Dreaming of Music City

Who doesn’t like the idea of making Toronto a place where musicians and music-related businesses can thrive? But so far, Music City seems more like a nice idea supported by city council than a reality. In this first instalment in a new series, we talk to 10 musicians and community builders about barriers to success and, more importantly, solutions.


Ever since the formation of the Austin-Toronto Music City Alliance in 2013, there’s been lots of talk about making Toronto a “music city.” Loosely defined, a music city is a place like Austin or Montreal or New York City with a vibrant music economy. Where innovative and diverse shows and festivals happen regularly and are well attended. Where, more than anything, hard-working local musicians and music-related businesses – record labels, concert promoters, live music venues, recording studios, etc – can sustain a career for a long time.

Ask the average independent local musician or music businessperson – we’ve talked to 10 of them for this story – about what it’s like out there in the dark bars and basements of Toronto and you’ll quickly hear that the struggle is real. The issue of the exorbitant cost of living comes up over and over again, in addition to out-of-control residential and commercial rental rates, lack of venue spaces and safety, scene segregation related to race, gender, sexuality and mobility, and barriers to government funding and international opportunities. 

The Toronto Music Advisory Council was formed three years ago to help keep music sector growth top of mind on city council, and on March 31 of this year, council unanimously adopted the TMAC’s official music strategy, which made recommendations in the areas of affordable housing, fair compensation for musicians, improved access to health and dental care, better dissemination of grant and funding information and the creation of a “music hub,” to name a few.    

A few city-fuelled initiatives have come to fruition since then: the Toronto Music Directory (an interactive map and industry database) the Music In The Parks permit category as part of the Arts In The Parks program Music 311 and Live From City Hall showcases, the Austin-Toronto Music Industry Summit in June. But the meat-and-potatoes stuff remains vague, and whether the strategy becomes a reality depends on the 2017 budget. 

For example, when it comes to the affordable housing file, entertainment lawyer Andreas Kalogiannides, TMAC’s co-chair, told NOW he’s working with the city and “looking forward to a positive partnership to develop innovative housing solutions.” (Kalogiannides cites a lack of consistent, well-paid performance opportunities and affordable housing – and the resultant loss of musicians to places like Hamilton and other Canadian cities – as major barriers to success, which results in a “net loss to the city of the many benefits of a healthy creative class, [like] strong communities, arts education programs, a vibrant social scene and the huge economic contributions made by musicians and music businesses.”)

So we’ve turned to 10 members of the local community to keep the bigger picture in sight. We asked: What’s the main thing standing in your way, and how can we fix it? What needs to change for you to thrive? We got lots of specifics. More than we had space for, so we’re turning this into a series. Think of this as a conversation-starter. 

Responses have been condensed for space. 

Alaska B, musician, Yamantaka // Sonic Titan


SAFETY 

Many queer and trans people feel uncomfortable around heterosexual and cisgender music fans at historically unsafe venues and bars because of historical trauma in these spaces. They will not feel safe until safety is promised to them, whether explicitly through policy or implicitly through practice and intent. Until we know a space is safe to enter and use (e.g. the bathroom access will not be policed, homophobia or transphobia from other patrons will not be accepted), inclusion will not happen so simply.

Promoters need to do more to continue to foster healthy, forward-thinking shows where queer and trans people feel safe.

Similarly, many people of colour in this city feel uncomfortable in dominantly white music scenes or festivals, whether because of feeling tokenized or disrespected by programming or administration (e.g., the Black stages at Pride), uncomfortable around cultural appropriation or lack of understanding amongst their musician peers, or even disrespected by the audiences themselves (e.g., white people in headdresses at festivals).

Because of these divides, there’s often little crossover between musicians working in these various “scenes.”  

