Keeping a lid on fun in Vancouver

A new documentary laments how the city is silencing its alternative music scene

090820_top_vancouverThere’s something decidedly punk rock about being evicted in the middle of a loud, screaming concert. But for the manager of the bar in Vancouver’s Cobalt Motor Hotel, even before her landlord gave her 60 days’ notice during a July 31 performance, the thrill of bucking the establishment had long since worn off. For almost a decade, Wendythirteen has been working with the city and the landlord, trying to turn the venue in one of the Downtown Eastside’s most notorious hovels into a legitimate place to hear punk, metal and hardcore acts. She’s used a good chunk of her own savings and “a volunteer army of people” to do repairs, and has kept out the drugs and violence for which the upstairs rooms are well known. Today, even the “train punks,” who tattoo their faces and travel the country in boxcars, “check their knives at the door,” she says.

To some, the eviction is part of a cyclical rotation: an old venue dies, invariably a new one is born. To others, it’s proof of just how fringe Vancouver’s alternative music scene has become. Wendythirteen started running shows out of the Cobalt in 2000 despite its sordid reputation, because “that’s where our genre of music had been driven,” she says. Since then, the spike in property values, strict new zoning regulations and city hall’s iron grip on liquor licences have made it even tougher for musicians to find a stage. Add a pre-Olympics makeover to the mix, and what you get, according to local filmmakers Melissa James and Kate Kroll, is No Fun City—the title of a documentary they’re preparing, somewhat ironically, just as Vancouver gears up to host the biggest party it has ever seen.

With its conservative liquor laws and reputation for discouraging revelry (for the Millennium, police told celebrants to stay home), Vancouver has long been chided as “no-fun.” But what struck James, 31, when she moved there in 2006, was the extent to which the alternative music scene was being pushed underground—in some cases, quite literally. Experimental bands were regularly performing in illicit venues—warehouses, lofts, even the lower level of a parking garage. “You didn’t always know who was playing. The fliers didn’t have the address on it,” she says.

At first, No Fun City was a film about people like Wendythirteen, “because they have the passion to make sure there are music spaces,” says James. But soon, the filmmakers expanded their focus to tackle the restrictive bylaws and Nimbyism they saw as hamstringing everything from new galleries to bars. Most music venues derive the bulk of their revenue from liquor. But in Vancouver, liquor primary licences, which allow for later closing times and for alcohol to be the main source of sales, are limited to the Granville entertainment district and a few other commercial spots. Elsewhere, would-be bar owners must settle for restaurant status, or buy an existing liquor primary from someone, which, due to demand, can cost upwards of $500,000. At the same time, strict noise bylaws require music venues to undergo extensive—and expensive—soundproofing. “Think about who is opening bars here,” says James. “It’s not young people who want to hear a punk band.”

City officials acknowledge the zoning restrictions can pose a challenge, but they insist the moniker of “no-fun city” is inaccurate. “We have an extremely lively music scene,” says second-term councillor Heather Deal. Staff are preparing a proposal to relax closing time during the Olympics, and efforts are under way to zone for multi-use spaces, which could function as performance venues by night. But the city can only do so much in what is still a seller’s market. The legendary stage at Richard’s on Richards, an institution since the ’80s, recently sold to condo developers. It will open in a new location in October, but many lament it won’t be the same.

For James, No Fun City, which she and Kroll are hoping to release in January (they have yet to find a distributor), has been a chance to show ingenuity born out of restriction. It’s an atmosphere, she says, not unlike the one depicted in Footloose, where the Kevin Bacon character leads a crusade against a town’s ban on music and dancing. Except in Vancouver, she says, “There’s no Kevin Bacon.”

But Jordan Koop has a different take. He helped run the now-defunct Emergency Room, a recording-studio-turned-illicit-venue. “Doing some improv night with a gang of people,” he says, “seems a lot cooler than going down to a bar.” He and his friends closed up shop this year, in part, because it had gotten too popular. Not everyone, it seems, wants to be rescued.