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Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria's arts and culture sector stays steady while touring artists continue to grapple with recovery

For a city of its size, Victoria punches above its weight; but musicians are still fighting an uphill battle.

By Ryan Hook
November 11, 2022
Arts
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria's arts and culture sector stays steady while touring artists continue to grapple with recovery

For a city of its size, Victoria punches above its weight; but musicians are still fighting an uphill battle.

By Ryan Hook
Nov 11, 2022
Victoria artist Art d'Ecco performs. Photo: Miguel Esparza / submitted
Victoria artist Art d'Ecco performs. Photo: Miguel Esparza / submitted
Arts
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria's arts and culture sector stays steady while touring artists continue to grapple with recovery

For a city of its size, Victoria punches above its weight; but musicians are still fighting an uphill battle.

By Ryan Hook
November 11, 2022
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Victoria's arts and culture sector stays steady while touring artists continue to grapple with recovery
Victoria artist Art d'Ecco performs. Photo: Miguel Esparza / submitted

With the Royal and McPherson theatres, the Capital Ballroom, and a multitude of festivals throughout the summer, Victoria can be pretty spoiled with music, theatre, and comedy acts—we get some of the world’s best. And when it comes to the local scene, Victoria has the highest concentration of artists out of any Canadian municipality.

And that’s reflected in the 2022 Vital Signs Report.

More than 2,500 residents completed this year’s survey and gave local arts and culture a B grade—a score that hasn’t changed since the pandemic hit in 2020. From 2013-2019, the category consistently received a B+. 

Considering the toll social distancing and pandemic recovery have taken on the arts, it’s no surprise the grade has suffered at least a little.

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Chris Gilpin, manager at the CRD’s arts & culture division, says the report is good at providing context for how Victoria residents see what the city offers, but is by no means indicative of how the arts and culture sector in Canada as a whole is actually recovering. According to Statscan, jobs are increasing. 

“It's not at the pre-pandemic level, at least in the sentiment survey,” he said. “But the trend line is going up in 2022.”

The Vital Signs report demonstrated that 19% of the respondents who made more than $80,000 were more likely to give an A grade to Victoria’s arts and culture than those who make less than $50,000 (15%). 

The more money you make, the more likely you can afford shows, and unfortunately, shows are getting pricier. 

Across the board, from stadium acts to jazz club bands, ticket prices have increased by 18% across North America, and a lot of that has to do with the control Ticketmaster has on the Canadian market, and how promoters can adjust ticket prices based on supply and demand. Ticketmaster or Stubhub also charge exorbitant service fees, sometimes adding up to more than half of a ticket’s price.

Luckily, venues like the Royal Theatre and McPherson Playhouse or the Capital Ballroom use local ticketing services instead. While there are extra fees added towards the end of a purchase for any of their shows, it’s usually little more than $10.

“You can get a $29 ticket to the opera here,” Gilpin said. “That’s not bad compared to Vancouver [where ticket prices are between $60-150].”

Victoria still remains one of the go-to places on Vancouver Island to see some of the world’s best acts—and that’s likely not going to change. But Canadian artists are by no means reaping the rewards of the returning live entertainment sector—in fact, the opposite. 

Last week, Edmonton-born and Polaris Prize-winning rapper Cadence Weapon came out with an article detailing his experience as a touring musician right now.

“[D]espite shows seemingly returning to ‘normal’ for audiences, the reality for musicians behind the scenes is fraught,” he wrote in Toronto Life. “A three-week journey can cost anywhere between $60,000 and $100,000. The expenses behind the average tour—which can include a tour manager, travel, work visas, backing musicians, and lighting and sound technicians—are mostly paid out of pocket by artists.”

It’s affecting Victoria artists like Art d’Ecco, who says he has often brought what used to be supplied by venues, such as a backline of instruments. 

“It's so hard to solve that Rubik's Cube,” Art d’Ecco told Capital Daily. “When you have these people buying these insanely pricey tickets for these legacy acts [such as Blink 182], it prevents them from going to other shows [like Art’s].”

