Title: Permission to be loud: Struggling with urban development contradictions in the Vancouver Music Strategy

Author/s: Matthew Campbell 

Creation Date: 2021

Senior Supervisor: Dr. Eugene McCann 

Keywords: music strategy; cultural space; economic inequality; displacement; public engagement; right to the city

Geographic Focus: Vancouver, British Columbia 

Research Question/s: How does the Vancouver Music Strategy seek to reconcile the apparent contradictions of urban economic development and spatial justice that are embedded within it?

Significance: Music is one of the most effective ways to communicate ideas, express one’s identity, sustain mental health and generate a sense of belonging in the city and the world. In Canada, music has historically been supported by the private sector, primarily through the sale of physical albums, ticketed events, and licensing for movies, television and advertising. It has also been subsidized through Federal and Provincial granting bodies such as FACTOR (The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings), Canada Council for the Arts and Creative BC. The commercial music industry continues to exploit only the most commodifiable music while navigating systemic technological changes such as streaming and social media platforms. Non-commercial genres such as opera, folk/world and classical music, generally found in the traditional non-profit music industry, depend increasingly on shrinking subsidies and serve primarily wealthier audiences.

At the same time, thousands of Vancouverites are creating and sharing music in ways that do not necessarily depend upon success in the commercial music industry, nor are they creating the kind of music that is sustained by national and provincial granting councils. Instead, the music that is the focus of this research is made primarily for the sake of creating or experimenting with forms of music making that have meaning to the creators or the communities they are a part of, regardless of economic potential or technical or artistic superiority. I identify this group as both grassroots and DIY (do-it-yourself) in nature and I argue that these communities best exemplify Vancouver’s racial, ethnic, gender, age, ability and socioeconomic diversity when it comes to the music made in this city.    

Between 2016 and 2019, the City of Vancouver developed its first music-specific economic, cultural, and social development strategy. Through public engagement and consultation, the City sought to represent the diversity of Vancouver’s local music “ecosystem” (Sound Diplomacy, 2020) while prioritizing the provision and preservation of music spaces and emphasizing the inclusion of historically underrepresented groups, identities, and musical genres in the process (City of Vancouver, 2019).

However, while the City was taking actions to establish a supportive relationship with the music community, the City’s False Creek Flats Area Plan (2017) and Northeast False Creek Plan (2018) outlined intentions to redevelop the two neighbourhoods and attract new business and investment from other creative industries, including tech, craft brewing, digital entertainment and lifestyle apparel. These proposals impact the property values of buildings that currently provide many of the affordable and accessible spaces to create, produce and perform music, displacing the very groups, identities and genres the City sought to elevate and amplify and undermining top priorities in the strategy to preserve and provide space for all of Vancouver’s music communities (City of Vancouver, 2019).

Methods: I conducted semi-structured interviews with key players in the non-profit and for-profit community and within the City’s Cultural Services Department and analyzed influential music-related planning documents that led to the development of the Vancouver Music Strategy, numerous media sources, two open letters and two neighbourhood plans. I conducted ethnographic research through attending and participating in the City’s public engagement events and reflected on my peers’ and my own experiences as musicians and music consumers in Vancouver’s DIY and grassroots music spaces.

To address the research question, I analyzed the data that influenced the strategy’s priorities, with an emphasis on their provision and preservation of space and social equity claims. I then contrasted that data with what I learned in interviews, media sources, ethnographic research and open letters. I focused on clarifying the status of numerous music spaces in the City since 2018, when much of the data was collected in the Vancouver Music Ecosystem Study and highlighted specific examples and reasons for their displacement. I then compared the public engagement process in the development of the Vancouver Music Strategy with other commitments to public engagement and inclusive city building (Junos, 2021).

Findings: The findings in this project highlight a conflation of culture and creative industries as well as a disconnection between the City’s development goals, the data and industry consensus presented within the Vancouver Music Strategy and the many Vancouverites who feel that the City is complicit in dislocating Vancouver’s cultural backbone. As rents increase, largely due to speculative investment promoted in redevelopment plans, and incentives for developers and property owners to attain the ‘highest and best use of land’, grassroots and DIY music spaces, and indeed local arts and cultural spaces more broadly, are being displaced at an alarming rate (Woodend, 2019; Kurucz, 2019; ECCS, 2019). I discovered that, in 2018 and 2019, at least 19 music performance and rehearsal spaces were closed or changed use in Vancouver. Finding new spaces elsewhere in the City has become nearly impossible, because of the specific needs for music spaces and competition with other creative industries and artistic endeavours for the same remaining properties.

I also discovered that despite the good intentions of social and cultural planners throughout the engagement process, the Vancouver Music Strategy does not accurately reflect the priorities of the everyday musician, let alone the cities most marginalized communities, instead privileging the needs of the commercial music industry and falling short on recommendations that would have any significant impact on the preservation and provision of accessible and affordable space for all. That is to say, urban economic development and spatial justice – accessible and affordable space for all citizens to pursue their human potential (Marcuse, 2014; Soja, 2010) – is not being adequately reconciled. The City’s limited capacity, jurisdiction, and political will to contend with the powerful and notably global forces behind competing interests within the more profitable creative industries and the real estate market in general, seriously diminishes the potential impact of the Vancouver Music Strategy.

Figure above: The Red Gate exhibition and performance space’s most recent location, near the future False Creek Flats ‘Innovation Hub’. The Red Gate Arts Society has a mandate of accessibility, diversity, inclusivity, and exemplifies the virtues of the Vancouver Music Strategy, yet is in near constant existential crisis due to either eviction or rent increases. Photo by author, 2020.


City of Vancouver (2019) Vancouver Music Strategy. Website. Retrieved from https://council.vancouver.ca/20190910/documents/ACCS-RTS13175-AppendixE-VancouverMusicStrategy.PDF

City of Vancouver (2018) Northeast False Creek Plan. Website. Retrieved from https://council.vancouver.ca/20180131/documents/cfsc4.pdf

City of Vancouver (2017) False Creek Flats Area Plan. Website. Retrieved from https://vancouver.ca/files/cov/false-creek-flats-plan-2017-05-17.pdf

Eastside Culture Crawl Society (2019) A City Without Art? No Net Loss Plus!. Web. Retrieved from https://issuu.com/culturecrawl/docs/citywithoutart

Kurucz, J. (2019) Speculation weeding out Vancouver’s grassroots arts spaces at alarming pace: As two arts and culture studies near completion, two more venues owned by Chip Wilson close. Vancouver Is Awesome. Retrieved from https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/courier-archive/news/speculation-weeding-out-vancouvers-grassroots-arts-spaces-at-alarming-pace-3102129

Junos, K. (2021) Black Community left out of Nora Hendrix street name decision. City News. Retrieved from https://www.citynews1130.com/2021/02/10/black-community-left-out-hendrix-street-name-decision/

Marcuse, P. (2014). Reading the Right to the City. City, 18(1), 4–9.

Soja, E.W. (2010) Seeking Spatial Justice. University of Minnesota Press

Sound Diplomacy (2020) Website. Retrieved from https://www.sounddiplomacy.com/our-insights/2019/8/12/music-ecosystem

Sound Diplomacy (2018) The Vancouver Music Ecosystem Study. Music BC. Retrieved from https://www.musicbc.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Vancouver-full-report-FINAL-19_07_2018.pdf

Woodend, D. (2019) Chipping Away at Vancouver’s Affordable Art Spaces. The Tyee. Retrieved from https://thetyee.ca/Culture/2019/08/22/Chipping-Away-Affordable-Art-Spaces-Vancouver/