How Vancouver's housing and tech boom is putting the squeeze on local musicians
Musicians say high cost of living and competition for industrial real estate is pricing out talent
"With three weeks' notice, 60 bands in Vancouver were trying to find a rehearsal studio."
Steven Houston's band was one of them. And it wasn't the first, nor the second, but the third time his musicians found themselves scrambling again to find a place to practice.
"It was because the city came in and shut it down," Houston said. "They said something wasn't up to code or whatnot. Basically, they wanted to build condos there."
In a city like Vancouver, full of high-density housing and renters of basement suites, most musicians can't practice at home. Instead, they generally rent rooms in practice spaces in converted industrial warehouses, either by the month or by the hour — but as real estate values balloon and other businesses look for cheap places to set up shop, it's getting harder for practice spaces to keep their prices affordable for musicians.
Competition from tech companies, microbreweries
Rob Stewart, owner of Suna Studios, has run three practice spaces over the last eight years. He's already been forced to close one.
His third space, the Rockery, is nestled in the industrial area just off Clark Drive in East Vancouver. His primary competition for industrial real estate these days? Tech companies and microbreweries.
"The real estate values have gone through the roof, meaning the rents have gotten higher, and that's directly related to companies like [HootSuite, for example], coming in and paying a higher price per square foot," Stewart said.
Stewart says he's historically been able to negotiate rents of about $1 per square foot. For monthly rentals, he charges $4 per square foot, which covers both the rent and the up-front construction costs he's sunk into the buildings to provide things a practice space needs, such as soundproofing, security and safety systems like fire alarms.
That means one of his smaller rooms, such as the 160-square-foot room rented in part by Houston, goes for $640 a month. Monthly rooms with 24-hour access like this are usually split between multiple bands and musicians.
In Houston's case, he shares the room with three bands and a few solo musicians. Split between 12 people, it works out to between $50 and $60 a month per person.
Not just the newbies
Vancouver mainstays Said the Whale, on the back of a 10-year career and five studio albums, also found themselves out of a space when the popular Renegade Studios was forced to close its original location.
"I definitely do not envy any band starting out right now," said Tyler Bancroft, frontman of Said the Whale.
"We're in a pretty lucky position because we've spent the last 10 years building what we have, but even a band at our level is still struggling a little bit in Vancouver."
Stewart says action is needed if we want the city's music scene to stay vibrant. One of his business partners, he says, is a commercial developer who saw himself as part of the problem, and so began developing practice spaces as a way to give back.
"The same thing needs to happen at many levels within the government," Stewart said. "There needs to be a concerted effort by business people and landlords. That's the only way it's going to work."
'Something really romantic' in the struggle
Casey Wei's band Late Spring is on the come-up, having won the 2016 edition of Shindig, CiTR's annual battle of the bands. But despite the struggles of living in Vancouver, she doesn't want to move somewhere like Toronto or Montreal, even if it might be easier to make a go of it as a musician.
"Building a community here so that you're in conversation with a scene here that you really love and want to be a part of — I think that's the most important thing, as opposed to moving away, becoming successful and then coming back," she said.
Bancroft agrees. He doesn't, for a moment, regret keeping Said the Whale based in Vancouver.
"I think there's something really romantic and important about staying in a city that's trying to push you out and trying to price you out and carving out a niche and carving out a space for arts and developing culture," he said. "I think that's really important."
And Stewart is in it for the long haul too — no matter how many tech companies and microbreweries he has to compete with.
"If you go down this path and you continue to go down this path, what you're going to end up with is a giant city full of glass and steel buildings with no art, and that is a very bleak existence," he said.
"[Building these resources] is what I've done for eight years, and I'll continue to do it until I either feel like we're where we need to be or I run out of money."