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Dwindling rehearsal space has Vancouver musicians in a jam

Real estate, craft breweries, tech startups squeezing out rehearsal space for city’s music community

Imagine a world where beer and software trump bylaws and neighbours as a musician’s worst nightmare.

That scenario is very much in play right now, and it’s forcing hundreds of musicians across Vancouver to scramble to find rehearsal space.

Suna Studios owner Rob Stewart says affordable industrial space is becoming a scarcity in the city as craft breweries and tech start-ups increasingly buy up space that was historically converted from warehouse to rock house across Vancouver.

“This is what happens in every major city — gentrification, when it runs out of residential, creeps into industrial. Then you’re f***ed.” Stewart said.

Stewart’s two Suna rehearsal spaces are located towards the northern end of Clark Drive. Between them, they encompass 11,000 square feet and roughly 30 permanent rooms. Often referred to as lockout spaces, those rooms top out around 200 square feet and house two or three bands.

Running jam spaces since 2009, he dove heavily into the market in 2014 when the going rate was $1 per square foot. He began looking for a third parcel of land in 2015 and during his 18-month search, lease rates doubled.

“There’s a lot of tech companies moving in, there’s a lot a less industrial land, and these companies can basically name their own price,” he said. “That’s the big problem right now with industrial land — it’s scarce and it’s very expensive.”  

Located within a stone’s throw of Suna, Sanctuary Studios has fallen victim to that very trend. In operation for about a decade on Frances Street, the 5,000 square-foot facility will close its doors permanently in September.

Skyrocketing lease rates were the death knell and upwards of 100 musicians are now displaced.

“I’m finally starting to come to grips with it,” studio co-owner Chris Pekar said. “It’s very clear to us that the going rates weren’t going to work for us in terms of opening up a new venture.”

On average, the city’s lost at least one major rehearsal facility a year since 2010, displacing hundreds of musicians over that time.

Over that same timeframe, Mushroom Studio on Sixth Avenue closed.

Jim Buckshon has been navigating the murky waters of relocation and renoviction for 34 years. As owner of Renegade Productions, he’s now on his eighth rehearsal space in the city.

He says the only ways to make a go of it are short-term leases or investing in buildings that are set for demolition. Neither scenario is sustainable, and both are unpredictable.

“I don’t know how the bands afford to rehearse and live in this city anymore,” he said.

Pandora’s Box owner Paul Alexander has been at his spot on Pandora and Franklin for nearly four years. The facility has 14 lockout spaces and five rooms rented hourly to musicians who come and go as they please. Some of his lockout spaces are still inhabited by the same bands who moved in on day one. He’s got roughly 40 people on his waitlist and a lockout hasn’t become available since last year. Suna’s waitlist sits at 80, while of the 30 spaces available at Renegade, fewer than six are open.

“We only advertise the hourly rooms because the waiting list for the lockout rooms is so long. Some people have been on [the waitlist] for years,” Alexander said.
Suna’s third location is set to open at some point between October and December on Clark Drive and William Street. More than 40 lockout spaces will open up, ranging between 200 and 400 square feet, and a waitlist process has already begun. A 17-year lease has been signed in order to offer some semblance of permanency.

Stewart has other plans to expand the city’s music scene as well. He’s partnered with a developer on a seven-storey building near New Brighton Park, and three of those storeys will be specifically for music and the arts: lockout spaces, a concert venue and artist studios.

“Music saved my life and got me out of a lot of bad situations when I was young,” Stewart said. “I’ve been doing this for eight years and I’m not making a ton of money, but I’m not worried about the money right now because the mission is far more important than the means.”