Meanwhile the condo boom explodes, raising real estate prices and shuttering businesses in its wake. The crisis is finally on the city's radar, but will change happen fast enough to save our music incubators and cultural hubs and stop more artists from leaving Toronto?
HOW TO KEEP A MUSIC VENUE OPEN IN TORONTO panel discussion at the Centre for Social Innovation (192 Spadina), Monday (March 13), doors 6 pm, with Toronto Music Advisory Council’s Spencer Sutherland, musician Tika Simone, urban planner Anthony Greenberg and moderated by NOW’s Kevin Ritchie. Free.
On a brisk Wednesday night in February, I’m standing on a Parkdale sidewalk gathering produce from Queen Fresh Market. As I gauge the ripeness of an avocado and consider the tulips, something gives me pause: a furtive guitar solo blasting from T.O. Lounge next door, boisterous vocals unloosed over shuffling drums and rumbling bass. It’s a live jam, probably some sort of open mic.
How ridiculous and sad is it that hearing live music in Toronto takes me by surprise these days?
But my reaction makes sense. The loss of live venues (and the resulting smaller chance of stumbling across music) is the number-one issue facing Toronto’s music community. We’ve lost seven since the start of 2017, with Queen West rock bar the Hideout kicking off the trend in earnest last fall, followed by folk venue Hugh’s Room, long-running DIY space Soybomb, dance club the Hoxton, all-ages-minded the Central, rock institution the Silver Dollar, queer-posi Holy Oak and, just this week, Black community hub Harlem on Richmond East.
At the February 13 meeting of the Toronto Music Advisory Council at City Hall, TMAC member and long-time concert promoter Derek Andrews suggested this all might be par for the course.
“It’s organic that things change,” he said, recalling a dozen places he used to book that have closed down. “What’s the difference between now and the decades of club evolution in this city?”
In a nutshell: skyrocketing real estate prices and unmitigated new and re-development. Higher rents are shuttering affordable rehearsal, studio and recording spaces and forcing musicians to move to places like Hamilton as the condo boom spreads out in all directions from the downtown core. Higher rental fees are making formerly affordable performance spaces prohibitive. Only operators who own their venues, like, say, the Horseshoe, seem safe. It’s been happening for years, but the spate of recent closures illustrates in the direst way possible just what’s getting sacrificed.
“It is a crisis, absolutely,” TMAC member Spencer Sutherland tells me a day after the news broke (via a Facebook announcement for the February 25 event The Highest Order Say Farewell To The Silver Dollar) that the Silver Dollar as we know it is closing May 1. “In London, UK, they declared it a crisis when they found out that 35 venues had closed over a period of eight years. We’re a city one-fifth the size and we’ve had three times that many close.”
Most of these have been in the Entertainment District, where noise complaints from condo dwellers, the King-Spadina Residents Association and the BIA have shut down about 70 nightclubs in the last decade. “It signals the fact that it’s something the city has never planned for, really,” says Sutherland, “by making an entertainment district and then changing its mind and zoning everything for residential.”
Sutherland, who has hands-on experience as the owner/operator of Queen West nightclub Nocturne, Queen West BIA executive director and Toronto Association of BIAs board member, says he’s been sounding the alarm bells to TMAC for a while now, but couldn’t even get the issue on the agenda for most of last year. He says it wasn’t until the Hideout’s closure in October – the building was sold for redevelopment – that members started paying attention.
“The Hideout was as successful as a live music venue of that size could hope to be,” he says. “Great location, corner property, Queen West, masters of 4 am licensing so they got extended hours every time they could during all the local festivals, open seven nights a week. They were doing everything they possibly could and yet they couldn’t make it. To me, that was the signal. Hey, if they can’t survive there, nobody can.”
The city is listening now.
Mayor John Tory and Ward 15 councillor Josh Colle (co-chair of TMAC) released a statement on February 2 stating, “We would like the music community to know that we take the matter extremely seriously and are actively taking steps to address it.” Added Tory, “We are dedicated to growing our music sector. Ensuring a thriving music scene helps drive economic growth and will keep Toronto as a vibrant place to live.”
