Vancouver’s music venue crisis

The Railway Club is just the latest venue to draw the curtain. What's happening, and how can we fix it?

June 15, 2016

By Jimmy Thomson / Photo: Steven Luscher

Hannah Epperson is the kind of musician that Vancouverites should want to have in their city. The solo artist has toured Europe, received $75,000 from the Peak Performance Project musician competition in 2013, and continues to build an impressive career. But here’s the problem: she lives in New York now. That’s because the ongoing loss of venues and rehearsal spaces in this city, and the wealth of them in that one, made it impossible for her to ignore the contrast. “[New York] is more inspiring than any other creative environment I have ever been in,” she says. “Vancouver felt like a bubble.”

And it’s a bubble that may still be shrinking. When the Railway Club, an 85-year-old mainstay of the music scene that helped launch the careers of k.d. lang and Spirit of the West, closed in March, it was just the latest in a long list of venues to draw the curtain for good. The Electric Owl closed in 2015 following the near-closure of the legendary Waldorf Hotel (which was saved last minute by a granting of heritage status). Like many of the people behind now-shuttered venues, Railway Club owner Steve Silman cited high rents and declining attendance as reasons behind his decision. The good news is that new federal and provincial money are on their way and may help musicians stay afloat. But the bad news, Epperson says, is that what’s really needed in Vancouver are more venues like the Railway Club.

A 2016 Music Canada report didn’t shy away from declaring it a problem: “No one can predict how long B.C.’s pipeline of young talent will persist when it is so hard for them to earn a living.” The study recommended steps the Province’s new Ministry of Red Tape Reduction could take to incentivize the existence of more space for music, like lifting the existing $5 maximum price on 12-ounce drinks for festivals and making it easier for them to apply for liquor licences. A ministry spokesperson says these recommendations are being taken into consideration this year.

Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal, meanwhile, proposed to council in February that the city adopt many of the report’s recommendations. Deal says the city already uses zoning to discourage changing the use of venue space and can make their liquor licences easier to acquire. “We want to make sure people have spaces to create, produce, and perform music,” she says. “We also know it’s one of the biggest threats to people staying here.”

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Joe Keithley of D.O.A. (Photo: Steve Louie)

The federal and provincial governments have both announced new money for the sector as well. The 2016 federal budget includes an additional $550 million over five years for the Canada Council for the Arts, which gives out thousands of grants to musicians every year. At the provincial level, the new $15-million BC Music Fund will be spent on recording, touring, and performances. But following a tour through deeper-pocketed European venues, Hannah Epperson says that what’s needed isn’t just money for musicians but more publicly-funded spaces that can encourage venue managers to take risks on new talent.

Joe Keithley, who has watched as club after club closed in this city, agrees. The front man of legendary Vancouver punk band D.O.A. has seen what a dedicated entertainment district in Austin did for its music sector, and what the European system of governments providing financial support directly to venues has done there. He wonders why this is missing in Vancouver. “If the premier had some vision, if the council had some vision, Vancouver could be a great entertainment hub,” Keithley says. “But where do you go to see people? Where do new bands get a break?”

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