The first thing you hear on Japandroids’ latest release sounds familiar, even if you haven’t experienced it personally in nearly half a year: rapturous applause from a captive audience.
Massey Fucking Hall—the Vancouver duo’s first live album, released on June 26—opens with seven seconds of clapping and screaming from a sold-out crowd before drummer Dave Prowse unleashes a rapid-fire snare roll. He and singer/guitarist Brian King then launch into the title track off of their third album, Near to the Wild Heart of Life, and spend the next hour-plus tearing through the biggest songs in their modest catalog. For a band whose music is built on power chords and cries of oohs, aahs, and all rights, Japandroids haven’t always been able to recreate their studio magic on stage. But during this October 2017 set, they’re as close to perfect live as they’ve ever been: King projects confidence without straining his voice, Prowse is precise and pulverizing, and the two build and release tension in a way that adds a new layer to their anthems of old-millennial anxiety. If they had any nerves about performing at the legendary Toronto venue (as Prowse says they did), there’s no hint of it in the end product. This is a testament to the might of live rock.
Considering what “live rock” means in summer 2020 is a difficult proposition, however. The ghosts of what once was show up throughout Massey Fucking Hall, which arrived nearly four months after the global COVID-19 pandemic first shuttered venues throughout North America. There’s King’s tasteful banter, calls for the audience to sing along with nearby strangers, references to past shows in the city. Tracks like “Heart Sweats” and “Young Hearts Spark Fire” swell by more than a minute from their original studio versions thanks to extended solos and breakdowns. These are the types of things that go away in the absence of live shows, even as musicians attempt to replicate the experience with an increasing amount of streamed quarantine performances and drive-in concerts. The idea of physical space is also embedded into the DNA of so many of the songs the band plays throughout the set: “Near to the Wild Heart” details the band’s migration to Toronto; “North East South West” is a song of longing while on seemingly endless tour; “Sovereignty,” the gutting penultimate track from their 2009 debut Post-Nothing, is a story of two lovers throwing caution away and escaping the rainy Pacific Northwest to start a new life. It was easy to miss how much of King’s lyrics revolve around coming and going until the pandemic made it impossible to move.
When they took the stage at Massey Hall that night, Japandroids likely had no idea they’d release the recording nearly three years later as a live album (itself an increasingly dying format that’s been largely replaced by YouTube uploads and series like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts). And even if King and Prowse did, they had no way of knowing it would eventually come out during the worst public-health crises in modern history. But the timing makes Massey Fucking Hall both a comforting and dispiriting listen. It’s impossible not to feel the energy that comes across, or picture the two-piece crammed as close to one another as possible on a stage built to house much larger acts. If I close my eyes, I can almost picture the sweat dripping off King as he shouts into the mic in front of a stack of amps, or even recall what it’s like to be stuffed into a small concert hall, arm and arm with other fans. But as the coronavirus surges again in the United States, concertgoers are months, if not years, away from returning en masse to small, independent music venues—and even when they can return, the experience will likely be completely different. But as the pandemic stretches deeper into 2020 and the financial losses accumulate, perhaps consumers shouldn’t be asking themselves what it’ll be like when they return to their favorite local venues, but rather how many of those clubs and concert halls will be even around when that day comes.
The great irony of live music in 2020 is that this year seemed to be on pace to be one of the best in history. According to industry tracker Pollstar, gross worldwide ticket revenue for the top 100 tours totaled $840 million in the first quarter, a 10.9 percent jump from 2019’s numbers. Using data from the period—which spans from late November to late February, missing the worst of the pandemic in Western countries—Pollstar projected that the industry would’ve seen $12.2 billion in ticket sales in 2020 had that growth remained constant, which would’ve set a new record.
But these numbers may as well have come from a different era. The early-March cancellation of SXSW and postponement (and eventual cancellation) of Coachella turned out to be harbingers for the rest of the concert industry. Music venues were among the first to shut down as COVID-19 began sweeping through the United States, and widespread layoffs and furloughs soon took hold at concert promoters including AEG, the parent of Coachella promoter Goldenvoice and owner of large venues like Staples Center and medium-sized clubs like the Fonda Theatre and the Roxy in Los Angeles, among dozens of others. But the independent venues that hadn’t been gobbled up by AEG and its chief competitor, Live Nation, find themselves in an even more precarious situation: Without a deep-pocketed, overarching corporation to help them weather the shutdown, many face the prospect of closing their doors permanently.
In response to the increasingly dire circumstances, 1,300 club owners banded together in March to create the National Independent Venue Association, which counts New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom and Baby’s All Right, D.C.’s 9:30 Club, and businesses in Austin’s Red River Cultural District among its members. In June, the organization said that doomsday could be rapidly approaching for many concert halls: With rent or mortgage and insurance obligations and little or no incoming revenue, roughly 90 percent of NIVA’s members may have to close their doors permanently within six months. Fifty-five percent won’t make it past September without federal assistance beyond Paycheck Protection Program loans, which are forgivable only if companies keep all employees on payroll or rehire them within eight weeks of receiving the loan, a virtual impossibility for music venues unable to open or operate at their previous capacity. These aren’t just hypothetical situations: The legendary Troubadour in West Hollywood—a 500-capacity club that has played pivotal roles in the careers of Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Neil Young, and countless others—launched a GoFundMe in April as a stop-gap measure to avoid closure. The following month, general manager Christine Karayan told the Los Angeles Times that the venue’s reopening was “a big if.”
