We Asked Musicians Why The Hell They're Moving to Berlin

If Berlin seems like a mirage to you in the parched landscape of Canadian arts we’re here to help you weigh your options.

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Feb 1 2017, 2:31pm

Illustration by Courtney Menard

There's this growing trope within the Canadian arts community that everybody tries to move to Berlin eventually. It's hard to get the chance to legally work in America, London is too expensive, and you hear they don't even speak German over there anymore. Even if just for three months, the idea goes that if things aren't working for you at home, it's obviously the country's fault so you should just pick up your experimental noise project, put your synths in a crate and build your new life on a year-long youth mobility visa. Still, the question remains, why are so many Canadians moving to Berlin? Is it really easier to be a musician there?

According to the Federal Statistics Office of Germany, as of 2015, 2,670  Canadians were living in Berlin and based on what we found the city offers three main advantages. The first being proximity to other major European cities, a pivotal element for an artist wanting to find new audiences. In Canada, traveling province to province can take days, with minimal venue options along many of those stretches. The country hosts approximately 125 major music festivals, compared to Europe's 600. For Canadians, the next biggest market for musicians is the US, which can be notoriously hard to gain access to as a touring artist. Whereas most countries in Europe, with the exception of France and the UK, allow artists to perform for up to 30 days without a work permit.

The second point which makes Berlin an advantageous Homebase is the low cost of living. According to data released by apartment listing website RentSeeker a Vancouver one bedroom apartment will ring you up an average of $1062CAD. The German equivalent immobilienscout24 released similar information, noting it varies by neighbourhood but will cost between 500 and 800 euros. In an effort to keep the city livable for Berliners the government brought in a rental price brake legislation in the summer of 2015, which sets a neighbourhood cap on the amount a landlord is allowed to charge per square metre, and prosecutes those who charge above 10% of that rate. The last asset the city has on its side are the lax liquor and venue licensing laws. Unlike Canada, Berlin bars and venues are permitted to be open 24 hours without applying for a special license, drinking is allowed in public, and at corner stores beer is cheaper than water. This makes it easier for bands and promoters to put on shows and helps create a more engaged (more twisted) environment.

It's true that FACTOR and other province-specific grant programs provide the country with extensive funding for musicians. But where these organizations allocate funding is based on the projects they believe will create the most return. And in many cases this means funding goes to artists represented by affiliated record labels, or those who've already established some measure of success. For so many young artists not yet at the level where they can access funding, the cost of living in Vancouver or Toronto leaves no room for failure. When the bar for survival is lowered and there are less obstacles in place for sharing work, artists have the space to thrive. Don't get us wrong, no place is perfect. As demand to move to Berlin grows higher, rent prices rise, and goods with them. But before the growing pains really set in, it's true, Berlin is cheaper to live in and easier to tour from than any major Canadian city.

We wrangled three of these thousands to ask them some hard-hitting questions about their places of origin, and newly adopted homes. If Berlin seems like a mirage to you in the parched landscape of Canadian arts we're here to help you weigh your options, before you end up in a foreign country with a donair in one hand and a list of existential doubts in the other.

Sally Jørgensen

Photo courtesy of the artist

NOISEY: Who are you and what do you do?
Sally Jørgensen: I'm Sally Dige, that's my artist name. I play music, I also make films, illustration, design, all across the board in the arts.

Can you describe what your life was like when you were in Vancouver, were you a musician at the time?
I was a student and I was just basically doing that and ok I had my band and just basically doing little jobs here and there.

What were the challenges of being a musician in the city?
Well, I think first of all for the last few years before I left, people's spirits were being crushed. There was that period where things were really exciting, and I was younger so when you're younger things are really exciting. They were underground venues where all these weird people would come together it was a really diverse crowd. Then just kind of one by one, like everything it reaches a peak and then it dies and new things come up. It was like this domino effect where things just kept being shut down and it was just like becoming the typical story, another place destroyed for condo development. All the creatives who wanted to do something with their art were leaving.

