I have been going to shows since I was 14 or 15 years old, and have been playing them for just as long. I grew up seeing bands play at the Spill and the Garnet, Peterborough’s two main DIY music venues. While both of these venues are bars, shows there are always all-ages, so I never really understood the idea of a 19+ show until I started seeing and playing music in other cities.
I just had my 19th birthday in February, and while I’m over the moon about how much easier touring will be, I’m a little sad to leave the demographic the all-ages scene was created for. As a cisgender white woman playing rock music (something that is truly no longer an anomaly in music) I’d like to that acknowledge that my perspective on this community is limited. But, as a young person, I do have a few things to say about the way the music industry is built on ageism.
Over the past four years of touring and going to shows as a teenager, I’ve learned about the ways that all-ages scenes manifest differently in every city.
In larger cities the all-ages scenes are a branch of a larger community. Both Toronto and Ottawa boast promoters and bands dedicated to putting on really good shows specifically catered to people under the age of majority. But, coming from a small town where our ‘all-ages scene’ is like 10 of us going to shows every weekend, bigger scenes have often felt foreign.
Cities like Fredericton, Moncton, and Halifax were always a little closer to home, but because of the strict New Brunswick and Nova Scotia laws prohibiting anyone under 19 in a bar past 9pm (punishable by fines), these shows are held in alternative venues. The vintage clothing stores, book stores, record stores, basements, and art galleries of the East Coast fill up with showgoers of varying ages, to see bands playing noise, garage, punk, pop, experimental music, and so much more. I still think in Peterborough we’re very lucky, because the vast majority of our scene is all-ages without being isolated from the community as a whole.
In most cases in Ontario it is not illegal for someone under 19 to be in a bar, at any time of the day, but it’s at the discretion of the bar to make its own policy. I’ve only been asked to leave a show I was playing twice, both in Toronto. The first time, my bandmate Ani and I were escorted out by a bouncer who was confused when my driver’s license had the year 1998 on it. The second time, we were yelled at by a very, very angry booking agent. For both shows, we had to leave before and after our set, which was pretty embarrassing for many reasons, but especially because we’d put a bunch of our older friends on the guest list. It really strikes me as odd that the “reasonable” move in this scenario is to kick two young feminine people out into a city they are not from in the middle of the night. Thank god for 24-hour Vietnamese restaurants.
What I do no understand is why underaged musicians are consistently shown less respect than our slightly older peers. I know a lot of people my age are just trying to get loaded at a bar, but it’s such a bummer that young people who care more about the band than the beer get smack for it. I’ve been asked to play festivals where part of the offer included festival passes for each band member, have driven 20 hours across the country, and been told I can only go to five out of the 15 shows because of my age.
At one particular festival, I ended up being let in the back door of a venue just as Sudbury punk band Strange Attractor were beginning, and I will never forget the exhilarating feeling of stepping into the Cool Adults Only Club™. With thin distorted guitars flooding the room, stepping inside felt like diving into a loud and calculated disaster. Would I have such a vibrant memory of that show if it hadn’t almost slipped through my fingers? I’m not sure.
I do know that some of the most important shows I’ve seen in my short 19 years were in places I should not have been.
I’ve bought pizza for bands, and I have friends who’ve worked our merch table or played tambourine in my band for one-off shows in order to be let in. You become very resourceful when you’re systematically ostracized from a community you should be a part of. An inclusive all-ages community is a chance for teens to discover life-changing bands, to hone their music skills with a wider range of opportunities, and to foster sense of community without making anyone feel like a burden or an annoyance.
These teens will not be teens forever and eventually will be the beating heart of all our arts communities. While different cities have different ways of bringing younger people into the scene, I’ve been around long enough to know all-ages shows are nearly always possible, and it’s disheartening to know that bar sales are more critical to sustaining live music venues than ticket sales. Drinking culture is not synonymous with live music, and even though I’ve passed Canada’s age of majority, I know I’ll always advocate for the equal treatment of people of all ages in music communities everywhere.