How Toronto’s DIY party scene is surviving condos, cops and curfews
As rents go up and venues shut down, the underground is fighting for space. Seven promoters and musicians sound off on why parties matter and how we can make them thrive.
By Richard Trapunski
Aug 21, 2019
Promise Cherry Beach
Just follow the music.
Those are the directions you take on the way to Promise Cherry Beach, the unwavering techno beats serving as a pulsing beacon that guides you along the Lake Ontario shoreline.
With its lasers and disco balls and sandy dance floor,Promise Cherry Beach has the feeling of a well-kept secret – and it was, back when it was a clandestine word-of-mouth event. But it’s now an above-water party, with city permits, a legal bar and bored-looking police officers stationed at the exits. Signs around the beach that say “Someone grab your ass?” signs outline the event’s strict security policy.
It’s a place where old and new collide in Toronto’s party scene – where the old-school Peace, Love, Unity and Respect ethos has given way to a more modern and official safe space policy where DJ lifers alternate on the decks with out-of-town headliners and newcomers making noise on Soundcloud. Promise founders Dave Macleod and Irving Shaw have even brought in an official diversity director, Sanj Takhar, whose booking has helped the parties stay vital as they move into their second decade.
With the waves splashing against your ankles, you can almost forget Toronto’s restrictive noise bylaws and gentrification woes. But Promise is feeling the squeeze, just like all other DIY promoters throwing parties outside of the traditional club scene.
“People need places to congregate and share their love of music and dance,” says Ab Boles, a long-time regular at Promise, who graces the cover of this week’s issue. “I start Thursday and pretty much dance through to Sunday. If Toronto got too big or expensive for me, I don’t know where I’d go.”
“People need places to congregate and share their love of music and dance,” says Ab Boles, a long-time regular at Promise Cherry Beach. “If Toronto got too big or expensive for me, I don’t know where I’d go.”
With venues and arts spaces getting priced out seemingly every week by unregulated rents on valuable commercial real estate, the underground is fighting for space.
Partying, of course, is rarely just about having a good time. It’s where diverse communities gather, create culture and share ideas. “DIY spaces aren’t just a place for us to go to and party – they’re actually very important for the culture of the city,” says Hadi Mousattat of electronic music collective and record label Forth, which has put on both huge warehouse shows and “text for location” parties at secret spots.
Those affected by the city’s cutthroat capitalism don’t tend to be big, historic concert venues (though those are the ones that get the biggest eulogies when they vanish), but marginalized and rent-poor artists who might go to off-the-radar events. Bricks & Glitter (which runs from August 22 to September 1 – see preview, page 16), for instance, arose last year as a fully DIY independent alternative to Pride, a safe space for queer and trans BIPOC folk who might not feel safe at the corporatized, heavily patrolled official festival. Venus Fest(September 20 to 22, at the Opera House), meanwhile, prioritizes space for women and non-binary people in its lineups and behind the scenes.
For many in these communities, it’s not just about a good time – it’s about survival. The irony is, it’s events like these that make the city’s neighbourhoods desirable for corporations and developers to move in and raise the rents to the point where spaces are no longer sustainable.
Toronto – which has branded itself a Music City – has in the past few years formed a music office and advisory council, but DIY shows and parties are still often mired in huge security fees, safety regulations and bar minimums. Mayor John Tory attended a show thrown by Deliluh’s Kyle Knapp last year at the abandoned Lower Bay subway station, a surprising vote of confidence for non-traditional venues, but few of the city’s noise and nightlife policies differentiate between King West clubs and small punk shows happening in a not-for-profit arts spaces where people also happen to sleep.
Daniel Tal and Said Yassin of Dudebox throw their hip-hop-focused charity shows at one-time-only venues not usually used for music, which Yassin (who also co-founded roving concert series It’s Ok*) says is like “starting from ground zero” each time. The city, especially music officer Mike Tanner, has gotten more helpful in recent years, actively trying to help shows happen. But there’s still often a disconnect between the music office and police and fire departments, who are often quick to show up to off-the-radar parties – which can also push them into less safe spaces.
Yet creative and interesting gatherings survive and thrive – from Asian diaspora parties in basement tea shops to hip-hop concerts in boxing gyms and DJ dance parties fitting thousands into churches – and it’s largely due to the resilience and tenacity of the people throwing them.
To find out how they’re weathering the city’s current ebbs, we gathered a panel of promoters – Aerin Fogel of Venus Fest (also a new member of the Toronto Music Advisory Council), Tal and Yassin, Takhar, Mousattat, Rosina Kazi of Bricks & Glitter and Unit 2and Knapp (who’s thrown shows at venues like Owls Club, MOCA and his own apartment venue, Somewhere Else) – to sound off on the future of DIY culture in the city.
