Skip to main content

A founding member of the rock group the Rheostatics, Mr. Bidini says he played his first date at the Railway in 1987 and appeared there about a dozen times over the next two decades.Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

The abrupt closing of the Railway Club in downtown Vancouver has left a gap in the city's entertainment sector, with performers, fans and associated businesses left wondering what – if anything – will emerge to take the place of the venerable music venue.

"There aren't a lot of venues out there for smaller acts, or unknown/upcoming acts, and that is what I focus on in my business – and was also the sort of unintentional mandate of the Railway – breaking new bands, being a place of discovery and community," publicist Joelle May of ModMay Promotions said Wednesday in an e-mail.

"The Railway closing means fewer venues to access for touring bands, and that means fewer bands from outside Vancouver will come," she said, adding that Vancouver already has a reputation on the independent music circuit for having too few venues.

The Railway Club, a second-storey venue in downtown Vancouver that booked an eclectic array of live music, had operated for more than 80 years before its owner announced Wednesday on Facebook that it would close "effective immediately." The club had been for sale since January. It had operated as a live music venue since the 1980s. Its current owner, Steve Silman, bought it in 2008.

In the Facebook post, the owner said "the long-term and persistent combination of relatively high expenses, in particular rent, as compared to business receipts has left the business unable to continue."

The news triggered regret and reminiscing from people who had performed or attended events at the Railway, which hosted bands on their way up to fame and others that would remain forever obscure.

"The Railway didn't judge or cast aspersions. … You could be a new band or an established band, and they welcomed every musician the same way," said Dave Bidini, a Toronto-based musician and author.

A founding member of the rock group the Rheostatics, Mr. Bidini says he played his first date at the Railway in 1987 and appeared there about a dozen times over the next two decades. On trips to Vancouver, even if he was not booked at the Railway, he would drop by to listen to the act of the day.

"It means a lot to any city, but more in Vancouver – those foot-holds are few and far between," Mr. Bidini said.

Mr. Silman did not respond to a request for comment.

The business was listed for $299,000, which included a liquor licence.

The base rent for the property is in the neighbourhood of $10,000 a month with utilities and other costs on top of that, said Raj Thind, an agent with Sutton Group. "We had offers come through, but for a variety of reasons, they didn't get to the finish line," Mr. Thind said, adding that "there is still an opportunity for the right group to come and in take it forward."

The building that houses the Railway Club is on the city's heritage register in the C – contextual or character – category. The assessed value for the building is $10.9-million.

A small number of Railway Club workers, fewer than a dozen, were members of Local 40 of Unite Here, which represents hospitality sector workers.

The unionized Railway Club employees were given "absolutely no notice" of the pending shutdown, Unite Here Local 40 spokeswoman Michelle Travis said, adding that the union would seek severance pay or other compensation for unionized employees.

Vancouver city councillor Heather Deal said she was saddened to hear of the Railway's demise, but hoped a buyer might come forward to revive it. "My hopes are that someone will come in and operate another establishment there – the Rail's been such a great spot for so many years to hear live music," she said, using the common nickname for the club.

The city is trying to ensure space for live music by supporting venues such as the Rio Theatre and the Fox Cabaret and pop-up venues.

"We're looking for ways to make sure that people still have lots of opportunities to play and listen to live music," Ms. Deal said.

The closing of the Railway Club reflects a broader affordability crisis in Vancouver, said Andrey Pavlov, a finance professor at Simon Fraser University.

Cultural venues such as the Railway Club rely on a predominantly younger audience, and those people are being squeezed out of the city by skyrocketing housing costs, he maintains.

"What kills businesses is a lack of customers – it's rarely only the costs that kill businesses," Prof. Pavlov said.

Prof. Pavlov is among a group of University of British Columbia and SFU economists that in January pitched a B.C. Housing Affordability Fund that would be financed through an annual 1.5-per-cent surcharge on owners of vacant properties.