When Nicole Ariana stepped up to the mic in front of a packed crowd at a downtown Halifax club, she hadn’t had anything to drink. That, she admits, was a relatively new experience, though she’s been performing for a decade.
“I have, over the years, needed a few drinks at first to do a show,” she said in an interview before her set at Hailfax’s Marquee Ballroom.
She had signed up for the East Coast Music Association (ECMA)’s “Dry January” initiative — no drinking alcohol for the entire month.
The ECMA launched the “Pledge to Pause” initiative for the first time this year as artists are increasingly talking about alcohol being so intrinsically linked to their industry. Musicians perform in bars, green rooms are stocked with beer on ice, they sometimes get drink tickets in lieu of payment, and fans also buy drinks and put them directly on the stage in front of them.
Last year, the Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction released new guidelines stipulating no amount of alcohol is safe and recommending no more than two drinks a week for men and women — a far cry from the organization’s previous guidance, which recommended no more than 15 drinks a week for men and 10 for women to reduce long-term health risks.
Errin Williams, a clinical social worker who leads wellness programs for the ECMA, says artists largely supported the idea of a dry January,but only 35 of the association’s 1,000 members across the four Atlantic provinces actually signed up to stop drinking for a month.
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Williams said some artists said they couldn’t participate because they had too many gigs in January, they were travelling or had other things going on.
She said that suggests even more conversation is needed if musicians feel they can’t participate in certain events without alcohol.
“It’s helping artists feel comfortable saying ‘no,’ helping them know how to have conversation with audience members and maybe negotiate with venues to be able to not have alcohol be part of their compensation,” she said.
Industry was an enabler: Great Big Sea singer
“If you can’t press pause for a month, then I would think that indicates that you may have a problem,” said Séan McCann, founding member of the Newfoundland band Great Big Sea and a self-identified alcoholic.
He said for him the music industry was an “enabler.”
Now sober for more than 12 years, he spent 20 years on the road with what he calls “Canada’s biggest party band.” In fact, he said Great Big Sea based its brand on alcohol, pointing out its lyrics were about drinking and included references to various types of alcohol.
“We were the band that you could count on to get your drink on with. Like everyone kind of wanted to get their cups up with us,” he said in an interview at his home in Ottawa.
He acknowledged that reputation for partying was a great business move — the band enjoyed tremendous success — but he said it came at a personal cost.
During Great Big Sea’s 20th anniversary tour in 2012 and 2013, McCann was newly sober — still struggling, he says — and on stage singing about getting drunk. As the pressure to drink intensified during the tour, he says he ultimately informed the other members he could not continue.
“When I look back though, it did bring about the end of the band as we know it,” said McCann, who has also published a book with his wife, Andrea Aragon, about their experience with alcoholism.
He applauds the ECMA initiative, saying that anything that causes a break in the habit allows for clarity.
He is still performing solo, but said he doesn’t play in bars. He thinks the industry needs to deal with the systemic problem by decentralizing the actual work — taking it out of bars — and empowering smaller venues to be able to function without relying on the sale of alcohol.
“I still manage to make out a living, but I have to work 20 times as hard to make that work,” he said.
Artists discuss solutions
There’s a growing desire in Canada for non-alcoholic drink options, with businesses saying consumers are expecting more and noting millennials and Generation Z have different perceptions of drinking than older generations.
In January, the ECMA teamed up with Music Nova Scotia to host an event where artists could sample non-alcoholic beverages and discuss other solutions.
Ariana is also a peer-support worker trained to lead discussions on a range of topics including sober curiosity. At the event, she led other artists in a discussion about how they can all exist in non-sober performance spaces when choosing to be sober or reducing consumption themselves. Some in her group lead a completely sober lifestyle.
Some said they’re now using breathing and meditation techniques to calm their nerves, instead of doing a shot before they take the stage.
“I always put like a lime on the cup so then people can’t tell if it’s vodka soda or just soda,” said singer Apryll Aileen.
Producer Danielle Lemieux said she’s made the sometimes unpopular decision not to allow her crew members to drink while they’re working.
“Some people were like, ‘Not so fun to be working with her!’ But that attitude has changed,” she said.
Musician Sophie Noel said she has a friend who insisted on dry tours, where none of the crew was allowed to drink.
“It was really effective,” she said. “And I wonder if that’s going to become more of an industry standard as more Gen Z artists enter that touring market.”
Williams said the ECMA will run the Pledge to Pause initiative again next year, but with more awareness and education to help artists learn how to tell people they’re not drinking, so it perhaps doesn’t prevent them from fully participating in professional events.
Ariana said she won’t stop drinking forever, but she does plan to continue her pledge beyond the month of January.
“I want to take this time to just reflect and understand that I don’t need it in my life,” she said. “And I have a lot of friends in the music community and I want to lead by example.”
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