What are some of the advantages you have being an artist in Berlin versus in Canada?
It's so easy to travel to all different countries. Every weekend you can play a different show, a different place, and it's cheap to get around. So even practical things like that, Canada is just so big and a plane ticket to the next province costs so much. Also, I just feel, the general vibe in Vancouver, it's like that the arts and music is not so much appreciated or celebrated as let's say [in Berlin] or in Europe. Any interesting things that people would put together would be shut down, and they'd have to start again. It was just this fight to prove that Vancouver's not so boring.

Kevin Halpin

Photo by Alexandra Bondi de Antoni

NOISEY: What was it like getting started in Berlin?
Kevin Halpin: This place called West Germany they were the first people to ever give me a chance. It was with the guy from Operators his old band Handsome Furs because, initially, my aim was to book bigger bands. It's since got more localized. I had my specific idea of, kind of, trying to recreate DIY shows, which there weren't really any of that I could find in the early days. And just over a period of years there's been kind of a scene that's developed which has been great. Because in the early years it was all techno and house.

So, although you weren't putting on shows in Vancouver as much, do you think it's made easier or harder by being here?
Well, I can't really compare, but it's easier in that people are more welcoming to me here. The cost of doing things but also the availability of spaces to do things where there aren't as many barriers in place, legal barriers in place. Like I remember in the early days here we would do parties and like set up a bar and sell beer, and in Vancouver, I would never even dream of selling beer without a license. And we would do these parties here and the police would show up and they wouldn't even bat an eye that we have a bar going, things that I would have been arrested for numerous times over in Canada you can do here and no one gives a shit.

What changes do you think could occur in Canada to make it more sustainable artists?
The thing is I don't really think it's sustainable here long term it's just like a fun chapter for a lot of people. This is the place to like fuck around and try stuff out. But it's very rare that people make it out of the DIY world into something bigger. I've worked with a lot of people from their early days here and it's always lots of fun and people do it for different reasons, it's not necessarily that people are doing it for career reasons but if you want to like make it big, this isn't the place to be for it. I mean you can survive while you're doing it, but I'm guessing you might now want to play small shows your whole life. But in other ways Canada is just way too big geographically, so maybe bring three hundred million people to Canada. Or just have the police chill out.

Alana DeVito

Photo by Jöran Manduki

NOISEY: Can you describe what your life was like when you were in Toronto?
Alana DeVito: Yeah, so before I went I was in a band called the BB Guns, and we were a kind of '60s influenced garage punk band. And we were deeply involved in like the Toronto music scene, it had gotten to the point where we were playing some of the bigger venues, but not really able to tour outside of the city, and everyone had kind of reached like a fork in the road …  So I went to Berlin, and it was great in terms of having this time to myself where I could, I taught myself to record on my own, and mix on my own, produce my own records, and kind of be detached from a huge music scene that was constantly influencing me.

So in your experience, there were a lot of Canadians in the music [Berlin] community, did you see an influx of people from Canada moving to Berlin in your time there?
Yeah, definitely. Actually, just in the year, I was in Berlin I've had lots of friends come over long term or to test it out thinking that they're going to move. And also just being in Berlin, how many Canadians you hang out with. It's a bit of a running joke to meet another Canadian. But I think it has a lot to do with the fact, no one's running away from anything bad. We have it really great in this country, the music scenes great, the art scenes great …  And Berlin is extremely titillating, you know? It's exciting, it's different, it's completely different than Canada. Canada has all these rules about drinking, about doing this and that, you go to Berlin there's basically no rules.

So why are you deciding to move back to Toronto?
In a place like Toronto, there are five bands I can possibly play with at a time that are part of the scene I've grown up with that I can kind of jump around. But that's also because I'm older. I've built my life and crew that way as a musician in Toronto. And being in Berlin there are all these small scenes that are growing ... And I really want to be a part of that but for me where I am in my life right now, I do have to be where I can get work. If I was 23 and moving to Berlin I would be staying there in a minute, I want to be a part of building, something, of course, I think it's going to be amazing.

What changes do you think need to occur in Canada to make it more sustainable for people in creative industries to live and work?
Oof, that is one that we constantly talk about. Well, Toronto specifically has a huge problem with rising cost of rent right now. We're all trying to make the best of it and like moving into areas that are further away but still accessible. But cost of living is absolutely getting in the way.

Maya-Roisin Slater is a writer based in Vancouver so she'll definitely be moving to Berlin shortly. Follow her on Twitter.