Clockwise from left: Hadi Mousattat (Forth), Sanj Takhar (Promise), Daniel Tal (Dudebox and Vox Future), Said Yassin (Dudebox and It’s Ok*), Richard Trapunski (NOW music editor), Aerin Fogel (Venus Fest).
What are the unique challenges to doing things on a DIY level vs. at a mainstream club or venue?
Hadi Mousattat, Forth: Grassroots spaces are a great place for artists to experiment and do something outside the box. Something happens in DIY spaces where both international and local artists can put their guard down, because it’s a non-commercial environment. You can form connections there.
Kyle Knapp, Deliluh: The downtown core has been pretty gutted of a lot of things. And that’s not just a problem with venues closing – it’s independent businesses across the city feeling those same pressures. So for us to find solutions, sometimes it’s a matter of working the periphery.
Said Yassin, Dudebox and It’s Ok*: We start from ground zero every single time [we throw a show in a new venue] which is ridiculous. But it’s a challenge that we enjoy doing. We’re able to bring people into a new space and show the rest of the city ‘look what we did on our own means’ and ‘you can all do the same if you want to.’
How have the rising rents affected the parties you throw?
Rosina Kazi, Unit 2 and Bricks & Glitter: The city used to be affordable enough that venues could just give you space. You used to be able to do a show at a 200-300 capacity venue like the Reverb and you would take the door [cover charge] and the venue would take the bar [the money made from alcohol]. You don’t have that anymore. Most folks are paying to play, or you have to pay a $400-$500 [booking] fee.
Sanj Takhar, Promise: A lot of people in underground or avant-garde communities don’t drink as much. And when you put a venue’s worth or the ability to rent a venue on alcohol sales, we’re never gonna make the cut. I look at these spaces that exist but that I will never have access to because I can’t [make enough money on alcohol to cover] a $20,000 or $30,000 bar [fee].
It’s not just about DIY culture but who actually has access to DIY culture in this city. We need to look at who holds power.
How is gentrification affecting underground music scenes?
Aerin Fogel, Venus Fest: I don’t actually think we have a lack of space in the city. I know that venues keep getting shut down and that can be really devastating for people who have built their lives around those venues and who have come up in them. But for every venue that gets shut down there’s a handful of other spaces opening, and a lot of them are transient – I just think it’s a question of us finding access to them. I’m always curious about properties that are partially developed or sold to a developer but sitting empty.
Kazi: We’re not being pushed out yet, but there’s definitely an eye on the area. Sterling Road [where Unit 2 is] has been a hub of culture for 20-plus years, from after-hours circus stuff to techno parties, and no one said boo. All of a sudden you have these really big institutions or companies coming in – like MOCA, the Drake, a brewery – and they’re not necessarily connecting with the local community. We want people to be aware of the culture that already exists there.
Kyle Knapp of Deliluh (left) and Rosina Kazi of LAL, Bricks & Glitter and Unit 2
How do DIY party spaces intersect with the needs of marginalized communities?
Fogel: I don’t think you can talk about someone’s marginalized experience without looking at the economic aspect.
Kazi: We’re led by racialized folks and queer and trans folk, so we’re interested in survival beyond just a party. We’re pushing for accessible housing, food and, you know, this is stolen land. This city is based on kicking out and stealing Indigenous peoples’ territories. I’m not going to demand you give a space for a party when you’re not even taking care of our most marginalized. There’s a lot of shame around being poor.
Takhar: Yes, we should create space, but we should also consider who we’re creating that space for. How are we thinking about opening up these communities for the entire community?
Kazi: It’s not just about DIY culture but who actually has access to DIY culture in this city. We need to look at who holds power. I come from a hip-hop scene, and [we] still don’t have a hip-hop venue. Black folks when they get together are treated very differently. There are some underground punk venues that have existed in the city for a long time that never got bothered. As soon as you have a bunch of people of colour, particularly if they’re Black or Indigenous, there’s some intense policing.
We don’t need cops at everything. Like at Pride, there’s a big fight with cops. Most of us [in marginalized communities] do not feel safe around cops and there’s other ways of dreaming how to have safer spaces. The city just needs to kind of buckle down and really stand up for those of us who are like, “fuck cops.”
Fogel: I would say 90 per cent of the insurance companies I spoke to when I was looking into insurance for [Venus Fest] refused to insure an event that has rap music. That’s the most blatant kind of racism. And that means you’re also pushing people into less safe spaces if they don’t have access to insurance or security or whatever an event organizer is trying to bring into place to make sure that everyone is safe. There are massive corporations simply refusing to participate in that safety.
Kazi: And at the same time making a shit-ton of money off those cultures.
