Vancouver music fans can get ready to say goodbye to the Media Club as they’ve know it for the better part of this century. But what the room—which is owned by the city of Vancouver—will become in its next incarnation depends entirely on who you’re talking to.
Current owner Dave Mawhinney, who took over the Media Club four years ago, suggests that the city is about to lose yet another venue known for supporting original live music.
“The City of Vancouver is in a unique position, as my landlord, to show support for live music, and to continue what we’ve been doing there,” Mawhinney told the Straight by phone.
Once a members-only club frequented by those who worked at the nearby CBC, the Media Club began booking live music in the middle part of the '00s. It became one of Vancouver’s premier smaller rooms for both local acts and up-and-coming out-of-towners. Artists who have played the Media Club include everyone from Alabama Shakes and Angel Olsen to homegrown heroes like Bocephus King and Japandroids.
The city has been offering Mawhinney a year-to-year lease on the room, which is part of the Queen Elizabeth Theatre complex. He says city staff sent him a letter last summer saying they were looking to reopen a vacant space upstairs from the Media Club, and that the Media Club would be part of the venture. As a result the city did not extend the offer to renew the lease for the room.
The letter reads in part: "There is considerable effort under way to ensure the Queen Elizabeth Theatre Plaza is activated, and a relevant destination to the neighbourhood that has grown up around it. In order to do this, our Civic Theatres group's strong preference is to increase the hours the restaurant and media club spaces are open to engage the public."
The letter adds: "We are hopeful that there is some arrangement that can be made to allow you to continue to provide programming for a renewed venue without having the day to day responsibilities of maintaining that same venue. Brown's has indicated that they are very open to such discussion with you."
The Browns Restaurant Group has submitted plans to take over a part of the Queen E. that’s currently sitting unused. The Media Club space would become part of the Browns Socialhouse restaurant/pub the chain hopes to have approved.
Mawhinney says that will mean an end to the kind of original live music the Media Club has become known for. The City of Vancouver’s director of civic theatres, Sandra Gajic, suggests that won’t be the case, stating that council approved a lease stipulating live music as part of the business plan.
“It was based on the commitment that it will remain a music venue,” Gajic told the Straight in a phone interview. “It will be much better than it currently is. The current operator has let it go into such dismal conditions.”
She said the city is looking forward to seeing a variety of acts in the space, including “indie bands and local musicians”.
That programming, of course, sounds a lot like what Mawhinney is doing in the Media Club at the moment. He notes that, because he’s been renting from the city rather than a private owner, his costs have been low enough that’s he’s able to take a hit on shows that are nowhere near packed.
“I like the fact that local bands can do a show,” said Mawhinney, a veteran of the Vancouver music scene who has played in acts like the Pasties and Tankhog. “We’re in a financial position that we can take shows where a band only gets 40 of their friends out and doesn’t really sell anything at the bar.”
Media Club bills often showcase metal and alternative acts that have found themselves increasingly marginalized as rooms like Funky Winker Beans and the former Electric Owl have moved away from live music.
“There is this perception in this deal that Browns is going to continue doing this," Mawhinney said. "But I just don’t see how.”
Gajic again suggests that things won’t change, even though Browns Socialhouses, which are often franchised out, have no real history of programming the kind of live original music found at the Media Club.
“I think kudos for them [Browns] for getting into this,” she said. “We are connecting them with promoters—the local ones—and looking into partnerships ourselves. We were very clear from day one: indie bands and local. I think we are in a very good spot and it’s going to be exciting for the city.”
With the closing of the current chapter of the Media Club, and rents turning other rooms away from live music where profits are often slim or nonexistent, Mawhinney says he hopes the city will begin thinking about establishing new and alternative venues.
“We own the liquor license there,” he said of the Media Club's 695 Cambie Street location, “so we’ve reached out to councillors and asked, ‘Look, worse-case scenario, can you help us move it somewhere else so we can still have a small live-music venue somewhere else in the city?’ It’s nice to be downtown, it’s nice to be by a SkyTrain station, but if we have to go to a different neighbourhood, whatever.
"They asked us to talk to Browns and see if we could maybe try and strike a deal with them," Mawhinney continued. "But the gist I got from them is that maybe we could help them find a house jazz band. Their idea of live bands is basically a cover band playing cover songs that people can dance to before and after hockey games.”
In an email to the Straight, Browns’ executive vice president of business development, Bruce Fox, wrote the following: “At this stage it’s in the hands of the city... we are standing by for their approval. All I can tell you for now is that we have some exciting and interesting improvements in mind. I have personally been a patron there for many many years. It won’t be as it was. But then again, almost everything changes over time. We are looking forward to the opportunity it presents.”