While NIVA is currently lobbying Congress for tax credits and legislation that would tailor PPP loans for shuttered businesses, nothing would help its members as much as reopening would. But not only is there no clear timeline for many—in a June New York Times survey of 511 epidemiologists, nearly two-thirds said they wouldn’t feel comfortable attending a show at least in the next year—but the state and local ordinances that will likely be necessary to host events may be too onerous. Karayan at the Troubadour is bracing for 25 percent capacity once venues are allowed to open in the state’s Phase 4 (California is currently in the early parts of Phase 2, though Governor Gavin Newsom ordered several recently reopened sectors to close again in late June amid rising case numbers). In Virginia, Governor Ralph Northam allowed concert halls to operate at 50 percent capacity or with 250 attendees, whichever number is smaller, starting on July 1. In Denver, the 7,500-capacity Levitt Pavilion would be allowed only 175 patrons under provisional guidelines. That’s not to mention the new health and sanitation measures, and even the possibility of lawsuits should a COVID-19 outbreak be traced back to their club. Despite scattered reopenings and a handful of non-socially-distanced shows in the past few weeks that give the appearance of normalcy, music venues are hurtling toward a new, unpredictable world—if they can survive that long.
I first saw Japandroids live in October 2009 at Great Scott, a small, divey venue in Boston’s Allston neighborhood that felt like it belonged to a time before AEG or Live Nation were ever involved in club ownership. Its front door was adorned with a kelly green awning; immediately upon entering, patrons were greeted by a nonsensical set of stairs that went up to a landing where the doorman would be seated, and then another to take them back to the ground level. The bar was wood-paneled, the floor was checkered, and the narrow room felt covered by a fog of beer and sweat. Great Scott fit only 200-some odd people, and arriving late meant running the risk of not being able to see the stage. The sound system wasn’t the best in the city, and the bands typically weren’t the biggest names. It was perfect.
I say was perfect because Great Scott almost certainly won’t survive the pandemic, at least in its current form. Owner Frank Strenk announced on May 1 that the 44-year-old venue would close its doors for good. A longtime talent buyer for the club quickly emerged as its new owner and started a crowdfunding investment campaign, but the owners of the building that housed Great Scott said it planned to move forward with a new, less noisy tenant. At some point before July 1, the famous awning came down.
I’ve spent the past few weeks thinking about the shows I’d seen at Great Scott, which Consequence of Sound named the eighth-best music venue in America in 2016: a handful of midtier indie acts like Ty Segall and Iceage; a pre-superstardom Grimes, roughly one month after she released her breakout record Visions; New England heroes like Krill and Speedy Ortiz; and a lot of bands I know personally. The last time I went to Great Scott was in August 2018 during a trip back to the East Coast from my new home in Los Angeles. A close friend—a rapper and multi-instrumentalist named Esh—was hosting a record release show for his new album. The place was sold out, and I was filled with vicarious pride: Great Scott wasn’t a huge venue, but playing there meant something, and watching Esh command the crowd from it felt like an arrival of sorts. Fast-forward to 2020: On May 1, the same day Strenk announced he wouldn’t reopen Great Scott, Esh released Idiot Fingerz, his latest album. With Boston’s live-entertainment industry shuttered, the album wouldn’t get a record-release party. (The venue where Esh planned to host the show, another famous Boston-area club named the Middle East, appears to be headed toward a similar fate as its crosstown contemporary.)
Live shows account for roughly 75 percent of a musician’s income, according to NIVA. That percentage is all the more important for smaller acts—a few thousand streams won’t pay much, after all. But concerts do much more than just bring in revenue: They’re an opportunity for fans to find something new or forge a deeper connection in a way that live-streamed performances can’t replicate. Even as the internet has changed music discovery over the past two decades, live shows have remained crucial for unearthing new acts. I had only passing experience of Japandroids before I caught them at Great Scott nearly 11 years ago; I’ve since seen them more than a dozen times. I may not have felt the same way about them without that initial, in-the-flesh experience. We all have a band that we fell in love with after happening upon them at a small, independent venue or opening up for another act.
For now, moments like these are paused, but they’re at risk of disappearing altogether. While Massey Hall appears to be safe (as of now, it’s still slated to reopen later in 2020 after two years of renovations, pending local COVID-19 directives), Great Scott is gone. It may soon be followed by the Middle East or the Troubadour or First Avenue in Minneapolis—or any number of clubs that may not be as historical as those but are still instrumental to a band’s growth and a fan’s discovery. In all likelihood, the music industry will survive these deaths, and bands will find a new way forward. But it’s hard to escape the feeling that something will change, that what emerges from the wreckage will be more corporate and less friendly to local business and emerging acts. All we can hope for is that we’ll have venues to return to at some point. And that in the not-so-distant future, the sound of applause won’t feel so foreign.