Live music artists and fans in Yellowknife have been deprived by the Covid-19 pandemic for roughly a year and a new online petition is aiming to garner support to bring such performances back again.
Patrick Jacobson, a well-known singer/songwriter who has led live music gigs at the Top Knight put up a change.org petition addressed to chief public health officer Dr. Kami Kandola on March 1.
Jacobson’s petition, entitled Bring Back Performing Arts to the Northwest Territories, asks the GNWT to find a way to accommodate live music acts. He suggests several avenues in the petition. including that acts be required to have 30 minute sets between equal length breaks; increased distances between performers in larger venues with possible barricades; “minimum square footage” restrictions until restrictions are loosened; the implementation of health and temperature screenings and contact lists at all shows; and the use of masks for audience members and Plexiglass for acts.
There were close to 200 signatories on the petition as of Thursday and Jacobson hopes to reach 500 to 1,000 in the near future.
He said he’s not complaining how live music is being managed, but he wants to get people talking about the issue and ways the situation could be improved.
“I am asking all of you to add your voice to this cause. If you value the performing arts in your community, now is the time to make your voice heard,” Jacobson writes.
“Every industry has had challenges and obstacles to overcome in order to return to business, and yet everything from restaurants, bars, salons, stores, coffee shops, and even strip clubs have found ways to return to operational status. All I’m looking for is the same opportunity to do this with the performing arts industry so that we can all finally return to work.”
Trevor St. Clair, president of Music NWT, the organizing body for the territory’s live performances, said he plans to have an open letter on his Facebook page calling for better support for live artists. He said he aims to show support for Jacobson’s petition, will call for the restoration of the industry and will encourage artists to work with venues to come up with solutions, along with the Office of the Chief Public Health Officer.
“We will be prepared to work with the CPHO and GNWT to establish policies and approaches to get artists back to work like they have done with most other industries,” Sinclair said.
The GNWT’s position is that public singing remains prohibited as the territory remains in phase two of its Emerging Wisely document, which outlines steps toward reopening.
“Restrictions on live music (that require the expulsion of air) were put in place to ensure that if a (Covid) case does occur in the NWT that there would not be widespread transmission of the virus,” stated Darren Campbell, manager of communications with the Covid Secretariat. “Live music (singing and wind and brass instruments) is currently not allowed, without a specific exception as they are prohibited in the order. Live music that involves the exhalation of air (e.g. singing, playing a wind or brass instrument) presents a higher risk than music created using instruments such as a guitar or piano.”
When asked for examples when public singing has led to the spread of the virus, Campbell cited a case in March 2020 where a 122-member choir in Skagit County, Washington saw many singers become ill after weekly and lengthy practices. In that case, three singers tested positive with SARS-CoV-2. It led to 53 cases identified where three individuals were hospitalized and two died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention produced a report documenting the spread.
Jacobson said in an interview this week that the pandemic has been devastating for many musicians and music promoters, including himself. He had hosted weekly ‘Jam Knights’ with his company YK Rocks at Top Knight up until the bar’s 2019 renovations. When Covid cases began popping up in early 2020, he had to suspend the company’s work altogether.
For Jacobson, the loss of music income came on top of being laid off as a dispatcher with Air Tindi last March shortly after the pandemic began. But he insists that income and livelihood are not the primary concern.
“Money is not the issue and it is not about the income – it is a cultural thing,” he said. “Performing art and voice and all of that, it is part of our being.”
‘Very rigorous process’
The Yellowknife Choral Society resumed in-person rehearsals last September but the public safety stipulations have led to a very “measured environment,” according to music director Margo Nightingale. The extent to whether there should be more lobbying efforts to loosen restrictions further is “a tricky question to answer” because she recognizes singing music is transmissible.
“I think there are lots of ways where live music can be performed safely and I’m really excited about the BAM (Borderless Art Movement) concert this weekend, for example, where they are doing some live and creative things at NACC,” she said. “But I think it really depends. I’ve seen live music with Carmen Braden over the pandemic period which worked too. Artists are having to be very creative. The question comes down to how patient do we need to be to get through this whole scenario because I feel like we’re so close to the end.”
The choir has continued to meet every Tuesday but it takes place at the Alain St. Cyr school gymnasium – 10 times larger than the rehearsal area at its regular space, the Calvary Community Church. Additionally, there’s more ventilation and air circulation, a cap on the number of people who can attend rehearsal, social distancing is enforced, health checks and sign-in sheets are mandatory for those attending and all participants must wear masks.
Rehearsal times are also limited to 75 minutes, of which only 30 minutes can be devoted to singing. The rest of the time can be devoted to rhythm work or humming, Nightingale said.
Everything is essentially recorded for online consumption.
In this way, Nightingale said she’s sympathetic to the plight of live performers.
“The tough thing for performing artists,” she said, “is that there is now a very rigorous process required before you can put on a live show for a paying audience. Online performances don’t fill the same spot as live shows, which we all miss terribly. “
However, she said she sees the value in keep restrictions in place for the time being.
“The point is, there is a process to have live shows – it just requires a lot more work than normal,” she said. “I don’t want to debate whether there are other or better ways to manage this situation. I accept that other folks see this differently, but I think the restrictions – as difficult as they have been – have kept the North a safer, healthier place as a whole.”
Karen Novak, lead singer of Welder’s Daughter, has been performing live for over two decades, but she hasn’t had a live gig since a closed-door, live concert was held at the Gold Range on March 21, 2020. Last May, she moved with her husband to Hungary, where she has family who are providing her support.
“Performing arts has been my livelihood for over two decades and that has now been taken away,” she said in frustration. “At this point, it has been almost a year. I’ve never been this unemployed for my entire life and no options other than to get another job.”
She agrees with Jacobson that a conversation has to be had to make better accommodations for live musicians, dependent on the industry.
“I am in support of it (the petition) for sure,” she said, adding that the future of Welder’s Daughter may be in question.
Without a solution for musicians, it’s tough to find a reason to come back to Canada anytime soon, she said.
“The problem is I have nothing to go back to,” said Novak. “There should be no problem in doing at least something. Let’s figure out how we can do it.”