Q’s With: Erin Benjamin, Canadian Live Music Association President & CEO

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As CEO and president of the Canadian Live Music Association (CLMA), Erin Benjamin has her finger on the pulse of Canada’s live industry, which in many ways seems to mirror the trends we see in the U.S.  On the eve of 2022’s Canadian Music Week (June 6-11) and its Live Music Industry Awards co-produced by the CLMA, Pollstar caught up with Benjamin to get her take on this year’s event, the state of live north of the border and how it is that Canada’s managed to produce some of the U.S. live industry’s top executives. 

Pollstar: Tell me about Canadian Music Week’s Live Music Industry Awards. 

Erin Benjamin: We did it for a few years pre-COVID in partnership with Canadian Music Week to acknowledge and celebrate the live music community. The Canadian Live Music Association itself was founded in 2014 to bring the commercial side of the live music industry together on common goals to advocate for its well-being, which came in handy when March 2020 hit. Pre-COVID, the awards were about celebrating live, amplifying the role live played in the broader music industry, singling out and acknowledging individuals and companies overachieving and really making a difference in a beautiful way. 

Who’s this year’s host? 

Julie Black. She’s an amazing artist. An R&B soul singer who is kind of iconic at this point. Just a remarkable, beautiful, beautiful artist.

And it’s at El Mocambo, a historical venue.  

Yes, The Rolling Stones played there and Michael Wekerle owns it and has lovingly refurbished it and it recently reopened after many, many, many years of renovation. It’s the perfect venue for this show.

So how are this year’s awards coming back after the Pandemic? 

We remodeled the categories extensively to really reflect outstanding achievements during a global crisis. Some categories will have individuals awarded in a particular category like lifetime achievement or unsung hero, and those we are curating, but the rest of the awards the live community nominated. All of these are organizations and individuals are folks who have done their jobs, and a hundred others, and tried to make a difference inside their organization and outside, they’ve done their best to survive and help others survive. And that’s what this year’s program is attempting to acknowledge in the best way we can. There are so many incredible people in this industry who deserve thanks and recognition. 

So there’s the “Overcoming Adversity” and #ForTheLoveOfLIVE awards. That’s not your usual fare? 

Not at all. #ForTheLoveOfLIVE Awards are based on a hashtag the Canadian Live Music Association launched in February 2021 as the pandemic happened for over a year and we faced another federal budget. We wanted to send a message to our prime minister and elected officials that the live music industry was hurting and explain why we were hurting and why we required special assistance. So we developed the #ForTheLoveOfLive campaign. The hashtag had an astronomical reach of something like 65 million. Now it’s a thing people use when they talk about why live music matters. It’s our rallying cry as an industry and that’s why we decided to use it for the Awards. It’s emblematic of the spirit of resilience this industry demonstrated when we launched the campaign and got the attention of the federal government. Ultimately, in Canadian dollars, this is a lot, we got $70 million for the commercial live music industry, which was a monumental achievement. 

Billy Talent congratulation APAs Ralph James
Man Hug: Billy Talent, Live Music Industry Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award winners,  congratulating agent Ralph James at the
2018 ceremony. 
Courtesy CMW

Did you work with the National Independent Venue Association who were also incredibly successful in getting bipartisanship support for more than
$16 billion for SVOG grants? 

I was on the phone with (Rev.) Moose and Dayna (Frank) from NIVA before NIVA was even an acronym because we have relationships in Canada with funding bodies. We talked a lot about advocacy, they got the right people around the right table and they hit the ground running. It was amazing to watch the United States get their act together for the first time. The collaborative aspect from a live music perspective, as someone who’s been in the business for a long time, was very emotional.  When you step back and look at what we achieved on both sides of the border – which is tell our story and articulate where live music is situated in the life of an artist and demonstrate to government and others why we matter – that’s why NIVA and their collaborators saw the success they did, and it’s why we continue to be (successful). I think everyone knows at this point, if you don’t have the independent venues, you’ve lost this iceberg-sized chunk of cultural infrastructure. And artists, so many of whom would be emerging, have no place to establish anything, let alone a career. It didn’t fall on deaf ears. As a result, we’ve really dug in our heels and entrenched our place in the cultural landscape in Canada. 

We generally think of Canada as having more social safety nets than the U.S. Were there more programs keeping people afloat during the pandemic? 

It’s hard to compare; the answer is both yes and no. It really depends, if you’re a freelance worker, self-employed or a contractor, the answer is no. If you’re on a payroll or own or run a company, the answer is yes. We had an incredible wage subsidy program that supported you if you employ people that provided upwards of a certain percentage of your payroll. If you could prove a certain percentage of loss revenue, then the government would top that up. That allowed companies to keep people employed and therefore Canadians’ fridges were full and bills paid. However, self-employed freelancing contractors were in a different situation, and that ended up being a (different) program and certain people were ineligible in the beginning, artists especially. There was a threshold. I think if you earned over $1,000 a month, you were not eligible for this subsidy as a self-employed person. What was most impressive was that the government seemed flexible in terms of tweaking frameworks and eligibility criteria to try and catch as many people as possible in the safety net. So ultimately, the reason that live music and other hard-hit sectors, tours and travel, hospitality and live events generally are still surviving, although far from thriving, is because of these programs and the work that went into nuancing them.

What is the state of live now in Canada? 

It’s so much better than it was. There’s still lingering challenges coming out of COVID, like accessing an affordable commercial liability insurance is next to impossible for many. We still have this very hard market in Canada where live music venues have been lumped in with nightclubs, which is problematic. I don’t want to throw nightclubs under the bus, because they’re awesome also, but it’s just the insurance situation is very fraught. We have also had significant labor shortages and massive, maybe even monumental, consumer confidence challenges. The shows that you’d expect to sell out seem to be selling out, like the international touring acts and the headline shows, but it’s the discovery pieces that seem to be lagging and we’re finding that people are buying tickets last minute. Maybe they’re buying tickets and they’re not showing up, so we’re seeing really soft looking houses. Not across the board, and it depends where you are in this country. There’s a lot of really diverse geography here and different sized markets, secondary, tertiary markets and a couple of major markets. So it depends, is my answer. But on the whole, I would say we’re better than we were, we’re happy to be open. We are so happy to be open.

CMW Winners from 2018
IT Takes An 18-Person Village: Award winners from the 2019 Live Music Inudstry Awards. 
esy CMW

I’m always blown away by all the hugely successful U.S. live industry execs who started out in Canada, including Michael Rapino, Michael Cohl and Arthur Fogel. How do you explain it? 

I don’t know that I have a good answer except to say we love live music and we care and we understand geography and routing and moving shows. Maybe we work harder to get bums into seats because we know the effort it takes, whether it’s winter or traveling and actually finding the energy to be standing in front of a stage, I’m not sure. But something I’ve learned as president of this organization is the resilience that Canadians have in many sectors. I think the future Michael Rapinos are being born and hopefully they’re in the COVID generation and they know that anything is possible. If you care enough, you’re going to find a way to make it happen. Maybe all the leaders and the pioneers and the superheroes and the celebrities of live music who are Canadians have had their own experiences and journey, that have inspired so many others intrinsically. We love music, we also love our country and we just maybe know that it’s tough out there sometimes, especially on the road, and we find a way to connect that amazing artist with that fan and take it from there. There are a lot more people than you named who are responsible for this incredible Canadian live music community and we’ll celebrate a bunch of them at our awards on the 10th of June. s