By Keith Sharp
Mark Rashotte knows what musicians are going through. As a former guitarist with Capitol recording band, Photograph, as well as current guitarist and manager for Jake Clemons (of E Street Band fame) has empathy for the many artists whose live performance opportunities came to a shuddering halt during this 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic.
As the owner of Belleville, Ontario’s 700-seater Empire Theatre, Rashotte had a packed schedule of bookings, many with significant advance sales, and even organized his highly- successful annual outdoor festival Empire Summerfest staged in the 4,000 capacity Empire Square located outside of the theatre.
Since August 1st, those plans have now centred around a series of live stream concert events, recently highlighted by a live stream show from Styx vocalist, and Toronto resident, Lawrence Gowan, plus Downchild Blues Band 50th anniversary show, as well as an upcoming Tom Cochrane and Red Rider, live stream in December.
“Initially, none of us knew what it was going to be like,” explained Rashotte, who purchased the facility in March 2002 and spent a sizable amount converting the former movie theatre back to its current high-tech state after it had languished since 1974 as a sports/hobby shop. “My shows at the end of March and April were being initially pushed back to June and then it was maybe July and then it was, we better wait until September!”
“But it was about April or May when I finally came to the realization that this could affect our lives for quite some time and we might need to totally pivot and change our business plan,” Rashotte continued. “When you are not making money, what do you do? So I spent even more money converting the Empire venue into a Live Streaming/TV Studio set up.”.
Unlike most soft-seat theatres which are municipally owned and therefore able to access government grants, Rashotte is “one of the only idiots who bought their own theatre and has a privately owned entity.” But the upside is that he is doesn’t have City Officials telling him what he can or cannot do or present and he has the freedom to quickly respond to the new environment.
“By the end of March, I was already talking to agents, promoters and managers about what we were going to do, and yes, we realized that the rules had changed. So I just quickly changed focus towards live streaming,” Rashotte explained. “I realized a lot of bands were doing live stream events from their rec rooms and bedrooms so I thought, why not move these events into a full-on theatre setting with full production facilities.”
Right now, Rashotte’s shows, like all live performances, are restricted to just 50 spectators, who pay a premium admission “but you’d be surprised how much noise 50 people can make.” and Rashotte noted that even though 50 people in a 700-seat theatre may seem minuscule, top artists like Gowan “have that quality that he’s talking away like he’s performing to a capacity audience.”
Of course, receiving adequate payment is always going to be a problem for artists performing before a virtually empty venue but Rashotte hopes fans will warm to the idea of buying tickets to view their favourite artists online from the safety of their own homes. And for lesser know artists, he has introduced the idea of “the tip jar” where viewers make a donation to the artist.
There may be a stigma about the tip jar concept, kind of like busking at a subway station, but you’d be surprised how generous some people can be,” Rashotte noted. “Yes some people don’t pay anything and that’s alright in the times we are facing, but others will donate $10,20,50 and hundreds of dollars to the artists. The public really appreciates what those artists are going through and they want to support their efforts. Some shows generate the same amount the artist would have made at a pre-covid show.”
A chat in July with Classic Albums Live founder Craig Martin, led to a series of shows presented every Wednesday night since August. CAL brings top players to perform the classic albums of Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Beatles and many more. They are known internationally and have had a worldwide audience tune in. They are scheduled right up till Christmas and it has been a wonderful partnership with Craig Martin and I own those shows.
Rashotte is supporting local artists from the wider region with his Music City Mondays Series which allows up and coming bands to live stream their original material and enjoy the benefits of a full production at the Empire Theatre. “They may not make a lot of money, we split the take 50/50 and I might not make any money on the concerts. But I don’t care, if I can promote local talent, that’s satisfying to me and they walk away with a high-quality tape of their performance and an audiotape they can mix themselves or we can do it for them.”
And then there’s a Jazzmasters Series presented every second Sunday. This is in partnership with the Prince Edward County Jazz Festival as they bring in some of the top Jazz musicians in the country to perform works by Oscar Peterson Dave Brubeck, Cannonball Adderly, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and more.
Looking ahead, Rashotte acknowledges he has a traffic jam of concerts to reschedule featuring the likes of Alan Doyle and The Stampeders, and realistically, even with vaccines being available sometime in the new year, he doesn’t anticipate things returning to normality in the near future.
“Most shows need to be on sale 60-90 days out to be successful and people have to regain that confidence to go to a live show again and bands have to re-think planning future itineraries,” analyzed Rashotte. “But I still think people crave that live concert experience. I’ve had people come to these limited-attendance shows and literally been in tears by the end of the concert. They missed that live concert experience so much.”