“No Fun Town?” Let’s look at the facts, shall we?

Life__s_no_fun_flat_by_maklenardHello, good morning, and welcome to the Saturday Morning News Post!

Readers, my head hurts. I’ve been thinking way too much about the question of Is Vancouver “No Fun Town” or not!?, and thinking, and thinking. Quite frankly, I’m exhausted. The answer isn’t as simple as I had hoped.

1st, let’s clarify…

Vancouver is not a “cultural vacuum” as one reader remarked. Gentrified and a little sleepy perhaps, but Vancouver is still a major city with all the usual trimmings: theatre, galleries, clubs, ballet, etc. Also, in this conversation, “No Fun Town” doesn’t literally mean no fun can be had in Vancouver. There are mountains to climb, and beaches to lie on (well…, from mid-July to Sept 1st anyways), terrific restaurants, etc., I know. What we’re talking about is cultural activities and arts support in relation to other major cities.

2nd, let’s break it down, SMNP style…

Size DOES matter: A larger city population means more artists, which means more artistic activity via shows/events. Let’s use jazz as an example (I’m sure the same would be true for many art forms) and let’s say we’re in a small city with 1 jazz club and 50 jazz musicians; there’s only so many times people are going to go out and listen to the same musicians perform. Compare that with a larger city with 2 jazz clubs and 500 musicians. Well, there’s simply more activity, (and more competition, which doesn’t hurt either) and therefore more reason to go catch a show. A larger population also means artists have a greater chance of finding like-minded collaborators, which in turn, can also lead to more group inspiration and more shows.

Let’s just look at the numbers for minute:

Toronto: Population (2006)[1][2]
– City 2,503,281 (1st)
– Density 3,972/km2 (10,287.4/sq mi)
– Urban 4,753,120 (1st)
– Metro 5,113,149 (1st)

Montreal: Population (2006)[1][2][3]
– City 1,620,693 (2nd)
– Density 4,439/km2 (11,496/sq mi)
– Urban 3,316,615
– Metro 3,635,571 (2nd)
– Metro density 854/km2 (2,211.8/sq mi)

Vancouver: Population (2006 Census)[1]
– City 578,041 (8th)
– Density 5,335/km2 (13,817.6/sq mi)
– Metro 2,116,581 (3rd)

Calgary: Population (2006)[2][3]
– City 988,193 (3rd)
– Density 1,360.2/km2 (3,522.9/sq mi)
– Metro 1,079,310 (5th)
– Metro density 227.5/km2 (589.2/sq mi)

Cultural history: A city’s sense of “self”:

The older the city, the longer the history. History and culture are quite intertwined no? Some cities even have “cultural identifiers,” a claim to fame if you will, that they can latch on to and be proud of. Kansas City: “Home of the Blues“, New Orleans: “Birthplace of Jazz“, Nashville: “Music City“, Vienna: “Birthplace of Beethoven and Schubert, etc“, and so on and so forth. People like/need to identify with things to identify themselves, things they can be proud of and therefore support, whether it’s a rich history of music or having a great sports team. I don’t know, this is a bit harder to quantify but Vancouver is a very young city in a relatively young country. Vancouver is indeed famous for being a beautiful place, which is actually, em… a pretty nice attribute really. I can’t help but wonder however, if this natural beauty factor, to some degree, supplants the need for culture.

Proximity to other major cities:

Any performer’s career has to include at least some touring, so the closer you are to other major cities the better: Montreal is 2 hours from Ottawa, 4-5 hours from Toronto and, if you’re willing to get the work permits, 6-7 hours from New York City. Vancouver is only 3 hours from Seattle but,… I don’t know of many musicians who play down there AND I rarely see Seattle musicians in Vancouver. I don’t know why that’s the case,… permit costs maybe?

Affordability and public transportation:

People like going out in Montreal; they go out often and they stay out late. You can tack that up in part to the French joie do vivre (“apportez votre vin” policies in restaurants?… genius), but the Montreal cost of living is also considerably less. Having a decent combination subway/bus system also makes going out more convenient and cheaper. I’ve never made much money, but living in more affordable cities with great public transportation (New York, Shanghai, Montreal) has always translated into me going out a lot more often. OK, New York is plenty expensive but,… it’s New York, and so people are willing to live in shoe boxes so they can go out more.

See? Easily definable elements of what contributes to an arts scene.

At this point, reader’s may think I’m trashing my home town. I’m not. Vancouver is still a major city, still a beautiful city, still has a very mild climate, and still has some fantastic artists. In fact, some of the strikes made against Vancouver are what gives the city it’s charm: It still feels like the biggest small town you’ll ever live in. I’m just trying to identify why Vancouver has a reputation among many artists as “Very-challenging-to-make-a-living-in town” if not “No-Fun Town.” The better I can understand the landscape, the better off I’ll be in figuring out how to make a living there, or not, as the case may be. We shall see.

So,… did I pretty much nail it?… Thoughts?

