In the spring of 1994, an event called Music Waste began as a single night of musical protest against the annual Music West Festival, considered by some local musicians to be too corporate and exclusive. To play Music West, which at one point was one of the largest music industry events in Canada, musicians were required to pay a fee to apply, with no guarantee of actually playing the festival.
When four like-minded alternative Vancouver bands — SMAK, Zolty Cracker, Terror of Tiny Town and Knock Down Ginger — all paid to play Music West in the spring of ’94 but were turned down, they funneled their frustration into an event all their own. The show was at the Station Street Arts Centre near Main and Prior. They went head to head with Music West and, just like that, Music Waste was born.
“It went really well,” recalls Kris Wood, who at the time was in SMAK. Since 2006, Wood has been a professional touring musician in his band Blackberry Wood. He’s largely credited with spearheading Music Waste but can’t remember who coined the name. “It could have been Geoff Berner from Tiny Town. Sounds like something he would say.”
Berner is now a world-travelling klezmer punk accordionist, activist and author, and has fond memories of that first night of Music Waste.
“I remember that we had a great time and nobody made any money to speak of, as per usual,” says Berner. “I remember feeling good that we were doing our own thing, outside of the crappy music industry circle jerk. I felt like we had the better music. Like a Salon des Refusés.”
A reporter from Chart Magazine was in attendance and wrote up a glowing review in the national publication, spreading the word of Music Waste across the country.
“That first year we had our four bands,” says Wood. “In 1995, we put out a call for submissions, and we got 80 bands. By 1996, we had 250 bands.”
In the mid-1990s, Darren Atwater (a.k.a. the Reverend L. Ron Moonbeam) was the publisher of Vancouver’s weekly alternative newspaper Terminal City. Josephine Ochej was the managing editor. Both were instrumental in Music Waste’s early success.
Atwater, who now lives in England, remembers that Terminal City’s Granville Street office space served as a home base for Music Waste for years, until the festival went on hiatus in 1998 after a rash of venue closures across the city.
Music Waste returned in 2004, resurrected with help again from Atwater, this time with festival directors Sarah Cordingley and Cameron Reed at the helm.
“I was fresh out of journalism school and I became an intern at Terminal City,” says Cordingley. “John Cow and Darren Atwater had the idea to revive Music Waste and I did what I could to help out. I didn’t even know what Music Waste was, but my band Channels 3 and 4 got to play that year. I was introduced to so many great bands and people that I adore to this day. It was such a funny, sincere, and not-to-serious event that I was hooked.”
Over the years, Cordingley and Reed expanded the festival, adding Comedy Waste and Art Waste. Both directors have since moved on. Cordingley is an elementary school music teacher, and Reed is the director of marketing for Arts and Crafts Records in Toronto.
Music Waste is still going strong as an independent, non-profit, music, art and comedy festival that is entirely volunteer organized and run, and has lasted far longer than the festival it criticized. Music West is now but a faint memory in the annals of Vancouver rock history, fading out in the late 2000s under the moniker of New Music West.
Natalie Corbo is a current Music Waste organizer who has been with the festival for three years and says the goal is to keep it affordable and inclusive.
“Music Waste isn't trying to get bigger, or make a profit, or any of the things that are kind of ironically represented by our ‘80s Business’ theme this year,” Corbo says. “That's not to say we're staying stagnant — we are all really committed to pushing the festival to evolve in terms of genre, inclusivity and safety. Generally, we want it to be evolving at the cutting edge of the DIY community.”
This year’s festival features more 70 bands, including Music Waste veterans such as Apollo Ghosts, Woolworm and Devours, along with exciting newcomers such as Akita, Megamall and Debt.
The entire schedule is posted now at musicwaste.ca.
And even though the organizers are quick to point out that Music Waste has never been about commercial success, past Music Waste alumni that have gone on to international acclaim include Japandroids, Mac DeMarco and Black Mountain.
True to Music Waste’s original roots in protest, it’s still free to submit your band for consideration. Rather than charging artists to submit, Music Waste divides up the revenue from the festival, paying each artist equally. But in an ironic twist, just like that fallen corporate ogre Music West, there is no guarantee your band will get in to Music Waste these days, either.
“We get a ton of submissions every year, and we have to make a lot of really tough choices,” says Corbo. “Only like a quarter of the bands get in. But I would never want to discourage anyone from applying. The good news for anyone who gets turned down is that you can still be part of the festival. We encourage Go Your Own Waste (GYOW) shows. Basically, you can just put on whatever show you want, and as long as you accept Music Waste passes at the door, we will promote it as part of the festival.”
Kris Wood is proud his counter-festival is still going strong.
“Darren Atwater gave me a great piece of advice,” says Wood. “He said if you want to keep Music Waste going, you have to give it away. You have to pass it on to those who are the most enthusiastic and the most energized in our music scene, and it’s true. I’m I happy to see that continuing with Music Waste to this day.”
Music Waste’s 25th anniversary festival is this weekend (Thursday June 6 to Sunday June 9) at various venues around the city. Passes are just $20 for the full four days. Individual shows are priced at $7 each at venues such as Fortune Sound Club, the China Cloud and Pat’s Pub.