Abbas Jahangiri thought he could buy a demographic.
With the city's anti-postering bylaw looming and a crucial promotional tool for the independent music scene about to be quashed, the entrepreneur who snatched up the El Mocambo in 2001 bought up 20hz.ca, the collection of online forums that served as a flourishing hub for Toronto's - and Canada's - indie scene.
After receiving shout-outs in recent New York Times and Spin features on Canuck indie-rock cool, 20hz oozed cred, right? Too bad Jahangiri didn't realize that. He bought a brand name, but the community that created it wasn't for sale.
"I had a strategy for one single thing," he insists. "To let musicians know that the postering law will get you so bad, and people are angry."
Jahangiri pauses here and flips his wallet open to show me a photo of a beatific nun clad in blue. "I am Mother Teresa," he says.
The kids who used to hang out in the community he bought would beg to differ.
Back in 2001, Ryan Mills, an enterprising Brantford kid who ran an indie label called AntiAntenna, started up some message boards to foster communication on his website. They changed hands, became the Toronto forum Secret Arcade and eventually fell back in Mills's lap in November of 2003. He set up a new home for them, dubbed it 20hz - the lowest frequency audible to the human ear - and a phenomenon was born. An ex-Montrealer, music geek and computer nerd named Julie Lyrae, who'd overseen the Secret Arcade boards, came on to run the technical side of things.
When Mills got busy with his other projects (he works as a mastering engineer with João Carvalho and at his own Little King Studios), he decided it was time to move on. Meaghan Bent, who operated Londonindie.com, teamed up with Jahangiri, who provided financial backing, and the two approached Mills.
"I grew up poor, and it was enough cash that I could actually use it to create new projects I'm excited about," says Mills. "My only advice to them was to leave it as much the same as possible."
But that's not what happened. When news of the change of ownership got out, the community got nervous. Jahangiri was the dude who'd transformed the El Mo from a gritty rawk haven to a yupscale club.
"Abbas made a post telling us he was the new owner and he loved us all," says ex-20hzer Dan Vila, a member of local no-wave foursome No Dynamics. "Then someone found 20hzmusic.com, and it seemed obvious that the new ownership had no idea what the fuck they were doing or who they were trying to appeal to."
He and other 20hzers started asking questions. They quickly learned that in the new fiefdom, threads of dissent were no longer kosher.
"When I made a post about the many factual errors on the site, not only was my post deleted but they removed the entire thread that contained it."
Like all good subcultures that are fed up with being colonized, the instinct of long-time members was to start over. Tech queen Lyrae and a trio of other independent-minded members - Mike Stafford, Bernard Kadosh and Amy Rivier - set up a new site, Stillepost.ca, on April 17.
Four days later, Stillepost was up and running, and the floor of 20hz.ca collapsed under Jahangiri's feet. The old site was flooded with posts containing the new URL, and when administrators tried deleting anything containing the characters stillepost.ca, people posted JPEG images with the address. A few renegades posted porn. An infuriated Jahangiri banned members and wiped entire boards clean.
"When we provided the alternative board to them, a huge tide of people moved over," Lyrae marvels. "We had 1,000 members sign up in two days."
Jahangiri won't fess up to the new admininstration's acts of censorship.
"The way you say that makes it sound like I am a fascist," he argues. "There were some messages that were disgusting. There were also many messages that said, 'Thank you so much for deleting those messages.'"
He blames Lyrae for convincing people to flee the site.
"If only I were so powerful as to sway the opinions and actions of thousands of people," she laughs. "I worried I'd have to explain to people why what was happening was troubling, but it wasn't necessary. This has renewed my faith in everything I believed was so special about my community."