Toronto might finally be extending its drinking hours for the first time in two decades, which could have a profound effect on the city’s music scene.
The Economic Development Committee approved a motion on Monday afternoon, November 28, from the Toronto Music Advisory Council (TMAC) to look into the idea, including of related issues of transit, noise and community safety. Proponents of later hours say it’s long overdue for a city of Toronto’s size, while opponents fear it will lead to more chaos and problems.
While it might seem counterintuitive to the neighbourhood associations fighting against noise and public drunkenness, there’s a case to be made that this process could lead to solutions to the long-standing tensions between residents and nightlife.
“The problems associated with nightlife already exist, and nothing that’s on the table at the moment is going to cause any worsening of those problems,” explains Spencer Sutherland, a venue owner and member of the TMAC. “In fact, proper management and a strategic plan for the night-time economy is exactly what’s needed to better manage all of that.”
“Most of the other major cities in the world have already implemented laws and programs to allow for late licensing, because it's better than the option of closing every bar down and forcing everyone out into the streets at the same time – where people don’t have access to bathrooms, where people are not in a controlled environment, where suddenly police forces are stretched thin, and where taxis are also stretched thin. Our subways still don’t even operate until our current last call, which was extended 20 years ago.”
Extending bar hours wouldn’t mean that every venue would be open all night. In other cities with extended hours, most establishments still close relatively early, with only some catering to the late-night crowd. That staggering of closing hours means that patrons are less likely to pound back drinks as last call approaches, and can help avoid overwhelming the streets with partiers at closing time.
The temporary 4 am festival licences have already served as a testing ground for the concept, and while that system hasn’t encountered any major problems, Sutherland believes it could be greatly improved by approaching it at the municipal level, especially when it comes to the challenges venue owners face managing one-off events.
“Often the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario doesn’t grant the 4 am festival licences until the day of the event. In the case of some music festivals, they’re granted a few days into the event. The current system is being managed by the province and is too distant from the venues and the neighbourhoods it impacts. It’s something that needs to be handled closer to home. The city needs to be taking a bigger role in the licensing in order to do it in a way that makes sense.”
Toronto has long taken a very conservative approach to booze, and that has shaped our nightlife history in many ways. Illegal after-hours booze cans have been a part of local music culture for decades, in both the live music and DJ scenes. That tradition of unlicensed underground venues gave a unique edge to the history of Toronto’s new wave, punk, jazz, country, reggae and dance music communities, but also sacrificed stability and safety.
When last call was extended to 2 am, it had a definite impact on late-night action, but the 90s rave scene quickly filled that gap despite the absence of booze at those events. When the city cracked down on raves, the all-night party scene was pushed into the clubs, just at the point when there was a huge concentration of venues in the entertainment district to accommodate those crowds.
Gentrification and political pressure have since transformed the entertainment district into a maze of condos, as we addressed in our Dreaming Of Music City cover story, and there are few downtown warehouse spaces left to accommodate the demand for illicit after-hours entertainment. It's left a void waiting to be filled.
Late-night last call would likely be the final nail in the coffin of the illegal warehouse party scene, and many will miss that renegade energy. But it could also mean a dramatically reinvigorated club scene.
Current real estate values make operating legal late-night venues like legendary clubs Industry or the Twilight Zone financially unfeasible, but being able to serve all night could be the financial boost needed to justify investing in world-class sound systems and facilities.
We’ll miss the wild old days, but for the most part they’re already long gone. Warehouse parties and DIY shows will never completely disappear, but they’ll either have to go legit or attract patrons through the music first and foremost rather than the appeal of illicit late-night drinks.