Toronto’s music community searches for space after Rehearsal Factory sale

With one location closing, rumours are swirling about the others – including a potential sale to a controversial church


The future is uncertain for the Rehearsal Factory, Toronto’s biggest chain of recording and rehearsal buildings. And now the city’s music community is scrambling. 

The potential closure of those spaces has highlighted a number of different issues: a gentrifying neighbourhood, a controversial “hipster church” and an arts scene increasingly losing access to affordable spaces in the city. 

“Musicians depend on these buildings,” says session musician Stefan Loebus, who’s expanding his Arcade Studios to meet some of the demand for displaced Rehearsal Factory musicians. “We need places we can make noise, and it’s really hard to find places to do that. If I don’t have somewhere to rehearse, I can’t make a living.” 

Displaced by a church?

Rehearsal Factory operates seven buildings in Toronto, Mississauga, Etobicoke and Hamilton. Thousands of artists, including many of the biggest touring acts in the country, rely on those spaces to practise, record and store their gear. 

At the beginning of May, they were put on high alert with a message from C3 Toronto to its congregants. 

“We bought one TWO buildings!” the modern evangelical church wrote on its website. According to the site, C3 bought the building that hosts Rehearsal Factory at 330 Geary, where they’ve hosted services during the pandemic and the building next to it at 322 Geary. 

“The Rehearsal Factory came up as a potential listing. The building we’d prayed in, worshipped in, cried out to God in. Through God’s miraculous provision, we purchased that very building and the one next to it.”

The church’s plan for the building, which includes building a 300-seat and eventually another 1,500-seat auditorium, was posted on a Toronto music gear group on Facebook and got over 400 comments.

Rumours began to swirl about whether musicians would be kicked out of their spaces – not just on Geary, but at the other locations as well. Some people reported seeing “for sale” signs on the buildings or hearing whispers about lease agreements. Others posted tips on where they could move if they were suddenly kicked out of their spaces. 

One location closes, but not on Geary

Though C3’s website and social media has been filled with detail about their supposed purchase of the Geary location and their plans for it, the Rehearsal Factory’s owners, Chris Skinner and Evon Skinner, denied that a sale has closed. But they have confirmed the closure of another downtown location at Richmond and Bathurst. 

“Due to COVID lockdowns, the Rehearsal Factory location at 660 Richmond Street West will be closing its doors effective July 31, 2021,” they wrote in a statement to NOW. “All tenants have been offered an opportunity to relocate to Front Street, Geary Avenue and other locations. The Geary Avenue location has not been sold. If and when it does sell, we will lease it back for as long as possible.”

The owners clarified that they own all the buildings they operate out of except the location on Front, which they already sold two and a half years ago. They’ve since been leasing it back. 

Exclaim! looked into listings on realtor.ca and found that numerous other locations are currently on the market for sale: 1611 Finfar Crescent in Mississauga, 827 Gordon Street in Oshawa, 160 Islington Avenue in Etobicoke, and 747 King Street East in Hamilton.

None of those, however, is more controversial than the one on Geary. 

Geary neighbours mobilize against C3 Church

Since the news started to spread, a petition on change.org titled “Stop C3 Church Toronto’s plans to enter Geary neighbourhood” has collected nearly 3,000 signatures.

The petition was started by a newly organized group called the Geary Coalition. It’s made up of local residents, business owners, ex-members of the C3 church and Toronto’s arts and music scenes. 

They oppose the sale to C3 Church on three grounds: the blow it would bring to the city’s already space-deprived music scene, the challenge to the delicate neighbourhood infrastructure that a large church would bring, and an opposition to the C3 organization itself.

“C3 is an organization that the surrounding residents do not want influencing the neighbourhood,” the petition says. “It is a group mired in controversy on a global scale, and its opposition to same-sex marriage, cannabis culture and BLM do not align with the values of the Geary Ave. community.”

C3 did not respond to NOW’s requests for comment. 

C3 is a global church that started in Australia that has been operating a Toronto chapter for more than five years. It’s held congregations in a number of different venues including Massey Hall and Central Technical high school.

C3 Toronto has been the subject of a lot of local and national press, noting its millennial-friendly, social media-savvy image – its Americanos in the lobby, lack of dress code and indie rock-styled worship music. Almost all of them call C3 a “hipster” church. #BLESSED, a documentary about the Toronto church, premiered at the Hot Docs festival last year and is now streaming on CBC Gem

Despite C3’s carefully styled progressive image and vague political views, some former members have uncovered some decidedly unprogressive homophobic stances.

“Marriage was instituted by God, ratified by Jesus, and is exclusively between a man and a woman,” C3 Global’s website says. It also states, “Sex is a gift from God for procreation and unity, and it is only appropriate within and designed for marriage.” 

Writer Alyssa Garrison wrote a piece for Flare in 2019 about leaving the church, reporting that C3 Toronto hosted a homophobic sermon by John Bevere that Toronto C3 lead pastor Sam Picken later said had “a strong but true message.”

How to protect the Geary strip

On its website, C3 touts the Geary neighbourhood as “an up-and-coming area” near Dupont and Dufferin and namedrops local businesses like North of Brooklyn pizza (which is within the Greater Good bar), Blood Brothers Brewery, Dark Horse and the Galleria development around the corner. 

A dead-end avenue filled with current and former industrial buildings and warehouses, it was initially Geary’s remoteness that made it a perfect location for a rehearsal space. Musicians could make as much noise as they wanted and no one was there to complain. Soon, non-profit and arts-oriented organizations moved in, music venues and grey-zone rave spaces opened up, so did trendy restaurants like Parallel and Famiglia Baldassarre, then residential developers started eyeing the neighbourhood. 

