Friday, February 11, 2005

The Unbearable and Wonderful Montreal rock scene

Of the many things that bug me about the recent American coverage of Montreal’s hotter than hot music scene – the “next Seattle” enthusiasm in recent copies of Spin, New York and the New York Times – one thing irks me more than anything: the idea that Montreal’s sadsack economy is somehow to thank for this flurry of artsy activity.
The New York Times article, full of decade-old stereotypes about Montreal and eye-rolling references to “Canadian liquor stores” being on strike, was just as bad as the others:
The city shares a few key elements with temporary-musical-capital predecessors like Austin and Seattle. Being the biggest destination in a region almost guarantees an influx of musically inclined, disaffected young people to both play in and listen to bands. Bad weather helps, because it keeps songwriters inside and bands rehearsing. And perhaps most important, a nascent musical scene requires lots of cheap real estate for musicians and their fans to hang out and play in.
But in Montreal, those durable elements of musical invention are accompanied by a surprising political twist. Ten years ago, Anglophone-oriented money, people and resources pulled out - much of it for Toronto - leaving vacant buildings and a simmering conflict between the French and English speakers of Montreal. The threat of succession was supposed to end Anglophone viability in a majority French culture....
For anyone from Montreal, the reference to “cheap real estate” is laughable. Especially in the hip districts of the Plateau and Mile End, where most of these bands live and play, rents have been on a steep rise for the past six years. There are no more cheap apartments in those areas – at least by the old Montreal-cheap standards.
...Meanwhile, Montreal has become such a cultural magnet that some Americans are relocating there. "We are a five hour drive from New York, and most of the flights are about $150," said Jon Berry, owner of Regenerate Industries, a public relations firm that works with various dance and electronic acts in Montreal, including Les George Lenigrad. "From a cultural and economic perspective, it makes perfect sense. It is a cheap place to do business and to live."
Mr. Berry, who is from Vancouver, visited Seattle often when it broke through to national prominence, had a taste of Austin when it was bubbling, and says that the current rage in Montreal carries some of the same energy. "Up until a few years ago, bands were skipping Montreal," he said, sitting at Laika, an industrial-feeling lunch spot/club on St. Laurent, where people were dining on pastries and cigarettes. "But then shows started taking off in the lofts, and suddenly you have a big neighborhood full of people interested in music. It's like Williamsburg, but it hasn't been gentrified."
Look, I’m not a fan of the word gentrification, a term that makes poverty into some sort of virtue, but all the Montreal anti-gentrification activists have been up in arms about the Plateau and Mile End being gentrified for years. And, yes, it has been gentrified, the final nail in the coffin perhaps being when that shiny new pharmacy took over Warshaw’s. The real poor, rather than the fashionably poor, live further east or in Verdun or in Cote-des-Neiges, but certainly not in the Plateau and Mile End.
The depiction of Montreal as some sort of bohemian paradise is more a product of romantic illusions than anything. The fact is, Montreal hit its economic bottom around 1997 and has been on the uptick ever since. As anyone who has been there recently to see the construction boom or had his cheap apartment on MacKay turned into a $300,000 condo (that’s me), it’s a prosperous city getting more prosperous every day.
In fact, Montreal’s return from 30-years of economic decline has been news for at least five years. (Here’s a Washington Post article about the city’s “recent revival” in the year 2000.)
But most arts and entertainment writers seem to prefer the myth that good art and poverty go hand in hand to the reality that strong economic centres are often the most creative centres. (Why else would so many artists move to New York City or Paris, ridiculously over-priced cities?)
It's particularly evident in Montreal: When were it’s last "most artistic" years? The 60s and early 70s, the years when Montreal was the shit and home to Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympics. Then, a necessary and quiet revolution took place... and now the city is getting back on its anthropomorphized feet. Is it any surprise that art should be flourishing? Could it not be that Montreal’s recent economic success helped make the city a success, helped give enough young hipsters a steady enough income that they can patronize the Arcade Fire, The Unicorns, Stars, Pony Up! concerts on a regular basis?

Not that musicians do anything to dispel the myth that a diet of cheap poutine gives them super-artist powers.

That, of course, is the second most annoying thing about the American media coverage: The musicians’ reactions to some good publicity. This is from a reaction piece to the Spin article that was in the Montreal Gazette over the weekend:
"It's absolutely f---ing terrible," said Torquil Campbell, singer-songwriter for pretty popsmiths Stars. "There is a scene. They are correct. But they didn't reveal anything that would interest anyone."
Still, for upstart band Pony Up!, a splash in Spin is a huge opportunity. But "it's so hard to see it objectively," said bassist Lisa J. Smith. "Part of me is like, wow, our city is being commodified and simplified and packaged. That's weird.”
Poor Smith knows that that’s the line you have to take to “keep it real” in Montreal. The only way to be admired in certain Montreal circles is to pretend that you don’t want to be successful. (But if you don't want people to listen to your music, why are you a musician?)
Anyway, I dislike being reminded of this typically Montreal mindset, a place where artists believe that having enough financial success to buy groceries or move into a nicer apartment or, god forbid, purchase a condo will ruin their art, rather than allow them to focus on it.

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