7 Problems With Toronto's Music Festival Scene

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7 Problems With Toronto’s Music Festival Scene

Toronto has no shortage of music festivals—but why do so many die?

Photo by D.A. Cooper.


Toronto has a dysfunctional relationship with music festivals. We love them, they love us, and somehow the relationship has never worked.

Festivals of all lengths, sizes, and genres pop up each summer—this was a particularly hot one, with the Fort York invasion (Toronto Urban Roots Fest, Field Trip, TIME Fest, Mad Decent Block Party), the influx of jazz (TD and Beaches jazz festivals), the rivalry of weeklong national exposure (NXNE, Canadian Music Week), the electronic raves (VELD, Digital Dreams, Electric Island), and Edgefest, the Everybody Loves Raymond of music festivals that’s inexplicably popular despite the fact that almost nobody you know goes.

But in the past, the list has been even longer. Think back a few years, and you’ll recall the other outdoor multi-day festivals that once vied for popularity and are now defunct—Virgin Fest, Rogers Picnic, ALL CAPS!, Heavy T.O., Grove, Olympic Island Festival, Sound in Motion; and the list goes (depressingly) on. What’s worse, name-drop any one of these outside the GTA, and you’ll receive confused stares: Ottawa has Bluesfest, Montreal has Osheaga, even Guelph has Hillside. Toronto has no such hallmark festival.

Now that Riot Fest has capped off this summer’s festival season, we have to ask: What are the chances these events will return next year, and why do so many of them fail to thrive?

Problem 1: Festivals With No Track Records Don’t Draw Tourists
GCiampini Veld Festival Photo by Giordano Ciampini 1044

VELD 2013. Photo by Giordano Ciampini.

Festivals are tourist destinations, and tourists bring dollars. Tourists come to Chicago for Lollapalooza, and to New York for the Governors Ball. “I don’t know that any of us want to be a strictly Toronto thing,” says Jeff Cohen, owner of the Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace, and mastermind of the two-year-old Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF). He says that 40 per cent of TURF’s ticket sales came from outside the GTA this year—twice as many compared to 2013, but still a far cry from Montreal’s Osheaga, which enjoys a comfortable 70 per cent attendance from outside the city.

Drawing international crowds demands a certain amount of social media savvy and advertising money, but also a reputation, which, so far, most festivals lack.

Problem 2: Festivals Lack Clear Guidance From City Hall

From a municipal governing standpoint, the City doesn’t really know how running a festival should look and how much it should cost. “As long as we can outline those costs and expectations, it will, I think, help foster growth within the industry, because there’s some certainty attached to it,” says Councillor Mike Layton, who represents Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina, which includes Fort York and Exhibition Place. “It’s not like all of a sudden you walk into a situation, and you’ve got a bunch of costs thrown at you.”

Getting festivals in Fort York off the ground has required organizers and City officials to cobble together details surrounding noise levels, speaker control, and community relations in a piecemeal way. Layton is pushing for Toronto to establish a “music czar,” similar to what Austin has in place, who could spearhead those projects and help curate future festivals; without that, the festival organizers themselves have had to learn the legal ropes.

Problem 3: Over-Saturation, or the “So What?” Problem
The Flaming Lips play Yonge Dundas Square at NXNE 2012  Photo by Cameron McLellan from the Torontoist Flickr pool

The Flaming Lips play Yonge-Dundas Square at NXNE 2012. Photo by Cameron McLellan from the Torontoist Flickr pool.

Between Toronto’s hundreds of clubs, bars, and music venues offering live music literally every day of the year, Torontonians don’t feel they should shell out a few hundred bucks for a single weekend of live music. Unlike, for example, Ottawa, to which Bluesfest draws rare international acts, Toronto sees mega-stars weekly. “Festivals are culturally driven,” notes Jeffrey Remedios, co-founder of the Arts & Crafts music label and their nascent festival, Field Trip. “People have to learn through experimentation and trial what to expect. ‘Why am I going to this and not just going to a concert? What’s the difference?’ And that’s something that’s a bit of an education.”

And then combine that with the fact that our short summers are already over-saturated with music festivals, to the point that the city’s own music critics can’t keep up. “I can’t see all of these staggering on,” says Ben Rayner, music critic for the Toronto Star since 1998. “You can’t possibly cover it all. I feel guilty sometimes, ‘cause, you know … I’ve been at the Star for 16 years now—like, I know a lot of the people running these things, and you want to help them out—but, Jesus, there’s a lot going on.”

