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For Jeff Cancade, the experimental electronic musician behind Devours and The Golden Age of Wrestling, and owner of label Surviving the Game, the best thing about being an artist in Vancouver is simple: the people.
Community is—according to the many artists, labels, and venue representatives the Straight interviewed for this article—the beating heart of Vancouver’s music scene. Emerging from the thick of the pandemic, that sense of community drives what feels like an invigorating time for local music. But a scene is an ecosystem and, like any ecosystem, it needs more than one strong element to be healthy.
“Adversity has always been a catalyst for creativity, so as tough as the past few years have been, I’m really excited to see all the music and ideas that come out of it,” says Savannah Wellman, co-founder of label and artist management company Tiny Kingdom Music, head of the Women in Music British Columbia chapter, and alt-rock musician behind SAVVIE. “There’s definitely a renewed focus on supporting local, and appreciating live events that we all need to carry forward.”
Small venues make the scene go ‘round
Some of the most consistent supporters of local music are small venues like the Lido, Red Gate, and Fox Cabaret, many of which host showcases to amplify Vancouver artists. “There’s a great feeling of community in those spaces, with local bands playing together purely for the love of music, lots of regular faces both on and off stage, and mutual aid events raising money for people in need,” says Jesse Locke, music journalist, drummer for Tough Age and CHANDRA, and co-founder of the label We Are Time.
The return of the much-loved Cobalt, which shuttered in 2018, has been another win. It was known for hosting both local and internationally touring artists, as well as being a hub for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities—all of which Zach Herbert, head of the venue’s bookings and calendar, says the space continues to prioritize.
Increased cultural and genre representation, but to a point
There has been a noticeable increase in cultural and stylistic diversity on talent lineups. Shanique Kelly, a DJ and event organizer also known as Softieshan—and who produces Level Up, the city’s only monthly queer rap and hip-hop dance party—observes that, “at least within certain areas of the city, people are working a bit harder to look outside of their immediate circles to hire and include artists from diverse backgrounds. I think that people are tired of lineups where everyone looks the same and sounds the same.”
Cancade says they’ve also seen an openness to different genres. “Vancouver's music community is a lot larger than most people realize. There are a lot of sub-scenes here, with sometimes very little overlap.” Quanah Style, a trans Two-Spirit artist and musician hailing from the Cree Nation, agrees, adding that the local pockets can be “segregated into musical or party scenes.”
Lineups that mix genres seem to help bridge these gaps. At a recent Fox gig, Locke’s postpunk outfit CHANDRA shared the bill with psychedelic cumbia band Empanadas Ilegales—one of Locke’s favourite local acts, which, he says, has “developed a really big following and have the ability to win over any kind of crowd with their amazing live performances.” Locke will release an album for Empanadas Ilegales later this year on We Are Time.
Early Onset Records (EOR), the punk label home to bands like BRASS and Anchoress, notes there’s also been a growing number of all-ages accessible shows.
This is all crucial—and, as Wellman says, “the industry can do even more to continue highlighting the broad and diverse range of artists and genres that exist here by offering support and opportunities to the ones that are underrepresented in the mainstream.”
The scene is suffering from long COVID
But the effects of the pandemic continue to ricochet. Musician Jody Glenham highlights how many artists are still recovering financially and emotionally. “Personally, I don't have the same energy levels I did pre-2020 and I'm learning to adjust my expectations on what I can take on,” she says. This extends to the audience, too. Adds Kelly, “Many folks are feeling financial strain and can't afford to go out to shows like they used to before the pandemic, which in turn impacts artists who rely on people attending their shows to make an income.”
Mo Tarmohamed, owner of the Rickshaw Theatre, credits emergency funding from both the federal and provincial government for live venues like his to be able to weather the storm for the months they sat dormant. When things opened up again, the calendar filled up almost instantaneously. But, Tarmohamed counters, “with the rising cost of living and a normalized concert year coming up, there might be some strong headwinds ahead to keep an eye out for.”
Affordability is (still) a major issue
Just as almost everyone the Straight spoke with lauded the importance of community, they agreed that the top issue facing local music is affordability. It’s not surprising: Vancouver is one of the most expensive cities in North America, and it has long lacked sufficient investment in the arts.
