Is Live Dead? Once a vital cog on the rock music circuit, Whistler’s music scene is at a crossroads By David Branigan I'll always remember losing my Whistler virginity. It was March 1988, almost exactly a decade ago. Maverick served me up to the loop of the original, smaller European village where I picked up a solid job on my first afternoon after a tough run of luck in Vancouver. That weekend, with the week's cash in hand, I invited my girlfriend up to share the joy and magic of my adopted new hometown. Colin James was playing Buffalo Bill's that weekend after getting his big break opening on Keith Richard's first solo tour. His first single, Voodoo Thing, was causing a stir in advance and the next week he would officially release his major label debut to rave reviews and considerable sales. That night will never leave me. The room was packed out at 300-plus. The band was amped after the X-Pensive Wino's Tour with the album ready to burst. Colin played three ripping sets of stompin' blues based rock and the bar went completely off. The crowd was a more geographic representation of the Pacific Northwest back then. It was comprised of a partymix of Vancouver warriors, local hospitality crews and rockhounds. The average age was bang on 30 with a slight gender imbalance in the female favour. The room was swingin' with the money and the honey with slammin', horn-driven R&B driving up the energy level. This young Saskatchewan blues rocker created an atmosphere that I'd only dreamed of as a rock fixated adolescent growing up isolated in the far north. That night was magical from the moment we entered the door. It was the closest thing to a beer commercial I'd ever experienced — in fact, the beer tasted colder, the sax sounded brighter and the bass seemed to beat a permanent smile onto my face. That night we pounded passionately, metabolizing our intake on the dance floor sweatlodge. At the end of the third encore we left in a puddle of exhausted rapture. Those juke joint memories, that primordial dance, drink and romance jump hearkens down through the history of black music. But that dancin' to live musicians jammin’ on the one vibe comes less often in ’98. Ten years later, with mo money, mo people, mo bars, clubs and vampires, Whistler is receding musically. This is despite a seemingly universal cry for more live music, live theatre and performance arts. Billboard magazine says that Canada is the hottest musical nation on the planet with a host of homegrown superstars waiting to explode internationally, but at the same time the Commodore and Town Pump are closed in Vancouver and Whistler hasn't had a fully live venue since 1993 when the original Buffalo Bill's closed its doors. To get to the essence of this conundrum Pique interviewed a host of players to cut to the chase in a fog full of wannabe armchair rock critics. A healthy live music scene in Whistler would include options for local bands to mature artistically. It would include an acoustically designed soft seater in the 500-1,500 capacity range where national and international talent could play showcase features, along with a regular rotation of diverse and intelligent bands from all across the musical spectrum playing at either a handful of clubs working as a collective or one full-time live club. Sometimes politicians and Whistlers mountain-driven bureaucracy miss out on the fact that, a) in ’98 rock ’n’ roll is 42 years old and tres mainstream, b) a huge potential tourist and revenue draw for a corridor that bases its existence on recreation and entertainment. With support from council, the WRA and Intrawest in the form of bolstering the natural amphitheatre location at the base of Whistler Mountain we could tap into the big summer tours and the millions in revenue they represent with much less effort than it would take to pursue something like say the Olympics. That is not to slight the work the WRA Festivals Department does. The VSO show and Whistler Summit are both exceptional in rare alpine ambience while the jazz, roots and classical weekends all add considerable energy and musical diversity to our summer. By design the WRA has a different mandate, but the resort association obviously senses the potential of music as an effective way of marketing the resort. What we've seen is still the tip of the iceberg as to what is possible with some imagination. Imagine Lenny Kravitz, Blues Traveller, the Black Crowes, Dave Mathews Band and Neil Young playing the H.O.R.D.E. tour in Whistler in May when the tumbleweeds are rolling through. That's the kind of shoulder season revenue spike that would have all of Whistler business drooling. With a beefed up mega-location like the Mount Currie Rodeo Grounds for tours like Another Roadside Attraction or H.O.R.D.E., both of whom have expressed interest in playing in the region in ’98 or ’99, we have the full monty of the live experience which perfectly complements the other elements of Sea to Sky. Our demographic screams for it. The current smaller scale situation ranges from strong to abysmal depending on your perspective. The Boot runs bands on the weekends. Friday and Monday are their features performances of the week. The local jam on Sunday is a rare opportunity for our musical community to play together with the house band Load. Garfinkel's carries the flag early in the week. Tuesday-Wednesday tend toward young Canadian touring acts and occasional Mondays feature Whistler's most popular