A few years ago, I did a school project that involved me walking across Montreal, visiting dozens of spots where an underground venue once stood. Places that meant so much to me and gave me a place to go during my formative snot-nosed punk years, but have been either bulldozed, converted into condos, or reverted to apartments. Running an underground venue comes with a lot of risk, and everything can fall apart with a single noise complaint. Police might come knocking at the door and find numerous reasons to slap the owner with a fine, whether it’s because of the noise, or the owners selling booze without a permit, or underage teenagers consuming said alcohol. Or the room might not be up to code to accommodate such a crowd; one of the venues I visited on my journey shut down because the staircase was 10 centimeters short of the required width. When attending shows at these venues, it’s understood that it’s all fleeting; that at any moment the cops will cut the power, the landlord will evict the owners, and the building will be condemned, so it’s best to enjoy the experience while it lasts.
Up until recently, I believed that venues that were legally operated with city approval and liquor permits were safe from ever being shut down. But legality can’t protect owners from noise complaints, debt, or gentrification. It can take just one moron to move above a popular bar on the busiest street in the city, be dumb enough to expect complete silence on a weekend night, and call in a noise complaint as soon as the floor begins to vibrate. Police will have no choice but to fine that bar time and time again, as was the case with Le Divan Orange. Or the landlord could continually bump up the rent and refuse to help with repairs, as was the case with Katacombes. Their closure was a big shock, and has left a gaping vacuum in the Montreal punk scene. A lot of the regulars have moved to a much smaller underground venue, but who knows how long that venue can last?
Small and medium venues are essential for a thriving local scene. A common argument for having small venues is that your favorite band had to start playing somewhere. While that may be true in some cases, not all bands are destined to play stadium concerts in the future. Some choose to play niche genres like raw punk or extreme metal, the kind of music that would only attract a hundred people, no matter how long the band has been together. And those bands are perfectly happy to play smaller venues, as long as the crowd is enthusiastic. For touring bands, a smaller place would be ideal if they haven’t established a fan base in a specific city yet. A crowd of a couple dozen people looks better in a cramped pub than in a big empty concert hall.
Smaller shows are more affordable, for bookers and audience members. Not everyone has hundreds of dollars stored up in their bank accounts to spend on concert tickets (even though Ticketmaster thinks you should be paying more for concert tickets). With small shows, anyone can get their live music fix for the low price of five or ten dollars. If you’re someone like me who tries to attend at least one show per week, then you need small-scale shows to save your wallet.
Even if you don’t go out to see live music anymore or occasionally pay for an overpriced ticket for nosebleed seats at a big concert every few months, consider the younger generation of musicians and music fans. Younger bands need small venues to grow their following and to workshop their music. With no young blood in the scene, there will be no one left to take over once all the aging rock stars have died. With no small venues available, young musicians are likely to be scammed by con artists who will promise a slot at a large concert hall on the condition they sell a certain amount of tickets. These predatory pay-to-play bookers thrive in the absence of affordable and accessible spaces. They are always in search of naïve musicians who are just looking for a stage to perform.
It’s not just happening in Montreal. Small and underground venues are closing down across the country and around the world. For the most part, city officials don’t care if a bar closes down. They’re more interested in helping out the larger venues that rake in tourism and corporate sponsorships. But these massive arenas are devoid of the passion, sense of community, and do-it-yourself mentality you will find in a small venue. A few cities have acknowledged the importance of small venues for their culture. Last month in England, it was announced that business rates would be reduced to half for small and medium-sized venues, allowing owners to continue to operate with less financial pressures. With any luck, other cities will follow suit.
I have confidence that it will take a lot to kill a music scene like Montreal’s. Like a hydra, if you close down one legal venue, three basement venues will sprout in its place, thanks to passionate people who don’t want the music to stop. But I also believe that the scene can become so much better if we can support and protect spaces from the rich assholes who move into the neighborhood and complain about the noise. There’s no point in declaring Montreal a “heavy metal city” if the only notable acts emerged decades ago while current groups get fewer places to perform.
Written by Chris
*Edited by Dominic Abate