Last Friday, at the Dora Keogh pub on Toronto’s Danforth Avenue strip, roots musician Miranda Mulholland sang and played her fiddle at a small show quickly put together in lieu of the weekend’s cancelled Juno Awards in Saskatoon. Mulholland was (is?) a 2020 Juno contender, as was/is the troubadour and fellow nominee Justin Rutledge, also on hand at the Dora. Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy showed up too, bringing an old Juno statuette of his. A symbol of the way things used to be, or a kind of consolation prize.
Next door at the Danforth Music Hall, the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Dan Mangan was set to play a concert on a 10th-anniversary tour for his breakthrough album, Nice, Nice, Very Nice. Then large public gatherings were discouraged, and the show was cancelled. His band already set up, Mangan played the show to an empty room, taping it all for an online streaming event that happened three nights later.
Musicians know calamity. They used to sell albums, until the online revolution. Touring was the solution, the backup plan. Now their audiences are being told to stay home. First the rug is pulled out from underneath gigging musicians. Next, the floor collapses.
“It’s scary out there," Mullholand told me after the impromptu pub show. “This is an opportunity to show everybody just how precarious the life of an independent musician is, during this crisis."
In addition to being an artist (as a solo performer and with the duo Harrow Fair), Muholland is a musician advocate who sits on the board of governors of two Toronto music venues – Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall – and sits on the Music Canada Advisory Council, an industry body that promotes and protects creators. Speaking to her, one gets an idea of just how hard a self-employed musician works, and just how far they live out on the limb.
Before the coronavirus crisis, Mulholland was working on shows in the U.K. and the United States, including a Harrow Fair appearance at the influential Philadelphia Folksong Society club. Promo gigs were lined up at radio stations along the way for the drive down there. These things don’t just happen; people are paid to promote her album and the concerts in advance. “It’s a lot of financial risk,” she said.
Ever since the advent of illegal downloading, the music industry has existed in a state of postponed consequences. Apple’s iTunes was supposed to save the business from Napster, but then streaming services arrived, soon dominating the industry and paying less than pennies to artists. Musicians reacted by hitting the road harder, relying on ticket sales and merchandise sales to pick up the slack.
Now the live-music highway is empty, like something out of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road, with its line about how people were always getting ready for tomorrow, but tomorrow wasn’t getting ready for them: “It didn’t even know they were there.”
The night before Mangan’s show to nobody at the Danforth Music Hall and the commiserative gathering nearby at the Dora Keogh, songster Corin Raymond played his regular beery twilight-hour gig at Toronto’s Cameron House, as he has for coming up on 15 years. Raymond is a raconteur who plays a literate, communal kind of folk music. “There will always be a small time,” he likes to croon about the durability of a sing-along blue-collar career. “Just come and see us now and then.”
This week, the Cameron House announced its doors would close for the time being, like so many other shuttered venues across the country. As well, Raymond’s lucrative house concerts – small shows at private venues put on by fans and boosters – have dried up.
“What would be called an ‘intimate evening’ doesn’t have the same magic ring to it that it did before,” Raymond said to me this week. “The bulk of my audience is older. They’re not so excited to sit shoulder-to-shoulder right now.”
With his gigs up until May mostly cancelled, Raymond manages to find the cloud’s silver lining. He says he now has what every working musician wants: time. “It’s our real wealth, and we as independent artists are constantly expending it and squandering it. We hemorrhage time.”
He’s talking about the hours and hours of booking his own tours, driving to out-of-town shows from his home in Hamilton and stuffing envelopes for the mail-out of his latest album, Dirty Mansions. Now he’s lost two months of work. It took a pandemic to give him the luxury of isolation.
“All of a sudden the government has ordered us to stay home and play the guitar," he says.
For Raymond and a country full of hardscrabble musicians, the small time just got a whole lot smaller. “The only thing that’s going to last,” Raymond sings, “is folks like us singing songs for folks like you.”
And just like that, the optimistic truth has now become a quaint notion.
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