Just John x Dom Dias played an It’s Ok* party at the now closed Sully’s Boxing Gym last year.
What are the benefits of doing things underground vs. through official channels?
Fogel: Either way, you kind of have to cut your losses. If you do things below ground, you might have more opportunity to do things on your own terms and in a way that feels right and supportive to everyone involved, but it can put a lot of pressure on the very people we’re trying to lift up and support. We have done everything above ground with Venus Fest because we want to be able to source as much funding and as much sponsorship as possible, and to take that kind of financial pressure off of marginalized people.
Takhar: We’re completely at the city’s mercy in a lot of ways. Promise is a community event: there’s kids, there’s dogs, there’s families, there’s picnics. It’s just a really sweet, kind event that we have so much red tape we have to go through to put on. And with the flick of a switch, it could be completely dragged away from us. Because if anything goes wrong, it’s on us.
Daniel Tal, Dudebox and Vox Future: We talk about the city as though it’s a functioning, organized government. It’s not. You talk [in advance of a show] to [Toronto music officer] Mike Tanner, who’s a great advocate of music in culture in the city. And then the bylaw officers show up because they’re like, “Oh, we heard you’re having an illegal event.” So there’s this strange imbalance where you want to [do things above board], but you’re scared that it’s going to alert the wrong people.
Takhar: The delicate dance between letting people know and also not letting people know.
Tal: I feel like the conversation can be less about asking the city for help and, more truly, the city, if they want, can ask us for help. Because we’re doing it, and we will keep doing it. And after us, more people will do it. We didn’t invent partying. It’s gonna keep happening. And if you don’t have space to do it officially, you find it unofficially.
How do you navigate the safety concerns of underground parties?
Tal: You can’t stop culture. Culture is going to happen somewhere, somehow and if the city doesn’t facilitate safety it can be fucking dangerous.
Yassin: I think the city has deemed the work that we do worthy. But there’s a big disconnect between them and the fire department and the police and the bylaw officers, and we need to figure out how to bridge that gap. I think that’s where the conversation is.
Takhar: There are bigger conversations that have to happen outside of our community in showing what happens behind our closed doors.
Cherry Beach used to have the problem where the [city] hears the word rave and “uh-oh, the r-word.” Everyone’s ears shut, eyes close – like goodbye, don’t fucking talk to me. So as much as we can build these communities and these collectives, we have to debunk [the myths about] what we do. Unless you come to Cherry Beach and see that if you grab somebody’s butt you are kicked the fuck out, you don’t really get it.
How does competition affect your scenes?
Kazi: [Instead of DIY], I say DIT – do it together. Because I don’t think we can do it ourselves. We’re in this intense political time with the city being fucked over by the Ford government, and the key is for all of us to work collectively. If we all come together, then you have something to mess with. You have a ton of people fighting for something. But that means dropping egos, that means you might have to shut up and listen. It might not be in your brand. And you can’t get distracted by the smokescreen of money or prestige.
Takhar: We have this pretty horrible scarcity mindset. We all need to get over it. How can we help each other? How can we not look at each other as competition and start looking at each other as the community that we actually are? We’re not fighting for the right things if we’re in-fighting.
Knapp: Toronto is a fairly pocketed place. Having artists from different communities or genres playing on the same stage will ultimately bring different communities together and different audiences together and give you fresh experiences.
Fogel: The slower processes that take a long time can be accomplished in an intergenerational way. We’re all sitting here in this room because there are people from generations before us who have pushed really hard and who might not have seen the direct results of that within their own lifetimes, but have created safety and space for us.
We’re not fighting for the right things if we’re in-fighting.
How can we make the party scene better?
Fogel: Creating rent cap for venues so they don’t have to raise the cost to artists in order to keep their doors open. In the long term, rent security or subsidies for arts workers, as well.
Knapp: Be cognizant of the fact that there are so many independent businesses or spaces hanging on by a thread right now. So when you put on a show or go to a show keep in mind where the event is. There’s symbolic power as well as monetary value.
Tal: Stop hitting up your friends for guest list. If you can’t afford it, that’s cool. But if you can afford it, you could probably afford double. If it’s 10 bucks give 20 and toss 10 to the person who can’t afford it.
Takhar: Show up to stuff and talk about it to your friends. Go to the punk show, go to the Doomsquad show, go to things even if you don’t know [the artists] personally, even if maybe their audience looks different than your audience. Show up. Because they’re fighting the same fight you are.
This roundtable has been edited and condensed.
This feature is part of Party On, a series on the state of Toronto’s DIY music scene. More features here.
Richard has covered Toronto’s music scene for over a decade. He was once called a “mush-brained millennial blogger” by a Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter and “actually a pretty good guy” by a Juno-nominated director.