Toronto is rapidly losing music rehearsal spaces. As they’re forced to vacate spaces they’re renting, the city’s musicians are getting increasingly anxious about where to make noise.
This past summer, we reported that Rehearsal Factory was closing its Richmond Street location while rumours swirled that a location on Geary had been purchased by the controversial megachurch C3 Toronto.
Since that time, renters at the Mississauga and Front Street locations of Rehearsal Factory have been notified they too will have to vacate by December 15 and December 19, respectively.
“As many of you are already aware, our Rehearsal Factory Front Street Building has been sold to developers,” said a note on the door at one location. “It is with a heavy heart that I am writing this notice to you today. We would like to express our gratitude for your valued patronage throughout the years. Without you we would not have helped to make the Toronto scene what it is today.”
With those two Rehearsal Factory buildings closing, only three are remaining open for now – one in Hamilton, one in Etobicoke and the Geary location. With all of those buildings previously listed for sale on realty websites, rumours continue to swirl about the precarious future of the brand.
The one with the most speculation, however, continues to be Geary.
In the summer, the sale to C3 was still unconfirmed. Petitions and concerned citizen groups formed to oppose the entry of C3 into the neighbourhood, citing issues with the evangelical church’s values, which have included opposition to same-sex marriage. While saying they could not stop a private sale, the city said that they would not allow a church to be built in the Geary neighbourhood.
In a September sermon, C3 Toronto pastor Sam Picken announced that “we have the keys to this building” – 322 & 330 Geary Avenue – and planned to make it their new permanent headquarters.
But what will happen to the Rehearsal Factory? Will it remain open under new ownership or close like many of its siblings? And what will C3 actually build there?
As those questions are asked among musicians in the city, a bigger conversation continues to grow more urgent about access to rehearsal space in general. The Rehearsal Factory is one private company, but even with just the buildings that remain open, it accounts for approximately half of all available rehearsal rooms in Toronto.
That comes from a report discussed at a meeting of the Toronto Music Advisory Committee (TMAC) last week. The report was commissioned by the Toronto Music Office to review the current inventory of music rehearsal space and discern how the city can help protect current spaces while encouraging new ones to develop.
“What we’ve seen with Rehearsal Factory shows how important it is to shift the way we look at rehearsal spaces,” says city councillor Brad Bradford, the chair of TMAC. “We need to take an ecosystem approach to the music section and include rehearsal spaces in the work we’re doing to support live music recovery. These spaces need to be recognized for what they are – incubators for strong music culture in Toronto.”
The city is one of a few different groups exploring solutions to the problem. A growing coterie of stakeholders that includes unions, future non-profits and cooperative musician groups are starting to explore solutions. But the Rehearsal Factory situation has highlighted the urgency of the issue, and with the year winding down and many leases set to expire, there are soon to be a lot of people without a place to play.
What are C3 Toronto’s plans for Rehearsal Factory?
Just because C3 Toronto now owns the space that houses the Rehearsal Factory on Geary does not mean the rehearsal space will necessarily close – or at least not all of it.
In a fundraising brochure called Vision Builders 2021, C3 goes into more detail about the sale.
“We have closed the sale at $12,800,000 for 322 and 330 Geary Ave,” the booklet states. “The property is in a core employment zone, which means as it is currently zoned, we cannot function there for Sunday services. Although the conversion process can be a lengthy one, we have a plan! In the meantime, we have submitted an application for Municipal Comprehensive Review (MCR) to add a place of worship to the space. This is the first step in the conversion process, so please pray with us that this process goes through smoothly!
“Regardless of the response to the MCR process, after an initial lease back period (early next year), we plan to begin renovations to 322 to make it our own space. During this time, we will continue leasing 330 Geary Avenue as a means of offsetting the cost of the spaces during this phase of work.”
Prior to the sale, the city was already undergoing the Geary Works Planning Study, which deputy mayor Ana Bailão told NOW was initiated “to preserve and incentivize Geary as a cultural corridor” and protect it from developmental pressures. A church, she was clear, does not fit the neighbourhood. Neither residential nor religious development is allowed. Several Geary addresses were also recently given heritage designation, which will limit what can go there. Rehearsal Factory, however, was not one of them.
Now that the sale has gone through, Nicholas Gallant, the senior advisor of community planning & policy in Bailão’s office, says their stance is unchanged. “Regardless of any change in ownership, the zoning remains unchanged and does not permit places of worship,” he writes in an email to NOW.
Gallant says their office has communicated directly with C3 Toronto’s leaders as well as members of the church who have emailed about a potential conversion.
“Deputy Mayor Bailão has been very clear with C3 Church representatives and supporters that areas such as Geary Avenue – which are zoned as employment areas – are not areas where she supports a place of worship,” the office told them. “Places of worship are permitted in both residential and mixed-use areas of the city and there are plenty of areas like these within Davenport where C3 could locate [instead].
“The reason for keeping places of worship out of employment areas is that as soon as employment areas are opened up to other uses (be they places of worship or residences) the economics and the preferences of these users to not be around stinky, noisy, smelly uses will begin to make it untenable for employment uses to exist in the area.”
Greg Fry, the business director and campus pastor at C3 Toronto, tells NOW that they’re familiar with the city’s Geary Works study and plan to protect the area as a cultural hub with breweries, restaurants and art spaces.
“We are confident that our thoughts and vision for the space are aligned,” he says in an emailed statement. “We don’t have firm details or timing as of yet, but our working plans revolve around the idea of these spaces operating as a community hub with things like daycare spaces, creative studios, training facilities and offices, as well as a flexible multi-use auditorium.”