I’m sure many musicians, promoters and audiences hear these kinds of complaints from marginalized groups and sympathize, but they’re either unsure of how to change anything or don’t understand yet how oppression can sow distrust long before a show is even organized. These kinds of disadvantages due to your class, race, sexuality or gender affect marginalized communities’ access to music lessons, expensive instruments, recording studios, promoters, shows and even bands to play with. The socioeconomic effects of oppression can also make it difficult to pay rent in a city with skyrocketing real estate prices, and without a place to practise, it [becomes] very attractive to throw out your drums and focus on your non-music-related career.

While we can’t undo legacies of oppression easily or just tokenize each other to increase diversity, we can respond as musicians, promoters and institutions with vision and intent. The AGO reached out to long-lasting local collective 88 Days of Fortune, and Osheaga banned First Nations headdresses – productive steps forward. But promoters need to do more to continue to foster healthy, forward-thinking shows. Choosing to support or even enshrine the comfort of women, lgbttiqq2saa, Indigenous and Black people and people of colour in the ethos of your shows may mean losing fans of bands with racist names, but it’ll open you up to a whole new audience. 

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Greg Benedetto, DIY hardcore punk promoter, Stuck in the City, Not Dead Yet Festival (Thursday to Sunday, October 13-16)


AFFORDABLE HOUSING

The number-one issue that faces not just the music community, but the city as a whole is affordable housing. The cost of living is so high that to sustain themselves, most artists cannot rely on art alone. Everything else can grow out of [solving this]. If artists are set free from the restraints of second and third and fourth jobs on top of their artistic practice, they’d have time to both create and explore. Less time grinding to afford rent means more time to be active in creating art and fighting for space and, if they so choose, engaging with the archaic and puritanical bureaucratic apparatus gripping this city. 

Affordable housing doesn’t just help artists – it helps everyone struggling to tread water in a city that seems so intent on drowning us. Even just one day extra a week for artists to focus on their practice would be an incredible opportunity that could lead to finishing an album, planning a tour, postering for the next gig, working with other artists in their community or even starting a new project.

My honest solution, or at least my suggestion, is that musicians need to organize. There is strength in numbers. The city can create space and opportunity through something like affordable housing, but it’s not going to write the songs, book the gigs, make the posters, drive the tours. So organize with the people around you. Learn the bylaws and regulations and take space! Work together and fight for what you want! Dig your heels in and make your voice heard! High cost of living is state control. If the city’s focus is on the “music industry,” we’ll just end up with ancient funding models that are propping up an old guard.

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Ian Chai

Ian Chai, Buzz Records 


GOVERNMENT FUNDING

As a label, we face the same challenge as everyone else: making people care. A uniquely Canadian obstacle, however, is reconciling the divergence between our goals as a label versus those necessarily imposed upon us by granting bodies. I should preface this by acknowledging that our government’s patronage of the arts is enviable, and that creating a mandate that pleases everyone is a herculean task.

That said, the metrics used to assess a grant application skew toward deliverables more readily attainable by the majors. This approach not only ignores the new realities of the music industry, but also keeps new stakeholders at bay. While no one is suggesting that a tape label specializing in drone should be the primary focus of granting bodies, in matters of culture, the majors and major indies can’t be the only voices. We need diversity.

It would be a shame if Toronto’s Music City aspirations devolved into nothing more than an echo chamber of antiquated players and beliefs.

What we need is representation of new players. Encourage participation of industry outsiders through education and by fostering a less adversarial process. Clarify goals: there’s room for funds to benefit both artist and business development sides. More transparency: is there a disconnect between an organization’s stated goals and grant recipients? In the end, it would be a shame if Toronto’s Music City aspirations devolved into nothing more than an echo chamber of antiquated players and beliefs.

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Anthony Tuccitto

Bambii Kirsten Azan

Bambii, DJ/producer/promoter


ENTERTAINMENT DISTRICT

People mention a lot of intangible things when speaking about why Toronto still struggles to be included in a more international or global competitive music sphere. Lack of support, indifference directed at local artists or general bad vibes are things I hear a lot. 

