GigSpace Performance Studio, now starting its 8th season, has more demand for presentation space than its organizers can handle.
“It's all that we can do to keep up with the volume of emails that we get,” says GigSpace director Tim Bedner, who is responsible for bookings at the small (46-seat) concert hall.
But that doesn't mean that every evening has a concert. Part of the reason why the Ottawa venue isn't accepting more bookings is related to its own organization and the constraints that imposes.
GigSpace, located just outside downtown and near the Preston Street strip, is one of the few listening spaces in Ottawa with a resident and frequently-tuned grand piano. Its concerts are almost all jazz – with the occasional classical or folk show mixed in – and the artists playing there include both touring Canadian and American musicians and Ottawa groups.
It only programs shows on Friday and Saturday evenings and a few Sunday afternoons. Bedner said 90 to 95% of the shows there sold out last season.
GigSpace opened in the fall of 2011, and started programming weekly concerts the following January. Six months later, Café Paradiso, which had been Ottawa's best-known jazz spot, closed its doors, and GigSpace was left as one of the few places here hosting touring jazz groups, or where more complex local shows could be presented.
The hall is located within, and shares space and musical equipment with, Alcorn Music Studios (AMS), owned by bassist Mark Alcorn and drummer Marilee Townsend-Alcorn. From Monday to Thursday, the hall is used by AMS for teaching group classes, and it's also where AMS' Sunday end-of-term recitals are held.
Townsend-Alcorn is also the artistic director of GigSpace, which is run by a board consisting of her, Alcorn, Bedner, and local jazz vocalist Nicole Ratté. Bedner said that they are not paid for their board work. It's a “labour of love”.
One of these four directors must be present for each concert, for liability and financial reasons, he said. That means that they can't run concerts every single Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, he said, partly because it may conflict with their own shows as working musicians and partly to avoid burnout from combining GigSpace duties with regular jobs.
“For the most part, if we don't schedule in a break, we don't usually get them. And we found out in the past that it gets pretty draining quickly. Sometimes we just need a day off to rest and take care of household chores and so forth.”
This fall, Bedner has scheduled shows on all but one weekend, but more than half of the weekends have only one show scheduled rather than two.
GigSpace takes a percentage of the ticket revenues for each concert. That means, he said, that “in order for the artists to get the optimal percentage”, they can't afford to hire a paid staff person, he said. Artists are responsible for promoting their own shows.
This fall, GigSpace's general ticket prices have increased for the first time, from $20 to $25. However Townsend-Alcorn said that they would drop the site's previous $1 charge for on-line purchases, at least for this year, slightly reducing the increase for most patrons.
Bedner said that the price increase was need to meet GigSpace's own increased costs, like rent, and also “to put a little bit more money in the pockets of the artists. We have a formula for a door split for folks that are local, and a formula for folks that are out of town. We clearly spell that out ahead of time. But we want to make sure that artists are getting a little bit more. Because we only seat 46, it's tough – especially when we get folks travelling across-country and we can't offer lodging or any kind of per diem, so the increase is a way to help out a bit.”
GigSpace’s new website, gigspace.ca, which launched today, has a new ticketing system. Bedner said it will be more efficient and better integrate on-line and in-person/phone sales, avoiding problems for sold-out shows. “I believe the new website and the new system will alleviate a lot of complications for Marilee and just make it run smoother.”
Bedner said that the demand for concert slots at GigSpace has been steadily increasing, to the point where he has shows booked until next June – although he may be able to squeeze in one or two high-profile touring musicians who wouldn't be able to give him as much notice.
“We want to make sure there's a bit of a balance of local talent and also leaving room for when we get an email at the last minute: 'Hey, we'll be in town and do you think we could play at your place?' When we block off dates that we say there's no music, if someone out of town is travelling through like someone from New York that is a known name in the jazz world or contemporary music world, we will do what we can to try to get them in.”
The schedule is musician-driven: Bedner doesn't program a season but instead has artists contact him and works with them to figure out a schedule, He books as much as a year in advance, but prefers 6 to 8 months' notice.
He said he tries to ensure local jazz musicians also get spots.
“I do have a waiting list of folks that are looking to get in and I'm trying to be fair. And it's also important that the piano is played, and finding the balance of making sure that some of the great local piano talent in town – the Steve Boudreaus and Mark Fergusons and of course Brian Browne – we always tried made sure to get those folks in to use that great piano. But again it's usually first come, first served. If someone's been trying to get in, I'll try to get them in when things open up.”
But, at the same time, he said it's important that shows at GigSpace don't duplicate what listeners could hear for free or cheaply at other local venues. “If someone is playing around town a lot, having them at GigSpace the following week or whatever is a hard call when you could go out to Brookstreet and see them for free and then the following week they're at GigSpace and you're paying $25 for a ticket.”
GigSpace encourages new and special projects to avoid this, he said.
Many GigSpace shows have featured experienced local jazz musicians, but Bedner said they don't discriminate against new artists: it's who contacts him first. But he said he did want to help those musicians who are putting “the time into being a full-time professional musician”.
The Stanutz series on Sunday afternoons is specifically designed for local musicians, he said. It was named after the late Tim Stanutz, a respected local bassist and a friend of the Alcorns who died several years ago. That series generally runs once a month, Bedner said, but can get cancelled if both the Friday and Saturdays of that week are full, in order to avoid overload. He said he was only able to schedule in one Stanutz series show, with vocalist Rachel Beausoleil, this fall.
Bedner said that GigSpace is best suited for playing acoustically, or only with light amplification, like guitar or bass amps. It was previously a recording studio, he said, and still has the foam and panels in the walls that work well with those sounds.
“An acoustic sound in that room, whether it's folk or classical or jazz is really well-suited. Whenever we start amplifying a lot of things, or where there's a lot of sound reinforcement, it can get a bit tricky to try to get the balance and not overwhelm the room – because it's a small space. So that's the danger.”
“Although I know in past we've had some more electric-based groups in there, it can get a bit loud. I remember a power trio coming in from Montreal and it was like fusion to the 10th degree and that was pretty loud. Again because of the loud amplification from bass and guitar and drummer.”
In 2014, the improvised music festival IMOOfest presented music with a huge dynamic range in GigSpace at its IMOOFest. “It worked out fantastically... this is a beautiful room which suits the music that we're doing very, very well,” IMOO co-founder Craig Pederson told OttawaJazzScene.ca at the end of the festival. The nuances of quieter performances could be heard perfectly in the intimate space. One very loud performance by the IMOO Orchestra overwhelmed the space and listeners’ ears, however. (IMOO FEST returns to GigSpace on September 22 and 23.)
Louder acoustic sounds, like trumpets or saxophones, can work in GigSpace, Bedner said.
“And even when a drummer is very heavy-handed, the room itself seems to absorb. I've been at shows where the drummer is really digging in and there are people right up front sitting right next to the drums, and talking to them afterwards they had no problem with it. So some unique thing about the room... the room will handle louder instruments.”
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