Michael Dawson has never seen anything like the last few months during his music career.
The long-time musician and former Estevan resident has been the executive director of SaskMusic since 2015. He has spent the past 4 1/2 months navigating the organization, the Saskatchewan music industry and its many talented performers through the myriad of challenges posed by COVID-19.
The province’s music scene was dealt an immediate blow March 13 when COVID forced the cancellation of the Juno Awards – the showcase of Canadian music –a day before the awards show was supposed to happen in Saskatoon. Juno Week activities were already well underway in the Bridge City when the Junos became one of the first marquee events in Canada to be dashed by the pandemic.
“Obviously, I think my first concern and everyone’s first concern is public health and safety, but also trying to navigate that to ensure that the musicians and the venues and the festivals and everything can advance past the end of it,” Dawson told the Mercury.
After the awards were cancelled, music venues were shuttered and events were postponed or cancelled. Not only did it affect musicians, it impacted the behind the scenes people who work on sound and lighting and those who help make live music happen.
SaskMusic has been doing its part to help support and relay information to its members. They have been working with the provincial and federal levels of government to ensure they’re aware of the impacts.
SaskMusic open houses have featured livestream performances by Saskatchewan musicians, including local favourites such as Last Birds – comprised of North Portal’s Lindsay Arnold and Mike Davis – as well as Poor Nameless Boy (the stage name for former Estevan resident Joel Henderson) and Chris Henderson. They also had a virtual concert for National Indigenous People’s Day in June.
“We moved some of the programs we offer online, and also under the realization that people who have been working from home through this are feeling a little screen time burnout. So we’re really looking to increase the quality and some of the ingenuity of those live performances moving forward.”
Members have done a good job of coping with the past few months, despite the lost income of not having the opportunity to play in front of a capacity crowd.
Dawson cited bandcamp.com, which is a website that allows musicians to sell their music directly to people, as a way in which Saskatchewan musicians have really supported each other by promoting their peers.
“There’s been a lot of frustration, certainly there has. For more than a decade now, in music … a large part of … the revenue income is from live performances, and so really it’s almost an events-based industry in a lot of capacities.”
The focus has shifted away from record and CD sales to streaming sales and performing live.
SaskMusic has also launched the Sask Venues project to raise funds for smaller music venues in the province. People can purchase limited edition t-shirts to support venues across the province, such as the Happy Nun Café in Forget.
The pre-sale will close Thursday evening at midnight. For more information, you can visit www.saskvenuesproject.com.
While some venues are now partially open, it will be a while before these places are able to be at capacity, which affects both the venues and the musicians.
“The big challenge, of course, is being able to sell a limited number of tickets in a lot of instances is still difficult, because it means you go back to work, but you’re going back to work at the quarter of the income that you would have made in the past.”
Traditional music venues are also a big part of the success of the music industry in Saskatchewan, he said. Dawson noted that he received a quote from Ryan Gullen of the famed Saskatchewan rock band the Sheepdogs, who captured the value of these venues.
Without the Cavern Club in Liverpool, England, there wouldn’t have been the Beatles, and without a coffee shop in Saskatoon, Joni Mitchell wouldn’t have had her career launched.
Others in this province have turned to options such as the drive-in concert, in which spectators will park their vehicles for a show, allowing them to maintain social distancing. The first such concert was in Lampman for Saskatchewan country music singer JJ Voss.
Dawson said the different levels of government have been receptive to the ideas from SaskMusic. The province in particular has handled things extremely well.
“I’m confident we’ll get through it. We’ve seen a really great response from people in the province already,” said Dawson.
Dawson, who has been part of the band Library Voices with several other former Estevan residents for over a decade, is also pleased to see some of the talent coming out of the Estevan area.
“Having the pleasure to grow up in Estevan, and knowing that it’s such a musical city, it’s great to see those artists doing well on the world stage,” he said.