Thanks for reading and have a great week everyone! jd1

(above image “Life’s No Fun Flat” by maklenard)

  • Gavin Walker

    I remember interviewing Phil Nimmons here in Vancouver for the CBC in the early 80’s. Remember, he was born in B.C. in Kamloops and spent his early days in Vancouver in the late 40’s and early 50’s. During the interview we talked about his practice routine and his writing routine and he said, as he looked out the window of his room at the Bayshore Inn, “you know Gavin, just look out of this window. This city is so beautiful and pristine and offers so much in the way of outdoor amenities like walking, skiing, swimming, boating and all that good stuff that I would never get to putting pen to paper or sticking the clarinet in my mouth if I lived here. With all those wonderful distractions I’m surprised that Vancouver has so many accomplished great players….they must have to really work at going to the woodshed among all of this natural beauty…..don’t you think?” (Laughter from both of us). I think Phil expanded on an important point that you made James. It’s also the “feel” of a city…..Montreal, New York, London, San Francisco etc. have had a vibe and a feel that if you are a creative person with artistic desires and ambitions you are welcomed whereas here in Vancouver it’s more a “well good for you man… but what else do you do” I realize that is an oversimplification but it’s that attitude which is more prevelant here than in other cities that an artistic pursuit is more a recreational hobby than a full bore lifelong and all-encompassing endeavour.

  • http://jamesdanderfer.com james

    Ha! Phil,… I love that guy. So, if I understand correctly Gavin, you’re agreeing that the natural beauty of Vancouver causes people to be less interested in cultural activity and therefore place little value on artists? If so, do you think that could be changed somehow (besides of course, paving our mountains and beaches)? If Vancouver’s blessed good looks really do separate it from other cities, maybe it requires a different approach to get people interested.

  • Gavin Walker

    Well James, Rio de Janeiro has a beautiful setting like Vancouver and is very much a multi-cultural city, much like Vancouver and yet it throbs with music everywhere. Rio has the huge Cristo Redentor statue as well so my proposal is that we erect a huge ( Charlie Parker/Duke Ellington/Sidney Bechet/Miles Davis/Charles Mingus/insert a name here) statue in Stanley Park or Little Mountain or at Main and Hastings and maybe change the vibe of the city! Seriously I think the city needs to overhaul not only many of the liquor regulations but the rules and regs on venues to make it more feasible to creatively inclined business people to open performance spaces within the city. I know basic costs, rent, taxes etc are working against this but the government (civic, federal and provincial) could help a lot with rent subsidies, tax and business licence reductions and such to make it more attractive to open up such venues and have enough money in the kitty to actually pay musicians a fair wage. Seattle and Portland are similiar in many respects to Vancouver and they seem to have lots of live music venues and a relatively thriving musical community. Perhaps we should check out their rules and regs and see what could affect our scene in a more positive way.

  • http://jamesdanderfer.com james

    Good idea Gavin, I’m not sure what kind of subsidies I’d be asking the government for but I’ll look into it. As for the statue suggestion, I’m not familiar with any of those other names you mentioned but I will look into having a Danderfer Redentor erected somewhere high above the city,… on top of Grouse mountain perhaps. …Why didn’t I think of that before?!

  • http://johndoheny.blogspot.com/ John Doheny

    “Vancouver is indeed famous for being a beautiful place, which is actually, em… a pretty nice attribute really.”

    It’s in a beautiful setting, yeah, but it’s got some of the fugliest architecture in the known universe. As Allan Fotherhingham once said “God gave Vancouverites a paradise in which to construct a second rate Omaha.”

    “Size DOES Matter”

    Maybe. But if that’s the case, how do you explain the fact that Nashville, Vienna, and New Orleans are all SMALLER than Vancouver. And BTW, I was unaware that Calgary had surpassed Vancouver in population and ursurped the city’s former position as 3rd largest city in the country. I guess that means it’s the new ‘cultural mecca’ of the west now:-P

    Really, we get it, we really do. Vancouver is a geographically isolated, middle-tier burg, and it’s totally unfair to hold the place to the same “big league” cultural standard as places like New York or Tahranna. But could you please pass that message along to the powers that be up there? Maybe they’ll dial back all that “world class” bloviating they’re constantly pumping out to the tourist trade.

    Seriously, it’s all perception. Austin Texas and Nashville Tennesse DO have some background as “music towns” but they also had a big push from their municipal and state governments in developing those personas. Vancouver has the human resources. Maybe someday, the city fathers will wake up and start pushing jazz at, say, the Japanese tourist market. I hear those folks are crazy for that stuff.

  • http://jamesdanderfer.com james

    HA! “… a second rate Omaha”, that’s good!

    Yes John, Nashville, Vienna, and New Orleans are all smaller than Vancouver, but that’s where my Cultural history: A city’s sense of “self” point comes into play. New Orleans and Vienna are especially good examples of this because there cultural contributions to the world are enormous and equally famous. I’d guess in both cases that this history in some way defines the city and is woven into the cultural fabric. I don’t know, you tell me.

