Scant hope? A year in review for Vancouver’s live music venues

2013 has been an eventful year for Vancouver’s live music venues.

The year was not yet a week old when the locally-renowned promotion agency Waldorf Productions faced a high-profile eviction from the Waldorf, the hotel and lounge that, since 2010, played host to their unique (and much-beloved) mix of hospitality, arts and entertainment.

The team, led by chef Ernesto Gomez and musician Thomas Anselmi, re-emerged in March as the Arrival Agency, organizing events that included this year’s Khatsalano! Festival and the Food Cart Fest, as well as a Black Flag concert at the Chinese Cultural Centre, 50 East Pender, on July 20. It was one of the first appearances by the seminal Southern Californian hardcore punk band, founded and led by Greg Ginn, in 26 years.

And recently, Arrival has been working with David Duprey’s Junebug Enterprises to turn a former porn theatre on Main Street, the Fox Cinema, into a live entertainment venue. They’re making steady progress.

Case in point: the Fox received a liquor licence on Dec. 4 after an “unanimous” vote by Vancouver city council.

This is good news for many of Vancouver’s indie music fans and performers. The city’s few all-ages venues, however, are facing a tougher situation.

For all the challenges it faces, this grassroots community is gaining a toehold in a city infamously inhospitable to their ilk. But it is a tenuous one.


Photo via Safe Amp

Take the recent success of the Safe Amplification Site Society (Safe Amp) in securing space at Astorino’s at 1739 Venables ST., for instance. According to a report in the May issue of Discorder magazine, a local community organization is subletting space to Safe Amp at the property, which is a ballroom once owned by “brothers Leo and Tony Astorino,” who sold it to an unnamed development company.

The organization, the Britannia Community Services Centre Society, is in turn leasing the building from that company for one year, a period after which the fate of its tenants (including Safe Amp) is unknown.

For now, though, it is a beacon of hope in Vancouver’s all-ages community. Sadly, such events as the the demise of the Zoo Zhop , formerly at 223 Main St., are casting a greater pall as the year draws to a close.

The Zoo Zhop

Photo via Zoo Zhop

“Due to pressure from the city and fear of triggered ‘automatic upgrades’ that come with a development permit (which is required to maintain studios and shows) our landlords have given us notice that they intend to terminate our lease,” Zoo Zhop owner David Mattatall announced on its Facebook page on Oct. 2.  The Zoo Zhop was forced to wind down its operations before its lease was cancelled on Nov. 1.

The Zoo Zhop, nominally a record store, has also hosted dozens of all-ages concerts for the four years it existed, as well as providing studio space for musicians. From the start, these uses put the ad-hoc venue into a regulatory grey area that could have lead to its demise. But from the day it opened its doors in 2009 to its closing this November, it survived numerous visits from bylaw inspectors – mostly because of noise complaints from tenants who, Mattatall says, were illegally living upstairs – and was on the verge of reaching an understanding with the city regarding its operations as a venue before its lease was cancelled.

“We had completed the development proposal, we were waiting for our architect to take a look at the building to add as additions to [the proposal],” Mattatall said in an Oct. 12 interview.

“We were ready to do it,” he added.

The cancellation of the Zoo Zhop’s lease concluded the Downtown Eastside business’s most recent struggle with the city of Vancouver, which stemmed from an incident in late May that left the its operators scrambling to meet fire code regulations. The Zoo Zhop was visited on May 30, during a musical performance, by inspectors from Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, who listed 14 repairs that needed to be completed at the venue in order for it to meet bylaws, which it quickly completed.

But despite these last-ditch efforts, the Zhop still met its doom. Mattatall closed the interview on a note of resignation.

“Retail rents are going through the roof,” Mattatall said. “It’s really difficult. Ask any business owner on Main, they all have the same difficulties in that rent is too damn high.”

“I’m not going to open a retail space, that’s just the way it is,” he added.

“My priorities lie in figuring out where I go from here, I guess… there is no positive light at the end of this tunnel for Zoo Zhop as a space.”

The Zoo Zhop’s death underscores the precarious situation of Vancouver’s live music venues, especially of the all-ages variety. Still, as the stories of Safe Amp and Arrival prove, the struggle continues.

Chris Yee

Kwantlen journalism student and man-about-town, scouring every nook and cranny for morsels of emerging local culture.

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