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'Death by 1,000 paper cuts': Vancouver music venues band together as the Imperial faces safety concerns

Shows have been cancelled and bands forced to move venues due to safety concerns outside the Imperial.
the imperial
The Imperial is turning away bands and cancelling shows because it can no longer guarantee the safety of its guests. Here's how other venues are stepping in.

Update: the Red Rum Club show was moved to the Biltmore Cabaret.

A Vancouver music venue is getting by with a little help from its friends lately due to safety concerns in the Downtown Eastside.

“The Imperial has informed us that they are no longer able to host events, due to the rise of violence, and overall unsafe conditions on their doorstep, effective immediately,” says Vancouver funk band Soulstream’s drummer, Randall Stoll.

Stoll shared the news on the band’s Facebook page earlier this week and, since then, two other musical acts have announced their shows at the Imperial have been moved to other venues in the city.

“Apparently the area around Imperial theatre is sketchy as all hell and instead of going in ‘warriors’ style, we were just able to move the show,” wrote rapper Ekoh on his Facebook page on Tuesday.

The Imperial is located on Main Street near Hastings where there is a large unhoused population that has tents set up outside of the venue and the Imperial reportedly feels it cannot ensure the safety of its guests.

Ekoh’s show which takes place tonight has been moved to Fortune Sound Club and an upcoming October 1 show of Venezuelan band Rawayana has been moved to the Rickshaw. V.I.A reached out to Red Rum Club who are scheduled to play at the Imperial on October 7 and they didn't have any knowledge of the venue cancelling shows.

V.I.A has also reached out repeatedly to the Imperial and its operator, The MRG Group, for comment but has yet to receive a response. There is also no word on any of the venue’s public platforms if the other scheduled shows in October or November will be moved or cancelled.

"It's incredibly unfortunate that houselessness and addiction are such ongoing issues that seem so insurmountable," says Nate Sabine, director of business development at Blueprint, the company that manages Fortune Sound Club.

How is the venue stepping up to support the Imperial?

"I didn't know that they were planning to do this, or that things had gotten that bad for them until I read the news myself," Sabine tells V.I.A.. "I think it's responsible, what the Imperial did by closing their doors and saying that they can't guarantee the safety of their guests."

Sabine is also the president of MusicBC, chair of the Hospitality Vancouver Association, and sits on the board of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) so he has a lot of experience dealing with the municipal politics surrounding the local music industry and the communities wellness, safety, and security.

"It's an election year, and we're hearing a lot of promises from every party and everyone that's running for mayor. I think the proof will be in the pudding, whether this issue can be solved. And it's much bigger than just music, or music venues or the Downtown Eastside but this to me is just emblematic of what's going on down there, and how bad things are getting," he says.

Fortune Sound Club doesn’t do a lot of business with MRG, but Sabine says they stepped up to support live music. He doesn’t believe that there is any sort of grant from the municipal or provincial government or business strategy that is going to help the Imperial or anyone else in its situation. "Realistically, this is just another side effect of this ongoing problem that doesn't have any solutions," remarks Sabine.

However, he also doesn’t know of any other venues that is experiencing the same issues to the extent the Imperial has been.  

“Safety, especially since COVID and especially in that general area of Gastown and Chinatown, has been the number one concern for quite some time,” he explains. “But I don't know, one single other business in hospitality, entertainment or otherwise, that has had to close their doors because they couldn't guarantee the safety of their guests. Jeez, if I didn't know better, I would think it was a publicity stunt of some sort. It's almost unbelievable."

The future of Vancouver's reputation in the music industry

Between bands losing venues and the Breakout festival riot that put Vancouver on the international stage in all the wrong ways, Sabine says there is the concern that the city will develop a bad reputation in the music industry with touring bands.

“All of these little things, it's not necessarily one big thing that needs to happen to a city or to an area that will dissuade people or give it a bad reputation. But it's death by 1,000 paper cuts. And these are all paper cuts, some of them are bigger than others that are happening,” says Sabine.

Sabine says that Fortune Sound Club is stepping in because “the whole thing is not okay.”

“It's certainly not a money thing, because there's no money in live music as anyone can tell you. It's not fair to the artists, it's not fair to their fans, it's not fair to the venue that’s suffering through this. None of this is fair to anybody. So we're just doing our little part, I'm sure that other venues are taking shows that we can't take, but I couldn't tell you for sure. But it’s the least we can do. Can you imagine that you're on tour, and all of a sudden your Vancouver date is in jeopardy?”

Sabine assures that live music in Vancouver is indeed thriving and while the situation at the Imperial is unfortunate “people need to be aware that the city is safer than people think that it is.”

He says that there is beauty in the different neighbourhoods and that Vancouver needs a diversity of venues. He encourages everyone to support live music and says that “since everything reopened, not just Blueprint’s, but concerts in general, have been selling like hotcakes.”