Saturday, 16 August 2014

The Trials and Tribulations of a Vancouver Musician

The "frustrated musician" is a cliche that many have heard at one time or another. I moved to Vancouver from the Lancashire town of Wigan in the fall of 1981. Over the last thirty-three years, I have stepped in and out of the local music scene. In the 80's I was heavily involved in student radio, In 2000, after having a family, I decided to immerse myself back in to music.

Since September 2006 I have managed a band, I have booked gigs, rented equipment, sorted transportation, I have hired people, fired people, had people call me names and even had a bass player run off with my wife. In the last 8 years I have had over 50 musicians go through my band. I have booked dates for many other bands, I worked as a sound tech, stage hand, I lugged gear at all levels and at all kinds of venues; I totally love what I do and yet I continue to be frustrated by many aspects of Vancouver's music scene.My first musical "moment" was seeing Status Quo play "Down Down" on Top of the Pops in 1974. From that point on I knew I wanted music in my life and I wanted music to be a major part of my life. I came to believe the ultimate expression of musical appreciation is to be a musician, sadly the worst and best part about being a musician is usually other musicians !

However, music was not first and foremost in my life. When I competed as an athlete it was always about me. I had no one to rely on, no one else had to show up on time. I trained alone for the most part and only teamed up with a coach in the last few years. I am not a team player, I find the inter-dependence on others very challenging, playing in a band is all about dependence, whether it is to play the right notes at the right time or show up on time or not hit on my wife.

Musicians come from all walks of life and bring in to the room all kinds of life experiences and not just musical. It's a miracle of human nature that music can be created at all, somehow it magically gets created, recorded and listened to and sometimes even played live. I often envy musicians that can walk comfortably on stage and play a piece of music they have never played, with musicians they have never met before, all from a piece of paper, something I will never be able to do.

I started in to live music as a teenager hanging out with friends who played in a cover/cabaret band. I was a bit of a fifth wheel until the band started playing the local Working Mens' Clubs in the north of England. For most of 1979 to 1981 we were on the road in our old Transit van, playing almost every weekend, I was their sound man and roadie. I came to Vancouver expecting to do the same, it never happened and I'm still waiting.It didn't take long to realise Vancouver was and still is not the most friendly town in general and specifically when it comes to music. My first memorable experience was getting kicked out of the Pacific Colosseum by some union members at a Rod Stewart concert set up; in my early 80's naivete little did I realise roadie work could actually be unionised. As a result I got involved the with the student radio station at Simon Fraser University and for eight years I hung out with some great folks and interviewed many touring bands and performers. I learned a lot about music, radio and eventually received my Communications degree through SFU. Sure enough I watched many bands pass through Vancouver on their way to some place else, however due to certain factors Vancouver's own music scene had then and has now it's own peculiar limitations.

So here are some factors that I consider relative, in no particular order, to Vancouver's music scene - the caveat is that none are 100% correct or accurate, this is just my opinion – your personal experience may differ significantly.

1. Geography
- we are located in the corner of the continent - there are no major populations to the north or west. Since 9-11 the route south is only open to bands at a certain development level, eastward there are only smaller towns and eventually Toronto. That is not to say the smaller towns around in BC do not have their attraction for bands, the summer outdoor concert venues are lucrative for certain styles, almost every town has something going on. However, since these events are often weeks apart with no midweek events, it is necessary to return to the home base in Vancouver.

2. Distraction - Vancouver has lots of other activities going on, be it sport and recreational and outdoor based. Try playing a venue in Vancouver on a fireworks night or when a hockey game is on. Music is only one of many activities on offer at any given time. For most bands that do not have their own following, timing your live event to not coincide with other big events is a skill. Venues will give you the dates because they have a mandate to supply entertainment regardless of what else is going on in the city – your potential audience may have other ideas.

3. Weather
- every city has weather issues. They cannot be ignored - Vancouver audiences don't mind the rain, the only exceptions are when the weather drastically alters. For example if it has not rained in a week then all of a sudden it rains for three days, people will stay home for the first or second day then finally head out. Oppositely, after a long period of rain people will head outdoors for an outdoor activity, before choosing an indoor activity. Obviously, we cannot control the weather, however taking it to consideration after a poorly attended gig or taking the weather forecast in to consideration prior to the gig to add subsequent promo time may be worth the extra effort.

4. Musical trends
- riding a musical trend is akin to surfing. In order to ride the trend musicians naturally tweak their music, sometimes they gain more audience, sometimes they lose it and re-tweak. I suppose a 100% true "artist" performs and the audience accepts and applauds, for the rest of us we seek to constant re-tweak our performance in order to find the audience and develop our artistic skills. Vancouver has never really led a musical trend, Vancouver has always followed. We have yet to see or hear a musical style that wholly originates in the city, unlike Seattle's grunge movement in the late 80's and 90's, it derived from that city alone. Trends move in cycles, a trend in London or New York may have a repercussive effect in Vancouver with some variant peculiar to the west coast and some years later. It might be worth while to keep up with musical trends in other cities to see what might happen in Vancouver at some point.

5. Money - Vancouver is a very expensive city to live in. Musicians have not seen a subsequent rise in pay since the 1970's - average pay in 1975 was $100 per show per musician, this has not changed. There are all kinds of theories about how bands undersell themselves as they frequently do. The semi-pro scene in Vancouver, where musicians have a regular day job, is reasonably healthy, however the semi-pro scene does create its own vacuum. Many is the time I have heard former pro musicians comment on how they had to take on day jobs in order to keep playing. Of course many factors come in to play to make this happen other than financial need. Musicians have families and expectations change, couch surfing has its fiscal and physical limitations - we eventually grow up ! There are very few true professional musicians in Vancouver, those who are have been doing so for 30 years or more and are trained through the various post-secondary programs. It is not uncommon for a band leader to hire professional musicians and lose money on the venture be it a recording or a live gig.

