Bruce Allen has been involved in the live-music industry since before most local concertgoers were born—and it shows in how he approaches the business.
The veteran Vancouver music manager, who was born in 1945, tells the Georgia Straight by phone that he reserves U.S. arenas on Saturday nights more than a year in advance for his client Michael Bublé. That’s so Allen can stay one step ahead of the people who schedule the NHL and NBA seasons.
“Everybody is fighting for dates,” Allen says. “There’s more stuff out there all the time.”
But nothing could have prepared Allen for the rough ride he received from civic officials in 1992 when he wanted to book a free concert in Stanley Park for another local music sensation, Bryan Adams.
Allen says he and Adams had hoped to model the show on similar concerts in New York’s Central Park involving artists like Garth Brooks and Simon & Garfunkel. According to Allen, the CBC was prepared to broadcast the event. But in his words, the bureaucrats and police were “freaked” by the idea of tens of thousands of people descending on the jewel of Vancouver.
The cricket pitch at Brockton Oval, he says, was viewed as “sacrosanct”. The cost of traffic management was prohibitive. And he remembers the police department demanding an outlandish sum, citing fears of people stashing marijuana and other drugs in the forest in advance of the concert. (In 1992, Allen’s spokesperson told the Straight that the estimates had run well into six figures.)
“I’ll never forget when they said we’ve got to have [drug-sniffing] dogs…to go through the fucking woods,” Allen recalls. “The cops in those days were always against large gatherings. Now, they’ve figured out that they make a lot of overtime money from them.”
In the early 1990s, the annual Vancouver Folk Music Festival at Jericho Beach Park was the only major musical event held on park-board-controlled land. Stanley Park was off-limits.
How things have changed since then. Concerts are becoming a staple in civic parks across the region. Burnaby’s Deer Lake Park has led the charge with several shows in recent years. West Vancouver’s Ambleside Park has also been used as a concert venue in the past for Sarah McLachlan. On August 31, the municipality will launch a new annual series of concerts at that location with indie artists fun. and Tegan and Sara. This year, the City of Surrey hosted its first major musical act in a park: Mumford & Sons in Holland Park. During the Fair at the PNE’s annual run, concerts are held every night at Hastings Park, and are included in the cost of admission.
And this weekend, the City of Vancouver and the park board will host Celebrate! Stanley Park, a music and arts extravaganza offering entertainment in five festival zones in honour of the park’s 125th anniversary. The Arkells, Born Ruffians, You Say Party, the Matinée, and several other bands will put on free shows at Second Beach on Saturday and Sunday (August 24 and 25). Over at Lumberman’s Arch, there’ll be a series of performances for kids, including Bobs & LoLo and Will Stroet & the Backyard Band. Also scheduled are historical talks, nature tours, cultural dialogue and engagement with First Nations, and a Boca del Lupo theatre show.
The city has kicked in $200,000, the park board donated $50,000, and the federal government contributed $90,500.
Vision Vancouver park commissioner Constance Barnes tells the Straight by phone that when her party gained control of the board in 2008, she and her peers pondered how parks and green space could be utilized in different ways to promote music, arts, and cultural education. “Families couldn’t afford to take their children to a concert,” she says. “They wanted to be outside. They wanted to be active.”
Earlier this summer, the TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival hosted concerts on two consecutive days in David Lam Park. The Vancouver Urban Spaces Initiative has received approval to hold five musical events in CRAB Park and New Brighton Park. And last weekend, lululemon athletica put on the SeaWheeze Sunset Festival in Stanley Park, featuring a massive yoga class and a concert headlined by Xavier Rudd.
Barnes says she expects to see arts and music events in more parks in the future. She acknowledges that on occasion, commissioners hear concerns from residents who don’t like hearing loud noise, particularly at David Lam Park.
“But on the whole, the majority of people are thrilled to have that happening in their back yard because that is their only back yard,” she says. “That’s their green space.”
In addition, Barnes notes that opening up parks to artistic and cultural uses helps offset the loss of entertainment venues in other parts of the city. Over the past couple of years, the list of casualties has included the Ridge Theatre, Denman Cinemas, the Hollywood Theatre, the Empire Granville 7, the Pantages Theatre, and the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts.
