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City council has overturned the EDM ban in the CNE. But club owners city-wide are still battling to keep their businesses viable. As Benjamin Boles reports, Toronto's war on nightlife is far from over.
I’ve never had this problem before.
For the first time in the 13 years I’ve been covering club culture, the majority of my contacts are unwilling to go on the record about their struggles throwing bashes and running venues. Here’s what they told me:
“I’d love to help you out, but I think this would just be a bull’s eye on our back, and I can’t risk that. It’s just too hard out there right now.”
“Please, please, please don’t mention our club in any way. We can’t afford any extra attention from the city.”
“I’d love to comment, but my partners are worried about repercussions.”
“Sorry, man, I just can’t. I’m too tired of fighting.”
“We’d just really rather not be associated with the term EDM.”
“If we complain now, it could screw up all our future plans.”
City council may have reversed the infamous CNE EDM ban, but the fight for your right to party is ongoing in our bars and clubs, the lifeblood of Toronto’s vibrant nightlife.
Those anonymous quotes aren’t coming from people who run the bottle service VIP clubs where Rob Ford indulges, but from the respectable venues where the focus is actually on live music. These are bars where international talent appears side by side with rising local heroes, and where marginalized subcultures have built safe spaces for themselves.
Yet they’re the ones who are too scared to even talk about being treated unfairly, let alone lobby the city to ban their competition and grant them sweetheart-deal extended leases – as Rob Ford’s favourite hot spot, Muzik Nightclub, has brazenly done.
Toronto’s dance music scene should thank Ford. Had our moron mayor’s involvement not brought scrutiny to the situation, Muzik might have succeeded in getting EDM events banned from the CNE grounds. But Ford’s connections to club owner Zlatko Starkovski shed light on the shady situation, and council voted 31-4 on May 8 to veto the ill-considered prohibition on all-ages electronic dance music events.
Newspaper reports of Ford enjoying free drinks at the club (and then covering its washroom in vomit) made it impossible to ignore the cozy relationship. Add in an angry confrontation with Justin Bieber and suddenly reporters were digging into the $700,000 loan Starkovski got from the Club Paradise strip club, the strangely below-market-value rent Muzik enjoys, a suspicious 2010 bankruptcy proceeding and the catering that club provided for previous FordFests.
“Councillor [Mark] Grimes may think that the events at Muzik are black-tie events, but those of us who read the newspapers know better,” Councillor Gord Perks cracked at council after Ford ally Grimes attempted to argue that the nightclub is a completely different type of operation than the EDM events it was hoping to block.
If we enact such a ban, “we lose events, we lose revenue and we undermine the city’s commitment to being a music city,” Perks said, “because of innuendo and a deliberately manufactured moral panic to try to cover up what is really a business competitive issue.”
Even if Muzik hadn’t shown its hand, and even if Starkovski hadn’t made the mistake of getting pulled into Ford’s toxic cloud, circumstances are very different now than they were the last time raves were briefly banned on city property in 2000, during the Mel Lastman era.
For one thing, electronic music isn’t just the domain of underground independent promoters. It’s now backed by big corporate money like Live Nation’s Electronic Nation division.
“A ban on any one style of music is inherently misguided,” says Electronic Nation Canada’s Ryan Kruger. “To imply that young people who listen to electronic dance music are any different in their desire to establish an identity and gain personal fulfillment than those who like rock, pop, rap or country is simply wrong. Further, to somehow imply that those who appreciate EDM are more prone to engage in untoward behaviour is without merit and harkens back to the days when Elvis and rock and roll were going to destroy our youth.”
The vast majority on council agreed that targeting a specific subculture is absurd in this particular case, but many of them have long encouraged a subtler and more systematic battle against dance music when it comes to venues in their own wards. Toronto’s nightlife continues to struggle against a combination of overly restrictive zoning laws, heavy-handed liquor licence conditions and bylaws specifically directed at dance floors and DJs.
Toronto is now the fourth-largest metropolis in North America, and growing. Our music scene is respected worldwide, and our hometown heroes are global trendsetters. The province has woken up to the fact that a lot of people come to Toronto to party, and that we should promote that side to tourists along with the CN Tower and easy access to cottage country. The city has even taken tentative steps toward a functioning music-industry working group to encourage more collaboration.
Councillor Josh Colle says he hopes the newly formed Toronto Music Industry Advisory Council will lead to fewer headaches for promoters and venue owners navigating the labyrinth of bureaucracy, and help prevent situations like the recent Foundry festival being moved at the last minute from its spectacular original location, mostly due to zoning issues.
“If there was one place to go, you wouldn’t have to be jumping around from department to department,” Colle explains. “Everyone has good intentions and is just trying to do their job, but we should be able to foresee these kinds of issues and deal with them. I don’t expect a guy at City Planning or Buildings to fully understand the electronic music scene or the needs of an upstart festival.”
Still, there’s no sense that a truce has actually been declared.
