by Jake Pesaruk

Competition is a fixed factor in any industry, live music not excluded. 

Yet, in the wake of the global pandemic, there has been a reinvigorated notion of camaraderie and a certain sentiment revolving around an ‘all in this together’ mentality. 

So what has been a result of this renewed fellowship? Are there still those who yearn to snip the cord of lifelines others may be receiving?

Jeff Cohen, co-owner of Lee’s Palace and The Horseshoe Tavern, has made this his mission over the pandemic – the assurance that those in the Toronto venue scene are not treading water, have equal space on the raft, and that no one is aiming to push them off. 

Jeff Cohen, owner of Lee’s Palace and Horseshoe Tavern – Courtesy of The Toronto Star

Cohen helped start an unofficial coalition of venue operators within Toronto dubbed ‘Love You Live’. Its mission: to ensure that music spaces within the city are keeping track of their resources and their eligibility for grants. The coalition checks in with one another as the sloth-like crawl of the current pandemic continues to keep its pace. 

“It’s something I thought about for years, way back when the Toronto Music Advisory Council was being put together. While this was happening, at the same time, I had this idea of forming an association of Toronto music promoters and venues as well,” says Cohen. 

While things were looking brighter back then, the flash freeze of all live music within the city last March made it a necessity — one that some did not engage with right away.

A fundamental principle of the group is the sharing of business information to ensure that everything is being done correctly and that no one is missing out on potential opportunities for grants or relief. Some businesses, however, are showing timidness toward sharing said information.  

“It was difficult to get people together at first. I encountered resistance. I would reach out to venue operators and I would get talent buyers picking up the phone instead, saying, ‘We already know everything,’ and I was like, ‘Do you? Do you know the insurance premiums? Do you know rent payments? Do you know hydro or electric? The answer was no,” Cohen says with a chuckle. 

In the initial stages of the pandemic, Cohen’s two venues Lee’s Palace and The Horseshoe Tavern weren’t suffering as heavily as others. This changed when Toronto made shutdowns mandatory. 

Horseshoe Tavern – Courtesy of davex22

“The Horseshoe has this tradition of never closing, so during the early stages of the pandemic we left it up to individual bands on whether they wanted to cancel. We rode it out until the bitter end.”

Seeing other members of his community get consumed by the initial panic of the pandemic, Cohen was hit with a sense of concern and began laying out the foundation for Love You Live. 

“I’m a punk rocker right, I just lay it out. People either want to join or they don’t. Back then I didn’t really get a chance to lay out the initial groundwork or simply send a general email. We essentially made a phone call saying that we really wanted people to be a part of this, and those that did, are.”

With over 30 locations now involved, Cohen and the other members of the group have opened up inquiries into fixes for problems that plague both the pocketbooks and workforces of venue spaces within Toronto. 

Cohen has seen firsthand what happens to locations that are left out in the cold.

“This whole thing every week just changes, there have been moments of despair where you see there’s nothing left in the bank account and you’re like okay what am I going to do now? But, part of it is really your communication with your landlord, they have to be on the side of the situation and understanding of this. If you have a bad landlord, that’s only interested in money, these are the places that probably didn’t make it — those landlords are going to a special kind of hell.”

The more prominent evils apart from vacuous landlords according to Cohen are the insurance companies. 

“There have been moments over the last year,” Cohen says with an exhale, “where you feel like you just keep getting kicked in the balls. Insurance companies would be your worst culprit. They have done everything they can possibly do to come across as the evilest bastards out there. I’ve heard of them taking advantage of the entire situation to double, triple or quadruple their rates — I’ve heard legends of denied coverage.”

The most looming concern is liability insurance.

Ontario’s Minister of Finance, Hon. Peter Bethlenfalvy – Courtesy of CTV News

“It’s been an issue so much so that my group, right out of the gate, has been able to acquire a meeting with the Minister of Finance to issue a complaint. There’s supposed to be a solution coming, so much so that the insurance brokers of Canada came up with this big press release last October creating something called the V.A.I.T. which is supposed to ensure that people in the bar, restaurant and hospitality industry can get regular rates of insurance that they did before, a reasonable rate with reasonable coverage — but they lied through their teeth.”

Cohen mentioned that he has seen no fulfilment of the promises of more lenient insurance premiums. Several small venues have paid out four times the normal rate. He believes landlords don’t care whether venues have the means to afford the coverage — they still have to get it. 

While Cohen has been keeping watch on the above mentioned strain of vampiric property proprietors, there is still an ‘all in this together’ mentality among landlords that understand basic human decency. 

“I’d say 75% of landlords in Toronto have played ball with their tenant and have either reduced the rent or are taking part in these programs to ensure that their tenants thrive. The other 20-25%, those are a special kind of bastard. To that extent, I think the City of Toronto and the province have failed to address that regard.”