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Whistler music: poised for the next big gig

A snapshot of the resort's bands, DJs and innovators shows we are on the cusp of new projects driven by creative talents who love to make music and love where they live.

October shifts everything about Whistler. At the start of the month there is a pause, a catching of breath after months on mountain bikes. Literally, the machinery stops operating, the gondolas are in maintenance. And by the end of the month, you can see that breath as it flows out of you on a crisp day. Everyone is awaiting what comes next — the mountains' opening, encrusted with snow. While we wait, we look for things to do. It's a good month for the arts to grab attention. Whistler Music Search is one of those October moments.

The non-competitive competition

"Happy Thursday, Crystal Lounge!"

Host Jon Shrier is shouting out to the busy village pub, about to unleash the final night of the annual Whistler Music Search.

It's noisy, congested, warm — an escape from a cold night and an eerily abandoned autumnal Whistler Village.

It's the fourth Thursday of the competition, October 23rd. Fifteen emerging musical acts have already vied to win the previous nights, or, at the very least, they've tried to draw the chattering patrons into the performance, getting them to eat their wings and sip their beers while listening.

It's a challenge to musicians, to any performers in public places, to succeed at this — and a rite of passage. To convince the rest of us to engage.

With the dust settling from the previous weeks, our finalists for the night are B-Syde, Jenna Mae, Will Ross — The winners from those three nights — along with wildcard duos The McQuaids and Neverland Nights.

Wearing a red cow onesie, B-Syde, a.k.a. Blair Wright, is up first and laying out a set of acoustic-electronic loops of original work and covers, like a reggae-infused "Ain't No Sunshine."

Over the sound and the people, the serving staff and managers do that special nightclub sign language about drinks and food. It feels like everyone in Whistler is either safe in their homes or hotel rooms, or here looking at the stage.

The bar manager of the Crystal Lounge, Jono Young, is pleased with the turnout.

You've got everyone in town here, I tell him.

"Everyone who matters!" he laughs, looking around at the crowd.

Next up is The McQuaids, cousins Oliver and Kurtis. Pulling together a Buddy Hollyesque country-rock opening that has the crowd clapping, Oliver lets slip that they had to borrow a guitar to be able to perform tonight.

"Part of our thing is being woefully under prepared," he tells them. "My 14-year-old self thanks you."

A Roy Orbison song gets shrieks from the audience and at least one judge.

Jenna Mae plays solo acoustic, originals and covers, with a grainy voice that darts like a bird, hitting soft, low registers and sounding not unlike Tracey Chapman. She lays out a good future in music before her.

She has lots of friends in the audience and she thanks them for taking away her nerves.

Josh Bailey and Lachie Hol are Neverland Nights. They've already made waves as jobbing musicians, getting frequent gigs around the resort since they started performing a year or so ago, with Bailey's soulful voice the central focus.

Fourth up, they present an original song "about giving in to temptation," and turn "You Oughta Know" by Alanis Morissette into a new kind of anthem that included all the broken hearts out there, men's as well as women's.

By now the bar is packed in a relentless way. You end up finding out how badly the guy at the table next to you is at keeping the beat because it's impossible to escape his merciless lack of rhythm.

 And it's nice to see the musicians enjoying each other so much, too. Over the weeks of the music search, so-called competitors would take to the stage with each other, loaning their voices or instrument skills, all with the aim of padding out the presentation for the enjoyment of everybody.

This, says Jon Shrier, is what it's all about. He hates even referring to the search as a competition.

And the winner is...

Will Ross. This fact has been reported already. He is thrilled.

But before anyone knows, even before the judges know, he is on stage at the Crystal Lounge. The final act of the night.

Shrier makes a long intro and then looks back at Ross, who has been waiting all evening to perform.

"Sorry, am I keeping you from your art?" Shrier asks, cheekily.

Ross, resplendent in autumnal folky garb, all oranges and browns — with an autumnal beard to match — takes the teasing in good grace.

He's about the acoustic and the voice, the strongest of several contenders in that area. He throws in the odd electronic loop to make his sound bigger. B-Syde, still in his cow suit from his earlier moment on the stage, is bouncing away to Ross's set in front of me. It's a sweet moment of pure enjoyment.

