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The Interrupters playing at Starlite Room
Credit: Heiko Ryll

October 9, 2018
Category: DT Advantage Fall 2018

Downtown Comes Alive!

Once considered dead, buried, and a thing of the past, live music is making a bit of a comeback in Downtown Edmonton. Venues like 99ten, The Starlite Room, Bohemia, and Station on Jasper are presenting live music acts from around the world and around the corner. These concerts are drawing people of all ages to the core eager to revel in the joy and energy of live music. Writer Sandra Sperounes checks out the Downtown music scene and tells us that it’s not just fun, it good for the bottom line!


Lynn Mercereau lives in north Edmonton, but you’ll often find her Downtown. She’s an Oilers season ticket holder and an avid music fan. Every year, she attends about 12 to 15 concerts at venues in the heart of the city — including The Starlite Room, Winspear Centre, Rogers Place and the newest space, Station on Jasper.

“Downtown is my favourite place to go out in,” she says. “It’s easily accessible no matter what part of the city you’re coming from. I think if we want to continue to be considered a city that embraces all sorts of music, the Downtown core needs to play a vital role. All big cities have a vibrant Downtown area.”

The core now boasts about a dozen live music venues — from Bohemia on 97th Street to 99ten on 109th Street, as well as five or six clubs with DJs, such as Bower and The Chvrch of John. Downtown also hosts the Up and Downtown music festival every October, which offers three days of indie music at 11 different venues.

Back in 1998, you could count the number of Downtown venues on one hand. “It was just dead and dark,” says Brent Oliver, the artistic director of Up and Downtown. “I worked Downtown 20 years ago, and I would drive there and then drive back to my apartment on 116th Street and Jasper Avenue. Downtown was somewhere you did not want to walk.”

Nightlife, of course, is one of live music’s main contributions to Downtown Edmonton. No longer is it a desolate wasteland after workers head home for the day: It’s an inviting and thriving destination after 6 p.m.

“Certainly, as we’ve seen from some of our business reports and surveys, entertainment along with food and beverage are becoming significant reasons for people to come Downtown,” says Ian O’Donnell, Executive Director of the Downtown Business Association. He believes live music is essential to the growing vibrancy of Downtown Edmonton. “It’s not just a place of business anymore, it’s not just for people to live, it’s for people to eat, be entertained, and have some cocktails.”

What does a hustling, bustling nightlife bring to our city? According to a 2016 report by Responsible Hospitality Edmonton, it improves our overall quality of life, attracts workers and students to the city, and generates millions of dollars for live music venues, bars, and clubs. Late-night patrons spend money on other items — such as food and transportation. In 2013, these extra purchases by visitors to Downtown and nearby Old Strathcona added up to $324 million.

“When you’re going to see a movie, you’re basically spending the money on the movie and popcorn, and then you leave,” says Oliver. “With live music, you’ll probably spend a longer time Downtown. A lot of studies have shown that you’ll go for dinner ahead of time or you’ll spend more money when there’s a live act on stage. And with live music, you don’t get the drunken revelry that happens with sporting events.”

Live music venues, however, aren’t as economically viable as NHL teams. At least 11 Downtown bars and clubs have come and gone over the past two decades. To strengthen the live music scene, he supports recommendations by the Alberta Music Cities Initiatives — like launching a music office within the City of Edmonton.

As well as Up and Downtown, Oliver books musicians for two Downtown bars: Rocky Mountain Ice House and The Cask and Barrel. They only host performers once or twice a week, but he says those gigs are integral to the longevity of the bars.

“When we book an acoustic act at the Cask on Saturday afternoons from 4 to 6, they might bring in 20 people and those 20 people might come back for another night,” he says. “The live music crowd like buying good beer, they’re out for a good time, they’re the type of audience that both places want as regulars.”

Tyson Boyd is one of the owners and bookers of The Starlite Room, located on 102 street just off Jasper Avenue. He’d like to see even more venues in the core — and closer together like those on Sixth Street in Austin, Texas, the live music capital of the world, where dozens of bars, clubs, and restaurants are packed into nine blocks.

“Everything is super easily accessible, so you can actually jump around to go catch a set and then catch a set a few doors down,” he says. “I think it’s very important to have venues very close together for the development of the local scene and music in general.”

He suggests a higher concentration of venues would attract more people, which would strengthen Edmonton’s music scene, which in turn, would attract more people. This symbiosis extends to other businesses and The Starlite Room wants to make sure its neighbours prosper. The venue encourages concert-goers to stay at the nearby Chateau Lacombe — fans can book discounts through The Starlite’s website. “Some weekends, we see a lot of out-of-town people coming to our shows,” says Boyd. “It greatly benefits a number of surrounding businesses because people will make a night of it or a weekend of it.

The Starlite Room - Dana Zuk

”Whether you’re driving in from Red Deer for a show or a local Oilers fan strolling Downtown after a game, live music can be a captivating tour guide. “It really develops the character of a neighbourhood and an urban centre,” says O’Donnell.

“It really makes it vibrant, exciting, interesting and perhaps (gives it) a bit of the unexpected. It’s about finding places that you haven’t discovered before — whether it’s through posters on Jasper Avenue or you’re just walking by and you hear a band play, that’s a great way to discover a city.”





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