Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on Jun 3rd 2010 3:30PM by David Dacks
For 12 years, I Love Neon has been a central part of Montreal's dance scene. Founded by hometown legend Tiga, Neon has showcased dozens of celebrated DJs and musicians from home and abroad, ranging from Justice to Chromeo (who played their first-ever show at a 2002 Neon party).
These painstakingly crafted events attract a young, fashionable and enthusiastic crowd who party into the wee hours at each of the series' 50-plus events per year. But on March 25, the first night of their festival at the Societe Des Arts Technologiques (better known SAT, or "everybody's favourite rave dungeon"), the party took a turn for the worse.
"We were doing a show with Flying Lotus and Lazer Sword, then the cops showed up and shut down the music because of noise complaints from the neighbouring condos," says John Hatz, one of I Love Neon's guiding lights. Police acted "like dicks," ticketed the venue and drastically reduced the overall volume. The crowd scattered, frustrated and angry that a third major electronic music venue in the space of a year had been effectively shut down.
Though the venue was under construction at the time and not as soundproofed as it could've been, the police action came as a shock to Hatz, who's hosted hundreds of problem-free shows at the venue. At issue was that the noise complaint was levied at a club located right in the middle of the Quartier des Spectacles, Montreal's entertainment district devoted to large, loud public gatherings. "If you can't do a show in the concert hall part of the city in a legitimate concert hall where you're paying full taxes and full rental fees," Hatz fumes, "then where can you do a show?"
Ironically, this latest action took place in the same week the city conferred its highest artistic honour, the Montreal Arts Council Grand Prize, on the MUTEK Festival of Digital Creativity and Electronic Music, which also uses the SAT as a venue. The fearlessly experimental festival, whose 11th edition takes place from June 2 through June 6, features plenty of loud music but isn't likely to generate noise complaints. This is in large part due to its effective partnership with its neighbours and city officials. MUTEK may not be a blueprint for every electronic music venture but offers one example of how things can go right.
Since its rise in the mid-'80s, electronic dance music has been particularly effective at irritating municipal authorities. Electronically generated music tends to be the most overwhelming of all forms of loud music, with precise bass frequencies traveling hundreds of metres.
"Electronic music is about drug simulation through music," elaborates Kevin Martin, also known as the Bug and a member of King Midas Sound, who are making their North American debut at MUTEK. "It's about trying to achieve altered states -- which the best rock and jazz music does, too -- but it's really amplified by the latest developments in technology."
The fear (and documented cases) of drug use, high volume and public rowdiness -- plus no small amount of implied or overt prejudice against youth culture and immigrants, especially in the UK -- have always been bogeymen used by politicians to generate support for regulating electronic music events.
Into this decades-old dynamic comes a new wrinkle: gentrification. Whereas so many pioneering venues were located in once-abandoned industrial or commercial lands with few nighttime residents in their immediate vicinity, the condominium infill of North America's inner cities has strained relations between residents and revelers. While new downtowners are sold on culturally rich neighborhoods, they're sometimes unprepared for the consequences.
In Montreal, the issues were sharpened with the establishment of the Quartier des Spectacles. As expressed on its website, this vision includes promises to be "a hub of artistic creation and innovation" with "a lively, contemporary flavour." For a city that hosts major attractions such as the Montreal Jazz Festival and the Just for Laughs Festival, among many others, such concentration has many benefits, such as centralized infrastructure and crowd control. For better or for worse, the rules seem to have been set to provide guidelines on how to do business in a specified area. But it hasn't worked out that way.
One of Montreal's foremost electronic musicians, Ghislain Poirier, recently wrote an open letter to the mayor, in which he took issue with Montreal's actions toward its venues in contrast to its stated goals. "City administration tries to sell Montreal as a cultural destination," Poirier elaborates. "But strangely, in the Quartier des Spectacles, there are a lot of condos and people coming back to live in the downtown of Montreal, while it's also a show district. So it's kind of opposite goals. I don't see the point in building cheap condos with bad soundproofing around venues. The case with the SAT is a good illustration of that."