Problem 4: Where Do You Put 10,000 People?
20130811 ALL CAPS 2013 Toronto Island 0219 Photo by Corbin Smith

Campers at the ALL CAPS! music festival. Photo by Corbin Smith.

“Toronto doesn’t have a natural [festival] location,” Remedios says, “and the ones we do have, there’s only so much tolerance to put something big in.” Fort York and the surrounding Garrison Commons have become a favourite for Remedios’s Field Trip and Cohen’s TURF—though the fort is plagued by an ominous history of hosting forgotten festivals like Rogers Picnic and Blue Rodeo’s Stardust Picnic, which flopped due to a lack of infrastructure in the downtown park.

One problem has been noise complaints: last year, Cohen says TURF received 69 on its first day alone. “We figured, ‘Well, this is the last year we’re running this,’” he recalls. Councillor Layton was shocked, too, because they’d felt they communicated to nearby residents ahead of time what would be going on. “I don’t think folks realized exactly what the significance of the noise would be,” Layton added. But surviving that first year helped pave the way for its second, when TURF received only two complaints during all three days.

The second problem has been, and still is, capacity. Garrison Commons can’t accommodate more than roughly 10,000 people, which has led other organizers to scout the city’s outskirts for likely spots, such as Downsview Park and the Toronto Islands. The problem with both is perceived access. The Islands hosted the late ALL CAPS! and V-Fest, and still enjoy a small turnout with Electric Island, but the $7 ferry ride and physical distance is discouraging. Downsview, meanwhile, sees action with Riot Fest and has before with Edgefest, but sits near the northernmost station on the Spadina subway line, causing downtowners to moan. “I don’t understand why people deride Downsview as much as they do,” Rayner laughs. “If you’re afraid of walking for 10 minutes—I think that’s what upsets people, ’cause they’re lazy. They don’t want to walk the last little bit.”

Meanwhile, Councillor Layton thinks Ontario Place is the ideal “festival hub,” but getting the province and City on board has been difficult, and using public transit to get there can be tricky.

Problem 5: Council Needs to Counsel

“Normally, someone in government would have the vision to want to have these events in Toronto,” Cohen says. “I’m not aware that, previous to some new elected officials, that anyone at City Hall has been lobbying … to make Toronto a live music centre in the summertime.”

Those new elected officials are three city councillors: Layton, Josh Colle (Ward 15, Eglinton-Lawrence), and Gary Crawford (Ward 36, Scarborough Southwest). While they don’t all have jurisdiction over Toronto’s main outdoor venues, they have sway with councillors who do, and have helped rip off some of the red tape that has previously hindered live music outdoors, partially explaining why we’ve seen such an influx in recent years.

Problem 6: A Festival Needs a Reason
IMG 7791 copy

The Strumbellas at TURF 2014. Photo by Michael Fraiman.

Ticket sales mean nothing unless the festival has fans. Rayner points to Rogers Picnic as an example of a well-curated festival with major headliners as diverse as The Roots, Bedouin Soundclash, and Bad Brains—which might have been its downfall.

“You have to have an identity as a festival,” Rayner notes. “You can’t just whack a bunch of bands on a bill and hope it’s gonna succeed on the strength of volume—which is kinda what Riot Fest is up against…. They spent a hell of a lot of money to cast as wide a net as possible, and I’m not sure that always works.”

Smaller genre-specific festivals such as VELD or Bowmanville’s Boots & Hearts have have a much easier time making money. Often the more people you try to please, the less money you make.

Problem 7: Nobody’s Making Money

“Unless you really know what you’re doing, you’re gonna lose money,” Cohen says. “Anyone who starts an outdoor festival and thinks they’re going to make money right away, either they’re doing EDM … or they’ve stumbled on it. I think most of us know it’s a long-term thing.”

Festivals that started too big, like V-Fest, crumbled under their own weight, Cohen says. He’s got a 10-year plan for TURF, and he’s fully expecting to lose money for the first five. “We’re just following our plan,” he smiles. “We’re not going anywhere.”

CORRECTIONS: September 8, 9:45PM Ben Rayner’s name was originally misspelled as “Ben Raynor”; the Boots & Hearts festival was written as Hearts & Boots; and Edgefest was erroneously said to still be at Downsview Park. Torontoist regrets the errors.

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