Most of us are already familiar with Vancouver’s “No Fun City” reputation. Other major cities in Canada are known for their culture, art, and nightlife, but Vancouver’s brand is stubbornly focused on cool mountains that a certain East Van crowd rarely visits.
Much of this comes down to real estate. In a city where a $2,056 one bedroom apartment is considered affordable and a DIY venue in the “rough” part of town that didn’t have a working bathroom was listed for $2.5 million and sold to yet more condo developers, it’s not a surprise to learn surviving here as an artist is a bit of a challenge.
While the constant loss of venues has been a signal for many artists to leave for more affordable places like Montreal, the musicians who stay in Vancouver find themselves sharing space more often. Scenes like indie rock, punk, and hip-hop, which have previously stayed in their own lanes without much interaction outside the occasional producer swap, are now sticking together for survival, in collective housing and other unexpected corners of the city.
“There’s definitely something happening between the hip-hop scene and the rock scene right now,” Surrey-based hip-hop artist Bains told VICE. “One of the biggest hip-hop groups is working with one of the biggest rock groups out here and it’s pretty fucking amazing. We were all in a room the other day… we have very different opinions on music but we all bonded over the fact that we’re struggling artists in this city who are just trying to make it out.”
I wondered if Bains’ experience was a one-off coincidence, or if the day-to-day grind in the face of disappearing venues really was a uniting force between the rap and indie rock scenes. I decided to talk to artists about the struggle to make music in Vancouver, and the collaborations that struggle inspires.
Sleepy Gonzales is an indie rock band made up of twin brothers Cristian and Beni Hobson-Dimas, Frontwoman Allyson Lowry and Bassist Nic Moniz and have been making waves in the scene for the past two years. Despite playing local festivals and winning just about any battle-of-the-bands they enter, they’re finding it harder to find steady gigs as Vancouver loses venue after venue.
“We’re just scrambling,” says Beni Hobson-Dimas of the state of Vancouver’s venues. “Now we’re moving towards applying to festivals that are out of town because there’s going to be nowhere left to play soon.”
Losing their favourite spots to play en masse has put the band on edge, and incites fear for other bands no longer having places to meet. “People are putting on less shows, so it’s hard to go and see them,” says Hobson-Dimas. “It used to feel like you could just see them once a month no problem.”
With a shrinking scene comes thoughts of escaping to a different, cheaper city. But for Sleepy Gonzales, Vancouver might be the only option. “This city keeps us broke. Where else would we go? If we can’t move further into Vancouver then we can’t move anywhere else either,” says Hobson-Dimas. “You need a lot of tenacity in this scene because there’s so much, especially financially, bringing everyone down. Promoters, bands, venues. You just really have to fucking love music.”
“For now, this is plan A and there is no plan B.”
In a city where space is scarce, and housing is expensive, artists rely on the bittersweet benefits of collective housing. Those who can’t afford an apartment on their own are pushed into living with large groups of artists in the same sinking ship as them. Some of these artists are reaping the rewards of Vancouver’s empty home tax and taking advantage of the influx of teardown mansion rentals hitting the market for the first time in years. This has lead to a new wave of Vancouver artists taking matters into their own hands by cultivating a scene in their own homes.
Bains, who found his start performing at house parties that acted as networking hubs for upcoming musicians, thinks collective housing is important for young artists to find a way into their respective scenes. “At this very moment there’s Diva Den with all those women doing cool shit in that house,” he said. “Cobra House was really good for that. I met so many people at Cobra House who I wouldn’t normally talk to, and it made my network grow so much stronger because it was just people having a good time together in the same house.”
Cobra House was a place that existed outside of time; a two-floor “tear down” duplex that hosted parties with each side hosting a different genre. Local punks The Washers, rapper Howl, electronic producer Mizma, and RnB/pop crooner Una Mey have all called Cobra House home.
I spent a handful of nights there before its demolition in summer 2018. It’s on the south side, in what once was an affordable neighborhood, but is now surrounded by redevelopment. The knowledge that it was temporary was what made it a party house through and through. Walking up the pathway you were immediately greeted by a muffled rumbling of a droning punk band smashing through a set in a packed living room. Past a crowd of moshers and headbangers was the entrance to the basement where the vibe would change in a snap.
