The Needle Vinyl Tavern, one of the most active music venues in Edmonton, closed indefinitely Tuesday night. This situation is sad on so many levels, and things unravelled incredibly quickly.
Here’s how the Needle saga unfolded from my perspective.
Sunday evening I’m playing a Tom Petty Tribute Show at The Rec Room. Just before I’m heading home around 9 PM on Sunday my phone lights up with a Messenger notification. Then another and another. I check the thread and learn that an employee has quit the Needle because of ignored concerns about sexual harassment and assault. My heart sinks.
Monday morning I check in on the thread. Responses are heated. Some are suggesting we (the local music community) leave 1-star reviews (the lowest allowed) on the Venue’s Facebook page in protest. A few hours later I do, leaving a lengthy review that lays out not only my anger and sadness but also why I saw the Needle as an important thread in Edmonton’s music tapestry. There were about 200 such 1-star reviews when I posted mine, dragging the venue’s formerly positive Facebook rating down, down, down.
Tuesday I log on and notice that many bands have moved their shows from the Needle. I hear Brunch Club telling CBC radio about their choice to move their show and donate the proceeds to the Sexual Assault Centre. The Big Dreamer Jam – an event I’ve frequented and featured on my Make It Small Podcast, was cancelled this week. The 1-star reviews surpass five hundred by end of the day. The Needle releases a statement and then deletes it. They release another and then another.
Wednesday around noon I search for the Needle’s Facebook page and get an error. “Sorry, this content isn't available right now.” I soon realize The Needle has deleted their Facebook presence, including all of those reviews - many of them well-crafted reflections on the situation. Including mine. News stories tell me The Needle has closed. Totally. Indefinitely.
So let’s recap. Sunday afternoon The Needle is a popular Edmonton music venue that most local musicians have played at some time or another. Tuesday night - about 48 hours later - the Venue shuts down.
Sexual harassment, assault and abuse are inexcusable.
Brittany, the woman who quit her job at The Needle, brought to light some very serious allegations against the Needle’s owners (and one in particular). To me these go beyond harassment into assault territory. Being groped repeatedly against her will is assault that demands legal consequences for the perpetrator, apart from whatever happens to The Needle Vinyl Tavern.
It’s been noted by many online that disrespect and sexual harassment are expected by women in the service and entertainment industries, and many feel powerless to fight for themselves. I hope this incident wakes us all up to that reality and brings change. I read a lot of dismissive comments online about the seriousness of this situation, but I doubt people would be dismissive if Brittany had been punched in the face by the owner, and then after objecting punched again and again. Why is sexual assault viewed differently?
As far as I know (and I don’t know a whole lot), Brittany’s allegations are now being investigated by law enforcement, but those investigations have only just begun. Many have commented that the parties involved should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. I understand that, and on the criminal side, I assume that is what will happen. But there are other consequences for behaviour beyond the legal system, as the Needle has learned this week.
All that being said, I’m not Brittany and I’m not The Needle. None of this affects me so much as it affects her, affects the accused and affects the dozens of employees now out of a job.
I cannot understand this all fully because I’m a man, and I haven’t faced the kind of abuse Brittany faced. For a good woman’s perspective, you should read Colleen Brown’s post at http://colleenbrownmusic.tumblr.com/post/167751035611/sexual-assault-power-dynamics-in-music. She is incredibly brave, strong and hopeful in her response and I thank her for that.
I’m still writing this post because as a musician in Edmonton I am affected. This is my community. I played The Needle. I know and respect many women making music in our city. I am sad for Brittany and I am sad the Needle is gone.
I’m sad The Needle is gone, and I hope for healing.
Perhaps all I really want to say, out loud so I know you hear me, is that this just sucks for so many people.
Many people are not sad The Needle is gone and I get that. Issues like this are emotionally charged and everyone is entitled to their emotions and reactions. Everyone brings their own story to this.
For my part, I liked the Needle before this all went down. I heard negativity about the Needle lacking ‘street cred’ and being little more than a cash-grab by poser-owners. I could never speak to the owners’ motivations, but I know that a venue with the size, proficiency and financial backing of The Needle is rare in this city. A venue that can pay their bills AND pay their artists well is special. A venue that communications clearly with artists and treats them well from arrival to cheque-in-hand is hard to come by. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
The Needle’s Jasper-Avenue-rent-must-be-insane location is hard to replicate. The owners took a risk setting up shop in a prime location and for me, that has translated into a broad spectrum of people hearing my music who would have never heard it anywhere. The bookers landed excellent shows. The clientele at The Needle was diverse. Hipsters and bankers sat a table away from party-hards and middle-aged couples on a date to that ‘new music place downtown’. I could bring my parents and my friends and my teenagers to a show at The Needle, and none felt out of place.