6. Venues
- in 1981 a decent cover band could play around the various pubs and clubs in Greater Vancouver 4-5 nights per week. Those venues disappeared in the late 80's and early 90's, more often than not were turned in to strip bars. The removal of this "layer" took away a much needed development step for Vancouver bands. Of course not all bands needed this circuit and not all bands successfully moved out of it, however its removal from the Vancouver music scene was significant at the time. Ever since live music venues have continued to struggle with the massive rents, distracted audiences and the rise of non-live music [dj's]. Venues come and go and venues for cover bands differ from venues for original music. It is always a good policy to find the venues you want to play, see what kind of music they favour and apply yourself. Be aware that new venues are often managed by people who are new in to the business and have little or no concept of what musicians do or how much they cost. Most venues in Vancouver give the bands some proportion of the door admission; most venues outside Vancouver pay a fee.

7. The Rise and Fall of the DJ
- arguably one of the more controversial aspects of live music, not just in Vancouver but all over the world. Live music has always competed with DJ's. Even back in 1970's in the UK, the DJ was considered rather negatively by live musicians, a trend that continues today. In the last thirty-five years DJ's have developed from mere players of records to their own creative stream with various levels of creativity being employed. DJ's saw a dramatic rise in popularity in the late 80's, no doubt arguably related to two technological developments, the digital CD and the development of the sub-woofer. Needless to say there are many older musicians who remain baffled by the attraction of a lone figure on a stage with a laptop a bit of smoke haze and some flashing lights. The irony today is a "live" dj of any repute will cost a venue or promoter far more than a live band to book. There are many venues in Vancouver that are DJ only and it is ridiculous to suggest that live bands should have a priority, human proclivity to change has determined otherwise. A live band has never been able to compete with a dj, be it financially or artistically. Even in its most simple form DJ's have less gear to work with, they have less people to support [less stress] and overall can travel from one venue to another relatively effortlessly and they have access to far more music. There are numerous examples of live music venues being turned in to dj only venues in Vancouver, musical trends aside, escalating operational costs have pushed live musicians out of the way for the fiscally conservative venue owner. However, the dj has often priced him or herself out of the market and in doing so has created a vacuum for live bands to fill. People in general prefer not to hire themselves out for less over time; this puts the live band that still pays $100 per musician is in a perfect position to get hired. Venue bookers are now looking more to live bands that can be hired for $500 than a dj for the same cost. Audiences are becoming more aware that five musicians on a stage have more going on than the lone figure with a laptop, some flashing lights and smoke haze.

8. The Vancouver TV and Movie industry
- artistic talent aside - the Vancouver film industry employs more would-be musicians than any other industry combined. It is a natural side-step for any musician to want to work in the film industry and it is one industry most other North American cities do not have. There is a finite human artistic resource in any given population, Vancouver's artistic talent lies in the art of making television and movies. Had we not focussed our film industry in the 80's our music industry would be far more developed today. Considering all the artistic energy spent on 12-14 hour days, day in-day out on a movie set, there is little or no spillover for music; there are simply not enough hours in the day to do both. Needless to say the financial opportunities in the movie industry far outweigh anything in the Vancouver music business.

9. The People
– Vancouver is a town made generally made up people from some place else. This has an effect on the social strata of the city of which musicians make up their part. However, musicians/people that were born and raised in Vancouver generally have a deeper social network than those who were not. As with other social groups musicians form “cliques” and “networks” and it is not uncommon for such a network to be formed around a venue/event and/or a musical style. For example there is a significant Mod/Scooter crowd in town, they are very specific on how they dress, how they travel and what music they listen to. If you are not willing to adhere to their standards, you generally won't be accepted in to their group. Musicians like to hangout with their peers, this would involve musicians of a certain level of competency, musical style and to some degree age, gender and ethnicity. Getting work through a social network of musicians is as good as any source, if you become accepted in to that network. The key is not to get frustrated and down about the situation, start your own clique or scene at some venue or other, amazingly people will show up !

– surprisingly, how you perceive and how you take in the Vancouver music scene in turn reflects on how well you work with it. Many people simply pack up and leave after a given amount of time; for various reasons I've stayed in Vancouver. On the bad days I still want to leave for greener pastures back in England and I regret the day I came here. Likewise, on the good days when the sun is shining, the band is playing well and we have an appreciative audience I'm very happy I came here. How you perceive your experiences determines how you move on to the next. If you continually blame the scene or other people, you must work to change that. Your bass player may well be an asshole and he may well run off with your wife at some point – my solution [after the initial shock]was to wish them all the best and move on – it didn't last a year ! There will always be musicians who can play better than you, have better inter-personal skills, be better looking or drive a more fancy car - LET IT GO ! Take small incremental steps to achieve your goals, make it happen, use the positive support you have and run with it. This is not to say you should ignore negative aspects, you still need to take them in to consideration when making your next decision. In the process don't waste time belittling others or approaching situations expecting a negative outcome. I once put on a gig for three dj's where no audience members turned up. I had to pay the sound tech $75 and I learned a significant lesson in humility, there are no short cuts to a successful event.

If you take in to consideration these factors you may still arrive at an incomplete picture of the Vancouver music scene over the last thirty years. Your personal experiences would be indeed different, however I hope my personal experiences and perceptions have helped you in some way.

Ian Gregson is a Vancouver based Musician/Actor/Author/Athlete/SoundTech/Podcaster/DJ and dad

Van City Soul Quartet
East Van Soul Podcast
Van City Indie Podcast

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