LivingArts: Venue Spiritus Sancti

Hamilton has a glut of sleeve-roller-uppers, bull-horn-grabbers and charge-takers.  

At a time when Hamilton was in the depths of decentralization and its effects (downtown parking lot abundance, tourism dropping, Mike Harris doing Mike Harris things), the type of people who were good at taking the bull by the horns had moved elsewhere.  In the late 90s, the general consensus was that Hamilton was a nice place to grow up, but an even better place to leave.  The type of restless personality that relishes taking the bull by the horns didn’t want to hang around in a city with a sleepy, bedroom community feel, so they left.  A lot of my friends went to Toronto or Montreal, because they actually felt like proper cities.  Opportunity abounded in Toronto in the late 90s and early 2000s, especially in the arts.

Well, everybody knows what has happened since then.  The few of those people who stuck it out in Hamilton have done their darnedest to make a difference and all of a sudden we have a wealth of talent coming home after decades abroad.  I am one of those people, and after spending ten years seeking bull-horn opportunities in Kingston and Toronto, my wife and I decided to come back to Hamilton to settle down.  

If you have what it takes to make it in the arts, you are likely the type of take-charge, entrepreneurial person that seeks out opportunities and so it makes sense that we saw such a large migration in the past few years.  Never mind the cheap rent - Hamilton is the land of opportunity right now and that is appealing to a certain personality.

In the independent music community, the last decade has seen Hamilton go from being a three-venue town to a fifteen-venue town.  All of these take-charge people need a place to wet their whistle and so it stands to reason that a number of new clubs would pop up as a result of the grand influx.  Where it was once only the Casbah + Pepperjacks + Absinthe, it is now:

There are probably more that I’m missing, but you get the point.  We’ve got a LOT of venues in this city and they are all competing for the same business.  If you are unlucky enough to book a show the same evening as even just TWO other similar shows, you are white-knuckle driving to that gig.  Imagine what happens when you book a show on the same evening with TEN similar indie-rock EDM shows all over town. 

The people who operate these venues need to fill out their roster for at least four nights a week in order to stay in business, which is great because it means there is a LOT happening in downtown Hamilton right now.   It also translates into pretty stiff competition between artists, which means everyone has to bring their A game as performers and self-promoters.  Although there will be a tendency for long-tenured Hamilton musicians to grieve the loss of the three-venue ecosystem that we had for so long, it’s ultimately a sign of growth.  That should mean that Hamilton’s marketing plan to brand as a "music city" might actually work.

That said, one characteristic of the sleeve-roller-upper crowd that works against them is that they tend to be self-centred.  I know this, again, because I am one of these people.  It’s not a judgement, just an observation of entrepreneurial people in general.  These people aren’t afraid to take risks and make change, but they are counting on your support to accomplish their goals, whether that’s building a new venue or trying to be a rock star.  

What that means is that we have a LOT of people moving to town who are vying for patronage in one form or another.  What that means in the music scene is a glut of creators and venues and not enough consumers.   The equilibrium of supply and demand will undoubtedly get thrown off if we don’t see a migration into Hamilton of people who like to consume culture.  It will be interesting to watch how people navigate that imbalance and whether or not we’ll see an adjustment at some point, either in the form of venue-closures or a growth in audience support.  

[Next month: Steve analyzes the outlier phenomenon that is DOORS PUB.  How do they do it?!?]