Vancouver’s all-ages music scene looking at boost

Ryan McCormick is hoping that revamped B.C. liquor policies will translate to good news for the all-ages music scene.

McCormick, a director with the Safe Amplification Site Society, said his group is excited about a proposed new liquor licence class for facilities, such as stadiums, arenas, and theatres, that charge a fee for events.

The measure is among 73 changes recommended to liquor laws following a review by parliamentary secretary John Yap.

“The thing that’s most exciting about that is it says that minors should be permitted to stay until the event ends, so assuming we’re reading this correctly, that means that [when] a venue like the Biltmore [is] having a concert, then minors would be allowed to go to that concert,” McCormick told the Straight by phone. ”We think this is amazing.”

Other recommendations the organization received positively include allowing establishments with liquor primary licences to offer more liquor-free events for all ages, including concerts—a measure the group has been calling for.

“That’s exactly what we’re asking for,” said McCormick. “It seems that somebody in the government has changed their mind about their policy from last year, and yeah, we applaud them. It takes guts to admit when you’re wrong.”

According to information provided by B.C.’s Ministry of Justice, a “significant amount of policy work” is required before details on specific regulation changes are announced.

Some changes to the Liquor Control and Licensing Act will be completed this legislative sitting, while others are expected to come later as part of a rewrite of the act.

The provincial government announced its support for all 73 recommendations in the final report on B.C.’s liquor policy review last month.

A couple months ago, a friend talked to me about sneaking into a 19+ show. Sounds classic, right? Teens have been sneaking into shows ever since the first caveman had risque subject matter on his wall. But as my friend went on, it became apparent that she would do next to anything to get into this show. Some of her schemes included snatching a relative’s ID, using makeup to make her look 5 years older, getting shoes to make herself look taller, and even infiltrating the venue. Criminal operations and government policy decisions are performed with less forethought.

Her fervor might be concerning, but what’s worse is that it was necessary. It’s incredibly difficult for youth to attend concerts in Vancouver. Thanks to BC’s strict set of liquor laws, there is an notable absence of all-ages shows and a complete absence of all-ages venues. Youth across Vancouver find themselves cut off from performances at major music venues, restaurants, bars, and basically anywhere where liquor is served. Unless you’re 19 or older, good luck catching Franz Ferdinand’s show. It’s a far cry from venues in other provinces and nations; in Germany a 14 year old can order a beer, but in BC an 18 year old isn’t allowed to go to a concert just because there’s alcohol nearby.

Fortunately, there are people looking to open up live music to young audiences. The Safe Amplification Site Society, known commonly as Safe Amp, is a nonprofit collective dedicated to creating a venue for people of all ages. This would allow youth performers and listeners to see live music without being forced to go Ocean’s Eleven on the venue. Reid Blakley, a director of Safe Amp, says that a youth music venue could also become a community hub.

“Music has a proven track record of improving the lives of young people, especially those who are struggling in various aspects of their lives” says Blakley. “As of now a permanent, safe, democratically-organized, fully inclusive, legal, all-ages venue does not exist in Vancouver, and I think that’s a real crime.”

As of now, Safe Amp is already taking it’s first steps. They’ve set up a temporary venue at Astorino’s, a hall near Venables and Commercial. Thanks to Safe Amp’s organization and a dedicated team of volunteers, Astorino’s has already become a hub for youth musicians, indie artists, and alternative acts across the city.

Still, Blakley remains optimistic about what Astorino’s has proven.Sadly, the victory may be short-lived; Astorino’s is owned by a separate party, who has already marked the venue to be destroyed to make way for condos in a few short years. Such is the life of real-estate in Vancouver.

“The goal with Astorino’s is to prove both to the city and ourselves that we’re capable of running the kind of venue that we envision.” explains Blakley. “Within the next couple of years, we hope to make progress in getting a venue of our own, and we’re always working towards making Vancouver a more comfortable place for young musicians and music fans.”

While Safe Amp is well on it’s way to establishing a permanent venue, one has to ask; why exactly aren’t other venues available to youth? If it’s a concern over access to alcohol, can’t venues just check ID, just like any bar or restaurant?

Apparently, it’s not the access that youth have to alcohol, but the revenue alcohol sales generate. Music venues pull in most of their profit from the sale of alcohol, which makes them them “liquor-primary” businesses—by law, they are not allowed to host all-ages shows. Although venues would almost certainly love to let youth in the building, especially since youth are a main demographic for many bands, they simply can’t afford to compromise the profit they earn from liquor sales. Venues could choose to host all-ages shows, but they would be hemorrhaging money while doing it.

