Music City: Toronto’s creative brain drain

Here's what it looks like when you map our music economy epicentre against real estate prices

Toronto indie folk heroes Elliott Brood are a well-established presence in the Canadian music scene. For over a decade they’ve criss-crossed the country and released records, earning plaudits from fans and critics alike. 

Yet four years ago, drummer Steve Pitkin made the tough decision to move his family to Hamilton after living and working in Toronto for close to 25 years. He’d built his career here and still considers himself a Torontonian. But after failing to find a house he could afford, he followed his bandmate Mark Sasso down the QEW to what he jokingly refers to as “the land of half-price homes.”

The members of Elliott Brood are not alone. Just as the rest of the world is recognizing the 6ix as a world-class music hub – see Drake’s and PARTYNEXTDOOR’s Grammy nominations – many musicians who have long added vibrancy to our cityscape can no longer afford to live here. Cheaper nearby music centres like Montreal, Guelph and Hamilton look pretty appealing to those who must hold down several jobs to sustain their music careers in Toronto.

A recent study by the Martin Prosperity Institute illustrates the financial quandary local musicians face. Using data from SOCAN and the film and entertainment industries section of the city of Toronto’s​ Economic Development and Culture Division, we mapped out the epicentre of the local music economy – the 24 neighbourhoods with the highest concentration of working songwriters and composers per capita, and of music industry infrastructure like venues, rehearsal spaces, studios and record labels – and then compared it to average home prices across the GTA, as per Market Watch stats. (See Taylor Blake’s interactive map above.)

In Toronto, Canada’s second-most expensive real estate market, the average home goes for over $700,000, a figure that’s more than doubled in the past 20 years. A one-bedroom apartment will set you back about $1,400 a month, according to a recent PadMapper report. Meanwhile, an estimated 80 per cent of Canada’s music industry is based here, making Toronto a magnet for bands looking to further their art and career. 

Though the primary sites for music creation and performance in the city have shifted westward and eastward in recent years, our data show that musicians still cluster along a stretch running through the downtown core. Almost a third of them – about 9 per cent of Toronto’s total population – live in west-end neighbourhoods like Dovercourt, Rua Açores, Parkdale and High Park. A further 20 per cent cluster in pockets of East York, along the Danforth and in the Beach. 

The cost of a home in these neighbourhoods falls into the middle-range bracket, but those areas are surrounded by higher-end real estate zones. Previously, when rents spiked, musicians were able move to cheaper neighbourhoods. Today, creators are becoming boxed in as prices in surrounding areas also soar. And while there are relatively cheaper pockets farther into the suburbs, musicians aren’t opting to relocate there. Many would rather either tough it out downtown or move to, say, Hamilton.

After all, musicians need to live within a reasonable distance of existing industry infrastructure like venues, rehearsal spaces and recording studios. They don’t do this just for convenience proximity fosters the creative communities that they need to survive. When Pitkin was playing in alt-rock band Mrs. Torrance in the 90s, the group’s living and rehearsal spaces, management and record label were all located within a one-mile radius. 

“You have to have a scene,” Pitkin says. “You have to be close and work with people. Ultimately, [the music] you come out with reflects that.”

This is how neighbourhoods like Brooklyn’s Williamsburg, L.A.’s Silver Lake or Chicago’s Wicker Park spawn new bands like rabbits, and it’s what has driven Toronto’s music scenes.

Local performance spaces, meanwhile, are largely (64 per cent) located in the same cluster of neighbourhoods where musicians live and work. Though musicians are relatively mobile, venues are far more static, but the real estate values are rising in these zones. Venues are increasingly threatened by developers, especially of condos, whose residents tend to bristle at the idea of loud music late at night. 

City councillors are beginning to address this problem, but if we’re not careful, Toronto could see a substantial shuttering of venues similar to the situation in London, England, where an estimated 40 to 50 per cent of live music spaces have closed in the past decade.

The prospect of a mass creative exodus from Toronto seems unlikely – the city is too geographically large and integral to the national music industry to see its scenes gutted – but the creative brain drain is real. It’s also a threat to economic development. Innovative workers who drive the knowledge economy are attracted to dynamic neighbourhoods like the Annex and Parkdale thanks to the creative energies of artists. 

Toronto musicians need more visibility in our economy – most go uncounted by Stats Can, for example, since music is often not their primary source of income – not just as people who come out at night to entertain us. A true Music City considers every facet of the musical ecosystem, from the top performer all the way down to the kid starting out in her bedroom.   

Ian Gormely is a research associate at the Martin Prosperity Institute and a freelance music journalist.

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