Blow It Out Your Ear with Trevor Risk
Local man describes everything terrible about the music business in Vancouver.
Some of you locals may have heard the same fun story I heard this summer about the show that (finally!) brought together techno-glam retreads Orgy with that band that made that song that’s been on every movie trailer for a decade, Filter. I wasn’t there, but I heard from two first-hand sources that Filter were doing their hit (or the other hit, I’m not sure which) and they had the plug pulled on them, leaving the band without any power to project their presumably soaring vocals and pointy-shaped guitar squealings. Reactions ranged from “Aw, that’s a shame,” to outright outrage because it was early in the night but there’s a reason they were cut off, and it’s simple: economics. There was a late-night DJ scheduled, and a DJ is far more important to the finances of a venue than an early, live music night.
I know we all love to lionize live music, especially when it’s made with guitars. Our good old dads used to pump that business in the car. We still get wistful when we hear Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” come on a jukebox, but at this point, not even a debate between both parties at war for Vancouver’s venues can chip a hole in the wall that is live venue economics.
Let’s look at how a venue makes its money. Most live music events are run by outside promoters. They pay a small room fee that covers staffing (sound engineer, box office attendant) and then take home the entire door profits. The venue makes money on bar sales. If you are at a live music event, look around the crowd. Most of them are nursing a single pint of beer for the entire show. Many mid-sized venues will actually run out of pint glasses at a live event. The average drinks per customer at a live music show—no matter which night of the week or whether it is early or late—is 1.5. Instead of drinking, attendees naturally end up standing and watching the band intently and do little fraternizing. At a DJ event, patrons do more moving, dancing, meeting one another, and are more likely to buy rounds of shots and highballs. The average drinks per person at a DJ night is often closer to eight or nine. Therefore, a sold-out three-hour DJ night is much more beneficial to the bar than just about any band, and that’s without even taking into consideration other factors like the overhead on soundcheck or the fact that most venues also get to profit from door sales from late DJ events. It becomes a no-brainer.
Often, given the aforementioned variables, a live music event will make as little as 8% of what a DJ night will.
Now, that’s not to say that live music has 8% of the value that DJ events do. There are some less quantifiable ideas to consider like the prestige or brand awareness that a well-known live act could provide for a venue, or the idea that an early show will bring in patrons to fill the room and provide a welcoming space for late-night bar stars. However, one can notice the schism in the routing and programming of events in this part of the world quite easily if seen through a certain combination of lenses.
Look at mid-level acts routing through the Cascadian region lately. Many at this point opt out of playing Vancouver and instead play a venue in Bellingham. The immediate assumption is that American acts from, say, Oakland wouldn’t want to deal with the headache of the border, but in fact, the issues with live music and the border are one-way. If an American act is coming to perform in Vancouver, whether they’re a comic, a DJ, or a musician, all that is needed to cross legally is a form letter, and very rarely are they even asked to present it. Trying to find a spot that’s worthwhile financially in Vancouver is so challenging that artists are finding more success playing a Washington town of 80,000 inhabitants.
There’s a colloquial saying I picked up in my hometown: It’s the empty trucks that make the most noise as they rattle over the train tracks. The cultural uproar between performing live music versus performing recorded music is not being helped by those rickety pickups. In what has become a regular occurrence when a festering cesspool being passed off as a live venue gets shut down for lack of interest, the old timers and vintage fetishists of this city, specifically the East Side, are now taking to the streets (read: their Facebook pages, otherwise full of hamfisted posts that attempt to virtue signal their long-leaning Champagne socialism) to basically demand the city provide them a bar, and to pay long-time local, scuzzy impresario Wendy Thirteen’s pension. Listening to this type of caterwauling, it’s almost like these bloviators haven’t noticed the music industry completely dissolving over the past 20 years. Perhaps those same oldsters yelling about “Some hipster pressing play on his iPod isn’t music, man!” should consider the fact that their community has been watering down this city’s music scene by having four or five “final shows ever” for every single one of their relic new wave and punk bands that once put this city on the proverbial map.
Perhaps the two scenes aren’t comparable and we should stop. They could dovetail quite nicely if the live scene wasn’t having a temper tantrum about what is and isn’t “real” music. Ironically, before live musicians became publicly furious and dismissive of recorded dance music evenings, there were many nights in this city where DJs and promoters would put on live music early or even halfway through the evening, but that format has since been discarded due to economics, public disinterest, and obscenely ridiculous demands from the live musicians.
We guitar people could learn a few things from the DJ scene rather than spew hate, because the latter’s response is mostly, as the meme goes “I don’t think about you at all.”