“We’re losing some great old theatres—different establishments that have been around for a long time,” she says. “How do we replace [them] in a way that’s not a huge cost, and supportive to our artists in the same breath?”
In 2012, McLachlan headlined the Voices in the Park concert in Stanley Park, which benefited the music school she started. Former U.S. president Bill Clinton made an appearance, along with musicians Bryan Adams, Stevie Nicks, Jann Arden, Hedley, and several local acts.
The previous year, the city-sponsored Summer Live music and arts festival was held in Stanley Park to coincide with Vancouver’s 125th birthday. The event’s three days were headlined by Mother Mother, the New Pornographers, and Dan Mangan, and featured numerous other local bands.
It’s a far cry from the no-fun era of more than a decade ago, when the Non-Partisan Association controlled the council and park board. After Allen told the Straight in a 2001 interview that the city—and many of its leaders—had no personality, the then-mayor, Philip Owen, responded angrily that the police and residents didn’t want Vancouver to become some sort of circus town.
“We’re not a city that puts on parties,” Owen emphatically told the Straight at the time. “And we’re not going to put on parties for the region in the downtown centre of Vancouver because we’ve got a livable neighbourhood.”
In late 1999, Vancouver police spokesperson Anne Drennan famously warned residents to stay away from downtown if they planned to party in the streets on New Year’s Eve to celebrate the new millennium.
Things weren’t always that way. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, there were annual Easter Be-In concerts and arts events in Stanley Park—albeit not always sanctioned by the city—attracting crowds from across the region. According to a 1997 article by Dave Watson in the Straight, the first was organized by concert promoter Jerry Kruz in 1967 in response to then-mayor Tom Campbell’s ongoing attacks on the counterculture.
Kruz invited Country Joe and the Fish to be the headliner. Nobody obtained permission from the Vancouver park board, according to then-commissioner George Puil.
Barnes, who grew up in Port Moody, recalls the joy she experienced hitchhiking the Barnet Highway into downtown Vancouver to attend those Easter Be-In shows in Stanley Park.
“It was fabulous because you got all these different stages with wonderful music,” she says. “As a teenager, I couldn’t afford to go to the PNE or the Agrodome to see concerts.”
Barnes adds that these memories inspired her to push for more free arts and culture in Vancouver parks after she was elected to the board.
Meanwhile, Allen points out that the economics of the music industry help account for the rising popularity of outdoor music festivals. He says an artist like Katy Perry, for instance, will only net a dime for each song download, which means that even if she sells 10 million songs, she only receives $1 million.
“You could make that in one night in the right building,” he says.
But because there’s a shortage of venues across North America, Allen says that outdoor festivals are attracting higher-calibre talent. That’s because playing live has come to represent a greater portion of music stars’ income. Prior to the digital era, they could count on album sales to make them millionaires.
Allen rattles off a list of successful outdoor music festivals: Glastonbury in England, Lollapalooza in Chicago, Bonnaroo in Tennessee, Coachella in California, and the recent homegrown Squamish Valley Music Festival.
He claims that at least one major show a year could take place in Stanley Park, ideally overseen by an entertainment coordinator who understands the music industry. Allen points out that this is how the NFL programs its halftime shows at the Super Bowl.
“Without a doubt, you’ve got to go to one person [to organize such an event],” he says. “There should be a template for Stanley Park.”
Allen reveals that when people in his industry wanted to put on a concert to benefit Stanley Park after the 2006 windstorm, they encountered a bureaucratic maze.
“What you end up talking to is the guy who is in charge of the trees blown down—who has no idea what the fuck we’re doing and can’t speak to us on a level so he knew what we were saying,” Allen says derisively. “He just looks at it as annoying because ‘I’ve got to change the park around.’ ”
Since then, the Vancouver park board has hired a new general manager, Malcolm Bromley. And Barnes claims that this has resulted in a “hell of a change” in attitude at the top compared with that of his predecessor, Susan Mundick.
“I don’t have a problem saying it because it’s true,” Barnes declares. “It’s true. I will not mince words.…He’s out there meeting people, and he’s very supportive of change. He’s like, ‘You give me direction and we’ll make it happen.’ He rocks.”
With that, citizens can safely bet that this weekend won’t be the last time they’ll witness a free concert in Stanley Park as long as Vision Vancouver and Bromley are in charge.