The most obvious and biggest obstacle is space. There just aren’t enough venues. There aren’t enough free spaces that can be turned into venues. A lack of venues means less creative programming. It means a large percentage of artists from all disciplines can’t execute or execute with full agency. 

The venues that exist are policed so strictly that almost nothing can happen that doesn’t fall into a tired “10 pm to 2 am Friday night” structure. I think it’s important to figure out where our entertainment district is. Currently it seems there isn’t one that is formalized or even acknowledged. The city could benefit from doing more research and celebrating (with money and resources) what’s special about the Toronto arts scene. 

This isn’t a new idea but probably needs to be said again: extending last call would create more freedom in nightlife and the music scene. That’s part of the reason Montreal and New York have such thriving scenes. 

The city should reinstate a music or club district. There needs to be a safe space for people to congregate where they aren’t over-policed because of loitering between venues. 

I constantly see spaces for lease, and perhaps some sort of interim program would allow them to be used for arts initiatives in between being re-leased. Also: give artists more access to public outdoor space like lots, side streets and parks. 

Lastly, my solution to most if not all the problems in this city and the entire world is to hire more young people of colour! They have unique ideas and experiences everybody is missing out on. That’s our future.  

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Tanja-Tiziana

Ryan Paterson & Che Kothari of Manifesto.

Che Kothari, Manifesto founding director and board chair


INCLUSIVE OPPORTUNITIES

It all boils down to one word: opportunity. And more specifically, meaningful and inclusive opportunity. At the first town hall meeting that birthed Manifesto, I asked attendees, “What barriers are we facing?” We later distilled the feedback into key areas: insufficient income-generating and employment opportunities in the music industry unrealized benefits of greater collaboration between musical artists, organizations, institutions and genre lack of mainstream support infrastructure for homegrown musical artists (venues, media, industry, etc) and systemic exclusion and under-resourcing of marginalized communities.

Too often, the right people are not invited to the decision-making table. Even when they are, the conversation is often dominated by the priorities of those traditionally in positions of power. 

Too often, the right people are not invited to the decision-making table. Even when they are, the conversation is often dominated by the priorities of those traditionally in positions of power. When we organize, the things we hear that are most needed are space to further explore self, to create, to collaborate and network with others, to do admin work, to rehearse, to record, to meet, to play, to showcase and elevate their art and build profile. 

Also, [we need] accessible avenues to music education from a young age throughout the GTA and specifically in communities outside the downtown core where there is less opportunity. And education doesn’t stop at just learning how to make music. We need to continue to train artists [in how to deal] with lawyers, accountants, managers, business managers, publishing companies and agencies, etc.  

Infrastructure – the industry needs to include artists from new genres. Look at Toronto’s population and then look at what’s being offered in terms of media representation -online, on air or in print. Music marketing firms, booking agencies, publishing companies, labels, PR agencies, venues do not reflect the diversity of talent and narratives that exist here. Give thanks for G98.7, but we need more.

International partnerships: It’s hard to sustain yourself only within Canada. If the right international partnerships exist, it helps artists remain locally rooted but globally connected. The majority of artists I speak with want to travel, share their music, learn and collaborate in other areas of the world and then bring those experiences back to Toronto.

Lastly: funding.

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Tanja-Tiziana

Johnny Dovercourt aboard the Toronto Islands Ferry.

Jonny Dovercourt, Wavelength


COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE RENTS & RADIO

With only a few exceptions, radio stations in Toronto have never been supportive of local music. Though some acts may make it into regular rotation, it’s usually not until after they’ve been signed, and even then, support seems oddly selective.

Local radio could have made Lowell into a huge star, but it hasn’t happened (yet). Campus radio does play local acts more often, but it always seemed marginalized in Toronto, and sadly doesn’t hold the same influence on the local scene as its equivalents do in smaller Ontario cities like Guelph or London.

