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How gentrification affects the local music scene

by Sharon Yonan Renold September 19, 2017
How gentrification affects the local music scene

A conversation about underground music and art of DIY venues at POP Montreal

A jam-packed room on St-Urbain Street played host to a rare discussion during POP Montreal on Sept. 17 about the struggle Montreal musicians face in the wake of gentrification.

Famous for its one-of-a-kind art scene, Montreal has also garnered a reputation for its boundless local music scene. However, even in a world where creativity flows free, artists say it’s hard to ignore how much gentrification has changed the city. Venues close, struggling musicians move away, new residents complain about noise.

Out of these struggles arose a DIY music culture. Tired of the exhausting requirements associated with owning a venue, artists found ways to open venues without the proper permits, making them illegal. It’s a throwback to New York City in the 60s––a bustling, crowded stage where bands like the Sex Pistols and The Clash got their start.

While this creates a myriad of legal problems, artists often feel they have no choice but to create a place to hone their craft. Yet, with the rise of gentrification in Montreal neighbourhoods, these legendary places are disappearing. What was once a welcoming, art-driven environment for DIY venues is becoming a concrete jungle of new condos and overpriced coffee shops. The artists move away and the music that once dominated a region goes with them.

“If the [venues] are all gone, where are artists going to play?” asked Sybil Bell in an interview with The Concordian. She’s the creator of Independent Music Week, a festival promoting small venues around the U.K. featuring new local bands.

“They need to [learn their craft] in a small venue,” she said. “They have to be able to make mistakes, learn what it means to go on tour and learn how to deal with people. Without that, there just won’t be a new chance with other artists coming through.”

Katie Jensen, the moderator of the POP Montreal panel, recalled the moment she realized developers were affecting small and DIY venues in her hometown of Toronto. She has been producing a monthly art, music and food event called Feats in the East for the last six years. In that time, she’s had to change venues six times, as they closed one by one.

“That’s when I realized about the venue crisis we were having in Toronto,” she said. “I started paying attention to these conversations that were being had between venue owners and community members. That really got my interest.”

There is no record of how many Montreal venues have closed over the years, but many musicians claim it’s something they observe every day, and it isn’t simply because of the rising rent costs. Panelist and McGill professor of urban media studies, Will Straw, explained that a key issue is newcomers to newly-gentrified neighbourhoods.

“They come to the neighbourhoods and don’t like the presence of music—so they make noise complaints,” he said.

Bell pointed out that, without legal or DIY venues, Montreal’s music scene wouldn’t be the same. Grassroots musicians would have no way of developing their sound or performing for an audience.

“If you’re driving to work and listening to music, where did that music come from?” she asked. “It’s from a band that started out at a small venue, got good and got signed.”

Photo by Mackenzie Lad

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