It’s the classic blueprint for gentrification. Instead of a condo displacing artists, however, this time the threat comes from a mega-church – one that tends to court members with similar lifestyles to the ones they’ve inadvertently antagonized. 

Before the C3 news broke, starting in 2019, the city was already looking into how to protect Geary’s character without pricing out the businesses that make it attractive. Led by the department of city planning and economic development & culture and city councillor/deputy mayor Ana Bailão, the city recently put out the Geary Works Planning Study.

“We initiated this study to preserve and incentivize Geary as a cultural corridor,” Bailão tells NOW. “Geary is a special place. It’s this mix of things like music production, non-profits, breweries and restaurants. Spaces like the ones on Geary constantly get pushed out of our city as development pressures come, so we want to identify: how can we ensure these places are able to continue and thrive?”

C3 acknowledges on their website that its ambitious plans would require approvals from the city and a zoning bylaw amendment to use the space as their headquarters and main Toronto church. 

“I want to make this very explicit and clear: we will oppose it,” says Bailão. 

The city can’t step in to stop a private sale, she says, but they can be clear about what can and can’t go into a neighbourhood. The neighbourhood will oppose residential development or, in this case, religious. 

“The main issue is land use,” she says. “They’ve written that they would require a land conversion, which I absolutely would not support, which planning wouldn’t support, and which I think the community [in the community consultation stage] would also not support. I can’t speak for [C3], but based on what they have on their website, this is definitely not the neighbourhood for them to come into.”

The importance of rehearsal spaces to Toronto’s music scene

Paul Ramirez is the drummer of long-running Ontario punk band the Flatliners. After seeing rumours fly about the sale of the Rehearsal Factory, including a lot of misinformation and defeatism, he decided to start a new public Facebook group called “Save Artist Rehearsal Spaces Toronto.” It’s a space to rally the community and try to find a positive solution to the rehearsal space issue – not just on Geary, but throughout the city. 

“Rehearsal buildings are some of the largest Toronto music venues most people don’t know exist,” he says. “There’s more blood, sweat and tears in the walls of the Rehearsal Factory then there is in most of the best-known bars.”

Long before COVID-19 put them into crisis, Toronto has had an issue when it comes to music venues. With rising rents and increased development, many bars and theatres are being pushed out. The public has become increasingly aware of the importance of not just the big venues, but the smaller ones – the crucial community infrastructure that nurtures a music scene before an artist starts selling out a venue like Danforth Music Hall. 

Rehearsal spaces are just as important to that infrastructure, but unless you’re a musician yourself there’s a good chance you don’t know much about them. They’re purposely out of sight and out of the way, letting bands and artists work out the music before it’s on a stage or in the recording studio. 

“We inhabit these industrial spaces out of necessity,” Ramirez says. “We’re in windowless rooms with carpeted walls to keep the sound in. We don’t need to be in bougie areas near coffee shops. But when you push artists out of those areas and rezone, there’s nowhere else for us to go. We need the old rundown warehouses on industrial roads. They’re important to us.”

Ramirez has joined with the Geary Coalition to represent the interests of musicians. There will be a meeting of the Toronto planning and housing committee on June 11 and he plans to give a deputation there. He’s also been emailing various organizations and stakeholders in Toronto’s music scenes and industries.

His goal is to show just how important these spaces are to music and culture in the city – not just for practising, but also storing expensive music gear. 

The Geary location of the Rehearsal Factory has 87 rooms, and the four downtown buildings have about 260. The Flatliners’ rehearsal space is at the Islington location, which Ramirez says has a “for sale” sign on it. 

“I had one room there that was shared by seven different bands for seven days a week,” he calculates. “If you average about four people in each band and then multiply it by all the rooms that could potentially disappear, that’s thousands of artists who use those spaces.”

A more cooperative future?

Loebus says he bought two extra rooms in his Arcade Studios after he saw the Rehearsal Factory news. He painted “RIP Rehearsal Factory” as a temporary mural on the walls while renovating and posted it to Instagram.

He’s only been at the space, at 14 Eugene in North York, since February, but he’s holding onto it for dear life “because finding a space you can use like this is so rare.” 

He knows three rooms won’t make much of a dent if more Rehearsal Factory spaces close, but he does see space for some optimism. He currently shares the space with other artists and is creating a “community feel” with artists, producers engineers, people who do merch and other people with music skills in-house. 

“If Rehearsal Factory does go belly up, maybe that will be the silver lining: more shared spaces, musicians working with each other the way they want it, not the way someone else does,” he muses. “Maybe once things open up there will be more of a shift towards creative shared spaces where artists can work together.”

It’s already starting to happen. The city has been working on measures to help music venues survive, and it’s becoming clear that rehearsal spaces could use the help too. Councillor Bailão says she’s started talks with the Toronto Music Office about the possibility of creating a “music incubator” in the west end where many artists live and work. 

And through the musician advocacy work, Ramirez has joined up with two other musicians – Ryan Roantree and Alain Benichou – to form a not-for-profit to create a cooperative artist hub that can fill the need for space. They’re still in very early stages, but “the wheels are in motion,” he says. 

“We have to start thinking about the Toronto we want to live in if we’re going to continue to live here,” he says. “This is an iceberg we’ve been heading toward for awhile – where are musicians going to go? People love getting behind Toronto and Canadian musicians when they’re hot, but they all started somewhere. If these spaces disappear, where are they going to go?”

@trapunski

Richard Trapunski and Paul Ramirez discuss the issue further in the new episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:

NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.

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