Friday night. Powell Street.
Head half a block west and you’re in Gastown. It’s a slightly more mature, less manic incarnation of the city-sanctioned Granville Entertainment District (GED) a few blocks away.
The same distance east is the apex of the Downtown Eastside—its own Dickensian revelry now in full swing.
The landscape changes on the short walk through Gastown to Granville. Dark cobblestone gives way to rubble of Canada Line construction. At present, Granville Mall is a stunted neon caterpillar scheduled to emerge a modern public pavilion—just in time for the Olympics.
DJ beats and top 40 hits permeate the air, a base layer for the cacophony of high-heels, car horns, street fights and the eccentric yells of panhandlers.
Lineups are long and rowdy, comprised of tipsy young women and hair-gelled young men, collared shirts unbuttoned just so. Men in black lord over the queues and roaming cops try to keep a lid on it all.
Vancouver’s is a standard club district. But what’s unique about it, according to some, is that this is all the city offers when it comes to youth-oriented entertainment. That’s a problem for a large swath of young Vancouverites who consider few things more repellent than Granville Street on a Friday night.
“The thing with Granville is: who really wants to go to Granville? I feel like Vancouver has a certain idea of fun for a certain type of person. And if you’re outside of that realm, they don’t get it.”
That’s Kate Kroll. Dark-haired, tattooed and pierced, Kroll considers herself distinctly outside the Granville realm. A good night for her includes live music, cheap drinks and no line.
A typical transplant, Kroll moved to Vancouver a couple years back for school. Searching for a social scene, she was surprised to discover the city seemed to have fewer live music prospects and stricter bar regulations than her hometown of Edson, Alberta. Population: 8,365.
Melissa James, also inked and raven-haired, had much the same experience. “When I moved here from Montreal I thought it was weird there were no music venues,” she said over coffee in a Hornby Street café. “When I found the music venues, they were all illegitimate. They didn’t have licensing and it started from there.”
“It” is No Fun City, the documentary James is making with Kroll about Vancouver’s live music scene, or lack thereof.
To be clear, there are live music venues in this city. Lingering gems such as the Commodore Ballroom, Richard’s on Richards, the Media Club and the Railway Club religiously cater to the live crowd. That’s four venues compared to dozens geared to the more popular DJ culture on the Granville strip. And there’s a reason for that: what’s more popular is more profitable.
Jeff Donnelly is a veritable entertainment-industry whiz kid. He knows how to give people what they want. Donnelly got his start at the age of 23 as part owner of a Victoria strip club and little more than a decade later he owns 11 Vancouver venues. Name pretty much any club downtown and there’s a good chance it’s Donnelly’s. Bar None, Republic and Pop Opera are just some of his dance party pads. Sports-fan friendly Library Square, and the recently acquired Lamplighter are a sampling of his successful pub empire. Donnelly is also a restaurateur with his original Vancouver venue, Kitsilano’s Bimini’s (currently under renovation).
Given his roster of properties, it’s easy to understand why Donnelly doesn’t buy into the idea that Vancouver is shortchanged when it comes to entertainment.
“There’s an idea that Vancouver has that kind of culture and Granville Street, to be honest, is really quite top 40. But I don’t believe that. There are some clubs that are the exact opposite and if you want to find it, you can find it,” he told Discorder in a phone interview.
“People have this idea that other cities have these crazy club scenes and these awesome live venues and these amazing DJ selections and it’s just not true. We keep up with pretty much what everybody else is doing. At some points in time we’re a little more cutting edge than them. In the DJ scene, we are so close to L.A.”
While Donnelly concedes there’s a certain similarity between venues in the GED, he’s of the opinion that that’s a good thing.
“I think every city needs an entertainment area. I think that people take tourism for granted in Vancouver. You know it’s our only industry these days—it’s our only industry in B.C. pretty much. I think when people from out of town come here, whether or not they know the latest hot spot or the little pocket of areas they can go to and hang out, they know they can go up to Granville Street and there’s 20 venues. They’re going to be able to find something they like.”
With 11 venues, there’s a good chance people are going to find something they like in one of Donnelly’s clubs. The places are routinely packed, and each one offers an atmosphere designed to appeal to a large cross-section of people. You don’t have to be in the know to find his clubs and you don’t have to be a music junkie to recognize the big-name acts he brings to the city: Mix Master Mike, Grand Master Flash and DJ AM, to name a few. He makes it easy for you to be part of the scene.
While a downtown full of Donnelly-style venues might be good for business, this apparent homogenization isn’t great for culture. Or so says planning expert and musician, Mark Pickersgill.
“As busy and successful as it is, it really is devoid of any kind of personal character,” he said of the GED. “I know that’s a really subjective thing to say, but you’re not going to see a lot of independent artists or creative people be able to enter into that, partly because they can’t afford the rent but also because that’s just not the culture of the place.”
The culture of the GED is largely described as one of drinking, flirting, fighting and a regular haunt for gangs. The disruption it causes has City Hall reluctant to hand out more liquor licenses. It’s a legitimate concern, but Pickersgill, who wrote his master’s thesis on Vancouver’s music venues, points out that alcohol sales are the primary money maker for any kind of venue in any neighbourhood. Vancouver’s iron-fisted stance on liquor licensing, he said, is one of the major factors hamstringing attempts to get a more eclectic cultural scene going outside the GED.
