Critique and Commentary in the Time of Property Speculation

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Illustrations by Jenna Milsom

Over the past few years we’ve seen a number of niche Canadian music magazines fold; most recently Calgary’s Fast Forward Weekly. These magazines are not unlike Discorder.

It’s not a revelation that the arts underground is at risk of catching fire — we all know it’s been burning for a while. Essential to the shared imagination of undergrounds is a constant sense of peril. If it’s not real estate, it’s lack of arts funding. If it’s not lack of funding, it’s that scary monolith called the Internet. Ironically, there appears to be no other means of understanding an “underground.” We’re always one summer away from the last venue shutting down.

As Discorder writers, we decided not to throw our hands up, but instead to poke at some of the assumptions which make evident Discorder’s role in this crisis — and not just because we’re both unqualified to review the latest indie rock release. We may lack a rousing call to action, but we can offer a meek defense of what Discorder does do right, given the contradictions and challenges that face Discorder’s writers and local music-goers.

Criticism within any local niche is caught between being critical, and supporting the community. Given the latter, what can criticism — often, by necessity or mandate, written by amateurs — contribute? “2014: What is ‘Critical’ About Contemporary Music Criticism,” an excellent article by James Parker and Nicholas Croggon, argues that a thorough critical purview, grounded in expertise, is what useful criticism requires. This is especially the case when criticism can perpetuate consumption by acting as a consumer guide and eliding the political and economic concerns which threaten alternative spaces, thereby creating “No Fun City.” As Parker and Croggon say, this is what a criticism based around “purely sentimental response,” ends up doing.

That said, the criticism Parker and Croggon argue for instead demands rigor. “Only a few of us can find — and even fewer of us can afford — the time required for this kind of critical work,” they write.  And unlike the sleek mags we hope to be published in one day, Discorder cannot afford to pay its writers. This means that many who do write for Discorder are the passionate, who choose to write about shows they want to see, albums they want to hear, and bands they want to interview. If there’s an ideal of critical purity at stake here, Discorder is far past that point.

To some extent, Discorder is defined by its amateur, “on-the-ground” perspective. It is a collection of commentaries that doesn’t exist to make year-end lists or generate ranking criteria for a taxonomy of modern music. As much as it’s due to the limitations we’ve just discussed, we nonetheless find great value in Discorder’s role, documenting Vancouver’s arts scene and sharing music on a local scale.

But beyond our mandate to train amateur writers, it’s worth asking; why can’t we afford to pay for critics? Why do Discorder and other local culture magazines lack funding? A variety of reasons: inaccessibility of grants, lack of advertising, the high cost of living in the city, etc. Again we arrive at the political and economic conditions which create “No Fun City.”

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And there’s no denying that there is a crisis. To quote local gallery operator Andrew Volk from a recent article by Alex de Boer, “It’s just going to get harder for people at the bottom. If you’re not an established gallery, then fucking get established. If you have no money, it’s best to get some.”

Volk’s by-the-bootstraps appeal is a reaction to a city where every success of the underground is interlocked with a squeeze on the underground. It’s fantastic that bands like Nu Sensae and Cool TV played the Khatsahlano Block Party, and it’s great to support local events, but it’s also worth examining what institutions like Khatsahlano Block Party represent. By supporting these events uncritically, we ignore their role in gentrification and other factors which make “No Fun City” no fun in the first place.

It’s not to say that appreciation of the scene creates gentrification itself — underground bands getting coverage is good! But when we just cheerlead every explosion in music culture, we ignore the ways that arts appreciation is tied to increasing housing costs. After all, Kitsilano (where Khatsahlano Block Party is held) is Vancouver’s premiere counterculture enclave-turned gentrified neighborhood; where property value is propped up on top of creative production. Khatsahlano is precisely the kind of event that is (by no means intentionally) a part of Vancouver’s continuing marketization and real estate inflation.

A fervor for more music, more festivals, and more culture is the sentimental response, or soft critique, that Parker and Croggon write about — and Discorder writers have to move beyond it. We’re faced with the contradiction though, that an on-the-ground critique is precisely what Discorder does well, and what its writers want to be doing.

A particularly explosive example: last Summer we faced a lot of negative feedback when our magazine was perceived as attacking an underground Canadian artist (which, in light of our perpetual crisis, was understood as kicking a dog when it was down). To remain an institution and as a consequence of political-economic conditions (remember, our writers), there’s a general sense that Discorder must fill that role as cheerleader.

But it should not fulfill this role without a constant awareness of the circumstances under which artists make art within in Vancouver. Things are complicated for us kids. A hardline stance is difficult. We’re always trying to hold these contradictions together; to cover the scene and be good to the community, without losing the critical impetus and oversight that allows us to talk about these crisis issues.

That said and all things considered, we’d like to end on another high-falluting quote, this time from Vancouver Noise Fest’s Facebook page: “This isn’t about being mellow and connected and spiritual, this is about harshing everyone’s fucking mellow!”