    Also, those population numbers can be misleading. The way I read it, Calgary still has a lower metro population, I believe their “city” limits just include a wider area, with some suburbs perhaps.

  • http://shaunajohannesen.com Shauna Johannesen

    James, I think this is a pretty good overview of the situation in Vancouver. A great overview, actually.(Though I was saddened that “Size DOES Matter” was not, in fact, a link to a tawdry website. That’s a real chance to up your website traffic.)

    So this explains Vancouver pretty well, but you’re right: as artists, or people who value a thriving art culture…what then shall we do? Come on people! Let’s bring some creative gumption here…

  • http://johndoheny.blogspot.com/ John Doheny

    “but that’s where my Cultural history: A city’s sense of “self” point comes into play”

    I’m not disputing this, but I would add that every city’s sense of “cultural history” has to start somewhere, and Vancouver’s started quite some time ago, if even the “Vancouver Jazz History” section on the Vancouverjazz.com forum is any guide.

    Let’s take Vienna and New Orleans out of the equation for a moment, and just look at a place like Austin Texas, or Nashville Tennessee. Nashville didn’t become the focal point for country music it is today until at least the 1920s, when movement from rural to urban population centers, something taking place all over the United States, brought all kinds of pickers and kickers into the city from the farm, looking for factory work and a better life. But Nashville as “Music City, USA” is almost entirely a product of the city and state government from the 1960s on, who worked together to “brand” the city as such. Without that extra push, Nashville would probably still have a fair share of recording studios and music publishing companies, but it’s reputation as a music center would very likely be unknown outside of industry circles.

    Austin didn’t even have the advantage of industry infrastructure. Up until the 1970s, it was just a college town with the requisite number of student beer joints and artsy, studenty types. The rich musical heritage of Texas wasn’t anywhere near Austin in those days, it was centered in the much bigger cities of Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston. Then urban renewal happened, reducing music-rich neighborhoods like Dallas’s Deep Ellum to yuppiefied, boutique-friendly shaddows of their former dangerous-ghetto selves (Same thing happened to Beale Street in Memphis around the same time, although there are still arguably more gigs in three blocks worth of the new, tourist-friendly Beale Street than in all of Vancouver). In Austin, all it took was a few visionaries like the late Clifford Antones to kick start a thriving club scene among the plentiful student population. A push and “rebranding” from the city government did the rest, and eventually the establishment of music industry conferences like SBSW sealed the deal. And whoever engineered the genesis of Austin City Limits on PBS was a genius; every week millions of viewers watch top notch musicians, most of whom don’t even live in Austin, perform in front of a big backdrop of the state capitol dome. The association of “Austin Texas” with “tons o music” is inescapable.

    Most of this is absolutely not some kind of ‘natural,’ ‘organic’ process, where cities just magically become music centers. It happens because government and industry decide there’s money to be made in pitching a place a certain way. Vancouver made the decision, a long time ago, that it’s strong points were natural attributes like skiing and sailing, and supposedly “world class” shopping opportunities in commercial strips like Robson Street. This last is, of course, nonsense. There’s definitely some very nice, expensive crap for sale in Vancouver, but nothing you can’t get more and better in Paris, New York, or even Toronto. Skiing is seasonal, and pitching Vancouver beaches to people who could just as easily fly to Mauii is just laughable.

    Vancouver has enormously valuable resources in it’s artists and musicians. From my perspective here in the United States I can tell you that Vancouver is mostly known as a clean, safe city of great natural beauty. There is some perception of visual arts there (I’ve met more than a few Americans who know of Bill Reid’s work, for example) but the ONLY people I’ve EVER met who have the faintest inkling there’s any kind of local jazz scene there are cats who’ve played in Vancouver, either at the Cellar or for Jazzfest. The vast majority of Americans, even jazz fans, would never think to associate Vancouver with jazz, in fact now, thanks to the Olympics, if they’ve heard of the city at all they think the only music there is new-agey pop versions of Haida Indian chants. And yet when I play recordings of Vancouver musicians, which I do often (mostly Cellarlive CDs, but I also have given recordings of Fraser Macpherson to DJs at WWOZ, and to my good friend Mike “Mr. Jazz” Gourrierre at WRIR in Richmond VA) the uniform reaction is “wow! Who are these cats? And why haven’t I heard them before?” (In cruelly ironic fashion, they also sometimes say “hey, there must be a lot of places to play up there”).

    I take your points, I really do, but given that, as a commenter above says, what do we, as musicians and Vancouverites, do? And as I previously said, your choices are 1. vote with your feet and leave, as I and others have done, and will doubtless continue to do in greater numbers, as the situation continues to deteriorate, 2. Take the Cory Weeds route and stay and work to effect positive change. I take my hat off to Cory, and all the other people in Vancouver who work so hard to make the music happen, but these folks can’t do it on their own. There needs to be a consensus, at the municipal and provincial level, that the huge creative resources Vancouver possesses in the form of it’s artists and musicians are valuable and worthy of promoting on the world stage. Until that happens, things will always be as they are now.