Winnipeg Is: A boys club

Music scene sees influx of new venues, but still needs to make space for others to participate

Running a music venue is a bit of an odd occupation, with no clear path for training, a small cadre of colleagues who are all doing something a little different, and no guarantees of security. 

Recently, however, more Winnipeggers have joined the sparse ranks of venue owners. Union Sound Hall, The Park Theatre, The Purple Room, The Handsome Daughter, and the Good Will Social Club have all opened their doors in the past three years.

And as their ranks expanded, many others - including the owners - couldn’t help but notice an obvious trend: How is it that it’s almost entirely men hosting the shows?

“Women are generally underrepresented in small business in Canada (and likely worldwide),” Sara Stasiuk, director of operations at Six Shooter Music and past executive director at Manitoba Music, explains.

“There is definitely an old-boys club in music, and there just aren’t many mentorship opportunities for women by women. It’s not that a man can’t mentor a woman - my primary mentors have been men - it’s just a different dynamic.”

Networking and mentorship are key, and there are no clearly defined prerequisites for many music industry positions. However, understanding how industry positions become populated in the Winnipeg music scene may help to shed a bit of light on the ongoing gender disparity. 

David Schellenberg, one of the owners of The Good Will, has been carving out a name for himself as a talent booker his whole adult life. 

“I started when I was a kid just playing shows in a band. I started playing when I was 15, I think I bought my first show when I was 17. And I just bugged Jack (Jonasson) to let me do shows at the (Lo Pub),” Schellenberg explains. “And then he was overwhelmed being GM and booking, so I just took over the booking.”

Though he ran the Lo Pub, Jonasson is quick to admit that he didn’t come to the position with much relevant bar or business experience. However, he made up for it with his passion for the music scene. 

“I never worked at a bar before the Lo Pub, never worked at a restaurant, never served a table,” Jonasson, now general manager of the West End Cultural Centre says. “So when I decided that was something I wanted to do, I kind of just went whole hog into it.” 

Most venue owners agree that having a degree of business acumen is helpful, but not a prerequisite for starting a venue. However, it can be a steep learning curve even for seasoned members of the music industry.

“I consider Tim (Hoover) and I to be pretty savvy promoters, but we knew zero about the building code, the permits, all of that stuff you need to know even to just open the front door, let alone have a liquor license or anything else like that,” Tyler Sneesby, part owner of both The Good Will and Union Sound Hall, explains. 

Sneesby also draws upon his experience in working with the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, but acknowledges that running a venue is a whole different ball game. Rather than having a few months of intense show promotion, venue owners and bookers are contending with an ongoing cycle of filling dates. 

“It’s kind of like with the Jazz Fest except it never ends,” Sneesby says. 

Venue owners can’t just have an ear for music and a mind for business - it’s an incredibly varied skill set. 

“You need to have relationships with agents, funds for start-up, marketing expertise, show production expertise, excellent HR skills,” Stasiuk explains. “This all takes business planning and money and passion and guts and love of music - it’s a rare person who has all those qualities.”

For those who aren’t looking to run a venue, but work in booking or promotion, there are still few opportunities. Jobs are scarce and rarely open. However, if you’re looking for work, there’s no shortage of ways to put on a show.

Owners like Sneesby are grateful to work with independent promoters when booking shows. And alongside venues, music festivals offer another opportunity to get involved in the music scene.

Lauren Swan, one of the organizers of Big Fun, got started simply by showing up. “I was just going to shows a lot, and kind of developed a community,” Swan explains. She went to school for marketing and PR, and so when her friends talked about starting a festival to celebrate local music, she saw a way to put her skills to use.

Though it started as a lark, Big Fun has been going strong for four years now. 

“Working in the music scene’s hard, it’s a boy’s club for sure, and there’s a lot of things that I have to deal with that the guys don’t, and it took four years of demanding respect and having them back me up,” Swan says.

“I get mistaken or passed over for being a girlfriend or a pal all the time,” Swan says.

“But I think that having the confidence and going for it, and finding women and allies and people who got your back is great. There’s a lot of great women in the scene, like Sara Stasiuk and Rachel Stone, like Jodie Layne from Rainbow Trout, and there’s a lot of really great female musicians too.”

Visibility and access to the music scene continue to be an issue in Winnipeg, but one that is hopefully changing through initiatives like Cootie Club, which recently held a showcase at the Purple Room.

“Providing spaces where women can get involved in the scene and not be, whether it’s through perception or through actual acts...shunned from the scene is an important step,” Paul Little, artistic director of the Purple Room, explains. He hopes that more overall involvement might be reflected in venue ownership eventually.

Jonasson agrees, and puts it bluntly: “I think it comes down to patriarchy. Because men largely own everything, they own money, and the realm of the bar, the realm of the live music venue is a very dude-heavy realm.” 

Beyond more opportunities for women, a significant change in the landscape might also require some other movers and shakers to rethink their position.

“The key is actually more women participating in music and more men stepping back and making space for women to participate in music,” Jonasson says. 

“Largely the problem is that there’s just a bunch of dudes that are just crowding the space. And it’s going to take a real cultural shift in the minds of those of us that are male in the music scene to sort of step back, and make some room, and...participate in creating opportunities for women to be a part of it.”

Get out and support your local scene and scenesters at The Good Will (thegoodwill.ca), The Handsome Daughter (thehandsomedaughter.com), The Purple Room (purpleroom.ca), The Park Theatre (parktheatrevideo.com) and Union Sound Hall (unionsoundhall.com). While they’re the opposite of new, the West End Cultural Centre (wecc.ca) has had many women at the helm, so that’s pretty cool too.

Part of the series: The Urban Issue 2015

Published in Volume 69, Number 26 of The Uniter (March 25, 2015)

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