Poirier maintains a diversity of venues is critical to a healthy electronic music scene -- it certainly was a major factor in Montreal's growth. "You need to have all kinds of spaces, from very small to very big," he says. "People need to be able to progress, promoters need to take chances. If you have a bigger scene, more people can start doing different styles of music. There isn't really a sound of Montreal, but there is healthy competition." Though electronic music hasn't been the only target of police action, the scene's options have narrowed since Zoobizarre and Main Hall fell victim to noise complaints.
Where does MUTEK fit in to this equation? You'll find plenty of high-volume, electronically generated music in its lineup, but its programming is markedly different than a rave or dance club -- its very title places "digital creativity" before "electronic music." "A lot of the people who were listening to electronic music 10-15 years ago have families and have moved on, but the festival keeps a connection with them," Mutek president Alain Mongeau explains. "It's like a mature offshoot of the early rave years. The festival at the beginning was trying to be separate from the rave scene. We're not throwing a party, it's a festival. In the same way that you have cinema festivals and dance festivals, the focus is on the artist."
The festival's offerings span virtually every aspect of electronic music from almost conventional club nights with booming beats to abstract sound art to outdoor jams such as their Piknic Electronik. MUTEK is universally acclaimed for its experimental booking strategies and ability to bring artists to North America who would otherwise not likely perform on the continent.
"We've managed to add a nobility or recognition to this whole field of practice," Mongeau continues. "Every time we secure funding from an arts council or ministry, it's an achievement and [more] respectability. It's a frail equilibrium -- we really try to be as careful as possible to maintain it." Being named co-winner of the 25th Grand Prize of the Montreal Arts Council brought further credibility. "We felt that that was the last step in being recognized, like the opera or the symphony, which won the prize in previous years."
Mongeau feels Poirier has blown a perceived trend out of proportion. "The specific case that was brought up by Poirier was one neighbour with a stronger voice. I don't think there's a concrete gesture to break the club scene -- the Piknic Electronik has dealt with neighbours like that for years. What is true, though, is there's a whole new context shaping up with the Quartier des Spectacles. And I think the neighbour was complaining as much about the construction that was happening day after day. I don't really see it as a stronger issue now than before, but it's something we have to be alert with all the time."
"I don't think MUTEK has anything to worry about," says Hatz. "Their crowd dances, but they seem more deeply interested in the music, whereas we just get people who want to scream -- our crowd is a bit more rowdy. But I looked into [Montreal's noise complaint laws]; all it takes is one person to complain."
Martin notes that noise limits are increasingly a worldwide issue. "Volume controls across Europe are becoming more and more of a threat. There's a 90 db limit in Switzerland, it's 100 db in France -- my headphones are louder than that. It's just a form of control."
Toronto's seminal Industry nightclub closed due to issues surrounding condo encroachment more than 10 years ago and complaints continue flowing from condo-dwellers in the club district. Hong Kong limits its outdoor music levels to 10 db above background noise; which is somewhat incongruous with the city's constant din of construction projects. Poirier points out anti-smoking bylaws in cities like New York have sent loud revelers into the streets, exacerbating the problems. Montreal broadcaster Yuani Fragata writes that these factors have also crippled Parisian nightlife. Contrast that with Austin's thriving scene, whose own version of "Quartier des Spectacles" for South by Southwest has seldom caused problems, thanks to temporary noise permits during the festival.
By partnering with four different Montreal agencies and staying in touch with neighbours through flyers and other means, MUTEK has earned a good reputation. But such an approach isn't appropriate for every promoter or venue -- some people just want to throw a party, sometimes in questionable spaces. Few promoters go out of their way to piss off the neighbors, but Martin is resolute that this tension is an inevitable part of music making and promotion, electronic or otherwise.
"Any scene that starts off anywhere comes out of a hunger to express yourself and some of the best stuff comes out of adversarial social conditions," he says. "I like music with fire in its belly and edginess."