Earlier this year one of the most important DIY venues in the world, Shea Stadium in New York City, finally had the reality Reaper come calling. Shows were canceled, fear was mongered and then justified as the hammer came down and the entire venue, recording studio and rehearsal space was closed in order to take a beat and address a laundry list of code violations that had to be dealt with to appease the city of New York.
Does this story sound familiar? It’s playing out over and over again in cities across the US, Toronto, and is practically a baby band campfire story in Vancouver where it has happened again, and again, and again.
But Shea Stadium really is one of the most important DIY venues in the world. Here is a list of the artists who have come to support Shea Stadium or have played shows important to their development their, and because I don’t expect everyone to know who they are, I’m including some handy measuring sticks to help put this in perspective.
PWR BTTM – 221,000 monthly Spotify Plays, Facebook Fans 36,500.
Frankie Cosmos – 459,000 monthly Spotify Plays. Just Signed to Subpop.
Alex G – 695,000 monthly Spotify plays, FB 24000. Signed to Domino.
Porches – 214,000 monthly Spotify plays, FB 39000
And to further illustrate here are some Vancouver local favs in comparison
Mother Mother – 265,000 monthly Spotify plays, 95,000 FB
The Pack AD – 66,000 monthly Spotify plays, 21,000 FB
These artists represent the impossible democracy of music, that despite the deck being stacked in the favour of those who can find the time and money to smash tunes against the zeitgeist over and over again, talent and hard work can result in anyone’s music getting heard. But even more important than the unlikely market penetration, these artists and this venue have formed an amazing community of fans of bands may never make it 3 months after their first Shea Show, but they’ll be back to enjoy or try again. Plus, every show is preserved in a recorded archive that continuously builds upon each and every effort. Now, “amazing community” is the kind of phrase often thrown around in discussions of “important” venues, but luckily we have a handy metric to quantify this one!
$98,000+ accumulated from over 1,600 people on Kickstarter.
They only asked for $50,000, and they made that on the first day. This is a community that is spread across the world and put their money where their mouth was. A great sigh of relief was had that the necessary upgrades and fees could be made and the self sufficient rock and roll community of Shea Stadium could continue. But the landlord said, “Nah. We’re going to make a club instead.”
This is the other shoe of the great venue reaper; DIY spaces almost never exist within their own space. In so many cases, either because of the upgrade costs, the attention drawn, or the property values landlords become the final executioners of these spaces. I hate to put myself in the cross-hairs of being “the jinx” but it was very phenomenon that I worried about when discussing Shea Stadium’s Kickstarter with a colleague of mine in California. He was optimistic and also made a good point, “It’s not like they’re going to raise millions of dollars to buy a building in New York.”
Which is the very heart of the problem, the community can’t possibly compete in the bonkers world of urban real estate. This is why DIY venues tend to spring up in leased rooms in industrial, or undesirable areas, but in our current metropolises every new baby DIY venue is born with ticking time bombs of gentrification on their chest.
Now, I’m not going to take on market forces today, though I’m willing to bet you can take a long tail perspective that much more value is derived from cultivating a space that creates a culture of musical excellence, or springs forth the next David Bowie or Prince, or accumulates in a city turning it into the next Austin or Nashville, then tossing up another coffee shop, drug store, or condo.
Instead we’re going to pivot from Shea Stadium in New York to the Media Club in Vancouver.
Now the Media Club is not a DIY venue. It’s a local business looking to profit from bar sales from show goers. It has also for years been a really shitty venue and I will not miss it. It used to be an active and great space, given cultural relevance by its mix of exciting touring acts and local bills happening across the week, but in the last few years it fell right off the radar – sporadically open, the “bands you’ve heard of” disappearing, and a general vibe of no fucks being given by the venue itself. However, with the closing of the Railway (new Railway has a long way to go before impressing me with its extremely tiny beers that allow for it to have a $3 happy hour… oh and its booking record remains unproven), and the abandonment of live shows at Library Square, it became the last downtown venue that booked gestating local acts that were looking to be a part of the music scene.
At this point, the old “there goes another one to market forces,” tale in Vancouver barely makes us flinch. Just like New York, we know the City of Vancouver has to enforce its building and safety codes, we know that no one is going to be able to come up with the money to literally buy a space downtown to nurture a musical community, we know the City also can’t stop landlords from terminating leases in order to pursue other opportunities. In spite of all this, the City repeatedly pays lip service to wanting to support its musical community, and nurture itself into a music city, hell the whole province is supposedly on board with the $15 million that’s going to be dispersed through the BC Music Fund. If only there were something they could do to preserve and revitalize this space!
Well this time there is – the City of Vancouver is the owner of the space that the Media Club occupies.
Now there’s some reported conjecture that the City actually does want to preserve the space for music, but seems to think that the Brown’s Socialhouse (think generic pleasing to everyone restaurant/bar chain) that wishes to develop on the site will be able to run it effectively. If I were Brown’s I wouldn’t really care to try beyond what I had to do to get the venue built on the City’s “preserve music” terms. Live music attendees buy approx 2 drinks each, while DJ night attendees is 4+. As a for profit restaurant business Brown’s has absolutely no incentive to dabble in developing Vancouver musicians.
The City wants to presumably download the responsibility of keeping the Media Club a music venue to Brown’s because it’s the easiest thing to do and I would sympathetically agree. What the hell does the City know about running a music venue for developing artists? They’ve got enough trouble with Park Boards, pools and aquariums, do we really expect them to justify a bunch of tax dollars to create positions to figure out whether Wednesday is best for Vapourwave or Post-Punk?
So we’ve got a venue owned by the City, that the City doesn’t want to run and we’ve got sleeve rolling DIY Vancouver musical arts communities living on gentrification’s edges in buildings that will inevitably reject them. It can’t be rocket science to bring these two sides into partnership. This is THE opportunity to open a not for profit community music venue, one that can even be decoupled from the liquor infrastructure that has dismissed the vast potential of the underage music fan.
The secret sauce I would propose, is taking some of that BC Music funding, and hiring a third party who is able to bridge the gumption without sense that leads to the creation of Time Bomb From Birth DIY venues into training a new generation of sustainable music space gardeners.
A developing musical community will never be able to buy its own building in cities like New York, Toronto, or Vancouver to secure its place on the map, so it will always be vulnerable without a long term lease and even then Landlords will never be obligated to maintain these spaces. Cities COULD come up with community musical spaces, just like they come up with squash courts and pools, but even if they did, it’s unlikely they would be able to run it. Musicians will always make music, procedure and sustainability be damned, because no one is there to show them any other way to survive. This is a unique moment of opportunity for Vancouver to do something new.
Otherwise, we accept that we live in a world where Shea Stadium can raise nearly $100,000 and still have their fate taken from their own hands. If those who actually have the power to make a difference decide that’s the status quo then what hope is there for any other developing urban music scene? There must be another way.
Written by Steve Mann