Toronto musicians in the dark
Though Rehearsal Factory has served eviction notices to its Front and Mississauga tenants, musicians on Geary are still wondering what will become of their leases. Will the “lease back” arrangement mean the Rehearsal Factory will continue to operate the building while paying rent to C3? Or will it be run by another operator?
The owners of Rehearsal Factory, Chris and Evon Skinner, did not respond to multiple interview requests. Staff members reached by phone said that they were unable to comment.
Fry also won’t reveal any information about C3’s relationship with the Rehearsal Factory.
“I’m unable to comment on our lease as that is not public information,” he says. “It is between us and our tenants.”
Norm Maschke is one of the tenants on Geary. Back in May, the Toronto musician and venue manager (he’s managed the Garrison, Lee’s Palace and is currently at the Danforth Music Hall) heard from one of the other musicians he shares his rehearsal room with that the building was for sale. So he dug around a bit and was surprised to find C3 telling their members they had bought the building after hosting services there during the pandemic.
Maschke made a post on the Toronto musicians gear group All Buttons In. Soon, musicians were mobilizing and deciding what to do next.
“It’s one thing for a developer to come in and build a condo. After the last few years of venue closures, we’re almost expecting that,” says Maschke. “It’s another to eradicate an important artistic space for a megachurch like C3. It’s gutting.”
Though C3 fashions itself as a hip, progressive, social-media savvy church, its global website says “marriage was instituted by God, ratified by Jesus, and is exclusively between a man and a woman” and “sex is a gift from God for procreation and unity, and it is only appropriate within and designed for marriage.” It has also hosted Toronto sermons that its former members have described as homophobic.
This summer’s petition against C3’s entry into Geary cited its alleged opposition to same-sex marriage, cannabis culture and Black Lives Matter. It currently has just under 3,500 signatures.
Asked about the petition, C3 Toronto’s Fry doesn’t answer directly, but says the church is “confident this space will benefit the community.”
“As you may have seen from our Instagram or website, we are a church who love God and love our city,” he writes. “We invite people from every walk of life to come experience God with the opportunity to start a personal relationship with Jesus. Our church has an important role to play in serving our community and partnering with local organizations to better reflect God’s heart for this city. We see the space on Geary as an awesome opportunity to do just that – create a place of resourcing, celebrating and partnering with the community around us.”
But if the neighbourhood loses the Rehearsal Factory, or if it significantly changes, Maschke argues, the community will suffer. He used to work at the Greater Good, a bar down the street from the building, and says many of the customers there and at nearby spots like Blood Brothers, Parallel and Famiglia Baldassarre are musicians who practice in the area. They’re part of the character of the street.
“I think every tenant in there is going to have to make a decision about whether they want to remain there giving their money to an organization that clashes with the values of probably many artists in Toronto,” he says. “Those spaces are open to everyone. Not everyone who walks through those doors is straight or Christian. What happens to them? It’s uncorked this awful set of questions.”
A search for more rehearsal space
Ultimately, the Rehearsal Factory is a private company. Even if the less-than-30-days notice given to some of their tenants is inconvenient, it’s well within their rights to sell their buildings.
But the fact that one chain controls so much of the city’s available music space is a big problem. These closings and sales have brought the urgency of the issue into focus.
“As a musician, you’re always told that Toronto is where you have to be, that it has the biggest music industry in the country,” says musician Ben Reaburn. “It should be a haven for musicians. But year after year, it gets harder. Rent goes up, venues close, we’re booted out of places because of noise complaints. If we can’t live here and we can’t create here, we’re not going to be here. Then we’ll turn into a city with a lot of property and not a whole lot to do.”
After losing his studio at the Stockyards last year, Reaburn and his team at Primal Note Productions moved into the Front Street location of Rehearsal Factory last year. They intended to film livestream performances for local bands while music venues were closed, but an issue with the WiFi led them to instead switch to pre-recorded mini performances of a few songs – like a Canadian version of KEXP or Tiny Desk Concerts.
Set to lose the de facto studio on December 15, Primal Note is looking for a new monthly space to move into – and help fill the void left by Rehearsal Factory. They’ve created a survey for local musicians looking for rehearsal space. They’re looking to open as many monthly rooms as possible and are open to different models, including a possible musician co-op – whatever the community says they need.
“There are some smaller independent spaces and one-off rooms here and there, but when it comes to places like Rehearsal Factory there isn’t much of an alternative – especially places that do monthly rentals,” says Reaburn. “You can leave your gear there without having to lug it around or worry about it being stolen. Those monthly rooms are incredibly important for setting up roots.”
Primal Note is just one of the groups looking to fill the void. Paul Ramirez is the drummer for long-running punk band the Flatliners and has been one of the biggest community voices on the rehearsal space issue. In addition to advocating during the Geary Works study, he’s joined up with two other musicians – Ryan Roantree and Alain Benichou – and is in the early stages of setting up a not-for-profit to create long-term solutions to the space issue. They’ve been reaching out to community stakeholders who could potentially help and says anyone with suggestions should get in touch at email@example.com.
The Toronto Music Office report has found that there are approximately 30 separate rehearsal facilities in the city right now, with about 315 individual practice rooms rentable by the hour or month.
In a presentation to TMAC, music officer Mike Tanner outlined some of the potential solutions they’re exploring in talking to local musicians, rehearsal space operators and city staff: grant programs and other incentives to assist current spaces and encourage new ones; sharing vacant or underutilized spaces like schools, music venues between load-ins and soundchecks, places of worship and even city-owned spaces (an idea also being explored for DIY music venues). The report will be presented at the city’s executive committee in January 2022.
“We can’t stop sales of private buildings, but we can come together to try to find other solutions,” says Ramirez. “Maybe this can be a call to arms.”