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Noisey

Meet the Student Using His Master's Thesis to Unite His Local Music Scene

A software engineer wants to bring his city's music communities together.

May 10 2016, 2:00pm


Photos Courtesy of ATHIRDTIME

Regina’s music scene has always been fragmented–you’ve got the hardcore kids hanging out in basements, hip-hop fans at club gigs and everybody else is at the Craven Country Jamboree (or at least, sometimes that’s how it seems). But Marvin Chan, a software engineering student at the University of Regina and part-time musician, is trying to change that. His master’s thesis is on how to bring the local scene of musicians and audiences closer together. “In my mind, we have a lot of artists but they were never, ever unified,” he says. “But there’s too few of us in one given scene to really make a dent, so our best bet is to get together… for people to take independent music seriously.”

Chan’s thesis was inspired by Eric Ries’ bestselling book, The Lean Startup, which says you can apply the principles of software methodology to starting a business. It’s basically an approach that calls for the project to be split up into phases so that it’s easier to develop and manage along the way. So Chan thought, why can’t the same concept for developing a local music scene? “As a teenager, I listened to hardcore, being [of a ethnic] minority and wanting a place to feel understood,” he says. “I got into hip-hop later, and realized how similar the genres are. They both have a DIY approach to making music. That’s just it: there’s a lot that genres can learn from each other.”

Noisey: So the whole thing started with you being a musician yourself, right?
Marvin Chan: We started a hip-hop band called DGS a couple years ago, and it was like if someone’s starting a family they want to make sure their family lives in a nice neighbourhood so they can grow up in a good environment. So starting a band, I wanted it to grow up in a healthy creative community that, to me, wasn’t there at the time. So I felt like the first step into that was building a festival together with other members of the local music scene. And of course, the idea was the scene would be a byproduct of the festival. One can’t exist without the other.

So how exactly does one apply “software methodology” to starting a festival?
Well, the main principle is that technology changes so fast, what you need to do is create prototypes and test them by gaining user feedback. And you just repeat it until you’ve got the final product. That’s how we started the Trifecta Music Festival. Our first was in 2014, and that prototype was just the minimal amount of requirements and features to have [the festival] functioning. One day and eight bands, so the co-founders and myself could gather enough data to see what worked and what didn’t.

Last year, we expanded from one to two days, made the beer gardens bigger to accommodate 200 more people and increased the line-up from eight to 25 acts. Not a huge change, but a more complete version of the product. This year’s festival we aren’t drastically changing anything, just trying to refine what we did last year, and we’ll go on from there.

So is it working? Is the local scene becoming better?
We’re not at the final product yet, but I think Trifecta is doing what it was meant to do. I think the scenes are starting to come more together now. I’m seeing hardcore kids at hip-hop shows, and hip-hop kids at indie rock shows. I still remember two instances of different guys—one’s a folk singer, the other a heavy blues singer— saying, “This is my first hip-hop show ever, this is so much fun.” Which to me is pretty cool.

Why do you think that people haven’t checked out different genres?
Regina is a small city with a small town mentality, and sometimes people have a hard time branching out. I feel like people don’t want to give anything a chance these days, especially in Saskatchewan, which I consider to be like the bible belt of Canada. That’s why we’ve done a couple Trifecta concert series, in addition to the festival, and are trying to do a few different genres or themes inside of one show so that people get exposed to different ideas. In March, we had one at a ’60s-style diner where my band—we play hip-hop—and a prairie punk band collaborated. We learned some of their songs, and they learned some of ours. We’re about to do our first hardcore show, which is going to be at the same time as a Street Fighter and Smash Bros tournament, while the games are being projected onto the bands.

Woah, woah. Are Reginans ready for that?
It did take awhile to convince people to take us seriously, but that’s just an underlying thing here. Sometimes I think we’re just putting together all the stuff we like video games, punk, rappers and stuff. [laughs] But I really do believe that, at the end of the day, music is just music. The more different genres you can listen to, it just expands your perspective. Even if it’s all shit, there’s going to be some parts in the shit that you can respect as being good.

Barbara Woolsey is a writer living in Berlin, born and raised in Regina. Follow her on Twitter.