New Vancouver policy brings EDM out of the underground

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      There are many things you don’t want to hear when dancing at 4 a.m. in a sweaty warehouse: “I hope the DJ plays Calvin Harris!” “Can I get on your shoulders?” “Watch me wring out my shirt!” But these words are still the worst: “Shut it down.”

      Thanks to city council, Vancouverites will, hopefully, never hear them again. Two years ago the city launched a pilot program for artistic events, offering licences for late-night activities in industrial spaces. Approvals ranged from the run-of-the-mill to the downright bizarre. (We’re talking full-scale clown showcases.) But the greatest beneficiaries were Vancouver’s underground dance nights. Recognizing electronic events as artistic ventures, city hall licensed three EDM shows per month per venue.

      Council has now voted the licence into law.

      The decision comes as a great victory for promoter Matt Troy. As executive director of the Vancouver Art & Leisure Society, Troy is a leading light for the policy. “Vancouver Art & Leisure started when a group of young people tried to create new experiences in unconventional locations,” he explains from his Vancouver home. “We couldn’t really understand why, say, a poetry reading at a bookstore was any different to dancing in industrial spaces.”

      Surprisingly, city council agreed. And its decision will impact Vancouver’s EDM scene.

      Coun. Heather Deal is clear about the program’s objectives. “We wanted to make it accessible and affordable for organizations,” she says on the phone from her City Hall office. “Parties are fine as long as they’re well managed. And the licence opens up thousands of new locations as potential event spaces in the city.” Embracing her staff’s recommendation to make the pilot program permanent, Deal wholeheartedly backs council’s new decision. “I just think it’s a fabulous thing.”

      Before the permit, police sirens were more common than the bass drop. Expecting authorities to pull the plug, EDM fans kept one eye on the dance floor and the other on the exits. Troy recalls a particularly memorable evening: “I did one event above a fish market. There were seven DJs and seven visual artists: each DJ had a different artist’s work projected behind them. The police came. Their megaphones were out, and they were shouting that everybody had to clear the building.

      “They read the Riot Act,” he adds, disbelieving. “We weren’t rioting. We were dancing.”

      The new permit policy has already begun to pull EDM events out of the underground. Participants are no longer made to feel like they are breaking the law by attending alternative venues. And promoters can maintain creative freedom without worrying about those sirens. The licence has made Vancouver’s raves safer, cheaper, and more frequent. And did we mention legal?

      But while alternative promoters agree the program is a leap in the right direction, there’s still work to be done.

      Representing underground collective the Emergence Project at last month’s hearing, organizer Nicholas Prouten is realistic about the scheme. On the line from his Vancouver workplace, Prouten describes how some events still sidestep official approval.

      “I think the permits encourage promoters to operate legally,” he suggests, “but you’re always going to have some people who choose to go the other route. Over the summer there were a couple of events that took place without a licence­—a congregation near Stanley Park, and one on Commercial Drive.”

      For Prouten, the root of promoters operating illegally is the number of prescribed events. “In all honesty, I don’t think there should be a limit at all on alternative venues. Why are we only allowed to gather three times a month? It seems ludicrous. We are all grown adults with lives and jobs and property and cars—why shouldn’t we be allowed to do these things? I feel in many ways the city is like a very stern parent, holding our hands, telling us ‘This is your bedtime!’ ”

      But Prouten is quick to point out how the EDM community has welcomed the licence. Despite council’s flat refusal to sanction more than three shows each month, underground organizers are delighted with its decision to make the pilot program permanent.

      “By virtue of making these licences available, the city is demonstrating that they want to foster safe and legal events,” Prouten says. “They’ve made a move, so promoters want to meet them in the middle. Setting the scheme in stone is groundbreaking for electronic music, and it’s something we want to support.”

      Coun. Deal agrees. “Will the licence stop underground raves? I don’t know. But the people who approached us to ask for this scheme were those who throw rave-type events and were being shut down by the city. So we thought, well, how can we do this? How do we make raves safe enough to take place? And the result is this program. Promoters still have to play by the rules, but their events can’t be broken up just because there is no framework for them to exist.

      “We will continue to monitor events and ensure that they are compliant with the basic health and safety regulations that we have in place,” Deal continues. “That is a minimum requirement of this program. So if we hear of any issues, we will go in to observe.”

      While the underground and the mainstream may not see eye to eye on the fine print, there’s one thing that everybody agrees upon. The new law is transforming Vancouver’s ever-evolving EDM scene­—and that’s something Troy, Prouten, and Deal all encourage. Promoting a new culture of transparency and safety, the licences are here to stay.

      “It was my motion that put this program in place,” Deal says proudly. “And I believe in it.”