Victoria artist Art d'Ecco. Photo: Elijah Schultz / submitted

Art makes a living as a musician, often touring overseas and opening up for big touring acts in the United Kingdom. He started playing “janky ass music and mumbling gibberish” into a voice recorder on his phone, and now, he has four albums, he’s played the mainstage at Rifflandia, and has no plans of slowing down. His dream is to buy a home in Victoria and convert it into a studio. But he does wonder about the sustainability of Canada’s music scene.

“I run this operation as a business,” he said. “I pay for flights, I pay for the band, the rental backline, the extra luggage fees, the hotels, [and] the gas. It's an expensive operation.”

Art said he often gets asked for advice from young bands on how they can establish themselves in the Canadian music scene. His answer now compared to pre-pandemic has changed.

“I would have said work on your craft, write as good a song as you can, and keep grinding it out in your local community to build a fan base,” he said. 

“It feels like that's a bit of a fallacy now…because it's contingent on you eventually getting to the stage of your career where you've got that first asset, that first album, or maybe the first couple of EPs and you'd go out and tour on the road. Post-COVID, with hyperinflation and high gas prices, how are you going to afford that?” 

The CRD also provides a number of grants for artists as do provincial and federal governments. But still, Canadian artists are rarely turning a profit when they tour, and seasoned artists are getting more creative in how they empower middle-class musicians. Last week, BC musician Dan Mangan and his business partner, Laura Simpson, appeared on CBC's Dragon's Den asking for an investment in their house concert project, Side Door. VenturePark CEO Arlene Dickinson offered $500,000 to finance the project.

The value of arts and culture is obvious; but it’s always an uphill battle communicating its importance. 

When the iconic Logan’s Pub on Cook Street closed, it was a big hit to local artists, like Art, who often used those venues to springboard to the Capital Ballrooms or Rifflandias. And last year, when the Greater Victoria School District was faced with a $7.2 million deficit, the district’s music programs were the first on the chopping block.

But, fundraising efforts by families in the district helped save the strings program; and venues such as the Carlton Club and Phoenix Bar & Grill are filling the void left by Logan’s, even if temporarily.

The value of the arts, Gilpin said, is not an existential question. “I've never encountered anyone who does not agree this is the absolute most effective use of public funds.”

The City of Victoria agrees, and over the next five years, it has invested $1.7 million into its Music Strategy, which is intended to create more spaces, empower local artists, and encourage innovation in the sector.

Matt Dell spoke to Capital Daily last July, before he was elected as a Victoria councillor, about how unaffordable housing is stifling musicians from being able to create. In the Vital Signs report, housing received a failing grade.

“One of the tragedies of the affordability crisis is there are no more houses for shows—it’s hard for a few people to get together and jam in a house.”

Along with fixing the housing affordability crisis, Dell also said he would like to see community associations start providing spaces for local artists. “Community associations like Fernwood and Fairfield could really open those doors for artists like they used to,” he said. “We need to make a concerted effort to open those venues back up.”

The City of Victoria is also about to embark on an ambitious plan at the north end of downtown: the Arts and Innovation District. The goal, set out in Victoria 3.0, is to reimagine the downtrodden area near the Phillips Brewing into an arts and culture-focused community replete with innovative architecture and design. 

“[The Arts and Innovation District] is about creating a new supportive space for the creation of arts and culture, but also spaces where people can go and experience it in a way which actually is really interactive and quite profound,” Mayor Marianne Alto told Capital Daily in October.

“[W]e're the anchor municipality of a larger region … when you think about the festivals that we have, the performances that we have, the various different opportunities to experience art, whether it's performance-based, or whether it's artistic based or static—we really do, I think the old phrase is, punch above our weight.” 

Making art and making a living at it has always been a hard-fought battle, but seemingly, one worth fighting. There’s always room for improvement, but for a city of our size we often, as Alto says, punch above our weight.

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Ryan Hook
Food, Arts & Culture Reporter

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