Thursday 7 July 2016

CCPS Miscellany: Music scene and ALCB don't mix (1984)

Here's an interesting Muretich article that isn't about a band, but more about the forces that shaped the music scene in the 1970's and 1980's. Man, that guy could write...

Music scene and ALCB don't mix
By James Muretich
(Herald staff writer)
Calgary Herald, June 24, 1984

It is seen as a secret service.

The Alberta Liquor Control Board (ALCB) is feared to the point where many of those interviewed for this article refused to have their names used and one person, following an interview, called back to ask that his name not be used for fear of “retribution.”

The kind of atmosphere that exists between the ALCB, which enforces the province’s Liquor Control Act, and those people involved in Calgary’s live entertainment scene is not as it should be.

The relationship is one marked by anger, fear and frustration.

There are those who will defend the ALCB, such as Calgary lawyer Ron Ghitter, who authored a government report on reforming the province’s liquor laws in the early ’70s.

 “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the complaints of the industry,” says Ghitter. “There are a let of operators who simply don’t respect the law. Besides, there will always be people who don’t like the policeman.”

Yet when the dislike and disrespect reach the level described earlier among those involved in the industry, especially among those concerned with bringing in top-notch rock and country acts, there is obviously something wrong. Something that goes beyond mere annoyance at authority.

“It’s like dealing with a 19th-century mentality when you’re trying to move into the 21st century,” says Lou Blair, manager of- the rock band Loverboy and former manager of The Refinery (Calgary’s leading live rock ’n’ roll nightspot between 1974 and 1980).

“The province’s laws and the liquor board’s application of them have created a sinister atmosphere between operators and the board. It’s like the old school system, where no matter how many times they cane you you’re determined they’re not going to break your spirit. Just thinking ’ of what it was like gets my skin crawling.”

Blair, during the ’7OS, was one of the few people who spoke out openly against the province’s liquor laws. Many feel The Refinery went under because of its longstanding “war” with the ALCB. Little has altered since Blair’s departure, despite changes to the Liquor Control Act on Dec. 31, 1980.

Outside of the Jubilee Auditorium and Calgary’s hockey arenas, the city’s nightlife remains a virtual wasteland of bar bands and small-time acts. The world between bar bands and acts performing at major concert venues is a virtual no man’s land.

Those in the industry have identified the major problems areas;

Despite the legal establishment, in 1980, of nightclubs where food doesn’t have to be served to patrons, it’s 'felt that the requirement for a 100-seat dining lounge adjacent to a nightclub negates any benefits, especially considering nightclub seating restrictions.

The nightclub seating limit of 275 dramatically reduces the kinds of acts that can be brought in, putting out of reach bands whose price tag is too steep for such a small seating capacity or, conversely, setting the need for unreasonably high admission charges.

In non-hotel quality entertainment nightspots, which are not legal nightclubs, the demand that food be consumed by patrons places a burden upon operators, especially in the case where people going out for live music (such as rock ’n’ roll) aren’t likely to be looking for a full meal.

The ALCB is involved in far too many aspects of a nightspot’s operation, exceeding the mere controlling of liquor.

ALCB inspectors are too heavy-handed in their surveillance of nightspots.

The attitude towards liquor consumption in Alberta officially remains a negative one where liquor is seen as something to be restricted.

Liquor laws create an unhealthy backstabbing atmosphere where operators “snitch” on one another if they feel an establishment is possibly getting away with something they aren’t.

“If you could open up the rooms in terms of seating, not have to serve food and concentrate on music, there would be a flood of people building rooms in this city. As it is, live entertainment is more of a liability than a possibility,” says one nightspot operator, preferring to remain unnamed.

Joe Forgione, general manager of the ALCB, says present seating limits were brought in, in consultation with other provincial governments, in 1980 because “we realized that there was a need out there for more seats if they (operators) were going to bring in a good level of entertainment because costs were rising all the time.”

However, seating remains “the rub,” as one operator put it. In a day and age when a top-notch act can command a hefty price tag (one act recently through Calgary received $18,000 for three nights), a nightspot owner is hard pressed to make money. With nightclubs limited to 275 seats and lounges with live entertainment limited to 250 seats, it’s hard to afford such acts.

As a result most nightspots in Calgary settle for lesser-known and less-expensive acts, or ask patrons to pay “through the nose.”

“You have to be looking at a $20 cover charge when your seating capacity is only 275 and the act you’re booking is asking $5,000,” says Tim Cottini, a local booking agent.

“The whole thing keeps the music scene in check, no doubt about it. There are a lot of acts I have to turn down for Calgary because I just don’t know if there are enough diehard fans out there willing to pay $20 a pop,” says Cottini.

Says one local operator: “You go to Vancouver and you can see the top acts at minimum price. The Commodore Ballroom seats as many as 1,200 people in there, which obviously means you don’t have to charge as much.

“Imagine if you could have such a nightclub here? You know what kind of groups you can bring in then even if you’re only charging $12 at the door?”

Blair, who now lives in Vancouver, agrees.

“It’s great and the Commodore hasn’t killed any clubs here either.”

Even the current rules which say nightclub patrons do not have to eat aren’t seen in a favorable light.  Food must still be available, not to mention the requirement of a 100-seat adjacent dining lounge.

“Hotels aren’t required to serve food, so what’s the big break?” asks one operator.

Aside from seating and food beefs, people involved in the Calgary live music scene express an almost uniform opinion that the ALCB has far too much say over a nightspot’s complete operation.

“You can’t open up a licensed establishment without going to the liquor board and showing them everything about your establishment, from the plans to the finishing on your tables and seats,” says one person involved in a local nightspot.

