One of the current popular narratives in Vancouver is that the city is becoming increasingly inhospitable to those interested in making art for a living. Blame a real-estate market that's pushed a shrinking pool of rental properties sky-high over the past half-decade. As for owning, forget it if you don’t have an old-money trust fund.
From Tough Age to Mac DeMarco to Bob Moses, there’s an endless laundry list of acts who’ve fled the West Coast for cities where rents and rehearsal spaces are semi-affordable. In an interview with the Straight last week, Vancouver Island-bred singer-guitarist Dan Boeckner (Wolf Parade, Operators, Divine Fits, Handsome Furs) argued that there is no way he’d be able to have a music career in Vancouver.
“Of course I’d love to live on the West Coast,” said Boeckner, who moved east to Montreal in the early 2000s. “And I could, theoretically, if I wanted to. But what it would mean is that I save two-thirds less money that I’m able to save living in Montreal.”
In Vancouver, meanwhile, rehearsal spaces like the long-running Sanctuary in East Van continue to close. As industrial lands are taken over by tech offices, craft breweries, and gourmet-ice-cream factories, lease rates on remaining spaces are driven up. That often puts things out of the reach of artists working two jobs just to make rent.
All of this leaves us wondering what’s going to become of the Vancouver independent music scene moving forward. The sense that things seem—whether by truth or perception—bleaker than they’ve ever been is sparked by this year’s list of acts headed to Austin, Texas’s fabled South by Southwest festival.
Last week, North America’s biggest celebration of underground music announced the full lineup of its 2018 blowout, which will take place from March 9 to 18 in Austin. Headed to the Lone Star State are nearly 600 acts from around the globe.
Representing Vancouver is a grand total of three bands: Dear Rouge, Said the Whale, and Wire Spine. (Blessed from Abbotsford—a community that famously has zero interest in being associated with the heathenlike hell that is Lotusland—is also headed to the indie-music orgy).
Meanwhile, Toronto has 11 acts playing SXSW, and 11 Montreal acts are loading up the tour van and heading to Austin.
It might be also be noted that both Dear Rouge and Said the Whale are long-established favourites in Vancouver—veterans who have logged numerous tours stateside.
Montreal acts playing SXSW, meanwhile, are heavily weighted with up-and-comers such as Common Holly, Heartstreets, Look Vibrant, and Wake Island. Toronto’s shortlist includes new talent like Casper Skulls, FRIGS, and Pkew Pkew Pkew.
For those curious about the lengths artists not based in Vancouver will go to play South by Southwest, consider that bands will make the pilgrimage from such far-flung locales as Indonesia (Stars and Rabbit), Norway (Ask Carol), Vietnam (New Fame), Brazil (Tagore), Poland (Trupa Trupa), South Korea (XXX), and Austria (Prinz Grizzley and his Beargaroos).
Of course, it's entirely possible that the sky-high price of living in Vancouver has zero to do with the fact that Tokyo has just as many bands headed to South by Southwest as we do. Perhaps everyone is sitting around so hopelessly blazed that putting down the Pringles and getting off the couch seemed like more effort than it was worth.
Or maybe living on the Left Coast means we're genetically programmed to steer well clear of Donald Trump's scarily right-wing America.
Or, actually, who are we kidding? Rather than waxing philosophical here about real estate and how it affects our artists, let's let a professional put things in perspective.
Wolf Parade's Boeckner notes that he splits a Montreal studio space with singer Basia Bulat, Tim Kingsbury of Arcade Fire, and Devojka of Operators. Good luck finding a comparable deal in Vancouver, which might explain why the Canadian contigent at SXSW will be heavily weighted to acts east of Boundary Road.
“It’s four different rooms with a tape machine, synth room, guest bedroom, and full kitchen,” Boeckner said. “We pay $300 each. That’s just inconceivable out here. We don’t share it with other bands—it’s a lockout. Having resources like that is the engine that allows me to keep making records, keep on making money, and keep going on tour, and keep being self-employed. That just wouldn’t be an option if I lived in Vancouver.”