live draw, Sweaty Cheddar, who maintain that thread of tradition back to heartier times. That leaves a sprinkling of other void nights which are filled seemingly randomly, occasionally overlapping, by the likes of Buffalo Bill's, the GLC, Das Boot, Maxx Fish and the Longhorn. The singular exception to this formula is when the World Ski and Snowboard Festival rolls into town in April, at which point Kokanee — aka Labatt's — buys out the clubs for a week full of crackerjack live shows that are deeply discounted by the sponsor who pays for accommodation, production and the acts in their entirety, which is wicked for Whistler music fans but it distorts the value perception required to make live music commercially viable in this town. Eli Milenkoff, the talent booker for the Boot Pub, Whistler's longest standing and most consistent live venue, recognizes that distortion. "There is too much live from my perspective. It's healthy through-out the high season because pretty much any given night of the week you can go somewhere and catch a good live act. But once we get to the shoulder season we'll have too many shows for the market to bear." When talking live in Whistler you pretty much have to talk of two men who carry the flag of passion. Larry Laporte is the former everywhere manager and current freelance talent booker who heads up the Whistler Entertainment Agency. His friend and ally in the war to revive the scene is a man who has taken it upon himself to be our musical archivist, postcard entrepreneur Rick Flebbe. Recently Flebbe let his frustrations with the current scenario in an open letter to Whistlerites, telling them to Get Hip about live music. At 50 years old Flebbe has been actively involved in Whistler music for two decades. Pique: What is your opinion of the current scene? R.F.: "Whistler doesn't have live music nearly often enough. I'm tired of the lame, same old circuit bands. What we need is an injection of some international talent." P: Why do think there's less diversity in the touring talent than back in the day? R.F.: "The primary reason is that shows haven't been drawing well. I believe that you could still get people to come to the shows but it would require a commitment to book a greater variety of hip, quality acts consistently and frequently. Local talent buyers should pick the bands, oversee the promotion and set the appropriate atmosphere including DJ programming before, between and after sets." But like the financial window that often sees 60 per cent break even with small profit windows on big shows, the production has to be in the highest percentile to stamp magic on the heart and mind. Flebbe continues: "If they miss any of these ingredients, which is usually the case in Whistler, the recipe won't work. The number of good Canadian circuit bands is somewhat limited so Whistler should spice up its entertainment with new British and American bands such as Squirrel Nut Zippers, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cornershop, Space Monkey's, G. Love, Save Ferris and Stereolab, just to name a few bands that play rooms in Vancouver like the Starfish, four of whom have been available or shopped to Whistler and declined in ’98. Club owners here have to be more pro-active in pursuing these bands while they're still on the club circuit, before they break through to the next level and price themselves out of the marketplace. There is a time between when a band breaks and when they break big when you get your best shows." Rick's dead right of course. The Ashley MacIsaac show was a good example of tapping into that window of opportunity for great shows, but as an active talent buyer I can tell you that outside of Amanda Marshall I haven't been able to match that feat since, although Leahy appears ready to take off. The flip side of that coin is that the Canadian dollar is currently the peso of Western currencies, so many international touring acts require American dollars even for Canadian gigs. Also, the Free Trade agreement has cultural protectionist loopholes that favour local over the international. Foreign entertainers have to pay a border crossing fee of $400 to play here. Over the course of a full tour that is diluted, but if you're booking a Seattle act for a solo gig you pay the full shot. There is also a withholding charge from Revenue Canada for foreign acts that can trip you up and sting if the paperwork is at odds from two parties opposed to one another's existence. Once you factor in those costs the international gigs become a fiscal challenge. Then there's the cost of high season hotel accommodation in Whistler, as many bands have anti-bandhouse clauses in their contract rider. The fact is there was a time when Whistler's live scene vibrated with a circuit of stomping Canadian acts that would pack the clubs and bring out the high octane, visceral spine tingles of a good stompin' live show which has the passion, excitement and energy of good stompin' live sex. It wasn't that long ago that the big five were She Stole My Beer, One, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Skaboom and the Hopping Penguins. These bands were guaranteed sell-outs that gave club owners a warm chubby when thinking of live music. Nowadays you see terror in those eyes and DJs rule the expanded roost of Whistler nightlife. Across this country the song remains the same: Electronica killed the rock ’n’ roll star. Pique talked to Steve Blair at S.L. Feldman & Associates, the most powerful talent agency in Western Canada, to find out how they're holding up. P: How is it out there? S.B.: In the 14 years I've been involved in the music industry this is the worst I've ever seen it. P: Why do you think that is? S.B.: "Music tends to go in cycles. We are currently in the lowest valley of the down cycle with live music. DJs rule. There aren't many clubs booking live talent and therefore live talent can't support itself and develop into something greater that reflects our times. "I think that grunge took a heavy toll because so many bands were signed that should never have gotten record deals. The business of the music industry overwhelmed the natural evolution of the music industry. In Seattle there was a feeding frenzy from A&R guys and the end result was that all of a sudden people were seeing shows that were shit from these overly hyped grunge bands who had just plugged in their guitars. "Before that bands had to play in a garage for a few years before getting there first club gig and they had to kick in the clubs honing their show for a year or two before getting a record deal. There was a natural evolution so that people were willing to spend a few bucks to see a new or unknown act because chances were that, whether they knew the band or not, they'd be able to put on a decent show. Nowadays it's no name=no crowd=no gig which is tough sledding for a band looking to get a break." P: So how's the morale at Feldman these days? S.B.: "Well the fact is that we cater to young bands but also established acts and for the Canadian bands that do make the cut through the incredibly tough filter of diminishing live venues, the opportunity to break it wide open has never been so strong. With less bands getting deals we are creating major stars out of bands like Moist, I Mother Earth and the Tea Party, to name a few. Our Lady Peace is an excellent example of a band breaking from indie to major label to international stardom at the speed of sound. Our top line acts are doing astounding business — it's the next generation that is struggling, but that fierce struggle is yielding some dynamic results." Indeed Canada has developed a star system whereby male acts like Blue Rodeo, 54-40, Colin James, Spirit of the West and the Tragically Hip — all acts that played Bill's — can sustain a lucrative career north of the 49th, while the big female names like Shania Twain, Celine Dion, Alanis Morrissette, kd lang, Amanda Marshall and Sarah MacLaughlin are selling millions world-wide bringing those selfsame A&R reps up to the great white north looking for the next little Canuck superstaress, who may be Chantal Kreviaczuk or Holly McNarland. So Canada is as hot as a hashpipe on the half-pipe on top, but frigid as a nun underneath the Titanic on the bottom floor. Whistler used to be a vital cog in the touring circuit when we were far less developed, so what's up? With live music in Whistler all roads lead to Rome and the emperors are the two technicians that are PS productions: Pip Stanton and Scott Young, without whom this town would be vewwy, vewwy quiet. Good for rabbit hunting. Pique talked rock to Scott. P: How long have you been involved in the live music business? S.Y.: "Since I was 18, which makes it 17 years." P. How would you compare back in the day with today? S.Y.: "How has the business changed? There's a lot more rap and hip hop. There's more emphasis on the rave DJ thing than on the live music." P.: What would you say is the biggest misconception in Whistler live music. S.Y.: "Live music is undervalued here. You go see a band in Vancouver and the cover starts at $10. It can go to $30 for a top club name. Here you have Garf's putting on shows for free, which distorts the value perception. People just walk in and there's a band playing and usually a pretty good band. "People don't understand all the costs involved when you pile the band, accommodation, rider, sound and light production on top of the standard costs of the bar business, which are the cost of liquor, rent, taxes and labour. By showtime bars are running a pretty fierce overhead, which is why the cover charge is so substantial — because so is the investment. I really believe that we do our part to keep costs down. Our price hasn't changed in 10 years. "The bottom line is that somebody has to pay for the band, equipment and production and that somebody is you! At the same time there's so much competition between Whistler clubs that I don't believe that the club should expect the cover to pay for the entire production of the show. Sometimes they have to make the difference up in liquor profits. That's why you see points built into contracts between the band and the bar. Those liquor profit splits were more common in the old days before the government started taking a bigger grab through liquor tax." P: If you were a club owner what would you do differently in Whistler? S.Y.: "I think the smart guys have built sound systems into their rooms to bring production costs down. That investment into staging and a system on the front end pays big dividends over the long run. If I owned a club I'd try to book cover bands on the weekend and original bands on the weekdays, with occasional showcase bands mixed in. When designing new clubs that base their entertainment on music, either live or recorded, club owners have to give due respect to the acoustic design of the room or the club will sound like garbage no