Bluesfest could be scaled back this year amid labour shortages

·3 min read
People listen to a band at Bluesfest in 2019. The music festival is returning to LeBreton Flats this summer, but without some of the behind-the-scenes technicians who found other jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)
People listen to a band at Bluesfest in 2019. The music festival is returning to LeBreton Flats this summer, but without some of the behind-the-scenes technicians who found other jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Trevor Pritchard/CBC - image credit)

Standing on the field where Ottawa's largest music festival is set to return this summer, Benoît Brunet-Poirier knows it won't be the same as in years past.

"My first year of Bluesfest was 2009," recalled Brunet-Poirier, a long-time crew member. "My last year was 2019."

This year's festival is scheduled to run July 7-17 in its pre-pandemic home at LeBreton Flats Park, next to the Canadian War Museum.

But after a decade of building stages and setting up sound and light systems, Brunet-Poirier has no plans to return.

Many live events were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Brunet-Poirier and others like him out of a job. He's now found work in the construction industry, and says it's the same story for other skilled workers who've taken jobs with higher wages, in fields like IT or film and television production.

Some have even gone back to school, he said.

"[The past two years were] a very, very severe emotional roller coaster for a lot of people," said Brunet-Poirier. "Just kind of waiting for that next gig, hoping it's going to come through and then just finding out that it's cancelled again."

CBC
CBC

'We can't cut the music'

The music industry was one of the hardest-hit sectors hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, and even with restrictions loosened it's "not like we're just flipping a switch and we're back to business as usual," said Erin Benjamin, president of the Canadian Live Music Association.

"We're hearing the folks who would normally have an employee directory or a contractor directory [say that] upwards of 70 per cent those folks are no longer available to work. They've found other employment," Benjamin said.

The difficulties go beyond just the labour shortage, however, according to Bluesfest executive director Mark Monahan.

"We're challenged now to find the availability of trailers and tents, for instance, or portable washrooms," Monahan told CBC News.

Monahan said some of the trailers they need, for example, are being used on construction sites, so they're forced to look elsewhere. It all means Bluesfest 2022 might be simplified this year, he said.

"We may not be able to have three merch tents. Maybe there's one and it's bigger," he said. "[But] we can't cut the music. That's the essence of the festival."

CBC
CBC

Should still be 'incredible' summer

The way to address the labour shortage, Benjamin said, is to get younger people interested in the industry, by going into schools and "having conversations with kids earlier so that they know that we're out there."

"[When] we think about the music industry, we think about producing records and being an artist on stage. But there are so many incredibly exciting jobs that happen behind the scenes," she said.

Despite the workforce challenges, Benjamin is optimistic it will nevertheless be a great summer for music fans.

"The fact that these folks are still planning on putting festivals on at all is a testament to their passion and determination and commitment," she said.

"So no matter what festivals are looking like, we're still going to see some incredible events this summer."

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