“In the past few decades, the live music industry has largely become subservient to the liquor and food service industry.” says Blakley continues.

Blakley also believes that there are other reasons why all-ages shows are kept on such a tight leash.

“All-ages events tend to be viewed with suspicion by local authorities, because of the perception that unruly teens will get drunk and cause trouble at them” he said, “Though they don’t seem to want to make bars illegal to prevent trouble from unruly adults.”

There is another victim of all this: the artists. Boatloads of performers have found their first support among youth, from Panic! At the Disco (who recently played a 19+ show at the Commodore) to Vancouver’s own Said the Whale. Youth bring a love of the artist and tremendous energy to a show—which is perhaps why Said the Whale is famous for their all-ages gigs.

Fortunately, there are some signs of change. Recently, Christy Clark has stated that families will soon be allowed to dine in bars, a case of “liquor-primary” businesses beginning to admit minors. But there is no progress about youth being permitted into liquor-primary performance venues, or even any talk of venues. The “Family First” agenda evidently doesn’t cover young people who love music.

There’s no easy solution to the venue performance problem. While all-ages gigs would be a boon to venues, bands, and audiences alike, they comprise the income from alcohol sales that venues depend on. Safe Amp is working to set up a permanent venue for youth performers, but they too struggle with expenses; as of now, the society has no full-time employees, and is supported solely by volunteers.

It’s not clear when or how BC’s liquor laws will finally yield, or when we’ll see a permanent youth venue. Until then, looks like we’ll just have to keep sneaking in.

Safe Amp’s response to proposed BC liquor law changes

On Friday, the B.C. Government published a report outlining 73 proposed changes to our province’s liquor laws. Liquor laws have a profound impact on the ability to hold live music events in our province. The Safe Amplification Site Society, a non-profit that is dedicated to music for people of all ages in Vancouver, would like to respond to the seven recommendations that we feel most affect all-ages music. Below, we comment on each of these and grade them, report card style.

BC: “55. The provincial government should introduce a new licence class and streamlined application process for facilities (e.g., stadiums, arenas and theatres) that charge a fee for an event (e.g., a sporting event or play). Minors should be permitted to stay until the event ends.”

Yes! We are very excited about this recommendation, and sincerely hope that all existing music venues will switch to this new class of licence, ditching their age-restricted liquor primaries forever. The only reason this is not an A+ is because the examples given do not include musical events. Assuming venues that charge a fee for a musical event will be given the same rights as those which charge a fee for a play, this could be a game-changer. A.

BC: “34. Minors, if accompanied by a parent or guardian, should be permitted in certain liquor-primary establishments. a. Government should establish a reasonable time (e.g., until 9 p.m.) that respects both the family’s choice to include minors in some events and the establishment’s responsibility to ensure an appropriate environment for all.”

While this would be an improvement on the status quo, we do have a few criticisms of this recommendation.

First, it is not always practical for teenagers and parents to go out together. Older teens may live apart from their parents, while some parents simply have different interests. The goal is to allow young people to safely and legally experience cultural events held in liquor-primary settings, and this change only helps those with parents or guardians who are available to attend those same events. We believe that a chaperone requirement may make sense for those aged 16 and under, but don’t think the requirement should apply to 17 and 18-year-olds.

Secondly, it is not specified what “certain liquor-primary establishments” means. Are they talking about allowing teens in the Best Western lobby bar, while still banning them from important concert venues like the Biltmore and Astoria? We are disappointed by the ambiguity here.

Additionally, the “reasonable time” is also left vague. 9 p.m. is given as an example, but it’s unclear whether that is the actual proposed cut-off time for minors inside liquor-primary establishments. We believe a 9 p.m. ending is too early to allow for functional all-ages events. An 11 p.m. cutoff for minors would be more reasonable, and would allow for true all-ages events where humans of all ages can interact and enjoy the same event together.

While recommendation 35 could certainly be improved upon, this is a good start. Considering the status quo is an F-, it’s great news that this recommendation is a solid C.

BC: “48. Remove the regulation that requires non-profit organizations to apply for an SOL for concerts and events. This will allow promoters who actually manage the event, to be responsible to meet all requirements of the liquor licence.”

