The problem with gigging in Montreal

Iggy Pop, The Dears and plenty of other bands have all been victims of a similar crime

When Elliott Brood, an alt-country band from Toronto, stopped in Montreal in November to play a gig, the trio kept a close eye on their gear. “We were told ahead of time, ‘Watch out. Vans get vandalized,’ ” says guitarist Casey Laforet. So, after playing a concert at La Sala Rossa, the band stashed their equipment in the popular north-end venue for the night. The next morning, they packed up the van, which was parked on busy Saint Laurent, and popped across the street for breakfast. But when they returned 30 minutes later, the driver’s side door had been pried open; their bags, containing passports, iPods and laptops, were gone. The $7,000 in losses could have been much worse—whoever broke in didn’t attempt to crack into the back, where the instruments were locked. Still, the speed and finesse of the crime has left Laforet with the distinct feeling that “there’s something bigger going on.”

Montreal, considered by many to be the music capital of Canada, has long been a tour highlight for bands. But recently, La Belle Ville has been on the lips of musicians for a far less desirable reason. Montreal police have documented 18 incidents of band-related theft, including vehicle break-ins, and thefts of the vehicles themselves, since late 2008. Getting broken into in Montreal is “almost an unwritten rule among bands,” says Andrew Usenik, the singer for Edmonton-based Ten Second Epic, which lost $1,000 in gear during a stop there last May. Some of the high-profile victims include Iggy Pop, whose truck, which contained tens of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, disappeared from outside his downtown hotel in August 2008, and Hedley, whose van, filled with gear, was stolen last June. While Elliott Brood’s losses are small by comparison, the incident is evidence of how brazen the perpetrators have become. “They got ripped off in broad daylight on a Saturday,” says Steve Guimond, La Sala Rossa’s booking agent. “It’s a sad mark on the city.”
For most bands, “when you take the risk of travelling across the country playing music,” says Laforet, “it’s definitely hard to even pay the bills.” Robbery can be too much, especially for the uninsured, which is common for up-and-coming acts. When the Black Halos’ van, trailer and gear was stolen from a downtown Montreal parking lot in March 2008, they had just bankrolled their first self-released album and were “way in the hole,” says former guitarist Adam Becvare. Within a few months, the Vancouver-based act decided to call it quits after 15 years together. “It was insurmountable,” says Becvare, who estimates their combined losses exceeded $30,000. “I think we’re all still numb.”

Though Montreal’s not totally alone in its reputation as a hot spot for theft—Natalia Yanchak of the Montreal-based Dears, whose tour bus was stolen from outside a motel in the West Island last spring, puts Vancouver and New York in the same category—there are several factors contributing to the city’s apparent ascendency to the top of the list. Many mid-sized venues are concentrated in a small area of the downtown where bands stay in hotels and park in nearby lots. And there have been an increasing number of targets. The popularity of homegrown acts like Arcade Fire has bolstered the city’s appeal to musicians: since 2002, Pop Montreal organizer Dan Seligman says the festival has ballooned from 100 to 400 bands. There’s also the character of the city itself, which Seligman describes as a laissez-faire place where, “you just play your gig, load your van up, and then you go out. Anything could happen.”
Montreal Police Service Commander Peter Lambrinakos says the frequency with which band’s vehicles carrying expensive equipment were disappearing in Montreal prompted police to open an investigation. What they found, he says, was “a distinct pattern of operation that often suggests the work of a single criminal.” (The vehicles were mostly cube vans with out-of-province plates, parked overnight in lots near downtown hotels.) After making a key arrest in October, police are confident that they have curbed the rash of thefts in the downtown area.

But problems persist. In addition to the Elliott Brood heist, Ohbijou’s Jenny Mecija had her fiddle stolen from the band’s van in November. Following their next Montreal gig, she says, they’ll consider “driving to the suburbs or out of town.”