You could argue that its focus on music’s being good for the economy is partly why so many venues turned to dust before the city took notice. TMAC formed in 2014 to advise city council on how to enhance the attractiveness, competitiveness and growth of Toronto’s music industry on issues and opportunities for the sector and on promotion and marketing strategies to strengthen the sector’s viability. That same year, the city’s first-ever music sector development officer, Mike Tanner, was appointed.
It all came with a push to make and brand Toronto a “Music City” in the vein of (formerly affordable) Austin, Texas. Last April, council approved TMAC’s official Music Strategy, which highlighted among other things the need for affordable housing. But little action has been taken, and in the meantime our music community’s urgent needs are being overlooked and neglected. Nothing can grow or be made more attractive and competitive if the fundamental building blocks – spaces to live, work, create, perform – are gone.
nic pouliot / rockphoto.ca
Rae Spoon released acclaimed album Armour at the Holy Oak in February 2016.
What we’re losing most are smaller venues of less than 200 capacity, as Wavelength artistic director Jonathan Bunce pointed out at the TMAC meeting during his deputation.
“These small venues are places where emerging artists can play and where the community can gather,” Bunce said. “When we started Wavelength, the El Mocambo and Sneaky Dee’s were our community clubhouses, where we gathered to meet and network. It’s as much about that social component as it is about the performance space and what’s happening onstage.”
London, England, responded to its own live-venue bloodletting due to wild gentrification with the formation of a Music Venue Taskforce. It rightly focuses on sustaining grassroots venues, defined in part as places where the focus is music rather than alcohol, food or merchandise. A January report on the progress of its Rescue Plan, established 16 months earlier, includes the appointment of London’s first Night Czar, recommendations that developers work with planning authorities to create new venues and music zones, business rate relief for grassroots venues and a commitment to the Agent Of Change principle, which puts the onus for noise management on the incoming resident or business. Lo and behold, fewer venues closed in 2016 than in any year since 2006.
TMAC is taking note. At the end of the February 13 meeting, a motion was passed to develop a Toronto-specific adaptation of the Agent Of Change principle, and to implement, among other things, a Live Music Venue Registry, a Music Venue Task Force, financial incentives like property tax reductions for owners to encourage renting to music venues, a re-evaluation of Employment Lands zoning and a review of noise bylaws.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Having the city onside is massively important, but the situation is too urgent to rely solely on that. TMAC is only an advisory group and meets just four times a year, and this year’s budget has already been approved, with no money allocated to the venue crisis.
Mike Williams, general manager of Economic Development and Culture, admitted at the TMAC meeting that “many of the challenges we’re having are due to market forces that are quite frankly much bigger than the city can handle…. It is challenging to get things to move quickly [at the city]. I don’t want to create false expectations by saying we’re going to move quickly, but for us, we will move quickly.”
Tanja-Tiziana, Amanda Fotes
Venues lost: The Hideout, Hugh’s Room, Soybomb, The Hoxton, The Central, The Silver Dollar, Holy Oak, Harlem
Ward 20 Councillor Joe Cressy also said as much at the same TMAC meeting in regard to his attempt to save the Silver Dollar via heritage designation. After a lengthy closure due to the construction of a student residence beside it, the venue’s sign, stage, bar, flooring, mural and photos will be kept intact, but it won’t necessarily be a live music venue with Dan Burke as its booker – factors the city can’t control. (And the Silver Dollar without Dan Burke is not the Silver Dollar.)
“It’s an example of the challenges we’re facing and how despite all the best intentions we’re still failing,” said Cressy. “This is an example of the city using every belt and suspender, every tool we have available to protect a venue, but even then it shows you some of the challenges in the system.”
In the immediate days ahead, it will fall to the music community to make change happen. Fortunately, we’re already seeing it.
Over 20 indie musicians and promoters, mobilized by a Facebook post by local musician April Aliermo, showed up for that Monday morning TMAC meeting. Half gave deputations, sincerely and passionately. (The venue discussion lasted the entire three-hour-plus meeting, causing TMAC to defer other agenda items to its June 5 meeting.)