matter who's playing. "I think there's a serious lack of a venue in Whistler that can attract top-line talent that just don't fit the number crunch in the clubs. If there were a midsized venue we could sell-out weekends with acts like the Neville Brothers and George Clinton. That whole aspect is missing entirely. Promoters aren't willing to take a chance in the conference centre because they take the liquor sales while promoters pay substantial rent, complete with union wages, which is cost prohibitive and doesn't leave any room for profit outside the front end. Besides, when there is a big show there the bars all scream and tear out their hair. The fact is I have people asking me all the time where they can see live music on the weekends but club owners can make more money by running DJs on the weekend for a fraction of the cost and the bottom line is the bottom line." Down the highway at our closest live ally, things look promising. Just around the corner with a rebuilt downtown core is the light of day which bodes well for Whistler because we feed upon the Vancouver/Victoria/Seattle tour loop. The more touring acts coming through the Pacific Northwest, the more wicked windows of oppor-rocker-tunity. Word on the street has the Commodore re-opening this summer and the Vogue Theatre getting a liquor licence for concerts. Canada has developed just the star system that Cancon regulations and Videofact grants were designed to nurture. In the end we are the hottest export country in the high stakes multinational music industry sweepstakes, but Whistler is not taking its rightful place at that table as a location stars love to play, visit and stay because we're as fragmented as the pre-millennial pop charts in our approach. Whistler talent buyers throw spaghetti at the wall to see if it sticks and pay a premium price if their pasta is underheated, which further fuels the fear factor. The Boot has proven that they can succeed in a smaller room on a smaller scale by developing a long term relationship with live music lovers, but the remaining rooms remain hit and miss. Locals are too cool for school for all but the trendiest bands when the coolometer passes the critical lemming mass. It would serve us all well if we'd each take a chance once a week or so to seek out some young talent to keep the kettle boiling. No one venue has any clout, no one venue has a track record for big shows and nobody seems to care or even be fully aware of the diverse musical options that are scattered like pepper from a Pemberton farm gun throughout this magic village. So we continue to miss the boat on the one jewel that is noticeable by its absence amidst the blinding beauty of nature and recreation. The answer is to provide promoters with better incentives than the conference centre. The better answer is a decent venue befitting Whistler's status. The answer is talent buyers pooling their power in council, melding their marketing, and splitting the pie so as to offer the marketplace an informed and intelligent approach to live entertainment which is consistent, viable and cost efficient for fan, performer and venue. The answer is to have that talent buying pool be more pro-active in seeking out interesting national and international talent which will in time again come to consider Whistler as a vital cog on that rocket ride to stardom — the prime stop of the tour for both pleasure and performance reasons. The answer is for locals to get out there and support clubowners who are willing to risk three grand to provide you with the kind of musical heartbeat that can forever brand the night. The answer is for fans to lobby talent buyers to bring in acts that excite them. By becoming active in the process you raise awareness on both ends, by passively accepting what the agents force-feed this disjointed marketplace we lose vitality and accept mainstream cultural pabulum. It's easy to criticize. It's fashionable to say let's have the bands on after dinner so we can get home and get some sleep for first tracks. The reality is much more complex than that, for with big investments comes the pressure of expected returns. We'll leave the last word on live to one of Canada's hottest hands, Ralph James from the Agency Group in Toronto. James handles 54-40, Headstones, Pure and Big Sugar. P: What is the take on the health of the industry from the centre of the universe? R.J.: "There are a tremendous number of young acts out there trying to get attention. But the business is very vital if you have something going for yourself. Wide Mouth Mason is a good example of a band that was doing business before they hit MuchMusic because they had built themselves up over time from the garage to the clubs to the studio. The live show-cart came before the hit-horse. When bands like that get a record deal they have the show to back it up. If you've got a show and a record deal in Canada these days the potential for stardom has never been better. One day you're playing the blues in Saskatoon the next you're opening for the Stones. If you break here now you can break huge." Hell you might even be able to buy a house in Whistler. But what are you going to do when the sun goes down? Dance to the DJs whose game and stock is at an all-time high — and where do they get their source material? Live music is a community investment in our future. Culture feeds our soul and I'm always hungry. Whaddaya say we go out and grab ourselves some soul food?