Downstairs you’d get a literal underground rap scene, where a DJ or rapper was pushing huge speakers to their limits. Down there you could find artists like ANGST, bbno$, Declan.Wav, Coldtvrky, and Giorgi Holiday putting on a wild dance party. On its final night, a chair was smashed through a wall and into Mizma’s bedroom. Graffiti covered the living room and a disco ball hung askew from the ceiling. Cobra House was the incubator for Vancouver’s new wave and its destruction was the explosive rebirth that scattered artists across the city.
“A lot of people met there,” Bains told VICE. “Before Cobra House there was Cooke Island. It was great, too. It’s where MaSHerman and Jake Hope lived with a few other people. It was the same thing as Cobra but on a smaller scale. It’s where I met everyone at the beginning of my career.”
Bains isn’t alone in his belief that Vancouver is worth the struggle. Producer and co-founder of independent label Nyhla Records MaSHerman shares similar sentiments with high hopes for what’s to come for this city. “We choose to stay here because there are a lot of tangible things to hold onto and work towards and people that you believe in,” he said. “We’re all in this together now.”
MaSHerman shares the belief that collective housing may be the way of the future for the scene, by becoming the breeding grounds for collaboration no matter what happens to music spaces.
“There will be houses where four artists and two sound techs live together and have a jam space in the basement. All these home studios in garages. I record a lot of these records in my living room. Everything exists within our homes. There are a lot of houses in particular that are going to be torn down, so you can sign a year lease there and make it a community space until you get kicked out and find another space that opens up.”
According to MasHerman, the biggest things happening in the scene are happening in houses. Brought together through the housing crisis, artists are becoming ambitious and using whatever space what they can to their advantage. “If you take rehearsal space away then I’ll set up drums in my bedroom. No one is stopping us. Even if you pushed us all out of our homes and shut down every DIY venue in this city then we’ll find something. We’re tenacious and don’t really give a fuck.”
Even artists who have left Vancouver for Montreal recognize Vancouver’s stick-together attitude. Ashanti Mutinta, also known as BackxWash, is a trans rapper who has been based in Montreal for nearly two years, but hopes to return to Vancouver’s rap scene. The merging of scenes is just beginning to blossom in Vancouver but according to Mutinta, Montreal has its own set of genre crossovers.
“A lot of the scenes share spaces. Of course there are nights that are strictly dedicated to hip-hop or dedicated to punk, but Le Cypher [in Montreal] that’s where I see a lot of the crossover happening.” Mutinta tells VICE. With members of nearly every scene coming out to infuse their unique styles together, Cypher is a host to a fusion of Montreal’s music scenes. Feminist punk musicians who attend punk nights often tend to come out to the feminist hip-hop nights, too and lend their guitar skills on stage alongside rappers.
The French-Canadian city, by all accounts, seems like the place to be, so why leave? Living in Vancouver has proven itself to be a perpetual tug-of-war between the city’s rules and its nightlife where affording an apartment is next to impossible. Mutinta is already aware of the difficulties presented, but has a deep reason for wanting to make the journey to the opposite end of the country.
“I love the scene in Vancouver I think it’s really interesting. There’s a lot of weird, off-the-wall shit happening there when it comes to music.” The amount of talent in Montreal is jaw-dropping. Classically trained musicians from every background have used their intensive education to create Canada's sound. However, training can also put artists in the habit of sticking to conventions and limiting experimentation. From Mutinta's perspective, Vancouver is doing the exact opposite. “I think Vancouver is on this wave that’s completely different. There’s a lot of experimentation happening and interesting artists that I want to be involved with. I’m excited to get there and be a part of what the scene is doing.”
Vancouver’s high cost of living might not be a unique case, but the pace at which rent spikes and the rapid loss of venues create a uniquely hostile environment for anyone living in the city. For artists, this hostility has lit a fire under them to come together and create a sound that represents Vancouver perfectly: fucking weird.
For Bains, staying in Vancouver is less about being broke and more about the support system that has been created over the years. Having lived in Toronto for a year, he knew he had to come back home and start building from the ground up. Since he’s been back, that’s exactly what he’s done.
“I’ve built stuff here, I have connections, I know people and I feel like I have good people behind me here and I’m not willing to give that up. I have a really good team around me now.” Witnessing the progress of music in the city, Bains is hopeful and believes Vancouver’s scene can break out of itself and reach a global scale like Toronto or Montreal. “I would like for us to be a music city, but if they keep closing down venues it might not happen.”
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