton Daily Journal in 1958 – the year “dining lounges” with live music were finally allowed to sell booze, under the close scrutiny of the Alberta Liquor Control Board, of course. A series of rapid changes in liquor laws ensued, which led directly to the nightmare scenario described above: The Era of Mustang Sally.

It’s why MLA David Shepherd’s recent motion to extend bar hours for live music venues is a bit worrying. Well-meaning tweaks in Alberta’s ridiculous history of liquor regulations have resulted in some unpleasant unintended consequences for the live music scene.

David Shepherd GigCity Edmonton

David Shepherd was a musician before he was an MLA

The motion presented at the last legislative assembly of 2015 in December proposes extending serving hours from 2 am to 3 am exclusively for bars that run live entertainment. DJs probably wouldn’t count, says the 42-year-old MLA, who was a keyboard player before he was elected in the Alberta NDP landslide last year.

“The intent is to encourage live music performance,” he says. The move could benefit particular kinds of live music venues, “perhaps venues that have cover bands, and that sort of thing.”

The idea came from local jazz musician Thom Bennett, one of the founders of the City of Edmonton’s “Live Music Initiative” aimed at preserving original music rooms. At least three important ones were lost in 2015: The Artery, the Pawn Shop and Wunderbar. Longer hours, Bennett says, “allows live music venues that have a business model that stays open late to have an extra hour of alcohol sales to recoup the cost of having quality live music.”

Just one little thing: there don’t seem to be any. Original live music venues don’t often cater to the late night drinking crowd. In fact a number of local bars have been promoting earlier shows. Craig Martellica, Wunderbar’s former owner who now books two clubs, Bohemia and a new little place called the Almanac, says the “home by midnight” policy actually draws more patrons.

“A lot of folks are more willing to come out during the week knowing they can see the whole show and still take transit home,” he says, “Or get to sleep early.” He doesn’t think much of extended hours. “Even on weekends, I was never able to keep a crowd late. Staying open later would just have invited trouble. I’d have chosen not to do it most nights.”

In short, it’s not the all-request cover band emporiums like the Red Piano that are going under, it’s the original music incubators like Wunderbar – and they’re not buying into the plan.

Jason Borys GigCity Edmonton

Jason Borys

Neither is Jason Borys, a local musician and sound tech who has spent almost 20 years on the road and in the trenches of such clubs as the Edmonton Event Centre and the Pawn Shop (both gone). He says he’s seen it countless times: that by 1 am when the headliner finally goes on, “The only people left in the venue are usually the ones bellied up to bar with their backs turned towards the band, focused on booze and conversation.”

Borys adds, “I know booze is a major factor in keeping clubs open. But if this is a live music initiative, putting more emphasis on the booze and boozing hours is just adding to the problem, not helping it.” He offers as evidence successful all-ages rock shows and afterhours clubs that cater to the electronic-DJ crowd. Both can do well without alcohol sales.

“The people going to these events are there for the music, not the booze,” Borys says. “Booze isn’t the answer!”

Shepherd’s view differs: “We have to acknowledge that this is the way it is, that what allows live music to take place is the fact that people go out to see shows and buy alcohol.”

Beyond that argument, he urges citizens not to forget other components of his overall idea: Another proposal for the AGLC to lower liquor tariffs for bars that run live entertainment, a cost that would presumably be offset by more fees collected from longer serving hours (which for this to be a revenue neutral deal would have to be mandatory); and an effort to strike the dumb regulation that prohibits minors from performing in licensed beverage rooms.

On the whole cover bands vs. original bands schism, Shepherd says, “While they may not feel like they have much in common, I think they’re all part of live music in the province, they’re all part of the potential in increasing tourism in Edmonton and other places and promoting them as centres of music. One can support the other.”

Can they? Let’s go back to the 1960s. Tommy “The Senator” Banks remembers Alberta as a dry province. You could buy booze in government liquor stores (you had to fill out a form), or enjoy a draft beer in one of the many gender-segregated hotel beer parlours – “dismal places,” Banks says – but you couldn’t have a drink in a restaurant or anywhere that had live entertainment. Most patrons would bring their own liquor. Venues had little slots installed under the tables, just big enough for a mickey.

Tommy Banks GigCity Edmonton

Tommy Banks

When the laws were relaxed, Banks’ career took off – being pretty much the best cover musician in Edmonton’s history, among other gifts. A little item about operating hours opened the floodgates in 1960: Alcohol service in dining lounges had to stop promptly at midnight Monday through Saturday – but could stay open until 2 am if there was a band performing.

“Only an arithmetically-challenged idiot would fail to see the benefits and fail to take advantage of such an offer,” Banks says.

He says it was an explosion: “Suddenly, players who had been working one or two musical gigs a month as a very part-time avocation were being almost press-ganged into bands of every description. The chances were pretty good that if you opened a closet door in a hotel or restaurant, there was a band of some kind playing in there. None of these players made a lot of money. But now, they could make a living playing music. Bonanza! Suddenly, there were hundreds of professional musicians in Edmonton, most of them home-grown, where pre-1960 there had been a mere handful.”

Encouraged, the ALCB gave the hotel beer parlours the green light to hire bands later in the decade. The hotels started with old-timey country bands, but soon began to cater to the huge young audience that arrived after the new Lougheed government lowered the drinking age from 21 to 18 in 1971 – and that’s when it all went for shit.

“It really gutted the creative side of the music scene,” recalls veteran CKUA broadcaster and musician Lionel Rault. At the time he and his brother Ron were playing with Willie and the Walkers, which had a No. 1 Canadian hit on Capitol Records in 1968 and went on to become the Powder Blues Band, along with other local original bands. “When we started getting calls to start playing hotel bars, they wanted us to play songs off the radio,” Rault says. “Cover bands became king. They wanted to the corniest of cover bands, too, Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree corny. They did not want any fucking hippie bands. No hippie shit. You think it’s cool? Then it probably won’t go over. Play Creedence.”

Willie and the Walkers GigCity Edmonton

Willie and the Walkers: Hippie shit

A lot has changed since then. Men and women have been allowed to co-mingle since 1967, and waste all their money and attention on VLTs since 1985 – and some people blame VLTs for bar scene woes. One tweak that actually helped happened in the mid-1980s when free-standing “brew pubs” were granted licenses. Enter the Black Dog and other smaller venues to set up the Whyte Avenue scene. Meanwhile, the mighty Sidetrack Cafe ruled the live music roost, until it shut down in 2007.

All of the big hotel showrooms are gone now, though a lot of cover bands in town still play Proud Mary and Mustang Sally. Who knows what will happen if serving hours are extended in 2016? What created a bonanza then might backfire now.

The gradual relaxing of Alberta’s condescending liquor laws has had its effects, but in truth the biggest cause of the steady decline of the live music scene was due to other things – the economy, drunk driving laws, electronic dance music, smoking bans, cable television, video games, too long a rant to get into here.

There are a few bigger rooms left in Edmonton, and new ones planned to open, but most indie music venues these days tend to be cozy. The Almanac seats about 80 people, comparable to other new rooms such as 9910, Studio 96 and the Needle Vinyl Tavern. The new Chvrch of John, just working through some red tape, will open soon with a 300 capacity. And The Aviary is set to open in the old bird shop on 111th Avenue under the management of the old Artery people – and what do you know? It looks like the Edmonton Music Scene is already busy saving itself, Live Music Initiative or no Live Music Initiative.