Breakdowns in lockdown: COVID-19 and Manitoba’s music scene

COVID-19 has taken its toll on Manitoba musicians. Here’s how some have coped.

Carmen Ponto

Michael Falk sits in his recording studio playing an acoustic guitar
Michael Falk released two albums during the pandemic. He says it’s likely neither would’ve been released if it wasn’t for COVID-19. Carmen Ponto/Kicker

Winnipeg’s music scene has always been a lively one. In pre-pandemic times, you could head to a venue every weekend and be pleasantly surprised by the local band – or three – on stage. 

The city’s COVID-19 shutdowns essentially outlawed those experiences overnight on April 1, 2020. Winnipeg musicians floundered in the wake of vast lockdowns that resulted in everything from cancelled concerts to lost employment.

Manitoba Music is a not-for-profit music industry association that exists to support and develop Manitoba’s music sector. Sean McManus, its executive director, had a front-row seat to the varying impacts COVID-19 had on local musicians.

The repercussions, McManus said, varied widely. Some musicians had to cancel an entire year of touring. For others, who were burnt out from touring, and whose digital platforms were already in place, the shutdowns were a welcome break from too many late nights on stage. For yet others, the extra time meant an opportunity “to really dig in and be creative.”

Unexpected opportunity

Michael Falk of Winnipeg band Touching experienced the full range of the pandemic-induced rollercoaster.

Falk has a long list of accomplishments in the music scene, both locally and worldwide. As former frontman of band Les Jupes and former artistic director of the Winnipeg Jazz Festival, he got involved in a new project for Winnipeg: He became sounds director for a brand new, one-of-a-kind art festival that was set for its debut in summer 2020. 

The Current Festival – a multi-disciplinary event integrating music, art and culinary experiences – was a month away from announcing its lineup when COVID-19 closures were announced. The festival was cancelled.

“That lineup was gonna be awesome. Winnipeg has never had a festival like that was gonna be,” Falk said. 

The first round of lockdowns meant that Falk was suddenly unemployed and a full-time dad to his five-year-old son who was suddenly home 24/7. “It was pretty stressful”, he said. 

Despite the stress, Falk saw an opportunity.

“I knew that I wanted to start releasing music again, but I didn’t quite have a handle on when. The pandemic hit and the time was right . . . All of a sudden I had the time and energy to open that door a bit more fully and . . . give myself permission to be a full-fledged artist again.”

“All of a sudden I had the time and energy to open that door a bit more fully and . . . give myself permission to be a full-fledged artist again.”

Michael Falk, Touching

Falk and his bandmate Alisdair Dunlop released a song a week beginning in April 2020. They released an accompanying music video with each song, spread out over 10 weeks. The videos came about as a result of a collaboration with Winnipeg filmmaker Tyler Funk and actor Ali Tataryn. They shot them within the same 10-week period.

The album, aptly titled Isolation Blues, is a selection from a bank of 175 songs that Falk had written over a five year period beginning in 2015. Touching released 10 more from the same batch on Oct. 29 of this year, titled littleworlds. 

Within a month, one of the songs had made it to number one on CBC Radio 3.

Without the pandemic, Falk says, the albums might never have seen the light of day. “It would’ve probably just sat there. I don’t know if I would’ve had the catalyst to release these records, make all those videos without it.”

2022: The year of new music

McManus predicts a lot more of this creative energy from musicians heading into 2022. 

He said the combination of postponed records and albums created during lockdown will create a significant wave of new music in 2022. “There’s gonna be a lot of music coming out, and with that music coming out means live shows, means artists wanting to tour.” 

He said the jury is still out on whether audiences are ready to face the crowds at live shows again.

In either case, Falk will be prepared. He has a third album almost finished and a fourth in the works. Whether the audience is there or not, this is where he’s happiest. “Making songs and recording them is . . . just what I do, it’s where I’m happy and where I find some joy and release.”

You can find Touching’s music here:

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