Dispatches from SXSW: Entertainment Laws & Venues Need Updating

The Zolas | BCBusiness
The Zolas play Summer Live at Stanley Park.

Too often, B.C.’s working musicians find it easier to get stage time—and fans out—in places like Toronto and Texas than at home. Several up-and-comers weigh in from Austin on the changes they think could make Vancouver’s music business sing.

The streets of downtown Austin, Texas are littered with horse manure, paper plates and colourful pamphlets. Hordes of nearly naked coeds zombie along with no destination, their bodies destroyed by gallons of beers, pounds of breaded and fried street food and millions of decibels of music. Police sirens howl as another mounted squadron sweeps the block. Unconcerned, a man keeps hammering out rock ’n roll riffs on a dilapidated piano dragged into the middle of the road. The zombies, now shoulder to shoulder, brag about whom they stood in long lines to see, but ultimately missed because everything famous is oversold and out of reach even to the upper crusters clutching their precious SXSW Platinum Badges.

Prince is allegedly in town with a 22-piece orchestra. Iggy Pop got the Stooges together to play an outdoor set down the street from a Nick Cave show. The Flaming Lips have been seen all over Austin. Twitter is going bananas over rumours of a free Daft Punk gig on the steps of the State Capitol. Defeated sound guys cry in dark corners as college kids on spring break cram their hurting bodies into bars to hear sadistic mixes of three or four bands playing at the same time.

Inside Maggie Mae’s on 6th Street, a handful of Vancouver bands are playing to some 50 people, struggling to be heard over the noise of an electro rap troupe tearing up the rooftop patio. The lulls between songs are filled with the hollow thuds of street drummers punishing plastic buckets and the occasional roar of a death metal vocalist. I pull the homegrown singers off the stage one by one, hoping to make sense of it all: what are you doing here anyway? How do you measure the success of playing SXSW within the madness of SXSW? And what’s the climate like for working musicians in Vancouver?

Zach Gray, singer, The Zolas (Twitter )
“We’ve never played in the States before, so this is fun. One thing that would be the very best thing for the entertainment industry in B.C. is this: venues look at what their best nights are, which are Friday and Saturday night and they go ‘how can we make every night like Friday and Saturday night?’ And that’s a bullshit way to think. In a big city, there are enough people with weird timetables you can get out to see a headliner at midnight. That will never happen in a city like Vancouver. We have it so that only freaks like me can go out to shows on weeknights. We need to do what they do in Europe—have shows at theatre hours. You’re going to get a good night every night from 7 till 10pm. The number one thing we can do to make Vancouver nightlife better is to change those hours.”

Ashleigh Ball, singer, Hey Ocean! (Twitter )
“You just have to put on your blinders and not care about anything else. You’re just a miniscule tiny little blip on this huge scene and you’re totally lost. You just have to hope to God things will go well for your showcase and that the sound person is legit. I’m here trying to meet up with other bands and see if there are other people we can tour with, European bands, Australian bands—just work different markets. And to hang out with Vancouver bands I haven’t seen forever ’cause we’re always on tour. We don’t spend a lot of time in Vancouver; you can’t really overplay your own city or else people just get annoyed or tired of you. There should be more all-ages shows in Vancouver. It’s a big problem. There’s not a ton of venues to play in. There’s got to be some major changes there.”

Hannah Georgas, singer/songwriter (Twitter )
“This is a shit show. It’s crazy. Everybody plays music out here. You’re bound to make some sort of connection. This is about building relationships that you have—actually seeing your U.S. agent coming out to your U.S. show and your publishing company coming out to see you—and just making those connections stronger. Random people who just happen to walk into your SXSW show is a bonus too. Once I made the decision to fully put my heart into music and find the scene, I found [Vancouver] to be very supportive. The CBC has been super helpful for me. But Vancouver definitely needs some better venues, for sure. Right now I think the coolest venue is The Biltmore and they need more places like that.”

Aaron Ross, singer, The Boom Booms (Twitter )
“We want to get down here as much as possible. You can’t stay in Vancouver, that’s for sure. It’s not quite big enough that we can tour constantly and pay the rent, but B.C. is pretty good for us. We do Kelowna, Victoria, Nelson; we go to towns now where no bands go and we make money: Creston, Enderby, Merritt—we get, like, 200 people out in Merritt, it’s awesome. Vancouver is certainly not overflowing with quality music venues and one issue I know still affects music is the old liquor laws. For example, we used to play at La Rocca, an Italian restaurant on Commercial Drive. And the problem is, because of the zoning, there’s no dancing allowed. And we make people dance, but then people get fines. So it’s those kinds of things that prohibit the fluidity of music from happening. Our way of creating culture is this: I grew up and still live at Venables and Nanaimo. We’ve been throwing block parties in our alley for the last five years. That’s word of mouth and no permits or anything like that. People drink on the street, it’s liberating. For people to be in an alleyway with a beer in their hand and good tunes and their friends, this is f***ing how it should be.”

Luke Brocki spent his last weekend in Austin meditating on the shores of the Colorado River and begging for the omnipresent noise to quit assailing his ringing eardrums. He was already getting spammed with releases from the mayor’s office in Vancouver, which promised to make it easier for artists to hold events, showcase their work and perform in Vancouver. City Hall’s latest offering: allowing arts performances in warehouses and retail buildings. He doesn’t think it will ever measure up to SXSW, but that’s probably a good thing. | Twitter