SARS Hits Toronto Music Biz

Bright Eyes, Michelle Branch among latest artists to cancel

Bright Eyes, Michelle Branch, Kelly Clarkson, Concrete Blonde, Billy Joel and Elton John are among the artists who have cancelled Toronto appearances in the last week due to the SARS outbreak. But, according to those in the city's music business, the fear is overblown.

"I don't think they're valid at all," says House of Blues Concerts Canada president Don Simpson of the cancellations. "Everybody's going about their lives . . . I was downtown last week, at Bay Street, where you have all these people living in office buildings with recirculated air, and no one I saw anywhere had a mask on."

Earlier today, the World Health Organization lifted the travel advisory it issued against Toronto a week ago, since no additional non-healthcare-worker cases have been confirmed since April 9th. The W.H.O. looks for at least a twenty-day period of containment -- enough to allow for two rounds of ten-day quarantines -- before repealing such advisories.

The Greater Toronto Area has a population of approximately 5 million and there have been twenty-one deaths from SARS, many of which were cases involving the elderly. It currently has thirty-nine active probable cases and 498 people in quarantine.

"Our problem is not here in Toronto," Simpson says. "All of us know that we're not living in bubble suits and we're not running around with masks. The biggest problem is the external world opinion of what Toronto is. W.H.O. made a huge mistake not sending representatives here to investigate further."

The country's other big concert promoter, Clear Channel Entertainment Canada, has had no cancellations, according to its president, Shane Bourbonnais. "We had Ellen Degeneres at Massey Hall on the weekend," he says. "She came out and coughed about a minute into her show and said, 'Oh my god, I think I've got it,' and everybody laughed."

Craig Laskey, who books Toronto's famed Horseshoe Tavern and other venues, tried to allay the fears of the Bright Eyes and Concrete Blonde camps, but says the decision is ultimately up to the bands. "We don't want them to do something that they don't feel comfortable doing," he says.

"I feel very bad about it," says Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano. "I have crew, drivers and a drummer with children, and people whose families are worried about them. It's only postponed, not cancelled."