Protecting Toronto's Music Venues
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Protecting Toronto’s Music Venues

Toronto will never be "music city" if all our small venues turn into Starbucks

Photo courtesy of the Toronto Flickr Pool

Photo by Lyndsay Jobe from the the Toronto Flickr Pool.

Amidst a string of venue closures over the past few months, the Toronto Music Industry Advisory Council met on Monday for the first time this year, in part to discuss how to protect cultural spaces and work towards the City’s goal of becoming an official “music city.”

The meeting drew a number of speakers from Toronto’s music community, who showed up to speak to the importance of protecting smaller, independent music venues in the city. Just last week, the Holy Oak Cafe, another indie music staple announced that rent hikes were forcing them to close. The meeting had a distinct sense of urgency to it.

“This is a canary in a coal mine situation for the city,” said Aaron Dawson of Wavelength, a local live music series and monthly zine. It’s an apt metaphor: three years into the City’s self-professed goal of becoming a “music city,” the recent string of closures paints the city not as a music hub, but rather as a growing professional city apathetic to its own music industry.

As Paul McCaughey, owner of the Matador Ballroom, notes, there has been a 54 per cent decline in the number of independent music venues in Toronto since 2015. Part of the problem is that there is little support given to venues to navigate the complicated web of zoning, permit, and licensing bureaucracy. The Matador, he notes, has faced eight zoning evaluations in the past few years, and the club remains unopened, having been caught up in permit and zoning issues since 2010. “While legal, this is not what a music city looks like to me,” he says.

It’s not a coincidence that the hardest hit are smaller venues. “There is definitely a small venue crisis,” said Jonny Bunce, also of Wavelength. “Most venues closing are small. There’s a pattern.”

Recent history certainly validates many concerns voiced by music community members. Soybomb, Hugh’s Room, the Silver Dollar Room, the Hoxton—these are only a few of the venues that are closing, either having been forced to close as a result of zoning/permit issues (in the case of Soybomb), or closing as a result of redevelopment (in the case of the Silver Dollar Room).

One of the issues is that the realities of modern cultural spaces do not always line up with existing zoning bureaucracy. Zoning regulations make it difficult for DIY spaces to operate legitimately and safely. Mike Williams, the City’s general manager of economic development and culture, addressed the meeting to provide an update on the work his department has been doing to address the concerns. He says there are a number of proposals for a music hub model, but what that will specifically look like remains to be seen.

One area he addressed was the matter of zoning: “We’re trying to figure out how to loosen rules for areas that are suitable for music spaces,” he said. “This will take some time, but we’re working.”

If Toronto is to realize its goal of becoming a “music city”—a concept which has been ill-defined from the start—more will need to be done. Market forces being what they are, spaces that have carved out a home in the downtown core will continue to be pushed out for more lucrative development opportunities. The City can’t deal with this problem on a piecemeal basis, stepping in (as it did with the Silver Dollar Room) to designate spaces as heritage locations. While that worked with the Silver Dollar Room, it’s not a solution that can be endlessly repeated.

Nor should it be the approach: great music clubs aren’t worth saving because of their history, but because of the music it has yet to host. The City’s response to venue closures, and much of the conversation surrounding the issue itself, often gets this wrong. It doesn’t matter that Radiohead played your club once; it matters that the next Radiohead won’t play anywhere because everywhere they might’ve played is a Starbucks now.

For up-and-coming musicians, it’s the smallest venues, as opposed to venues that hold hundreds of people, that matter. Not incidentally, it’s those venues which are often on the most precarious footing financially. They are sometimes temporary spaces, and they serve a range of functions for the community, rather than simply being a concert hall. These spaces matter, because for an artist who couldn’t yet fill a 600-person concert hall, packing a room with 75 people means a lot. The battle to become a “music city” isn’t won in large clubs, but rather in the small, coffeehouse-slash-bar-slash-concert-hall trenches. Saving small, precarious venues may not always make the most business sense, but if the goal is a vibrant cultural city—a “music city”—protecting those venues is crucial.

If there is anything to be optimistic about from the February 13 meeting, it ought to be that the tension between looking forward and looking backward is becoming more obvious. The practical steps made, including a motion to designate music venues as a business category, will prove valuable.

“More importantly, today’s meeting was a galvanizing event for the grassroots DIY music community in Toronto,” said Bunce. By bringing the music community together with the City, Bunce said he’s hopeful that the meeting “will lead to further organization and co-operation amongst independent musicians, presenters, and venues.”