Image by: Michael Rancic

“We don’t want these drink tickets”

I have always felt out of place in most live music spaces, whether I have performed on stage, been a part of the crowd, or organized the entire event. No matter how much my love of the music connects me to the crowd, my near constant sobriety has always put me in a position of being slightly out of step with those around me. 

Growing up in Canada and Jamaica with most of my exposure to the substance being largely negative up to and including the loss of close family members, the idea of alcohol consumption had lost any and all potential mystique; I made the choice to become a teetotaler. Commercially and socially, alcohol is bound up in all aspects of the music industry and culture, so much so that seeking out spaces where it isn’t centred requires a lot of work— and oftentimes the existence of such spaces is short-lived. 

For many venues, the large profit potential of alcohol sales serves as the primary or even only source of income. Skyrocketing commercial rents and property taxes add to an environment where alcohol sales and consumption often take precedence over the music itself.

“I consider myself very lucky to have grown up in a time and place where there was a big alternative DIY community,” says Matty Morand over a video call from their home in Windsor, Ontario. Morand is the front person of sober Canadian indie power-pop/punk band Pretty Matty as well as a member of the band Pony. “For the majority of my early formative years playing music, drinking wasn’t really at the forefront of it in the same way that it is now or in a lot of spaces now.” They have been active in the Southern Ontario punk and independent music scene since the mid 00’s and have largely been straight-edge since their teens. 

Comparing their formative experiences to the current scene, Morand explains that for “bands who are being considered for a show, oftentimes their [previous] alcohol sales are a factor in their being chosen.” 

It’s not uncommon in DIY and club circuits for bands to be paid with “drink tickets,” essentially free drinks, in lieu of remuneration. Musician Nigel Jenkins recalls encountering this dilemma as a young, touring musician in the mid to late 00’s. “When I was in my late teens, early 20s, we definitely had that happen,” Jenkins tells me over the phone. “I would always try and negotiate like, ‘Wow, can you just give us even $50 instead of the drink tickets? Because we don’t want these drink tickets.’ And even that was a stretch.” 

From working class musicians to mega pop stars, artists are incentivized to devote their time and energy to selling alcohol

Jenkins, who also works as an artist manager and label owner, has since co-founded a Newfoundland-based, multi-use music and art space called 62 Broadway, which acts as an alcohol-free, all-ages performance venue. Some venues, like 62 Broadway, are able to supplement the income that would typically come from alcohol sales through a variety of sources. 

“We’re not dependent on revenues from alcohol sales or even ticket sales,” says Jenkins. “We’re in a bit of a privileged position to be able to position ourselves as a dry space because of the way that our business actually runs.” 

62 Broadway isn’t solely a venue, but is also home to an artists’ management company, record label, and publishing company. “The events that we do run are done more from a community building and community engagement model or perspective than they are from a revenue generating sort of model or expectations,” Jenkins explains. 

Direct investment

Alcohol producers, both in Canada and internationally, provide significant financial support to the music industry through paid sponsorships and partnerships at events, advertisements in music-related magazines and websites, or hands-on involvement in the curation and promotion of live shows and festivals. Musicians in turn also become brand ambassadors, using their profile to market their own vanity spirits, or even call out specific brands in their music. From working class musicians to mega pop stars, artists are incentivized to devote their time and energy to selling alcohol, whether that’s through bringing audiences out to shows, or through direct marketing.

“I really do think that a big part of it is has to be attributed to the very concerted work that the alcohol industry itself has done for decades to really associate any form of relaxation or any form of pleasure with alcohol consumption,” says Canadian journalist and author James Wilt, over a mid-afternoon phone conversation. Wilt has extensively researched the alcohol industry for his book Drinking Up The Revolution: How To Smash Big Alcohol And Reclaim Working-Class Joy. Throughout the book, Wilt examines the social history of alcohol and ways in which “big alcohol” has influenced the drinking habits of western society. “And this is the part I think often kind of gets left out is the really concerted efforts by the industry to do so. I mean, it is a highly profitable commodity.”

Despite the industry-pushed idea of alcohol as an “affordable pleasure” as Wilt describes it, alcohol is, for many, a source of social discord and harm. The lack of alcohol-free spaces isolates and alienates people who simply have no interest in consumption of alcohol for a variety of reasons. It can also act as a barrier to engagement for people under the legal drinking age while intoxication can cause safety concerns, both to the person drinking and those around them. 

Creating alternative spaces outside of a bar or club presents many challenges. Such spaces often exist in residential areas, either in houses or lofts which invariably leads to noise complaints and friction between neighbours. Additionally, myriad permits and licences — where one wrong piece of paperwork can invite the attention of bylaw officers or municipal police — are often required. Starting a DIY space with these priorities in mind shouldn’t be so difficult, but the potential fees, fines, surveillance, violence, and evictions make the notion riskier than it ought to be. “There have been house concert series’ locally who have run into issues with sort of noise bylaws,” says Jenkins. “I’ve seen that with venues in cities like Halifax, that are sort of within mixed-use areas, places that tried to get a live music venue thing going but then just couldn’t make it happen because of regular noise complaints and fines.” 

Final thoughts

While it can be said that there are valid reasons why the live music industry has accepted the alcohol industry as one of its primary financial supporters, it is clear that this relationship is not without problems. Greater efforts must be made to ensure a healthy and accessible musical culture that does not have to rely on big industry to exist, in the face of growing societal pressures.

A longer version of this article in has been published in New Feeling.

This article appeared in the 2024 Feb/Mar issue.