Duncan Showroom runs on stream power through the pandemic

The venue drew on six years of streaming experience to keep the local performing arts scene alive this year.

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In a way, the Duncan Showroom was ready for COVID-19. While many groups scrambled to pivot online in 2020, the Showroom has been streaming and archiving live performances on YouTube for the past six years.

“We’ve got it down pat,” says proprietor Longevity John Falkner, who started the Showroom in 2003. When COVID-19 struck, “there was no one else doing it as well as we were. … It fell into our lap.”

The Duncan Showroom is an alcohol-free intimate arts venue, currently located at 133 Station St. Falkner’s mission has always been to create the best experience possible for artists and audiences. His stage has fostered a great diversity of local talent and been a friendly waypoint for touring acts.

The effort hasn’t gone unnoticed, particularly in this challenging year. “I value the Duncan Showroom because they continue to foster arts and culture in our community even when they must limit the number of people at the venue and/or rely on online formats,” wrote Debbie Bateman in response to a recent community survey. “We need the arts and culture in these troubling times more than ever.”

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Dialed in for live streaming 

The Showroom’s live-stream setup includes five cameras from different angles and the club’s state-of-the-art sound system. Falkner says it makes for an excellent viewing and listening experience, much better than when musicians give online concerts from their living room.

The professional setup allowed for Duncan’s 39 Days of July festival to go ahead this year, with performances streamed from the Showroom, broadcast to YouTube and occasionally to outdoor downtown venues. 

Still, the Showroom cancelled or postponed many shows this year, particularly touring acts. But the club did welcome small audiences this fall, until new provincial restrictions came into effect on November 19. Attendance was limited to 15 people. But audiences were often even smaller. “People aren’t coming out in droves,” due to safety concerns, Falkner says.

It’s a challenge to bring the magic of live concerts into a live stream, he says. It helps when the Showroom’s sound engineer, known by the nickname Dr. Ted Cadillac, monitors the live stream and shares commentary from the online chat with the performers on stage, Falkner says. This allows the performers to connect with friends, family and other fans around the globe in real time.

“So it actually allows the audience to somewhat communicate with the artists, where they wouldn’t be able to do it if they were in the room,” Falkner explains. He says that during a 39 Days of July set by the David Santana Trio, the sound engineer relayed messages to the band, in Spanish, from Santana’s mother watching in South America. 

Opening up to a wider audience

Another upside to live streaming is the potential for a performance to have a long and large afterlife once it’s posted on YouTube and social media sites. “It’s allowed the artists to have an archived replication of what it is they do,” Falkner says. “They can break that down into small segments and use it to get other gigs.” 

Eugene Smith and Malakai perform recently at the Duncan Showroom. Screenshot from The Duncan Showroom on YouTube
Eugene Smith and Malakai perform recently at the Duncan Showroom. Screenshot from The Duncan Showroom on YouTube

In November, legendary folk singer songwriter James Taylor shared 11-year-old local phenom Malakai’s cover of his song “Steamroller Blues” twice on Instagram. The videos, recorded in October at the Showroom, have collected tens of thousands of views. 

“That’s so huge,” Falkner says. “The neat thing is that this is the time and era for Malakai to do well in the video world, and get his name out there without having to do touring. … He can still remain a child at home. He’s not having to put up with all the pressures of everything else that’s going on.”

A responsibility to support live productions

Of course, online views don’t necessarily translate into dollars. When the Showroom started live streaming six years ago, Falkner envisioned it as an additional income stream for a club that has had many financial struggles over the years. People who watched the live stream were encouraged to donate money, yet very little ever came in, he says.

That is starting to change now, Falkner says. People are gradually coming around to the idea that as they turn to arts and entertainment to get through these tough times, there is a responsibility to support artists and venues. The Showroom has long had a “finger-snapping, toe-tapping guarantee,” he says. If you don’t like what you’re seeing in the first half hour, you can get your money back as long as you weren’t seen enjoying the music. Falkner encourages the same sort of mentality with online viewing. 

“Donations are slowly starting to build as people are realizing ‘Hey, this is cool. I’ll donate to that,’’’ says Falkner. He notes that streaming income is strongest with niche markets such as a monthly hip hop show. “It’s not paying our bills yet, but there is an increase as people are taking on that responsibility.”

He says that he is very thankful the Showroom has received rent and wage subsidies from the federal government, a $10,000 grant from Creative BC as well as a few sizable donations by patrons. 

Some good coming out of it

Things won’t ever be the same for live music venues, Falkner says. But he says that while the pandemic has made it harder in many ways to run a club, it has also highlighted how the industry was already rapidly changing. 

“There’s some wonderful things happening because of it,” he says. “They’re different, and they’re innovative and they’re dealing with the present.”

And according to Falkner it’s also been an eye-opener for audiences.

“This whole thing about COVID — it’s also making people search inside themselves to find out what their true values are. We really have to put emphasis back on the arts and its value in the community.“

The Duncan Showroom has a handful of upcoming live-stream performances, including a monthly comedy evening presented by Matt Billon on December 23, James Meyer and Friends on December 26, and the monthly For the Love of Words with Bill Levity on December 29. The venue also holds an enormous archive of performances on YouTube. [end]

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