Step inside the spaces belonging to Vancouver’s resilient music scenes
© Jon Hunwick
In Vancouver, artists are forced to navigate and utilize spaces creatively in response to the city's socioeconomic conditions.
There’s a well-worn joke that nothing’s contributed more to the growth of modern electronic music than the real estate market. Decades of out-of-control housing prices and neverending condo construction have transformed modern city skylines, and also their demographics. Up-and-coming creatives who might’ve formed their craft in a suburban basement or garage a couple of generations ago are now working in bedrooms and shared living spaces, trading drum kits and amplifiers for laptops and headphones. In Vancouver, the idea of a “garage band” has been economically unsustainable for a few generations, at odds with the city’s rising international reputation as a dancefloor powerhouse. Whether it’s jazz, punk, hip hop or dance, most modern music emerges out of a community’s need to work with scale-able resources.
“For a while, Vancouver was weirdly synonymous with this sort of laid back, new age-y house music,” says Derek Duncan, “but that’s changed a lot more recently.” Duncan, also known as DJ D.DEE, helps run Pacific Rhythm, a record label and party crew. In the beginning, they were running a physical store, until insurmountable rent costs made the new reality of doing business abundantly clear. The operation quickly shifted to an online focus.
Duncan thinks that part of the reason so many locals artists have found success abroad is because musicians are forced to travel for opportunities, while being encouraged to work closely with each other at home. Even as performance venues and brick-and-mortar spaces were becoming more precarious a few years ago, labels like 1080p and Mood Hut were bringing their paradoxically spacious, aspirationally chill house sounds to far flung corners of the globe.
More recently, Duncan also helped found No Fun Radio, an all-genres radio station programmed by local DJs and selectors. “Vancouver actually has a pretty strong history of radio, but there’s never been a station that’s made much room for dance music, as well as other less visible genres,” he explains from No Fun Radio and Pacific Rhythm’s tiny office in an industrial studio building which also acts as a late night takeaway joint. “We wanted to make a space where anyone could come in and access reliable equipment, hear themselves clearly and play what they want.” Where reliable spaces aren’t possible, No Fun Radio offers bandwidth instead, with round-the-clock programming from all corners of the city’s musical and cultural scenes.
“Adapt or get left behind” is a mantra that’s also familiar to Lida Pawliuk and Ashlee Lúk. As the electronic two-piece Minimal Violence, they take an approach that’s both pragmatic and defiant. Longtime collaborators who started hanging out within the city’s porous punk and noise scenes (and Lúk still has a foot in that world, with the band Lié), they’ve always thrived on a philosophy of creating by any means necessary, with any means available.
“People in Vancouver are very resilient,” says Lúk. “You can’t get too comfortable, and that translates into the music.” Minimal Violence’s own music is quietly insistent, propelled by an urgency and economy that suggests time and resources are not to be taken for granted. Their analog-leaning, techno-infused beats came together through a process of experimenting with whatever gear they could find, using limitations as a strength and finding opportunity in random circumstance.
“A lot of people have left,” says Pawliuk, referring to friends who have relocated to Montréal, Toronto or Berlin in search of a change. “It’s hard,” adds Lúk, “because sometimes it can feel like people run away instead of staying and pouring their energy into things here.” She pauses, and Pawliuk finishes the thought: “but we talk about leaving all the time too. You wonder what’s possible elsewhere.”
But for now, the two feel like they have a place in Vancouver. They’re both active in the community as organizers themselves. And with events like the Current Symposium, which Lúk co-founded, they’ve been helping to open up space for their peers.
“You have to be willing to throw yourself into building new spaces and new environments,” says Lúk. “And that brings new people together.”
Though she’s not exactly new to the scene, everything about Prado feels fresh and forward-looking. A dextrous singer with a natural feel for melody and a great ear for deep-pocket grooves, she’s already embedded herself within Vancouver’s quietly thriving hip-hop scene.
Prado’s energy radiates far beyond her thrilling performances; she’s also busy as an event organizer and activist. She does a lot of mentorship work with other young musicians, even though she’s only nineteen herself.
The idea of leaving Vancouver is not on the table for Prado, and nothing about working there feels like a concession either. She’s unwavering in her determination to transform the city’s culture into something more reflective of the people and culture she cares about.
Two years ago, she took over an abandoned office space with a small group of friends, re-furnishing it into a multi-purpose creative space. Under the new name of Thoughtful Studios, Prado began hosting events and offering studio services in the space, while also trying to carve out time for her own projects. “We wanted it to be a space where primarily women could come in and focus on their craft,” she explains. “We have dancers, editors, musicians and writers that will all come in and work together.” Event planning for Prado and her crew involves meticulous attention to detail, and nothing is left to chance, in terms of both the aesthetic environment and the safety of everyone attending.
Prado’s coming up at a time where escalating housing prices and prohibitive nightlife legislation have been the status quo for a while. For her, these obstacles do not mean that it’s not possible to work, they are the places where the work must begin. “There’s simply not the foundation and infrastructure for spaces here, so it’s just going to be a struggle for young artists, no matter what” she says.
Prado’s joyful acts of spacemaking illustrate the power of leadership when it is paired with resourcefulness and raw talent. As the map of Vancouver continues to be divvied up among real estate developers and powerful entrepreneurs, powerful voices from the city’s resilient cultural communities remind us of what the map doesn’t show.