Toronto music promoters on building a global scene from the ground up

Sponsored feature: presented by Polyphonic Ground


Promoting live music in Toronto is both a thrilling adventure and a never-ending challenge for those committed to spotlighting culturally diverse talent in this city. For the 11 promoters who joined together under the banner of Polyphonic Ground, live music has also become an opportunity to build the kind of global-minded music scene that so many of us dream of. 

Member organizations include Small World Music, Uma Nota Culture, Revolutions Per Minute, Ashkenaz Foundation, Lula Music and Arts Centre, Batuki Music Society, Link Music Lab, Music Africa, World Fiddle Day, Good Kind Productions and MonstrARTity. 

Each promoter has dedicated significant efforts to developing their own audiences and now, through Polyphonic Ground, they have begun to learn from one another through cross-promoting events and sharing resources.

Some promoters have found natural affinities between the tastes of their respective audiences, such as Uma Nota Culture and Lula Music and Arts Centre. Last week they co-presented a Brazilian group known as Liniker e os Caramelows – the first time this powerful band has performed in Canada. 

But while this promotion partnership worked well, Alex Bordokas of Uma Nota Culture mentioned in our recent profile that breaking more mainstream preconceptions of what is sometimes referred to as “world music” has become an issue. 

“I don’t even know what ‘world music’ is. I mean WTF does that mean?” he says. “People who think that music that is not from the commercial Anglo-world is all ‘world music’ is probably the single biggest challenge we face.”

Polyphonic Ground was founded on a collaborative working model that would ease the barriers to success for these small promoters. But in so doing, they have found themselves engaged in the noble cause of building cross-cultural dialogue in a powerful, intimate way. All of the lofty goals of prominent politicians and celebrities on integrating diverse cultures is happening right now, in these face-to-face exchanges and growing professional relationships. 

“If you look at the group itself, it is so diverse and it represents what you see across the city of Toronto,” says Batuki Music Society founder Nadine McNulty. “A lot of the music scene doesn’t reflect the reality of the people here.”

Her organization focuses on promoting African music across the city. Batuki has previously partnered with Ashkenaz Foundation, Small World Music and World Fiddle Day – and each event was in itself an experiment of the kinds of experiences their combined audiences would appreciate. 

For McNulty, the knowledge sharing and the partnerships are wonderful growth opportunities, but what she really appreciates about membership in Polyphonic Ground is the feeling of a shared purpose. “It really gives us a feeling that other people are behind us and we’re not alone,” she says. 

Jess Cimo works at Small World Music but also serves as the marketing lead at Polyphonic Ground. She regularly attends membership meetings where promoters engage in fulsome discussions about where their collective efforts could be best spent. 

“We’ve had to become a lot more flexible in our model from when we first launched,” Cimo says. “It’s been a bit of a puzzle to bring everyone together. What might be a requirement for one organization could be irrelevant for another. It’s all about adapting.”

Some member organizations have their own performance spaces, while others develop ongoing relationships with venues or encourage their audiences to transition from one space to another depending on availability throughout the city.

McNulty says that a lack of reliable venues is one of the main challenges that affects her ability to hold events on a more regular basis. This view is echoed in almost every Polyphonic Ground profile we have published recently. 

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But even for venued organizations like Lula Music and Arts Centre, the lack of performance spaces elsewhere in the city affects how they do business. 

“The costs of running a live music venue have increased substantially in recent years,” Tracy Jenkins said in our recent profile. “These increased costs definitely make it more difficult to take a chance on emerging artists or even on touring acts that are only starting to develop a Toronto fan base.”

When asked how this collective of promoters can effectively measure success, Cimo says that it’s not a straightforward task. 

“It’s an incremental change that happens,” she says. “We’re sustaining the careers of local, globally diverse artists in Toronto who might not otherwise have the opportunity to get that gig. We’re also bringing in international artists.”

Members like McNulty thinks the impact of their ongoing efforts will come when they begin to speak with one voice in Toronto. Doing so would help drive the kind of change each promoter would like to see, whether it’s access to more resources and community engagement initiatives, or the ability to book venues without scrambling to find availabilities.

Jarrett Martineau’s organization, Revolutions Per Minute, is celebrating a two-year anniversary. He says in our recent profile that the cross-pollination between Polyphonic Ground members makes a lot of sense. 

“We are a big, diverse and complex city and the music presented in the city should reflect that complexity in ways that highlight our shared strengths and struggles. We need all of us and all voices to be heard!”


Find out more about Polyphonic Ground and upcoming live music events!

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