Liquor primary licenses (which are granted to venues that deal primarily in liquor sales—as opposed restaurants whose primary sales should be food) are a huge barrier to independent venue owners “because you can’t get one. And the liquor license will cost about $100,000, too,” Pickersgill said. That’s an amount of cash most would-be independent venue owners just don’t have.
Then there are also zoning restrictions in mixed-use areas that mean venues there have to close earlier than those downtown. And then there’s noise. “There’s primacy given to residential interests because that’s what makes developers the most money,” Pickersgill said. Adding that, when it comes to live music venues, the B.C. Residential Tenancy Act offers the first stumbling block with its “right to quiet enjoyment” clause.
As a result, the alternative cultural scene—the live scene—is largely confined to a steadily growing crop of illegal, underground venues that regularly change name and location to stay under the radar. It was at one of these venues, the now defunct Emergency Room, that documentary makers James and Kroll met and hatched their plan. They were sick of their favourite places getting shut down.
Vancouver’s underground has been doing a pretty good job of nurturing a culture of creativity, but it’s rife with potential problems.
“It’s kind of sad and scary when the only place you can go and see a band is underground in some dilapidated warehouse,” Pickersgill said. “If there was ever a fire or something like that, people would die.”
It’s a genuine concern. Remember that intersection at the top of this story? It was home to at least one illegitimate venue that Friday night—the site of a Music Waste show, the city’s festival of indie music.
You’d never find the place without the address, save for the handful of college-aged hipsters loitering outside (a marked contrast to the lineup for the boutique lounge across the street). Upon entering, the high ceilings and tread-worn floors give the vibe of someone’s apartment. It is.
Beer bought from a table nestled in the kitchenette, the audience settled on the floor for a love-in-style concert. It was cozy, and at first nice, but toward the end of a short vocal set, people were sweating in the stifling summer heat and fidgeting on the hard floor. The narrow staircase was clogged with bodies. Surely this crowd deserves, at the very least, a venue with some AC and a viable fire exit.
The problem is that the cover charge was $5 and drinks about the same; that’s what these students, artists and activists can afford or are willing to pay. And that doesn’t support a legitimate business. Just ask Zak Pashak, owner of the Biltmore Cabaret, a stone’s throw off Main and 12th.
“It’s pretty hard to run a bar and make money in Vancouver,” he said via phone from Calgary, where he was organizing the Sled Island music festival.
“I think the people are used to spending not a ton of money on a drink … And I think that the cost of goods is incredibly high and the taxes are incredibly high. Every month that the Biltmore’s been open, it’s lost tens of thousands of dollars. Some months even more … Being a live music venue is incredibly hard too, just because it’s really expensive to put on a show. It’s really hard to advertise every single show that goes on, pay for techs, pay for ticket printing, and the service charge, and pay for band riders, and drink tabs and everything that goes into it.”
That’s exactly why club king Donnelly hasn’t added a live music venue to his empire.
Donnelly dabbles in live music, but he sticks to cover bands or he puts together his own acts. His most recent project is a synthpop group called One Night Standard, whose lead singer found marginal fame with the Canadian boy band soulDecision (think back to around 2000 and the song “Ooh It’s Kinda Crazy”). But when it comes to nurturing local bands and original music, Donnelly said it just doesn’t pay.
“I’m not talking about doing new live acts that nobody’s seen and exposing them to Vancouver,” Donnelly said. “I’d love to do that and I think it would be a really cool thing to do but it’s really expensive to do and you need sort of bigger rooms.”
The bigger rooms are coming, though. At Main and Hastings a vertical streak of Chinese characters is the only signage above the old Shaw theatre. This is now the Rickshaw, a 700-seat venue and a project of Dave Duprey (a.k.a. Malice). It hasn’t even had its official opening yet, and already the venue has hosted three events, one planned and two it took over when the original venues couldn’t open due to noise complaints or other regulatory infractions. So far, the interest has been huge and the crowds sizeable—and this for a place that’s not even licensed to sell beer. Yet.
The Downtown Eastside seems to be the site of an organically evolving local music scene—but city legislation is still an issue. According to NPA city councillor Suzanne Anton, the city is open to having more than one entertainment zone. “We are looking for more places for people to have live entertainment,” she said. “The cultural industries and the creative industries in the city are really important. We’ve been focusing on that for years.”
But the Downtown Eastside might not be it. Anton revealed that coming by a liquor primary license in that area is even tougher than in the rest of the city.
“I think at Main and Hastings, there’s the issue of it being the Downtown Eastside,” she said. “Liquor was a big problem down there for many years, council has—I think it was quite a few years ago—put much more restrictive policies in that neighbourhood.” As it stands, liquor stores aren’t even allowed to open there, Anton said.
She did, however, offer a ray of hope in the area’s encroaching condo developments. “There are more people moving into that neighbourhood. People who have ordinary incomes, ordinary lives and they will like to go out at night and do things. So the city may soon be approached by people who live in that area and say it’s time to end the moratorium.”
The future of the burgeoning music scene, it seems, now lies in the hands of the middle class, whose expected arrival will shape a neighbourhood on the verge of reinvention.