With no gigs on the horizon, Montreal street musicians ponder a career change

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Times are tough for Montreal's metro buskers and street performers.

Deprived of their biggest stages by the COVID-19 pandemic, many are now considering a change in profession.

“Like many of us, I'm wondering if I'm going to continue to be a musician,” said Claude Gelineau, a violinist with more than 30 years of experience.

In addition to playing in the metro, Gelineau performs solo or with a trio at weddings, in schools, retirement homes and other private events. He also gave lessons at an Outremont school and performed with different orchestras and choirs.

All those gigs came to a halt in March.

“From that point on, there was nothing. Everything was cancelled,” he said. “When the show is cancelled, you don't get paid.”

Gelineau said with all his contracts and street and metro performances gone, he has simply stayed home. To continue paying his rent, the musician, who holds a master's degree from the Universite de Montreal, applied for the CERB, from which he got $2,000 per month.

A difficult spring led to a glimmer of hope during the summer, when the Ville-Marie borough gave permission to performers with permits to resume playing in Old Montreal.

In normal times, the area is “the most profitable,” Gelineau said, but the pandemic had an impact on donations from passer-byes.

“There were fewer people and fewer tourists, so it definitely showed in the amount I was earning,” he said.

Musicians were able to play in Old Montreal from July to October, but the borough closed its reservation system in the fall. In Old Montreal, as in the metro, artists must reserve their time slots to play in the most popular spots; in some cases, a hearing is required to gain access.

Since the return of cold weather, Gelineau said it's impossible to continue playing outside.

“I play a stringed instrument, so I can't play outside when it's cold,” he said, explaining the weather could damage his violin.

No longer receiving financial assistance from the federal government, the violinist said he must content himself with rare contracts in order to survive, such as distanced visits to residences for the elderly and a few funerals.

Regroupement des musiciens du metro et de la rue de Montreal spokesperson Claire Dellar said the demand for musicians has dropped dramatically during the pandemic. She said more than 75 per cent of its artists' contracts were cancelled in 2020.

“The majority of our musicians have a career in music and it's the biggest part of their livelihood,” she said.

While the nonprofit used to offer contracts to its members at retirement homes, shopping malls or at special events, 2020 has been “very quiet.”

“We can't wait to get everything back to normal, because it's extremely difficult for our musicians at the moment,” said Dellar.

Gelineau estimated he'd have to find a new job within two or three months of the situation doesn't improve.

“Music, at the moment, is not enough,” he said.

While he said he'd like to find a job in music education, the fact that his education is in music and not in teaching has closed many doors.

On its website, the STM said musical performances in metro stations are prohibited until further notice.

“In April 2020, the STM announced the temporary suspension of activities that are not directly related to the STM's mission, in order to promote compliance with the precautionary measures in place and reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19,” said spokesperson Amelie Regis, adding the measures are still in place during the pandemic's second wave.  

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