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When it comes to live music, hope is in the air. again.
Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared, concerts are back on the schedule in the coming weeks and Ottawa’s summer festival season is starting to shape up, with ambitious lineups announced this week by RBC Ottawa Bluesfest and the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival.
But there are still no guarantees that audiences will come back after two years of sticking to bubbles. And what if there’s another wave of the pandemic?
Those are some of the factors that worry Laura Andrews, executive director of Ottawa’s HOPE Volleyball SummerFest, the popular event that started 40 years ago as a fund-raising beach volleyball tournament and evolved to include a day of top-notch live entertainment, too.
This year’s 40th-anniversary edition is set for July 15-16 at Mooney’s Bay Beach, and it boasts a terrific, all-Canadian lineup on the 16th, featuring alt-rockers July Talk in the headlining slot, accompanied by post-grunge survivors the Headstones and the award-winning Indigenous folk-rock outfit Twin Flames, plus a slate of local artists.
“It’s scary because none of us know what to expect even now that we’re back,” says Andrews, who’s been with the event for 30 years, first as a volunteer, then as a member of the board of directors, then as logistics and operations manager and, as of 2020, executive director. “I’m planning a full-size event this year, and there are still unknowns.”
A sellout for HOPE (the acronym stands for Helping Other People Everywhere) would involve 1,008 teams playing volleyball and about 16,000 people attending the concert. Over the years, the event has raised millions for a variety of local charities, with different ones selected each year. The 2022 recipients include Children at Risk, Shelter Movers Ottawa, the Snowsuit Fund, the Sharing and Caring Exchange and Youville Centre.
Because of the uncertainty, and in hopes of getting a head start on the fundraising, team registration and ticket sales started in February, about two months earlier than usual. (Go to hopehelps.com to buy concert tickets or to register a team.)
“We opened registration and ticket sales way earlier than we ever have,” Andrews said. “Sales are steady, so it’s given me some hope that they will continue, and I hope it builds up when we get some nicer weather.”
To add to the stress of event planning in COVID times are the increased costs of everything from food to fuel, not to mention possible shortages of skilled labor and volunteers. While Andrews, who is the only full-time employee on staff, has contracted the part-timers she needs, most event-day duties are handled by volunteers.
“Again, I have no idea if people are going to be wanting to come back and volunteer,” she said. “It’s something that we’re just going to have to see.”
As for the price increases, they’re “staggering,” she said. “Every supplier I’ve reached out to has come back quoting a minimum 25 per cent higher than 2019. It’s really knocking the wind out of my sails.”
Andrews is not alone with her fears. Every festival and live-music promoter is facing similar challenges, notes Erin Benjamin, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Live Music Association.
Although Ontario’s restrictions on vaccinations have been lifted and masks will no longer be required on March 21, it’s too soon to tell if those measures will help or hinder the confidence of prospective ticket buyers.
“I don’t think for one moment that COVID is over, but the time has come where we can at least experiment with living with it,” Benjamin said. “We’re going to be making our own decisions on how to manage ourselves and our families, and hopefully that feeds into consumer confidence.”
By summer, she predicts, things should be rocking, with open-air festivals leading the way.
“I think, with the announcement of these incredible festival lineups, we legitimately have a reason to be very excited about the summer in Ottawa,” Benjamin said. “But we can’t allow ourselves to take it for granted. We need to support every bit of live music that we can this year to make sure that things level out in the future.”