You have to work extra-hard here to make ends meet if you want to make a go of it playing music. I feel like I see fewer younger kids starting bands nowadays, as they see how hard their elder siblings have had it. When it comes to making music at home, you better be an electronic producer with really good headphones, because no one has a basement jam space unless they move to the suburbs. There’s a waiting list to get into a monthly room at the Rehearsal Factory, and if you’re stuck using the hourly rooms, you don’t have much time to get adventurous with your sound – and you may well end up sounding like everyone else, using the same gear. 

You have to work extra-hard here to make ends meet if you want to make a go of it playing music. I feel like I see fewer younger kids starting bands nowadays, as they see how hard their elder siblings have had it.

Even worse than the impact on residential and jam space rents, the out-of-control cost of commercial real estate makes it harder to keep a venue open unless you’ve figured out a booking strategy to maximize bar sales. It seems that every week there’s a news story about a live music club closing. Rising rents mean only the few well-established venues who own their buildings are safe. 

The club circuit’s dependence on alcohol sales also means that all-ages shows are an even more endangered species. Club owners understandably don’t want to take the risk of losing their licence when there are no immediately demonstrable rewards to letting in people who are underage. 

And when it comes to non-commercial music, those spaces are increasingly being pushed to the periphery. There is no longer a dedicated space for improvised music since Somewhere There shut down, although Arraymusic and other rooms have filled the void.

My solution would be for the city to help support the creation of a new music venue that is centrally located creative, cross-genre and not necessarily commercial all-ages and accessible licensed and late-night professionally produced and soundproofed curated programming-wise affordable or better yet free to rent/book multi-room (small and large venues under the same roof) multi-purpose (could easily flip from rock show to classical concert) multi-arts (also suitable for screenings and other performances) and includes a café/bar/hangout space and office/incubator space for small music organizations.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds, and could be established with modest public and private investment, and possibly with the dedication of a city-owned facility or as part of a new development supported with Section 37 funds. I don’t know of any other city that has done something like this, and it could further put Toronto on the world music map. More importantly, it could create a lot of opportunities for cross-pollination amongst all the diverse threads of our music scene.

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Kristjan HarrisBloor Ossington Folk Festival


BUREACRATIC RED TAPE AND FESTIVAL SATURATION

I often wonder how difficult it must be to navigate the complexities involved in dealing with the city, zoning bylaws and funding packages if you don’t have a background in it. Fortunately I’ve been dealing with cities and permits for various reasons since I was quite young, but it shouldn’t be that tough.

A start would be to have mandatory communication and respect between departments instead of bullshit egos and inter-office politics about who has more power. Musicians seeking permits should get an online link to every department they have to clear, and each department should notify you online when you’ve cleared its requirements so you know what’s been done and what remains.

Regarding festivals specifically, it’s ridiculous how few Canadian musicians play at big festivals in Canada, and these festivals could save so much money if they booked more local bands instead of foreign talent.

There are so many music festivals in Toronto. It’s great for the city but frustrating as a promoter to have to stack yourself against so many things. It’s tough because festivals are really one of the only ways musicians can actually make a buck in the internet age. Single shows seems to be losing some ground. Fans don’t seem to be going out to as many as they used to, and there are really only a handful of artists who can still fill arenas. Most bands have to rely on some kind of festival cycle, where they often get paid more than if they did a single show. 

For promoters, you are getting fewer fans out to shows because there are so many to choose from, so it’s a scary thing to plan. Even if it is a free show, I still need the audience, just as a ticketed event does. If I don’t get it, I don’t get cash next year from the grant agencies and the private sponsors.

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Jeff Bierk

Simone Schmidt

Simone Schmidt, Singer/songwriter, Fiver and the Highest Order


CAREER SUSTAINABILITY 

The kind of successful career I’m interested in is a long one, where a musician can sustain creation and improve in craft, go to new places, collaborate and possibly galvanize people through musical catharsis. The long catalogue. This might run counter to dominant culture’s obsessive celebration of youth, but musicians who have been sticking it out into their 40s and 50s are making some of the best work, unless they’re totally beaten down by poverty and sickness. 

