Will Surphlis, a 27-year-old musician from Courtice, played as many as 130 shows at pubs and bars across the Greater Toronto Area in 2019.
In the pandemic year of 2020, that number has been trimmed to about 30.
“Before the pandemic you had freedom to pretty much go and play where you wanted,” says Surphlis.
But that changed when bars were ordered closed by the Province
When stage one of lockdown was in effect, Surphlis would go to Lakeview Park Beach in Oshawa with Trevor LeBlanc and busk by the water.
Together they are a duo, aptly called Will and Trevor.
Both sing, Surphlis handles guitar, LeBlanc percussion. Will and Trevor busked at the beach for roughly three weeks in May until a bylaw officer kicked them out citing COVID-19 as the reason.
“I’ve talked to councillors from the City (of Oshawa) and they looked at me and were like: no, the City official shouldn’t have done that.”
This left Surphlis unsure where to turn.
“We’re like, how are we going to be able to play music for people in a positive way? We were trying to bring positivity to people in a very rough time,” says Surphlis.
With some connections from previous shows, Surphlis got creative and arranged with bar owners to livestream shows from closed bars like The Music Hall in Oshawa.
“We weren’t charging the establishment,” says Surphlis. “We didn’t want these places to close down.”
These livestreams on Facebook were meant to raise awareness for the struggling establishments, in some cases encouraging viewers to order takeout meals from them. Now, both the Music Hall and the Corral, two locations for the livestreams, have closed. The Music Hall will be moving to a new location while the Corral no longer operates.
“Trevor and I were the last two people to ever perform on the Corral stage. That wasn’t our goal. Our goal was to keep the place going,” says Surphlis.
A big adjustment for Surphlis has been finding different ways to work. With everything being more open with stage three, Surphlis got involved with playing retirement home shows.
“I was doing outside gigs to people on their balconies. That was kind of neat. I had never done anything like that before,” says Surphlis.
“Afterwards people come up and they say to you: ‘I haven’t heard live music in so long’. Obviously big concerts aren’t happening right now. I am a very spiritual person and I believe that music heals,” says Surphlis.
Surphlis has found more regular work at a bar near Stayner, Ont. called Hangar 26. “They hired me five or six times,” he says, including a three day patio stint for Will and Trevor during Labour Day Weekend.
“I was working five days a week last year doing gigs. This year, that’s five gigs in three or four months,” says Surphlis.
Surphlis says the biggest challenge of the pandemic came at the beginning.
“At that point, like a lot of other people in this country, I got really depressed. I put my guitar down for like three weeks.”
Surphlis teaches online lessons for both guitar and drums. He says the number of students dropped by 50 per cent during the stage one lockdown.
Since playing shows again during stage three, there is more of a distance between Surphlis and the audience, which is both a positive and a negative, he says.
“I feel safer on stage. You’re very vulnerable on stage. You get drunk people coming up and trying to grab your equipment,” says Surphlis.
On the other hand, the new normal can create a disconnect between the musician and the crowd.
“I am becoming more used it now,” he says.