This proposal, along with recommendations 7b and 43-46, makes it easier to acquire a Special Occasion Licence, which allows the sale of alcohol at a temporary all-ages event. While the SOL system is definitely broken, and we certainly appreciate any effort to improve it, we believe there is something missing here. One of the biggest problems with the existing SOL rules is that they are based on a distinction between public and private events. It’s easy to licence a ‘private’ event where all guests are invited or sold tickets in advance, but harder to get a licence for a ‘public’ event that anyone can walk into off the street. Size is not important, so it’s easier to licence a 500-person rock concert that everyone buys advance tickets to than a tiny piano recital that anyone could walk into off the street. This penalizes accessible community events that don’t have the capacity for advance ticketing, and encourages exclusive corporate events instead. We believe that if there is going to be an ‘easy to get’ licence and a ‘harder to get’ licence, the distinction should be based on the size of the event. While we appreciate these efforts to make all SOLs easier to get, there is no recommendation to abandon the public vs. private categorization, which is completely outdated and needs to be eliminated. C+.

BC: “15. Applicants and licensees seeking a review of LCLB decisions should have access to a new and separate decision-making body outside the licensing branch. The Ministry of Justice should review current processes and determine how best to provide independent decision-making for those seeking appeal.”

We hope the Ministry of Justice follows through with this recommendation and creates a way for people to appeal LCLB decisions. An appeals process like this could have saved Hoko’s, which we believe was unfairly targeted by LCLB enforcement officers back in 2009. A+.

BC: “37. Food-primary enterprises that wish to fully transition away from food service after a certain hour (e.g., 9 p.m.) – if, for example, they wanted to operate as a nightclub – will be able to apply for a licence endorsement, allowing them to operate like a liquor-primary licence during those hours only. a. Minors would not be allowed in the establishment after that time.”

The aforementioned Hoko’s was fined an unaffordable amount because they were operating contrary to their purpose - ie: as a “community centre” (actual quote from LCLB enforcement officers) instead of a restaurant. On one hand, this recommendation would legalize that business model, as restaurants would be able to legally shift to being concert venues after dinner time ends. On the other hand, the recommendation states that “Minors would not be allowed in the establishment after that time.” This is disappointing. We love restaurant venues because they can legally allow minors! This proposal seems to remove that possibility. F.

BC: “66. Allow liquor-primary establishments to offer more liquor-free events for all-ages (e.g., music concerts).”

Boom! Death to Policy Directive 12-09! We’ve already explained why that policy was wrong and why it should be overturned immediately. It seems that the BC Government agrees with us all of a sudden. A+.

BC: “51. Except where it is not suitable from a public safety perspective, permit whole-site licensing for public events, eliminating “beer gardens.””

Currently, some outdoor events must restrict drinking to special areas that are fenced off from the rest of the event. This creates an ageist segregation where drinking adults are physically separated from non-drinkers of all ages. While there is a loophole here (it’s not clear just “where it is not suitable from a public safety perspective”), the recommendation does suggest a literal tearing down of age barriers. B.

As we can see, these recommendations are positive steps. Creating new licence classes, a separate body to review the LCLB’s decisions, and allowing liquor-only venues to offer alcohol-free all-ages shows are all great ideas. But there is still much room for improvement when it comes to the ambiguous wording of the proposals, and unrealistic expectations of both the venues and attendees. Overall, we’ve given this report a 2.99 GPA, which falls just short of a B average. It’s not good enough to get into a top university, but okay for community college.

The BC Government announced their full proposal for liquor law changes on Friday… we’re about to dive in to their full 56 page report and will let you know what we think asap… in the meantime, here’s their youtube video on the subject. Sounds good so far!

Safe Amp needs some new people

Hi all, We just wanted to let you know that several of our long-serving volunteer directors and committee members are leaving to pursue other aspects of their lives. Besides the ongoing running of Astorino’s, music-positive political activism, fundraising and educational projects, we have some exciting new opportunities in mind that cannot be realized without an infusion of new blood. If you want Safe Amp to continue to thrive, we need your help! All of our committees need new members, and we also need new directors to help steer the overall direction of the organization. We will be holding a general meeting in the near future - for now please take a look at our list of committees and email if you are interested in joining any of them and/or becoming a director. We are looking for people to make a regular, steady commitment over a period of a year or more - so this isn’t like a one-time thing. If you’ve been looking to make a positive impact on your local scene without having to build something brand new from scratch, here’s your chance. Do-It-Together forever! xoxo   

Safe Amp Feasibility Study

The non-profit Safe Amplification Site Society has published a massive
176-page Feasibility Study meant to guide Vancouver arts organizations
towards the creation of local music venues.

