The Railway Club reopened as The Railway Stage And Beer Cafe April 5, 2017 and life seemed to return to normal.
Closed for nine months, the Railway became a symbol of just how tough it is to operate a night club in Vancouver. Weak economy, changing market, tough liquor laws.
It’s closure wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, but the Railway had survived both a weak economy and the ever shifting market before and seemed bullet proof.
I’m not a club owner/manager so I only can guess the problems of the previous owner, Steve Silman. Rising costs, shrinking audience, limited capacity, those tough liquor laws. Too many acts that just didn’t draw for whatever reason. Maybe they didn’t have good songs or a good presentation but still expected to get paid.
That was part of the Railway’s good reputation and made a gig there prestigious: Payment. At a time when acts are willing to play for next to nothing in order to get exposure and experience, the Railway still paid a respectable dollar… when a band could get in there.
At least it used to.
By the end, the club was diversifying in what seemed like a desperate attempt to survive, offering tribute bands, brand beer nights, comedy. The loyalty, which was a benchmark when the owners before Silman, the Forsyhes, had it was gone, though. The Hard Rock Miners built a foundation on its monthly singalongs, the Modelos started as a bust but was able to build a following regular bookings with the Railway’s blessing, the Shindig battles presented by CITR became an annual event. What would replace them? Nobody knew.
If bands these days make their money from touring, the Railway is too small for many imported acts. It is forced to book local acts and there doesn’t seem to be any local bands coming up that can routinely fill the place.
Or if there is, the place couldn’t pay them without charging a heavy hit at the door.
Still, the Railway was friendly and that comfort was a welcome change from the impersonal atmosphere of a lot of clubs.
Visitors became regulars and the patrons got used to the place’s shortcomings.
Whether the new owners, the Donnelly group, know it or not and are counting on it, the Railway had become a meeting place, the equivalent of a local pub, a place to gather. Often, the music was incidental. Certainly, a lot of people were there to take in the band, and squeezed to the front, and the Railway had a history of being the first or most crucial gig of a few bands’ introduction to Vancouver audiences – Blue Rodeo, Los Lobos, Radiohead, k.d. lang. That was long time ago, though, when the balance seemed right. However, many people would order a beer and go to the back to sit and talk with three or four friends. That became an important function. The Railway was synonymous with community and, by extension, Vancouver culture. On face value, music is still important but it’s not the sole reason to meet at the Railway and, and least by the end of its first incarnation, it never was.
The reopening of The Railway comes with a guarded optimism underlining that every night club in Vancouver is vulnerable. Bands would howl that that there were too few clubs to play. As others around it failed or closed for some reason, the Railway was still standing, seemingly inviolable. That’s why its closure nine months ago was so sobering. “It can’t happen here.”
Well, it did . Nothing has changed in those months. More clubs have come and gone these past few years. A few more have come along and are facing similar challenges as those encountered by Stilman.
A few years ago, The Province did brief profiles of clubs in a six part series. In making up a partial list, it was astonishing to realize how many venues the city boasted at one time and how many musicians could work and get paid a decent wage. One by one, they gave into social forces and closed. Single adults became married adults, settled down to raise a family and stopped going out. Disco came in. Top 40 wrestled with original music.
Going to a club became an unpleasant experience. Late nights, early work mornings; expensive beer, compounded by stiff penalties for drinking even more than one beer. Then, too, the band might be bad. Who’d want to repeat it?
The Railway couldn’t change those things. The only thing the new owners can hope for is that is that the city is ready again to take its place in the community..