The food was okay and decently priced, to my tastes. It was nice to be able to eat real food and watch a show at the same time. The beer list was weak, an unforgivable sin in the middle of a local brewery boom, but the specials on Blue Buck and pizzas were decent enough to keep me fed and watered during a Big Dreamer Jam many Tuesday nights. Some have flipped The Needle the virtual bird in the wake of all this for serving $9 beers. I don’t think the beers were actually that much, but The Needle paid us when we played and if that money came off the top of high-priced beer I’m fine with the trade.
I’ve never run a venue but I’ve heard it’s a tough business. To remain open for a couple of years with more than one live show almost every single day of the year is astonishing. I never played a show at the Needle and went unpaid and I’m grateful.
For me, The Big Dreamer Jam is the best case study to show how difficult The Needle is to replace.
This open-mic jam happened every week and included a killer backup band. Playing with them was a joy. They were there for us every week because they were paid by The Needle. It was a consistent gig. The Needle was able to pay them because people would show up to watch and those people would eat food and drink beer. There were no tickets or cover on those nights. People would show up because the Needle was right there, open, on Jasper. After a game at Rogers Place. After work at the lawyer’s office. Just off the bus route. A lot of these people would not go to a community hall or a dingy bar to see live music. They’d barely go to The Needle, but there they were.
Those people matter to our music scene. Everyone who gives a dollar or an hour to see live music matters because we have so much great live music and relatively few people going out of their way to see it. If we want this to change, we need venues that reduce the friction around experiencing local live music.
I could list so many other venues who have tried and failed to do something like the Needle appeared to be pulling off, but you’d likely not remember them by now.
I cannot think of any other venue in town that can offer The Big Dreamer Jam all that they have lost in the wake of this. Location. Capacity. Accessibility. Food and alcohol. Money. I hope I’m wrong.
Add to this the fact that dozens of good servers, staff and managers are out of a job today. This situation has some terrible ripples that will take a long while to settle.
I am hoping today.
I am hoping some people involved with the Needle can find a way forward that gives people jobs while respecting them and keeping them safe.
I’m hoping this space can reincarnate into a venue the Edmonton music community can trust, appreciate and be supported by.
I’m hoping Brittany can heal from the horrible things that have been done to her.
I’m also hoping the accused not only face justice but somehow becomes a better man at the other end of all of this. We need better men.
Where we go from here.
I try to follow the teachings of Jesus, so redemption is a big word for me. It means beauty from ashes and wholeness from brokenness. These are not easy transformations. This is life-work. Soul-work.
Our music community is full of good women and good men. May we not let anger consume us and turn us into the ugliness we despise. May we find a way to shine light into dark places.
Social media does not offer the best space to heal. Reconciliation happens in relationships and face to face whenever possible. I know social media is where we live these days, but let’s not forget how words become weapons when disconnected from the people who said them. I read some ugliness on Facebook these past few days that treated people as less than human and I don’t feel good about that. I feel queasy.
I’m not among those who decry the Needle’s downfall as a result of a ‘mob mentality’. The Needle could have avoided all of this with an appropriate response months ago. Perhaps even a correct response this week. That being said, I feel a tinge of fear at the power of this internet beast we’ve unleashed. Social media has become a powerful tool so let’s be careful with each other.
Even an extended blog post like this is fraught with the difficulty of clear expression. You can read into things I say and make me seem better or worse. I can’t help that. This distortion field only multiplies as the character count shrinks to a social media soundbite.
Here’s how I’m moving forward from this
For me, the questions filter down to one unchanging question - how do I best love my neighbour?
Sexual assault and harassment are on my radar now - dead centre. I hope the next time some dude with a beer makes a comment that degrades the woman on stage or the woman bringing us those beers, I’ll have the courage to tell him that’s not okay. Things like that have been said by so many men for so long it became easy to ignore them. We need to wake up to the valuable women around us who deserve respect.
If I see physical abuse or harm happen, I’m going to take action. Stop it. Report it. I hope I have the courage to do that.
I’m not going to bash men in general. I know too many great men to do that and I don’t think it’s helpful. But I’m going to hold myself and the men in my life accountable for our actions. We can and should be better.
I’m going to leave this particular situation behind me and stop reading about this on social media because I don’t know any of the people involved and following this story has not been good for my soul or body. I felt physically weary Monday and I don’t think it was unrelated. I will trust justice to be done by those with the power and responsibility to act and hope that those who know Brittany can give her the support she needs.
If The Needle it reopens I will pay close attention to the changes that have been made. I hope a better venue emerges from these painful ashes – one all of us local musicians can be proud to support and be supported by.
As for The Big Dreamer Jam, it looks like we’ll be making music next week thanks to generosity from The Mercury Room. I don’t know how permanent this solution is, but for now, we will gather there, sing together and beat back this darkness.
(Dave) Von Bieker