Johnnyland’s growing all-ages empire

ZEUS, PROFESSOR H & THE BANDITS, GOODBYE HONOLULU, JACK THE LADS, YOYO COMAY, ART THE BAND at The Opera House (735 Queen E), Friday (February 27). Johnnyland All Ages show. 7 pm. $25, adv $22. See listing. 

Amid the smell of stale beer and sticky floors at the Silver Dollar Room, concert promoter Dan Burke is running around like a broken wind-up toy. He darts from soundcheck onstage back to the bar and over to the entry doors, occasionally bounding down the stairs three at a time to chip away at a cigarette. His energy is a presence, even above the mid-show din.

Dan Drory-Lehrer can’t take his eyes off of Burke. Wearing a Detroit Red Wings jersey and a mop of hair, he leans over. “He does this basically every night, man. Always just on another gear. It’s unreal.”

In a way, Drory-Lehrer is a slightly more amiable, all-ages version of Burke. As owner of the concert promotion company and growing all-ages arts empire Johnnyland, he’s a central figure in Toronto’s all-ages music scene, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone within it who hasn’t begrudgingly begun to believe in him. On Friday (February 27), Johnnyland presents its biggest show to date: Arts & Crafts darlings Zeus will take the stage at the Opera House for an all-ages audience, with openers Professor H & The Bandits, Goodbye Honolulu and more.

The 21-year-old also shares a similar high level of energy as Burke, perhaps fuelled by something different – when we get brunch at nearby Sneaky Dee’s, he downs coffee creamers like shots as an aperitif. Johnnyland shows bounce around all over the place, from community centres to sushi houses to the Opera House just as quickly as he bounces from idea to idea in conversation.

But first, the name: Who’s Johnny? Why Johnnyland?

“I was thirteen years old, surfing backwards with my brother Dov in Costa Rica,” he recounts with glee, “and as I landed a somersault I yelled out, ‘Man I feel like I’m in Johnnyland right now!’ It was just the sort of crazy shit you say when you feel that free. And when I do the events, the goal is to make some kid who’s crowdsurfing in Toronto feel like he’s surfing the waves in Costa Rica.”

Friday’s show will be the sixth hosted by the venue. It’s an impressive feat the all-ages scene is a grind, and it’s hard to have the drive, the time and the energy for it.

The deterrents are largely financial. Smaller bars have to charge higher booking prices in order to cover the cost of staffing and the lack of bar revenue. To book a show at The Great Hall, for example, costs $3500 if you aren’t going to sell booze. Promoters often can’t justify paying high fees for acts that have no guaranteed draw.

But it was these challenges that drove the eclecticism that painted Johnnyland’s formative events, which ranged from an all-night music festival at the Scadding Court community centre to May the 4th Rock You, a Star Wars inspired concert that had the original trilogy projected behind the stage.


This pattern of doing things differently crops up in interesting ways. For starters, to call his press releases unorthodox would be a mild understatement. Most arts editors in Toronto could tell you about the time(s) they received personally addressed, novella-length releases signed by Dan. And anybody who’s been an undergrad in Toronto in the last two years knows that three things are certain: studying, student loans and that they’ll receive another invite to like the Johnnyland page on Facebook soon.

Not that anyone’s complaining.

“He’s about the entire experience. It’s not just a concert,” says Athena Towers, owner of the Opera House. “It’s rejuvenating for me to see the excitement that these kids have in producing an event… it’s not just kids coming out to do something. It’s kids coming out because they’re a part of this scene that’s being built.”

“The Opera House has become kind of our home,” Drory-Lehrer says of this week’s concert, their sixth at the venue. As time has gone on, Johnnyland events have become more diverse – their shows at the Opera House have included art displays and are also a training ground of sorts for the growing network of photographers and cinematographers whom Drory-Lehrer is trying to bring together. It’s this community, beyond just the shows, that he has his sights set on now.

“It’s been a long process of me literally learning how to run my own company, but I think it’s starting to work now,” he says, phrasing it more like a question than a statement. Until recently, he had high schoolers managing his books, which doesn’t offer the same advantages as having them play your shows. He recently reneged and staffed Johnnyland with people who can legally buy him a beer.

And he’s not stopping with shows. Under the Johnnyland banner, Drory-Lehrer’s trying to develop more resources for young artists: there’s Johnnyland TV, a platform for young cinematographers to display work that they’ve done, and Johnnyland Records, a small network of recording studios that he’s struck up partnerships with to allow Johnnyland-affiliated bands cheaper access to studio time.

One could fault Drory-Lehrer for spreading himself so thin, but the priorities of Johnnyland don’t point towards building a brand or curating an image or earning accolades. It’s actually quite simple.

“It’s a group of kids who want to share their art with their friends,” says Towers. | @nowtoronto

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