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Calgary’s Nite Owl moves away from live music amid economic uncertainty

By Jarrett Edmund, January 26 2016 —

Nite Owl, a popular downtown bar and music venue, is shifting its focus away from live music to a more traditional club setup. The venue’s general manager and part-owner Jay Bonham says the change was prompted by the current economic climate. He hopes the shift will provide a space for older demographics.

“We’ve got to do what’s best for business, especially in this economy. Booking shows is tough because of our dollar,” Bonham says. “The clientele is gonna be a little bit older. We’re just trying to find a place where people who are 25–35 can go out.”

The space has a turbulent history — Nite Owl first opened in summer 2014 after the Vinyl Retro Dance Lounge, the building’s previous tenant, ceased operations. But despite its short lifespan, the venue has become a staple of Calgary’s emerging local music scene. The Nite Owl’s now-former talent buyer BJ Downey says he’s disappointed with the decision.

“Business is business. It literally has nothing to do with the music,” he says.

Downey also expressed frustration that the Nite Owl is moving away from live music after what he thinks was too brief of a trial run, citing upcoming music festivals and this summer’s opening of the National Music Centre as proof of the city’s emerging scene.

“At this very moment, Calgary’s music scene is just breaking through,” he says. “But you can’t grow a music venue in a year and a half.”

Night clubs turn bigger profits than music venues, which is the main reason Nite Owl is shifting towards a traditional club venue, starting with DJ sets on Feb. 5 and 6. Bonham feels that the inconsistency of live-music booking makes it difficult to consistently turn a profit.

“The problem is that on Friday and Saturday sometimes we’re not even open,” he says. “We have to be open every night.”

Bonham says the venue hopes to continue supporting the local live music scene, despite economic constraints.

“We’re most certainly not turning our back on the live music community,” Bonham says. “It’s not good for business to turn your back on clientele. But we gotta make money. I love live music. It’s just that at the end of the day the bills have to get paid.”

But Downey, who thinks the change is disingenuous for a venue whose website boasts the tagline “All About Live Music,” is doubtful the Nite Owl will continue to garner support from members of the local music scene.

“The core people that go out every night to all the shows are just going to go elsewhere,” Downey says. “I think [Bonham is] just saying that to be cool. I think he sees a bigger pay-off. It kind of pisses me off, but I understand. I have a love for rock ‘n’ roll — I’m not in it for money.”

Despite the shift, the legacy of Nite Owl’s live music past will live on through Downey’s weekly show, “Rockin’ 4 Dollars,” which is moving to Broken City on Feb. 3. On Wednesdays, bands sign up to play 15-minute sets with a chance to win up to $1,000 by spinning a prize wheel at the end of the night. The skill level of the musicians varies wildly, from high school kids trying to gain experience to members of famed Calgary bands like Viet Cong and The Dudes.

“There have been numerous bands started on stage,” Downey says.

For young musicians, he says the opportunity to play in front of a supportive crowd and meet local talent is unparalleled.

“It’s three bucks to get in, you’re gonna get to know the bands, go out for beers and you never know what’s going to happen,” Downey says. “It’s a good way to break out and play some shows.”

The idea of “Rockin’ 4 Dollars” was conceived in Halifax over a decade ago before being reborn in Calgary last year. Downey says he considers himself a step-dad of the event, as he helped bring the show to the prairies.

“Over the year we’ve given away $5,600 to bands, and somewhere close to 3,000 beers,” Downey says. And at the end of each set, the audience is encouraged to line-up single-file and shake hands with the performers, much like a hockey game.

Downey thinks the move to Broken City couldn’t be more appropriate for “Rockin’ 4 Dollars” — the bar, a local favourite, fills up on weeknights with relative ease. He has faith in the show’s longevity, despite a change of scenery.

For Nite Owl, one question remains — what will happen to their Tetris machine? Club-goers, as Downey notes, don’t play Tetris.

The only thing that’s certain is that in a matter of weeks, all of Nite Owl’s high scores will be erased, Tetris or otherwise.

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