“Being an artist in any town comes with its struggles, but in Vancouver it is as tough as it gets,” says EOR. “Extremely high living costs, limited performance and rehearsal spaces, and the cost of producing everything from T-shirts to pressing vinyl has gone up.”
“Operation costs are high,” Glenham adds. “I help book a DIY space and it's hard keeping costs down for bands when you're paying rent, a sound person, a door person and general upkeep.” This also makes it difficult to pay artists fairly without charging higher ticket prices, which, in turn, can make events inaccessible to audience members. “Of course we’re not in the age of $5 Fugazi shows anymore, and ticket prices have to go up for people to make any money, but I always love when venues offer the option of NOTAFLOF (no one turned away for lack of funds),” says Locke.
Tarmohamed underscores how insurance rates are foremost on the minds of live venue operators. “We have experienced a 20-fold increase in liability insurance premiums alone in the past five years,” he says. “Ironically, while the pandemic may not have killed off music venues, the cost of insurance may just do that.”
Vancouver needs more cultural infrastructure
Other issues artists grapple with include the geography of Vancouver itself. “We are very isolated,” says Cancade. “It costs an arm and a leg to get a visa for the U.S., it's expensive taking a car to Vancouver Island, and Calgary is 10 hours away, so touring is brutal here. It's for that reason, plus cost of living, that local artists need extra support from Canadian grant organizations and media outlets, but Vancouver is often overlooked.”
In comparison to cities like Montreal and Toronto (the epicentre of the country’s music industry), Vancouver lacks industry infrastructure. “I think it can feel like we have to work twice as hard to get noticed on a national scale as artists and companies who are based in those cities,” says Wellman. “It is so hard for an artist to stand out these days, and having someone champion them can make such a difference.”
But, overwhelmingly, Vancouver could really use more varied, affordable, and accessible spaces for events. They quite literally provide a stage for musicians to hone their skills as they progress from being emerging talent to becoming more accomplished, Tarmohamed says, and, “as such, venues of different sizes play a critical role in the live music ecosystem.” Venues also facilitate many of the economic benefits associated with live music. Not only do they provide income for musicians, they offer job opportunities to techs, venue staff, security staff, promoters, agents, audio and video suppliers, and more.
Local music needs more investment, period. Tarmohamed suggests the City of Vancouver create an arts and cultural property tax base that is appreciably lower than the rates applied to most commercial businesses, much like what was implemented in Toronto. Plus, more funding from all levels of government to support shows by hometown performers. “Vancouver is blessed with great musical talent, but unfortunately, they find it difficult to headline their own event or support a high profile artist in major commercial venues, because often those shows are deemed unprofitable,” he notes.
Licensing should be updated, too, in order to cater to younger audiences. “It’s archaic,” says Herbert. “We need to provide more easily accessible options for youth to not only perform, but to attend live-entertainment events. All-age events are few and far between, and an update to allow admission for under 19 with supervision from a parent or guardian would go a long way.”
And then there’s the obvious: being paid fairly. “A push towards livable wages, especially if somehow there could be grant-funded initiatives towards this, would be a game changer,” adds Glenham.
Initiatives to know about
All this said, there are many artist-focused initiatives and organizations in Vancouver that do amplify local talent. There’s funding from Creative BC and First Peoples’ Cultural Council. Festivals like Shindig (put on by UBC’s CiTR) and Music Waste. Not-for-profit Helm Studios makes music production and engineering accessible to creatives in marginalized communities. EOR itself—legally known as “Early Onset Records Artist Preservation Society”—operates as a not-for-profit run by a team of volunteers and uses memberships to support its roster in releasing and promoting new music.
Vancouver’s local music scene is so exciting already. Imagine what it could be like if it got the support it deserves.
Style puts it perfectly: “[Artists need] funding, resources, and people just giving a shit. Independent artists put everything they have into creating and sometimes it just takes someone caring and genuinely listening. It isn’t easy to do what we do in an over-saturated industry, especially in Canada competing with American pop culture. If you like an artist, tell them, share their work, buy merch. Support them.”