In recent years, Vancouver music venues have been notoriously unstable, with dozens of spaces appearing and disappearing each year, often for regulatory and financial reasons. The constant losses and temporary gains in local music space have taken their toll, as musicians have either fled or become jaded and disconnected from their workspaces, knowing that a single noise complaint or a series of poorly attended shows could spell the end for yet another precious facility. And every time a venue dies, it takes with it tens of thousands of dollars worth of infrastructure, and does immeasurable damage to the human initiative that created and managed that space.

Since its inception in 2009, the Safe Amplification Site Society has sought to address these problems by establishing a permanent, legal, sustainable, affordable and accessible music venue for people of all ages in Vancouver. This January, they are proud to be publishing a Feasibility Study, meant to guide their organization (and other like-minded groups) towards the establishment of such a facility.

Three years in the making, the Safe Amp Feasibility Study was completed with over a thousand hours of volunteer work and a $5000 budget, half paid by the City of Vancouver. The study answers four basic questions about the establishment of a Safe Amplification Site. The ‘Why’ chapter delves into municipal planning documents and academic literature to justify the need for such spaces. The ‘When’ chapter is a strategic plan that outlines realistic steps necessary for the creation of the space. The ‘Where’ chapter is an in-depth location analysis that looks at zoning laws, neighbourhood demand and other factors to map ideal venue locations in Vancouver. And finally, the ‘What’ chapter goes into great detail to determine what physical characteristics a legal, accessible and functional venue would require. Forthcoming ‘How’ and ‘Who’ chapters will include the financial and human resources plans necessary to determine budgets and financial sustainability.

The Feasibility Study is available for free public viewing



Photo via Yelp

This space is amazing. A giant hall, like where you might have a wedding, currently being shared by a ton of different arts groups including the Safe Amplification Site Society who are a non-profit organization fighting to get a legal, accessible all-ages venue in Vancouver. Due to the circumstances of their lease this is a temporary stop on the way to that goal, but it’s amazing to have. We played there a while back with The Evaporators and there were so many teens there. You never get to play for teens. A week later, this kid who couldn’t have been more than 15 with big Jay Reatard hair told me if was the best gig he’d ever been to and my heart melted. Astorino’s made it possible.

How many permanent all-ages music venues in Vancouver can you name?
Trick question. There aren’t any.

But a four day music event called “Safe Fest” aims to change all that. The proceeds will go toward securing a permanent, alcohol-free spot for underage concertgoers.

“I work as a music teacher and I have a lot of underage students that love music and they, all of the time, are complaining about not being able to see shows,” says organizer Daniel Ruis.

The event is being put on by the “Safe Amplification Site Society” or “Safe Amp” for short. Until now the group has been putting on shows at Astorino’s restaurant at Commercial and Venables.

“The issue with that is that it is only temporary because they have to give up their lease because [the building] is going to be developed eventually.”

More than 75 bands are playing 13 different venues between now and Sunday.

Full access will cost you just $15.00. Wristbands are available online at or at select retailers including Red Cat, Zulu, Beatstreet, and Neptoon Records. Individual shows range in price from free to $10.00 and donations are also being accepted.

SafeAmp formed in 2009 with the idea of presenting music to people of all ages and establishing a permanent legal, sustainable, and accessible all-ages venue in Vancouver.

Today, the Safe Amplification Site Society is working with the Britannia Community Centre to promote gigs at Astorino’s on Venables Street. For the next year, the organization hopes to build momentum towards its goal.

“If we are able to prove that this is something Vancouver needs, then we are hoping to get further funding and develop a permanent site either where we are or elsewhere,” says SafeAmp’s Ryan McCormick. “It’s really easy to become a member and present whatever you want as we don’t have any curatorial play in this.

“Fill out the form, pay $10 or do two hours of volunteer time and you can book a show.”

The organization also provides workshops on how to stage a show that respects bylaws, and lobbies the city, province and other stakeholders to attain its goal of making sure the kids can rock.

McCormick, 30, is old enough to legally attend licensed performances, but remains dedicated to the cause because he remembers how little there was when he was an underage fan as well as a performer.

Lynzaii Made of IndieStar Live got into the biz for the same reason.

“I started promoting shows when I was 15 in Red Deer, Alta., because bands were always going through town between Calgary and Edmonton and not stopping,” Made explains. “So I started doing shows there, where it was a lot less restrictive than it is here. I continued with it when I moved out to Vancouver.”

Made has found a home at the Tom Lee Music Hall on Granville Street, bringing all-ages gigs onto the centrally located and familiar Granville Entertainment strip. A dedicated all-ages venue is a great idea, but she would also like to see an arrangement where wristbands or upper/lower level separation could allow all-ages/licensed events.