In the last few weeks, I’ve attended more shows in unconventional venues than I have in years: a doom concert after hours at a restaurant, a power metal show at a record store, a weirdo rock gig at a Portuguese sports bar, Euro. And it turns out that that open jam I heard at T.O. Lounge is a regular event fuelled by the diehard former clientele of Not My Dog, which closed in September.
We can also look to other venues that are making it work, like Burdock at Bloor and Brock, whose three-pronged approach – 87-capacity venue, brewery and restaurant – has helped keep its doors open for the past two years.
“We know what our strengths are,” says venue manager Charlotte Cornfield. “A really great sound system, a neighbourhood feel, creative winter programming, a sound-isolated room that makes it great for record releases, a wide variety of music so we’re bringing in different audiences. The venue itself is not a money-maker” – it’s also not a money-loser, she clarifies later – “and it brings people in who also eat at the restaurant and drink at the bar.”
Bunce, during his deputation, suggested it’s time to move away from the traditional live club model that uses music to sell beer and toward one that protects culture from market forces and consumer trends, the way artist-run centres for visual arts help protect small galleries from the commercial model.
We need to support and advocate for DIY spaces, often used by youth, marginalized communities and underground artists. Since January, following December’s tragic fire in Oakland DIY venue Ghost Ship, fire and police officials have repeatedly visited most of the city’s DIY spaces in attempts to shut them down. Soybomb ceased hosting shows in January after visits from fire marshals.
Speaking on behalf of a coalition of musicians and DIY venue operators, Aliermo told TMAC about the city’s stepping up of enforcement operations against DIY venues.
“Regardless of the reason, the reality is that the city is adopting a punitive approach to this exercise, assessing fines that are fundamentally unaffordable and imposing orders that are often very difficult or impossible to parse by the people operating those spaces. They all but guarantee closures. The city should adopt an approach more focused on working with these spaces to make them safe for everyone, not against them.”
What else can we do? Go to shows. Come to the community panel we’re hosting on March 13 at the Centre for Social Innovation (192 Spadina). Support the many places still in existence. Reach out to disparate communities to create opportunities in new spaces (like that Euro Sports Bar show). Keep pressure and a sense of urgency on the city regarding proposed strategies by writing to councillors, communicating to TMAC via email@example.com and attending meetings. Remind stakeholders that once these places are gone, they’re gone forever.
In the meantime, some venues aren’t going down without a fight. Hugh’s Room, which closed due to financial troubles, is trying to reopen as a not-for-profit. And Justin Oliver from the Holy Oak is searching for a new space to recreate his inclusive vibe, ideally one where his rent won’t double over the course of eight years as it did at on Bloor West.
“It seems like in order to run a business that is truly led by heart and not purely a money-making strategy, you either have to be rich enough to buy a building or lucky enough to have a landlord who isn’t greedy,” he says. “We hope City Hall will recognize the correlation between rent prices and a healthy culture, and be proactive about protecting small businesses.
“After all, art communities and healthy, sustainable infrastructure go hand in hand with a city’s quality of life.”
The recent spate of venue closures can largely be blamed on rising rents and redevelopment, but building a business on live music has never been simple in Toronto. From noise issues and accessibility to safety and zoning, club owners are juggling myriad issues not always obvious to the average concertgoer. On March 13 at the Centre for Social Innovation (192 Spadina), NOW will host a panel featuring music scene and community stakeholders, including Nocturne owner/Toronto Music Advisory Council member Spencer Sutherland, musician TiKA and urban planner Anthony Greenberg of SvN, who will brainstorm ways to help make the city’s fast-changing neighbourhoods more music-friendly.
Ahead of our Vanishing Venues cover story, we polled NOW readers on their concertgoing habits. Almost 1,000 of you replied, and we thank you. The results offer some clues about what could get you out to shows more often.
Related: Read our coverage of the Highest Order’s Farewell To The Silver Dollar show here, and one writer’s thoughts on live music’s reliance on alcohol sales here.
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