Deadmau5 is one of the biggest names in dance, and Drake is one of the most successful rappers on the charts. However, there are fewer and fewer venues suitable for either genre. Even rock musicians are noticing a shrinking array of performance spaces. But DJs and dancing struggle the most to be accepted as an essential part of the kind of city Toronto aspires to be.
Large nightclubs are heavily restricted by zoning regulations to a small area of the downtown core, the Entertainment District, which has been drastically transformed in recent years by the real estate boom. Any significant expansion of the club scene there is no longer viable. Most of the places we used to dance are long gone, and there’s been a dramatic reduction of venues.
Outside of this district, Fly Nightclub and the massive Guvernment complex both announced recently that they would be shutting their doors over the next year. The former is the last of the gay village clubs standing, while the latter is the only true mega-club in town.
Even as the venues disappear, the audience for dance music is increasing. The growing number of outdoor festivals proves there’s a massive untapped demand.
“There are a couple of clubs outside the Entertainment District that are grandfathered in, and I don’t even want to mention their names because I don’t want to get them in trouble,” Colle says. “But to me, that whole entertainment facility licence is kind of bogus in the way it negatively affects live music, so again, we need some kind of structure in place to navigate that.”
The cheap warehouse spaces are long gone now, but the party hasn’t been allowed to disperse naturally throughout the rest of the city, and start-ups consistently face opposition from city councillors and residents’ associations.
New zoning bylaws in Parkdale, Ossington and West Queen West specifically prohibit DJs and dance floors. The controversial one-year moratorium on new bars and restaurants in Parkdale that was supposed to expire last summer is still in place, while the equally contentious concentration cap bylaw – limiting the number of bars and restaurants on Queen between Dufferin and Roncesvalles to 25 per cent – is being appealed.
Bars that focus on musical entertainment are constantly under attack for not having entertainment facility permits, yet it’s nearly impossible to get that classification, even along main streets where most people expect those establishments to be.
“I like the way they do it in Montreal: you have a beautiful dinner service, then a DJ starts up and they push the tables out of the way for dancing and everyone has a good time,” says Mark Holmes, owner of Virgin Mobile Mod Club.
“It’s like going to a really nice dinner party, or a wedding reception without the wedding. What is so wrong with that?”
Councillor Mike Layton doesn’t see that kind of activity on Ossington and Dundas West as a positive thing, though.
“You have places that are masquerading as restaurants because they are not going through the planning process,” Layton says, citing concerns that Toronto police and municipal bylaw enforcement officers lack the resources or penalties to effectively deal with noise complaints.
Toronto police, on the other hand, wouldn’t admit to any deficiencies in their ability to deal with complaints about music thumping through the walls, and say fines can range from $500 to $5,000.
“If police come into any establishment and say it’s too loud and they’re getting noise complaints, I can guarantee [the club] will turn it down,” Holmes confirms. “You don’t mess with the police.”
The city has also used the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario to further its agenda. For many years it would ask that a variety of conditions be placed on new liquor licence applications, and that they be enforced by the AGCO. Some were relatively mundane things relating to garbage, but others were much more onerous, like demands that there be no cover charges or lineups outside.
While the conditions are considered voluntary, if operators didn’t agree to them, they would be dragged before the Licence Appeal Tribunal, leading to lengthy delays and legal expenses.
Recently that situation changed, as the AGCO decided to refuse any new conditions. In turn, council sent a letter to the attorney general requesting that the AGCO be forced to continue imposing the extra conditions.
“The AGCO has obviously become frustrated with the city’s desire for a regular imposition of these conditions,” explains Jerry Levitan, a lawyer who specializes in Ontario liquor laws. “They’re busy enough making sure these places aren’t overcrowded, that people aren’t serving alcohol to minors, making sure there isn’t drunkenness.
“All of these are the big, important issues the AGCO has to monitor and send inspectors to deal with. If the inspectors also have to deal with parking, garbage and noise complaints, it becomes a very difficult thing.”
The city disagrees with this division of labour and has responded by declaring all new liquor licence applications not in the public interest unless the operator can get a letter of support from his or her MPP and all managers attend CAMH’s Safer Bars program.
“I don’t suspect the AGCO will regard [that declaration] with much authority,” Layton admits. “We don’t issue the licences, so if the AGCO doesn’t want to recognize [the Safer Bars initiative], we don’t have the legislative authority to tell them what to do. Now, since community members can’t put certain conditions on licences, they are just going to fight every single licence all the way to the tribunal, which puts about a six-month delay on every application, which is what we’re trying to avoid.”
Talk about complicating the problem instead of finding a solution. It’s great that council sees the value of providing spaces for 10,000-capacity mega-parties on the CNE grounds, but that’s not going to help nurture the local scene.
Is it any wonder that promising electronic musicians like Art Department, Adam Marshall, Christian Andersen, Noah Pred, Jake Fairley, Isis Salam and many others keep relocating to Europe? We can talk Toronto Music City all we want. But what good will promoting the music scene accomplish if there are so few suitable venues in which to showcase our talent?