Vancouver’s underground arts economy is booming. Tired of stuffy concert halls and exorbitant ticket prices, cultural entrepreneurs are hosting high-calibre performances in their living rooms, for a nice little fee.
The Murphy bed is tucked into its cabinet for the evening, making way for a ragtag crowd of 35 spectators who chatter in the aisles, fidget in their seats or puzzle over the titles in a nearby bookcase, such as Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. A young woman, who apparently lives here, whispers to a stranger, “I just need to grab the diaper bag from under there,” and points to a corner cabinet. Meanwhile, on the makeshift stage near the front door, a marimba player does a few warm-up trills. When two other musicians join in on the erhu (two-stringed violin) and the zheng (plucked zither), suddenly the audience is all ears. The Orchid Ensemble has performed everywhere from the National Gallery in Ottawa to a Vancouver concert for former governor general Adrienne Clarkson. Tonight, they’re playing a living room. “The whole idea of going to stadiums to hear music is appalling. It was never meant to be that way,” says the producer of the show, who lives upstairs. (Since he doesn’t want his real name to be published, lest the cops find out that he charges a $15 “suggested donation” at the door, we’ll call him Oliver Dobson.) Dobson’s Green House series, launched in September, is the newest addition to Vancouver’s burgeoning underground cultural economy. Most house-concert series don’t advertise and some actively avoid publicity, so it’s hard to say how many are out there – and just how much money is being made under the table. But Vancouver has at least seven series like it in the classical, world and new-music circuits alone, and word on the street suggests the total is much higher if you count the bluegrass community, not to mention the enduring rave scene. Intimate and under the radar, these living-room soirees have the mystique of Gertrude Stein’s 1920s Paris salons. Spectators happily pay $10 to $15 for the voyeuristic pleasure of entering a stranger’s home to hear high-calibre concerts that might cost double or more to attend at the Chan Centre or the Orpheum. For Dobson, a folk-music connoisseur, hosting artists such as Romanian gypsy fiddler Lache Cercel and New York singer-songwriter Michael Merenda is both a joy and a privilege. But that’s not his only motivation. “I’m also trying to get some money from this, to be honest. I mean, mainly from the food sales,” says the freelance writer, who supplements his income by renting suites in his home. After paying the musicians a minimum of $150, Dobson splits the door 50/50. He clears about $200 per concert, largely by selling $6 plates of sushi, which he buys from a Japanese catering company the day of the concert and then resells at a mark-up of 50 per cent. Food safety isn’t a real concern – Dobson keeps the sushi in the fridge until it’s served – but City of Vancouver inspectors would still not approve. The sale of concert tickets, food or beverages constitutes a business, says City of Vancouver licence coordinator Guy Gusdal. “It would be a commercial enterprise,” Gusdal explains. “Residential land use doesn’t permit it.” But it seems there are exceptions. Myriam Steinberg, who runs a separate concert series called In the House, isn’t wary of using her real name. Last May, she even met with city officials from the festival permits, licensing, cultural affairs and fire departments to allay their concerns about her annual In the House festival in June. “I was grilled for over an hour, but I had all the documents they required” for a festival, she says, including $2-million liability insurance to cover about 10 living-room venues. Steinberg, who wasn’t selling food or alcohol at the weekend-long event, asked the officials what was behind all the fuss. They replied that the main concern for the city is liability, she says. In her monthly In the House series, Steinberg has featured everything from flamenco nights with dancers clacking castanets to a burlesque show where audience members were invited to compete over who could best fake orgasms. Steinberg charges $15 at the door ($10 with a $15 annual membership). Performers earn about $75 a head for up to 45 minutes of dancing, acting, singing or stilt walking (there are usually three acts in each hour-and-a-half show). Although In the House consumes countless hours of her free time, Steinberg rarely pays herself; she makes her own ends meet through part-time translation and PR work. For performers, the underground arts economy is a vital source of income. Many are chronically cash-strapped because of the exorbitant cost of booking venues in high-rent Vancouver and the dearth of adequately paying performance opportunities. “Artists are very stretched for resources and there really is a lack of venues,” says Heather Redfern, who is taking over as executive director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre this month after two years as executive director of Vancouver’s Alliance for Arts and Culture. When performers propose to use sites like the old Finning tractor plant at Great Northern Way, for example, they are told these “found spaces” lack seismic upgrading or the number of parking spots and bathroom fixtures the city requires to approve them as venues. “You don’t want to endanger anybody, because it’s important to keep things safe, but there are too many rules and they are too restrictive,” says Redfern with a sigh. By contrast, there’s no shortage of private homes. Steinberg says individuals approach her all the time to offer the use of their living rooms for free. “They get the pleasure of having culture in their house,” she says. “It gives a different feeling to the space.” Although she has staged more than 60 house concerts since 2003 – a third of them on the West Side – Steinberg says she hasn’t heard a peep from the neighbours or the police. “I have never had a complaint. Never. Not even for the African show, which was really loud.” A police officer did knock at the home of Song Room, a series run by playwright Tom Cone, costume designer Karen Matthews and David Pay, artistic director of the Music on Main concert series. As Cone recalls, the police officer asked, “So what do you do there in your house every four months? We are all aware of your event here.” Cone replied, “Well, we premiere new songs, we build song literature.” In the end, Cone says with a chuckle, the police officer wanted to know when the next gig was, and if he could come. Song Room opened in February 2005, after Cone and Matthews noticed that concert halls in New York, London and Amsterdam were luring audiences back to the often-challenging genre of new music by featuring the human voice. They and their friend Pay decided to bolster Vancouver’s new-music scene by bringing top writers together with illustrious composers to create new songs. The organizers make no money from the venture, but they do collect a suggested $10 donation at the door to offset performance costs. (Audience members bring wine and food to share.) So far, they’ve had renowned performers – including singer Viviane Houle, flute player Lorna McGhee and trumpeter John Korsrud – premiere more than 30 songs created by such heavyweights as author Michael Turner (Hard Core Logo), poet Robin Blaser (The Holy Forest), composer David MacIntyre (The Architect) and filmmaker Mina Shum (Double Happiness). The Song Room audience is equally impressive, including poet George Bowering, breast-cancer researcher Karen Gelman, architect Peter Busby and all manner of visual artists, actors and academics. “They really shut up; they really listen,” says Cone. Even if the performer happens to be Arowbe, a Toronto hip-hop artist who sells out GM Place. “He was really invigorating,” Cone recalls of that house concert, which took place in June 2006. “He was just yelling into the mic that there should be a Song Room on every block.” The hip-hop artist may have a point, judging by the demand: Song Room now draws up to 150 people a night. “It’s gotten sardine-like in here,” Cone admits. “A while ago, one of the composers fainted.” Attendance is soaring in other living rooms as well. In the past year, Steinberg of In the House has sold out more than half a dozen concerts with capacities of 50 to 80 people, and Dobson’s Green House series is headed in the same direction. But in the end, numbers are not the main goal for any of these neighbourhood impresarios. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a patron of the arts,” says Dobson. “I don’t like the idea that a patron is a person with lots of money who just throws it at deserving artists. I’ve passed the midpoint in life and I look at society and ask myself, what can I actually believe in? The most civilizing force I can see in society is the arts and culture. And I really want to participate in it in any way I can. It nourishes my soul.” And his pocketbook.