Ross pulls out "Praise You" by Fatboy Slim and a surprising acoustic version of "My Name Is" by Eminem.  If a winner could be declared through audience participation, singing the songs like an anthem, the prize would already be his.

A few weeks before the final, Shrier tells me in a phone chat that winning the Whistler Music Search is so much about success on the night.

"And that's why, for me, it's not so much of a competition. There is a lot of goodwill between the musicians who play in Whistler in general. The winner last year (The Jim Webb Experience, now performing around the resort as WolfParty), was a wildcard. He didn't win his night. But the next time, in the final, they brought it," Shrier says.

So Ross takes the night this time and says he will use his prize, a year's worth of studio time at WMN Studio in Function Junction, to create music videos with his band in support of his album Freeloader, which came out in August.

Second place goes to The McQuaids, who took home a guitar — useful given their need to borrow one. They're young guys, early 20s. And they'll be back.

The big picture

In writing about Whistler music, it is difficult to get the full story into the parameters of these pages. Apologies for only showing part of it, but there is a good reason for this — encounters with the live scene over about 10 days have to be the limits to this story, otherwise this feature would be book length.

Maybe that's the next necessary step in recording the scene.

There are the out-of-town musical visitors, the one-off gigs by "name acts" like De La Soul, Corb Lund, Tokyo Police Club, Walshy Fire and Nas. And then there are the music makers who build careers here and take it away to the rest of the world — like DJs Mat the Alien, Rich-A and songstress Ali Milner.

In a report to Whistler Council at a Committee of the Whole meeting in October, Community Cultural Officer Anne Popma identified at least 80 residents in the performing arts, including musicians.

She believes 40 to 45 musicians and about a dozen music teachers make up the scene here. While she states the research into this is not definitive, she believes it to be a conservative estimate.

And if you consider those like music-search winner Ross, living beyond the resort's borders in Squamish but performing here, then think of adding dozens more names.

Enter the DJs

Electronic artists cannot be left out of the story.

Five of them come to Pique's office to talk about the Monster Massive night at Tommy Africa's the night before Halloween. Organized by drum-and-bass master DJ Phroh of Whistler Junglists, it is an annual showcase night for turntablist talent.

Phroh is known for regularly bringing groups of DJs and emcees together. He prefers to be on stage with others. They talk about the upcoming gig, and I see it as an opportunity to break out more of their insight.

Kid Kicko has performed hip hop and ghetto funk mainly and has had a career in Ontario, where he is from, as well as New York City. He has plied his trade in Whistler for four years and likens the resort to a college town in terms of the music.

He says: The music scene here is interesting and different than a lot of other places. In a big city, the bars are going to be competitive with each other, whereas here or at college towns, there is more of a routine.

"Per capita in Whistler, we have tons of nightclubs and cool performers, and international acts that get booked in, compared to another small town. It's half big city, half university town where young people go out. It's an interesting thing.

"Playing in New York, I'd always hear the same style of music. Moving to Whistler my music selection was expanded, based on the fact that I could hear so many other DJs, it had so many different styles and I tapped into so many different sounds. It's interesting from a DJ's perspective. Coming here, you're exposed to quite a bit because people flock here."

He agrees that this is particularly attractive for DJs like himself; Whistler punches above its weight and expands the experiences of its music makers in ways larger centres do not.

From Quebec originally, DJ Miss Kosmik has been here even longer, on and off. She first became interested in the music scene 18 years ago.

"I juggle between styles but I can also focus on one thing. We have a very diverse audience. The nature of Whistler is that we get people from all over the world in one place.

"It's weird what types of nights can come out. The most successful ones have been established for a long time. People who are coming here are told by their friends and they come here and expect to go there. It reflects in what comes out of Whistler, in the types of events."

"There aren't a lot of women in Whistler (doing electronic music). I'm trying to play more, but again many of the regular DJs play more top 40 and more commercial music. They will get booked a bit more because they are tailoring it for what people want."

DJ Deadly is an old-school scratcher and house-breaks performer who started performing in Burlington, Ont., when he was 14, almost 20 years ago. He came to Whistler after high school, in 2001.

He found Whistler because a friend was living here and then Whistler found him.

"We all became friends and I got a job at Tommy Africa's DJing at TGIF on Fridays," Deadly recalls. "It's a tight community of independent underground DJs. We've all played with each other so many times and we know each other's styles. You get in that booth with each other and you feed off that."