“If they don’t like the color of your chairs, if an inspector walks in after you’ve finished everything and says he doesn’t like your tabletops, then he won’t give you your licence,” says Blair.

Or as one person put it: “If they get it in for you, then suddenly your broadloom’s no good.”

Forgione says the ALCB does check out plans for any licensed establishment in order to assist operators in the design of their nightspots. Ghitter says the ALCB just “wants to make sure the food isn’t going through the washroom.”

However, Al Robertson, the Calgary zone president of .the Alberta Restaurant Association (the umbrella organization to which all live entertainment spots belong), sees it differently.

“I’ve had a case where a liquor board inspector told me ‘you can’t do that, it’s against fire regulations.’ The fire board rep then came by and said: ‘Oh, the liquor board doesn’t know what it’s talking about.’ But they’re (the ALCB) the law. They’ll hit you hard in a minute if you don’t do what they say.”

Other operators have stories of ALCB inspectors telling certain establishments to take certain drinks off their menu because of their names, including TestoTube Babies (a shooter) and even Bloody Caesar.

In fact, a major reason for the anxious atmosphere that exists between the ALCB and nightspot operators seems to come down to the attitude exhibited by far too many of the board’s inspectors, who number 50 for the province.

Forgione can’t understand why this problem exists.

“I’m always cautioning our inspectors against being God Almighty. I tell them to be careful what they say in dealing with“ licensees because they’re the front-line PR (public relations) for this board.”

Somewhere, somehow, something seems to have gone terribly wrong.

As one Operator says: “My problem is not with the liquor act per se, but with the ALCB’s method of applying it. Their inspectors are overly zealous. People resent their attitude and Gestapo techniques.”

“They don’t come to you and say you’re doing this wrong, don’t let it happen again,” says another operator. “They come on like gangbusters, flash their ID and walk in like they own the joint. People think they’re rude to the point of being obnoxious.

“On top of that they have undercover people who blend in with the crowd and sit there with their little counters keeping track of how many people are in the room, just waiting for you to do something wrong.”

“It’s like you’re guilty until proven innocent, when it comes to an infraction,” says Robertson.

“It gets to the point where you’re so exasperated with these people that you either reluctantly go along with them or else you say to hell with them.”

Part of the problem seems to stem from the fact that liquor is still viewed as a negative commodity which has to be tolerated, but never encouraged. The attitude that saw Alberta forbid men and women to drink together until 1958, and not introduce open taverns where men and women could go without escorts until 1967, still persists to a certain degree.

“I feel that a lot of Albertans still drink to excess because there’s an element of naughtiness to it,” says Blair. “I think there’s definitely still the attitude in Alberta that liquor is an evil thing.”

Forgione disagrees saying that the province has greatly liberalized liquor consumption in recent decades.

“In 1958, you couldn’t buy spirits publicly. All you could get was beer and that was in a beverage room. We’ve come a long way since then,” says Forgione.

Most operators feel that while 70 per cent of liquor sales are made in Calgary and Edmonton alone, the provincial government is still highly sensitive to rural, religious-based concerns when it comes to the Liquor Control Act.

“Premier Lougheed refuses to deal with the liquor issue because it splits his caucus along rural-urban lines,” says Blair.

“It’s ironical because here you are in what’s supposed to the bastion of free enterprise and you’ve got a bureaucracy strangling such an important industry.

“The problem of the rural-urban conflict has to be addressed. Cities like Edmonton and Calgary are unique within the province. I think rural areas that want-to stay dry should be able to. But the province should be more flexible,” adds Blair.

Yet. the only way changes will occur is through lobbying, and so far, those involved in the entertainment industry have been unable and unwilling to form a common front.

“It’s up to the owners, but they’re afraid of speaking out,” says Cottini.

“We bitch and bellyache,” says one owner, “but club and restaurant owners seem to change every year. No one’s going to listen until we get a strong lobby . . . but it’s not just going to happen.”

In fact, if anything, nightspot operators in the entertainment industry are more prone to back-stabbing than organizing. Even the ALCB admits that most of its leads regarding infractions come from operators and not its own inspectors.

“We’re the biggest offenders,” says one person involved in a local nightspot.

“If one guy sees somebody trying to do something different or maybe bend the rules a bit, he’s on the phone to the ALCB right away.”

“I agree that accommodation for high-quality entertainment isn’t there right now,” says Forgione. “But you have to be careful with change. Especially in these times, if we were to change the laws, to open up rooms to 500 seats, it might create havoc out there for people who are just barely surviving.”

“It is a Catch-22,” says one nightspot owner. “What can you do? You’ve got all these people who have invested all this money according to the laws as they now stand. If you suddenly change things, it would be unfair to those who already have existing establishments.”

Says Forgione: “If I gave someone 500 seats for expensive, quality entertainment and they just used the seats for selling more liquor and ignored the entertainment aspect after getting the licence, what am I going to say to the community?

“For the guy who wants to bring in high-priced legitimate acts it sounds fine. But how do you guard against the guy who’s going to abuse it?”

The ALCB is trying to loosen the laws gradually. For example, the ALCB recently instituted a one-year trial period which allows hotels and convention centres to use its banquet rooms for licensed public functions rather than just private functions.

It allows such rooms to be open once a week to “musical presentations, theatrical productions, nightclub acts,” among other things, which would allow for liquor consumption and dancing, provided food were served.

“It’s an opening for an operator willing to give it a shot,” says Forgione.

An opening, yes, but hardly anything that will vitalize a sagging Calgary entertainment scene. Limited to one night a week, at most, and to hotels and convention centres (not known for their abiding interesting in high-priced, quality entertainment), it is unlikely to bring in the kinds of popular music acts that this city lacks.

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