Side Door from host to host
Wondering what happens at show in a unique space? Veteran Side Door hosts offer their unique spaces, tips, and experiences.
Liberty, Saskatchewan sits nearly halfway between Saskatoon and Regina; with a population of 80 it’s technically a village. The village boasts the Liberty Memorial Hall, a WWII-era venue that acts as a community gathering place for weddings, baby showers, and anniversaries. On December 2, 2017, the hall expanded its hosting repertoire to include music as singer-songwriter Megan Nash played the first Side Door show in Saskatchewan.
“Our service club does an annual Christmas supper at the hall, the guys cook all the turkeys,” says Aline Guillas, Liberty Memorial’s board president. “Megan helped the kids sing in Santa, and then she played.”
Four years ago, Jay Jillard was house-hunting in Hamilton, Ontario and wanted a place in which he could live, build guitars—a professional luthier, he made his first guitar in high school—and put on shows. “When I stumbled across the house I ended up getting it was a weird shape, it would be super weird for most normal people,” he says. “But: Where do we put the drum kit, where do we put the sound system, are there good sightlines? I knew we could put a shop in, I knew it could accommodate.” He began hosting bands almost immediately at Jillard Guitars, cramming 60 to 80 people, “super-sweaty, shoulder-to-shoulder shows.”
In Vancouver’s Chinatown, Massy Books specializes in Indigenous, gender, critical race studies, art, philosophy, and science fiction books. With 1,500 square feet and two floors—upstairs is an art gallery—between 30 and 50 people can sit for readings, and as of 2017, music.
“It was Tim Baker,” says the shop’s owner Patricia Massy. “It was a full house. It sold out, it was very packed. It was a little stressful—I’d never moved the bookshelves before, and when I was pushing them to the back room, I realized the shelves were too tall so we had to unshelve all the books.”
Toronto lawyer Megan O’Toole “would love to be a musician but I have zero skills,” she says, laughing. “But I love the idea of supporting artists.” A fervent local show attendee, she’s been a Side Door host from the beginning, offering up her small Leslieville apartment, AKA Meo’s Place (“it’s 1,000 square feet,” she stresses), to the likes of Frontperson (Kathryn Calder and Mark Andrew Hamilton), Piper Hayes, and Woodpigeon.
Turning your home or business into a musical venue has challenges that vary based on the type of artist—solo versus band versus really big band—the kind of equipment available to you, and the amount of time you’ve got to put into the enterprise.
Massy supplements her regular lit events with the occasional music show, which has included Astral Swans and Dave Monks from Tokyo Police Club. “I love hosting,” she says, but “I’m pretty selfish when it comes to booking things only I want to see.”
The Liberty concert season amounts to a half-dozen shows a year—as a farming community, entertainment is worked around the harvest. In the past John K. Samson, Over the Moon, and Northern Beauties have all made stops at the hall. “Madison Violet were amazing, wonderful people. Their roots are east coast Canada—Lisa MacIsaac is Ashley’s sister,” says Giulias. “I put them up at the B&B I have here in town, I cooked their breakfast. When they walked into the hall they said, ‘Oh my goodness this feels like home.’”
Jillard is fully wired with a PA system, sound and video recording gear. “I think I approach shows a little bit differently than the average Side Door host,” he says. “I’m looking for that big band experience in this tiny, tiny space. I typically don't do the unknown acts. My goal is to be like three years from now people will go to a show at Danforth [Music Hall in Toronto] and be like, ‘I remember when I saw them at Jay’s house. Or, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing my favourite band,’” which happened when The Weakerthans’ John K. Samson came through. “That was a huge deal for my entire friend group,” says Jillard, “and I knew every person in the house.”
O’Toole finds herself at her local Long & McQuade before every show, renting equipment, then stocking her fridge with beer and wine. “I’ve had musicians say to me they’ve made more money from playing my house than venues in Toronto,” she says. “Sometimes the crowd is as small as 15, maybe as big as 40, and they get so much of that money.”
The hosts are all effusive in their praise of the experience, or as O’Toole puts it, “it’s not that I want people in my house, I want music in my house.”
“I’ve got a good core of people who come out regardless of who’s playing,” says Giulias. “We’re averaging about 45 people per show, and 20 to 25 of those are like, ‘Yep, it’s live music.”
“I got invited out to a house show before I had Hamilton on my radar,” says Jillard. “There were 70 people just sitting there, super-intently listening to the music. I thought it was a weird special Hamilton thing, I didn’t realize it happened all over the place.”
Written by Tara Thorne
Tara Thorne is a writer, editor, and pop culture critic in Halifax.