If Toronto is to be a Music City worth anything, it should stop celebrating only its famous exports. It should honour the voices that live in it by making itself liveable for those who can’t and don’t care to try to get rich.

I’ve been somewhat skeptical about the makeup of the Toronto Music Advisory Council because as I understand it, it’s actually the Toronto Music Industry Advisory Council. [The council is focused on the “opportunities for the city’s music industry,” says its website.]

My experience is not that industry leads to good music. Good music is fostered in the bedroom, the kitchen, in basements, in places of worship, in dive bars and booze cans, in community spaces – basically anywhere there is real life, boredom, resistance, leisure, mental illness and risk. 

If Toronto is to be a Music City worth anything, it should stop celebrating only its famous exports. It should honour the voices that live in it by making itself liveable for those who can’t and don’t care to try to get rich. A start to this would be truly affordable housing options, the cessation of unbridled condo development (leave the churches up for music!), affordable daycare options and better public transportation.

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Ellen FlanaganAccessTO.ca


ACCESSIBILITY

Although I don’t think accessibility is the main issue faced by local musicians and music-focused businesses, I think it’s very important. Additionally, it’s one that can be eliminated or minimized by strong policy coming from systematic forethought and planning. Most of the permanent venues in Toronto are currently not accessible.

Events are either not accessible or have individually created accessibility policies. There is no way to share experience and knowledge or to know which are accessible, and accessible for whom. Most venues don’t know the first steps to becoming more accessible (or what they are required to do currently and in the future).

We need a transparent and consistent method of measuring and displaying venue/event accessibility. [We must] create an information-sharing model for venues/events looking to make the necessary modifications, including such things as what is required by the Accessibility For Ontarians With Disabilities Act, what other venues/events are doing, what’s worked or hasn’t worked. A funding model for venues/events looking to make the necessary modifications would also help in incentivizing these businesses to make the change.

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Brian Wong, DJ and founder of It’s Not U It’s Me


CULTURAL PROGRAMMING

It’s Not U It’s Me has been focused around one main goal: to create a springboard for local artists working on underground dance music to connect with broader international audiences. Part of this involves organizing events with adventurous programming and high-production values in order to boost the profiles of local artists and connect them with international tastemakers. Another part involves creating space where new skills can be learned and shared, where new collaborations can develop and ideas can be discussed.

All of these become challenging due to the tough economic conditions for DIY arts and culture in the city. High rent and zoning and noise bylaws raise barriers to the development of permanent spaces. Alternative venues and pop-ups in unused spaces create temporary homes for cutting-edge culture, but set-up costs and time invested are a major drain on resources. This prevents a lot of “niche” cultural programming from becoming much more than a passion project. I use quotes because what we may consider niche in Toronto is often commonplace in other urban cultural centres. 

Special occasion permits and noise exemptions should be easy to acquire. [Music Sector Development Officer] Mike Tanner and the city seem to be working toward making this a more streamlined and easy-to-approach process, and I commend them for that. Taking this one step further and eliminating the need for letters of municipal significance for organizations without non-profit status could further stimulate growth. Maybe we could just select “officially sanctioned” industrial/commercially zoned areas outside the downtown core. Our public transit issues are complex and expensive, but there are no easy solutions other than cabs and Uber for travel to areas where parties can happen. Perhaps Toronto can designate some arts growth zones and plan inexpensive (or free?! One can dream…) late-night transit bus routes. 

And the vacant unit rebate – we’re still awaiting provincial review. Basically, it’s an incentive for landlords to keep space vacant and wait for redevelopment, or at least stick to “safe,” long-term tenants. Events and liquor liability tend to be seen as risky, since boozecan after-hours policing has led to bylaws where landlords can be fined up to $100K for illegal activity even if they are unaware of it. The goal would be to stimulate short-term occupancy by making it more financially favourable for landlords. 

music@nowtoronto.com | @nowtoronto

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