As Montreal nightlife begins to return, promoters hope to reverse pre-COVID decline

MONTREAL — Downtown Montreal bar and music venue Turbo Haus has begun to reopen after one of Canada’s longest COVID-19 lockdowns, but remaining restrictions mean last call is at midnight, patrons must remain seated and dancing is forbidden. Like many other small music venues in the city, Turbo Haus isn't putting on concerts.

Things are "still a long way from being back to normal," co-owner Michelle Ayoub says.

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People like to think nightlife is part of what defines Montreal, but there are questions about how it will bounce back from the pandemic.

Daniel Seligman, the creative director of POP Montreal, an annual music festival, said putting on a show at a small venue wasn’t particularly lucrativebefore the pandemic, and health restrictions have only added costs and lowered capacity, reducing potential ticket revenue.

"It makes putting on shows in smaller venues financially much more difficult," he said.

He's planning a few concerts over the summer, including some performances outdoors. This year's festival is scheduled to go ahead, as usual, in September, but it will be in a more limited form, he said in a phone interview Thursday. Most artists will be from the Montreal area due to uncertainty around border restrictions.

"One thing I’ve learned this past year and a half is instead of planning to do things four months from now, five months from now, you can only really look a month, six weeks in the future to have any kind of real idea of what is possible," he said.

Ayoub is also getting ready to start presenting live music but is moving slowly due changing restrictions. "We're not rushing to book the shows, but we are very eager and we're already starting to slowly but surely look at dates and take holds, but we're going very cautiously," she said in a phone interview Thursday.

Nightlife is in Montreal’s DNA, said Mathieu Grondin, the co-founder of MTL 24/24, a non-profit organization that works to promote the city’s nightlife. That reputation began during the Prohibition era in the in United States, Grondin said, when Montreal one of the only places where white and Black Jazz musicians shared the stage. That reputation continued through the disco era and into the rave scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

"Montreal has always seen itself, portrayed itself and sold itself as a nightlife city," Grondin said. "A good part of the tourism that comes here are night tourists, they come for the nightlife ... there won't be an economic recovery of downtown Montreal without the recovery of nightlife."

But he said that despite the city's reputation, other cities have become more open to nightlife than Montreal.

Toronto, for example, has since 2019 had a "night mayor," a member of city council who is responsible for promoting the nighttime economy, and Grondin said Toronto has also become more open to extending closing time for large events.

Grondin said he hopes a recent conference he helped organize with the City of Montreal will help change the city's approach. Among the ideas discussed at the conference were the adoption of the "agent of change principle" in noise bylaws.

That principle — which London and several large Australian cities have adopted after the closure of a large number live music venues — sees new arrivals in a neighbourhood responsible for mitigating the noise impact.

"If I open a bar next to your house, I have to make sure that my bar is not causing you any problems," Grondin said. But at the same time, developers converting commercial buildings into condos in a neighbourhood of nightclubs and bars are responsible for soundproofing their buildings.

Another suggestion was moving some elements of Montreal’s nightlife out of increasingly residential areas in the city centre, he said.

Heidy Pinet, a Montreal DJ, said she thinks that’s a good idea, as the city becomes more gentrified and smaller venues close. Pinet played her first gig since September on June 11, and while she said it felt good to be back performing, something was missing with a maximum of two people per table and no dancing allowed.

"If we look at New York, right now they are fully reopening and they're letting clubs and concert venues run at full capacity with no masks, but they do ask for proof of vaccination, which I think is a solution that we should consider," she said.

Ayoub said she's lucky, most of the staff she had before the pandemic have come back, except for a few people who got what she calls "grown-up jobs."

But there are still frustrations. While many COVID-19 mitigation measures make sense to her, evolving rules about closing time — some of which appear to be motivated by the Montreal Canadiens performance in the NHL playoffs — have been frustrating and led to fears that if the Canadiens are eliminated, the rules could change again.

And while Ayoub thinks that even before the pandemic, Montreal’s nightlife was on the decline, there are elements of the old normal she wants to see again.

"I want to be allowed to put on shows, I want to be allowed to pack rooms, I want to be allowed to bring in artists from around the world," she said.

Grondin said he’s also looking forward to a more normal fall. "I'm hoping we will have a Halloween party without masks, but with masks," he said. "With Halloween masks, but without a COVID mask."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 19, 2021.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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