B.C.'s recovery economy: COVID complications mixed for B.C.’s creative industries

Film and TV sectors upbeat; music, the arts, publishing still struggling with new normal

Association of Book Publishers of BC executive director Heidi Waechtler: 50% sales decline | Chung Chow

The claws of the pandemic dug deep into B.C.’s creative industries in March 2020.

Film and TV productions immediately went on hiatus, bookstores that authors and publishers relied on were forced to shutter temporarily and bookings at venues for major artists on tour as well as local musicians were wiped clean.

But amid the immediate economic paralysis, all corners of the West Coast film and TV sector – labour unions, studios and industry associations – developed a pandemic guide to kick-start production last summer.

By the fall, the industry was hitting new records in activity as competing jurisdictions in the U.S. and elsewhere still grappled with COVID-19.

Bookstores adapted to closures with online sales and curbside pickups before being able to reopen in the spring. The measures helped keep afloat B.C. authors and publishers who’d been grappling with lost sales without customers having the opportunity to thumb through titles as they had just months earlier.

“With magazines, it really isn’t a monolith,” said Sylvia Skene, executive director of the Magazine Association of BC.

She said some magazines dependent on ad revenue have been struggling amid contract cancellations, while niche publications as well as ones with more diverse revenue streams have been able to better navigate the pandemic’s treacherous economic waters.

Lindsay MacPherson, executive director of the Music BC Industry Association, describes her sector as resilient but said challenges remain ahead for local musicians whose livelihood depends on touring and live gigs.

Music BC has been able to facilitate online performances (some with small, in-person audiences prior to the most recent wave of pandemic-induced restrictions) and music festivals.

But MacPherson said many artists have turned to recording studios to create new music as they bide their time while awaiting the return of touring. The local studios have in turn benefited from this trend, with some drawing recording artists from outside B.C.

Music and the arts

•The Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance (GVPTA) reports 53% of organizations that responded to a December 2020 survey are under the threat of closure, while 2% have already closed. The top disciplines among respondents were theatre (48%), followed by music (37%) and visual arts (32%). Another 44% of respondents say they are still assessing the situation.

•Among artists and workers surveyed by the GVPTA, 75% report tapping into the Canada Emergency Relief Benefit during the pandemic.

•Amid widespread cancelled music festivals and concerts, Music BC was able to reallocate funding dollars and help produce 44 online musical events

•A July 2018 report from Music BC estimated Vancouver’s music scene generated $690 million and 7,945 direct jobs, while the average annual income of Vancouver musicians stood at $18,178.

•MacPherson said it’s difficult to determine how much the pandemic has affected income for artists and revenue for organizations. The 2018 report was funded by Music BC but conducted by Sound Diplomacy, while many musicians are not necessarily able to perform music full-time even before the pandemic.


•Approximately 20 magazines have folded in B.C. since the pandemic, while 300 to 325 remain in operation, according to the Magazine Association of BC (MagsBC).

•It’s difficult to generalize revenue losses in the magazine industry as some publications have been able to thrive while others have folded, Skene told BIV. But she estimates the industry is broadly facing revenue losses of between 20% and 30% year over year.

•Some magazines have reported a 20% increase in website page views, a 25% increase in social media engagement and a 20% boost to paywall revenue compared with 2019.

•The initial pandemic restrictions resulted in a decline in sales for B.C. book publishers of about 50% compared with a year earlier, according to Heidi Waechtler, executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of BC (ABPBC).

•Book sales have since rebounded, bolstered in part by holiday sales. B.C. publishers project a 30% to 40% decline in book sales for 2020 compared with 2019.

•Waechtler cautioned that her industry allows bookstores to return up to 40% of unsold book copies for full credit, so it may be “a little early” to determine the full impact the pandemic had on sales in 2020.

•The ABPBC boasts about 30 members, and Waechtler said some have reported direct website orders have surged has high as 400% during the pandemic.

Film and TV:

•Film and TV production volume in B.C. reached $3.4 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to the Canadian Media Producers Association’s (CMPA) Profile 2019 report released in April 2020. Information for the 2019-20 fiscal year has not been released as of January 2021.

•December 2020 data from the Directors Guild of Canada’s B.C. chapter (DGC-BC) reveals 70 productions were running simultaneously by the week of September 20, 2020, beating the previous record of 57 simultaneous productions set in September 2016.

•DGC-BC data also found that 38% of TV episodes shot in B.C. were led by Canadian directors, up from 30% in 2019. Canadians accounted for 10% of those jobs in February 2020. When production work began to open up again in June, Canadians accounted for 100% of those jobs as travel restrictions made it more difficult for American directors to enter the country for work.

•The pandemic suspended film and TV productions beginning in March; however, some activity continued in the second quarter in accounting and art departments, according to IATSE Local 891 business representative Phil Klapwyk, whose labour union represents 9,000 artists and technicians in B.C. and Yukon. 

•As the industry reopened in earnest over the summer, IATSE reported that aggregate third-quarter payroll and person days were at about 80% of 2019’s Q3 numbers.

•By 2020’s fourth quarter, aggregate payroll and person days for workers in the film and TV industry were at 120% of 2019’s Q4 numbers, according to IATSE. The union estimates that aggregate payroll and person days for all of 2020 amount to 70% of 2019’s numbers.

•Demand for talent in film and TV has seen IATSE initiating 50 to 60 new workers each month since just after 2020’s midway mark. There are currently about 300 people eligible and awaiting membership into the union.