Comrad Sound facing closure

Venue hopes to turn licence dispute into a positive discussion

Last week brought some bad news to Calgary’s cultural community: The vibrant and vital Market Collective is currently homeless the Jazz Festival is outright cancelled and new kid Comrad Sound has been forced to forgo all upcoming shows due to a licensing dispute with the City of Calgary. Perception and precedent being what it is you could be forgiven for seeing the glass as less than half full. The dozen or so passionate articulate twentysomethings who gathered at Comrad Sound on Sunday June 21to discuss the venue’s current situation refuse to be dragged into this optimism deficit.

Comrad Sound was conceived as an all-ages art space that would host workshops live bands and community-based activities while providing a safe drug- and alcohol-free environment for adolescent creativity. Drummer and prominent local rocker Mike Wallace received a retail business licence from the City of Calgary on April 5 and the venue has been operating under that licence ever since.

Last week though an ominous letter arrived informing Wallace (who is currently in Ontario touring with his band Friendo) that the live music performances fell under the category “Entertainment Establishment” an activity not covered by the retail permit. It stated: “You are not licensed to carry on any concert/nightclub business at this address.… You are requested to immediately cease carrying on the business of Entertainment Establishment at Comrad Sound” and threatened fines of up to $10000 for each subsequent violation.

Comrad comrade Vanessa Gloux responds to the letter: “When it came down to it nobody even asked us about it they just came down here saw what we were doing saw that there was live music and then we got this letter.”

The letter didn’t exactly come as a surprise. “We’re having to register as a business and act as a business for something that isn’t a business. That’s the main difficulty” says Comrad’s Neal Moignard.

City licensing inspector Ken Stewart the signatory of the aforementioned letter refuses to discuss the specifics of Comrad’s conundrum but is willing to provide some general clarification to the rules and licensing process. From Stewart’s perspective the issue is rather black and white.

“If there’s any kind of entertainment in the place like live music or dancing that’s considered an entertainment establishment” he says. Stewart cites the city’s mandate to ensure that businesses are safe and code-compliant for their licensed activities while outlining the process and requirements for changing that designation. “We do get people who say they’re going to do one thing when they’re going to do another. We want clarity. We don’t want people coming in and giving the veneer of something genuine when they’re just trying to get around the existing bylaws and rules that are in place.”

Despite widespread agreement on the need for sustainable all-ages spaces and venues the issue has been ongoing and unresolved for decades. Even still Comrad Sound and its supporters view the current crisis as an opportunity to create meaningful and sustainable change. There’s no room here for mopey negativity.

“There’s more optimism than anything else” says Moignard. “All-ages venues are going to happen all-ages shows are going to happen. It’s an opportunity to make something really good come out of this to bring a lot of attention to the actual underlying issue and to use all the support that we’ve had to finally push something through and set a precedent and standard.”

Andrew Davidson another of the meeting’s attendees quotes activist and mayoral candidate Paul Hughes: “This is a legacy issue about creating a greater capacity for youth arts and culture in Calgary.”

Fundraisers and overwhelming support have already generated sufficient funds to ensure Comrad Sound’s survival at least until the end of the summer and there seems to be a general will on both sides to resolve the issue for everyone’s benefit.

“We want to be assisted by the city in the process of finding a licence that will suit us” says Moignard. “We also want to be in a conversation about what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of having the space with both the city and the community.”

Stewart says that’s not the issue. “We’re not there to block things or stop certain things from going on” he explains. “If people want to come up with something that we don’t license or feel the current categories or bylaws do not include what they want to do they can make a submission in writing to the City of Calgary and even to their alderman and suggest that this be brought up in council for amendments to the bylaw. If it’s been a problem for the last 20 years maybe it’s time to go in that direction.”

When pressed. Stewart will admit to attending shows as a youth in Toronto that may not have been entirely above the bureaucratic board. Of course that was long before he became a city licence inspector. “I like music that’s for sure” he admits. “I’m not just the parochial guy.”