A music studio by design

Steve Clark, who founded WMN Studio in Function Junction in January this year, is refining an architectural drawing on his office computer for a renovation job in Vancouver.

This is how he funds WMN Studios, taking on jobs like this to keep it afloat.

Studio members pay a fee and can make music, videos or webcasts, hold parties or other gatherings. Clark has plans that are ambitious and which he thinks are sustainable in Whistler, but first he needs to bring in the steady income to support his dream.

"I'll design you a deck, a kitchen, to a 10,000 sqare-foot house," he says.

"I started on the studio project close to 10 years ago, mainly with networking, talking and trying to stimulate development to create a business amongst the community of musicians."

He's a rare creature, a producer without personal musical ambitions.

"That's all I bring to the table. I'm not a sound engineer; I'm more the business side. We built the first recording studio in a house I designed in Alpine. The owners let us build a recording studio in the suite we were building. Before that, I'd never been in a recording studio," Clark says.

He wanted to draw together the necessary tools to allow artists to go further. He still does.

What he has learned in the last year of the studio's existence is that Whistler music needs a boost to make our fledging musicians' lives more stable.

"It all comes down to the basic fact that it's tough. The whole musician community, the artist community, it's a hobby. For very few is it a career. For Monty Biggins and Sean Rose, it's a career, and for Kostas (longtime Whistler reggae musician Kostaman)," Clark says.

"But most people can't dedicate the full-time effort. It's not their primary source of income.

"That's the whole goal of WMN Studio, about changing that. Driving funding through other sources to help influence artists, so they are able to work full time at their passion."

He wants to create a software development project that allows for better community collaborations and then turn it into a franchise model that could be used in other communities.

"And we want to develop a sponsorship platform where local businesses can gain visibility through sponsoring artists," Clark says.

"We haven't put it out to the public yet... I'd like any project that goes on in the space, whether it is something that we're creating or something as simple as the recording of a song for an artist, I want to put an individual on a program... they come to the studio on their project. Normally they pay a fee each time, but I want for each time to make a little documentary, a web series, and get a sponsor on board to pay the artist a salary (for that studio time)."

Another idea is to develop a health benefit package for members, and Clark would like to see a tour bus purchased for collective use by members.

Clark was also one of the judges for Whistler Music Search this year. He says he sees the competition as "putt(ing) pressure on the development side of music." Very much part of what he wants to see happen for the resort.

Monty Biggins, singer and founder of the rockabilly band The Sociables, became involved with the WMN Studio after it opened. His big project there is a youth band.

He says he became a professional musician because of Whistler. Biggins played 330 gigs, either solo or with his band, in 2013 and has already broken that record by October this year.

"I came back to Whistler (after moving away briefly) because of my dreams of how I think this town could be. Very specifically Whistler. I thought, 'this is what I want to do and where could I go to do it?' It could be in the city (Vancouver) and I would get lost in the sea. Or I could come to a place that I love already and jump in, to see what I could make happen," Biggins says.

And musicians as resources in developing their futures are being recognized. The municipality's cultural plan was developing around the same time and Biggins was asked to contribute. He'd like to see a multi-stop music festival event.

"When I look at the infrastructure of Whistler, it's set up for things like that," he says.

"We could have a destination resort where music is always part of that destination. It doesn't just have to be about the sports. I know the cultural plan talks a lot about that and there are other venues really embracing it popping up."

And the established institutions also play a role, the public-private element at play in Whistler music cannot be underestimated, Biggins says.

"You see the pockets of how Whistler Blackcomb is defining music, too. They support it and they want to take it forward. And the (Whistler) Arts Council is amazing, too. They hire locally, they provide opportunities – I got to open for Del Barber and that was incredible," he says.

Whistler is a rare opportunity for our musicians and other artists. It allows them to work on their craft in close confines with like-minded creators, gives them exposure to the wider world and brings that wider world to them. The closeness of a small town, combined with the potential for expansion of a larger urban centre.

The movement to make Whistler a greater launchpad is apparent.

And when it comes to creativity, on those days when the muse is nowhere to be found, all a musician needs to do is get up a mountain, look out into the valley and find her there.