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A New Toronto Documentary Wonders, “How Do Indie Bands Survive?”

The Scene follows local bands trying to make it in the post-record-sales age.

Local filmmaker Andrew Smyth made his upcoming documentary The Scene: An Exploration of Music in Toronto to answer one question: how do Toronto’s independent bands continue to exist?

“No one’s buying albums, high gas prices make it expensive to tour, and you start to wonder, ‘Where is the money coming from? How are these bands able to keep going?’” he says.

Smyth partnered up with friend and fellow filmmaker Josh Jensen to work on the project. The two men quickly came to respect the lengths some musicians go to in order to subsidize their careers.

“I moved to Toronto a few years ago, and as I was working these odd jobs you work when you’re trying to pursue a creative career,” said Jensen. “I found that almost all my co-workers were also in a band. It was also interesting to meet these people and see how driven they were, but also to realize how non-lucrative music is.”

The resulting documentary, which is expected to debut at festivals this spring, follows three local independent bands—The Ruby Spirit, Committed to Rhyme, and The Alter Kakers—as they try to figure out the next steps in their careers. It also features interviews with established local acts like Bif Naked, Anvil, Tokyo Police Club, and My Darkest Days, who talk about what it takes to succeed and the new challenges facing today’s bands.

“We ended up with three bands that are at different points in their careers, with different aspirations and different work ethics,” said Smyth. “The Ruby Spirit is very much on an upward trajectory. They’re very focused and very disciplined. They have a great manager, and they have all the pieces you require to have a shot at success. The Alter Kakers are doing this in their spare time…They’re in their 40s, they have families. For them it’s about feeding their soul, rather than feeding their family. Committed to Rhyme is a different thing. They’re kind of influenced by Rage Against the Machine, they’re hesitant to sign things…and they try to get together after work, but they have a hard time corralling each other.”

For Jensen, the best part of making the film was hearing the established acts talk about the obstacles to success, then watching the newer bands go through the same struggles.

“Learning about the behind-the-scenes of the music industry, then watching it happen in real life following these band members around, that was kind of the interesting story,” he says. “That and just hearing about how things have changed. Anvil started in the ‘70s, and they say it’s much harder for young bands now.”

He added that while the film is about musicians, it could be about anyone trying to make a living in any creative field. Including documentary filmmaking.

“We felt like at the end of it, we could do a sequel by turning the cameras on ourselves,” he says. “We both have day jobs, we financed this thing ourselves. We spent as little money as we could and asked for favours and borrowed equipment. And as we were talking to these bands we were like ‘Oh yeah, that’s exactly what we’re doing.’ It’s the universal artistic pursuit.”

CLARIFICATION: January 19, 2012, 11:30 PM The third paragraph in this article has been reworded to emphasize that Andrew Smyth and Josh Jensen worked as equal partners on this documentary.


  • Joe Engineer.

    Great trailer, I’m looking forward to seeing this. I do have some criticism and it’s two fold. First, I don’t like the excessive use of video effects. The time-lapse and still photo movement thing. It’s so over done. If the content and the visual is good it doesn’t need the effects. Second, this trailer makes it seem like the average age of the members of a Toronto band is about 45. Having worked with 1000s of bands, I know this is not true. I’m hoping the movie itself better represents the Toronto independent scene.

    • Josh Jensen

      Thanks for the response!

      We used ‘video effects’ sparingly, I assure you. The time-lapses were used in certain sections to emphasize the vibrancy of the streets of Toronto, while the 3D Ken Burns effect on some of the photos was used when we wanted to draw attention to a particular aspect of the image. Believe me, it’s not just to show off – we didn’t have the budget for that.

      As for the bands, two of the three bands we focus on consist of members in their early-to-mid 20′s, while the third is in their 40′s. We wanted to speak with some music veterans as well to provide context and establish how the industry has changed.

  • Damien

    Where can we see this film?

    • Josh Jensen

      We’ll be announcing screening dates soon. In the meantime, for updates, check out our website or join us on Facebook (/thescenedoc).

  • Ron Davis

    Andrew and Josh have done the indie music scene in Toronto a real service by taking on this subject. I believe the scene here is in a golden time, with a multiplicity of diverse talents. We breed talent here, we attract talent from elsewhere, and we send it back out to the world (the guitarist on my last recording just got hired by Prince.) But, as proud as I am to be part of the scene, it remains a struggle to make a living as an indie here.

    I’m sure there were a thousand ways to tell the story, which means the filmmakers are open to criticism for what they have *not* done. I’m content to judge their work for what that *have* done, and am the happier for the film having been made.

    Break a leg at the festival screenings.