Safe Amp and the Fight for All-Ages

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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.

Astorino's is a repurposed banquet hall located at 1739  Venables St. (photo by Safe Amp)
Astorino’s is a repurposed banquet hall located at 1739 Venables St. (photo by Safe Amp)

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.

Still, Blakley remains optimistic about what Astorino’s has proven.

“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.

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