Toronto’s music scene is having an existential crisis.
That was true before the pandemic when our so-called “music city” was already wobbling under gentrification, artist displacement and vanishing venues. It’s even truer now as many musicians and community hubs have been mostly silent for nearly 15 months. But for the first time in a long time, with vaccines rolling out and concerts being announced, it feels like there’s hope.
No Tickets At The Door, a new documentary about the local music scene, captures the city at this perilous moment.
The film is available to stream on Hot Docs At Home as part of Canadian Music Week (open to all Hot Docs members and CMW passholders) until July 6.
On June 10 at 7 pm, Wavelength and Exclaim! are hosting a public online PWYC screening as a fundraiser for the Encampment Support Network. There will also Q&A panel hosted by Luca Capone and featuring director Danny Alexander, Phoenix Pagliacci (TRP.P) and Desiree Das Gupta (Kali Horse). You can RSVP and tune in here.
Director Danny Alexander is a local videographer, occasional show promoter (including the Ontario psych fest Crystal Lake) and member of the bands Two Suns and Secret Sign. Originally from Sarnia, he’s been here for over a decade. And even though he isn’t a character in the film, you can tell it was made by someone who’s actually from the music scene.
Unlike a lot of similar big-picture stories about Toronto music, No Tickets At The Door doesn’t try to justify the city’s importance solely because it’s where Drake is from or where the major labels have their Canadian offices. Packed with talking-head interviews and a treasure trove of live performance footage, it’s as much about the little bands as the big ones, those who derive meaning and community from playing shows with their friends whether or not they have the ambition to “make it.”
“I found myself kind of down and out at the beginning of the pandemic,” says Alexander over Zoom alongside both members of dream-pop band Twin Rains, who did music supervision and created an original score for the film. “My whole life was based around music. I had this job videotaping touring musicians, and then that was done. I played in a couple of bands and I couldn’t do that anymore.
“There’s a disappointment of not having shows coming up, not having anything to look forward to, or even the social aspect of seeing all my friends. That’s what I do, I go to three or four shows a week. All of that disappeared.
“Then in July, I just started collecting interviews.”
His original plan was to focus on the importance of music venues, but as he spoke to more and more musicians – a long list that includes TRP.P, Luna Li, Joncro, Sook Yin-Li and Alaska B of Yamantaka // Sonic Titan – venue owners like the Horseshoe’s Jeff Cohen and local politicians like Joe Cressy and Mike Tanner, it kept expanding in scope.
“It became like an addiction,” Alexander says.
What kind of music city is Toronto?
Like so many other things, the pandemic didn’t just create problems in local arts scenes – it exacerbated and exposed those that were already there.
There’s still a lot of talk about venues and gentrification, but these issues are now compounded by their prolonged closure and the evolving function they’ll have when they open (a lot more seated shows, a lot less sweaty mosh pits).
There are plenty of questions about what kind of city Toronto is without its culture and community spaces, which is something we’ve caught an unfortunate glimpse of during the pandemic (gleaming condo towers but little that makes them worth living in). There are diagnoses of the city’s social conservatism, its treatment of marginalized communities and unhoused populations.
There are explorations of virtual shows, drive-in concerts and other COVID-era experiments. It gets personal, too with artists who live and breathe music questioning what it means for their identity when they can no longer play for people.
As someone who goes to shows regularly, what struck me the most was seeing so many familiar faces – not just friends, but acquaintances and even strangers I’m so used to seeing out and about. There’s an undeniable comfort in being able to go out to a show alone and know you’ll find friends to talk to, and that’s something that’s really been missing.
For Twin Rains, they realized they were scoring and sourcing songs for a documentary about their own lives.
“In the final montage, everyone’s talking about what they miss and there’s a Mimico song called Dreams Never Die that just fits perfectly,” says the band’s Christine Stoesser. “It might sound cheesy, but I cried several times while watching that montage. I didn’t expect that to feel so emotional about it, but I did.”
Her bandmate Jay Merrow agrees. “It’s just one of those things where you don’t realize how much you miss something until it’s gone.”