City of Toronto joins fight to keep music scene bumping in the face of club closures

A group of councillors and industry stakeholders is hoping to put wind in the sails of the city's music venues by making setting up and staying open in Toronto's hot real estate market a little easier.

High rents, bylaws pose problems for venues and DIY spaces but city strategy hopes to ease their pain

A small group of city councillors and industry stakeholders is hoping it can make sure independent musicians like Internet Daughter, shown here mid-performance, are able to develop their talents in a vibrant Toronto music scene. (Frederic Lacelle/Radio-Canada)

In February 2016, the Toronto Music Advisory Board (TMAC) presented a strategy to city council that laid out some lofty goals for the city's music scene.

According to TMAC, which is made up of city councillors and industry stakeholders, Toronto was already "the focal point of the Canadian music industry."

With more collaboration between city government and the musical community, they wrote, the city was primed to join "the top tier of Music cities in the world … alongside London, New York, Berlin, Nashville."

In the year since, a flurry of venue closures called those goals into question, with bars like the Hoxton, the Central and Holy Oak, and DIY spaces like Soybomb and Double Double Land shuttering in rapid succession under the pressure of powerful real estate market forces and zoning and safety bylaw violations. 

TMAC's strategy had laid out more than 10 pages of suggested actions, many of which aimed to give Toronto's venues a boost. So how much has gotten done? And how much of a difference could city intervention make in the first place?

It's lights out for Holy Oak, a popular west-end bar that showcased everything from blues to funk to dance music and was forced to close due to an untenable rent increase. (Frederic Lacelle/Radio-Canada)

Venue-specific action still in progress 

In the gloom that followed the rash of closures in early 2017, Mayor John Tory and Coun Josh Colle, chair of the Toronto Music Advisory Council, put out a statement in which they renewed their commitment to turning things around and listed things that the city has done to put the Music Strategy into practice.

Since the strategy was adopted, the city has hosted public information sessions on how to organize music events and get grant funding, created a new permit for arts and music in the parks, and put on live gigs at city hall, among other things.

Still in the municipal pipeline, however, are actions designed specifically to help venues stay open.

Josh Colle told CBC Toronto city staff are in the process of building a plan that looks at financial incentives and changes in the regulatory frameworks that would make it easier to open and run live music venues.

Coun. Josh Colle, chair of the Toronto Music Advisory Board, hopes a new plan for Toronto's venues will be cooked up and ready to go by fall 2017. (Frederic Lacelle/Radio-Canada)

TMAC is also involved in a noise bylaw review that is underway, hoping to steer the process so that "the new bylaw doesn't unitentionally burden or hurt venues" by placing too much power in the hands of residents lodging noise complaints, said Colle.

All of that work is expected to be folded into a single report, which Colle believes will go to the city's economic development committee in the fall.

Cities 'don't understand' how to deal with DIY venues

Also on the municipal docket is a more vexing issue — illegal "DIY" venues usually found in tucked-away locations like art galleries and lofts.

In the first two months of 2017, two well-known downtown DIY spaces, Soybomb and Double Double Land, were shut down for contravening fire and zoning regulations, respectively. 

Colle, who advocates a more "thoughtful and open-minded" approach, has been spearheading a campaign to educate different city partners like Toronto Fire on what DIYs are and what purpose they serve.

Two well-known DIYs shut their doors this past winter due to fire and zoning contraventions. (Frederic Lacelle/Radio-Canada)

"I think it's just that cities really don't understand them. They get a complaint from a neighbour and in a typical municipal government fashion they come in with this arsenal of people," he said, arguing that the city's top priority should be making the spaces safe.

Colle cited Oakland, California as inspiration, where the municipal government made a move to protect DIY space tenants from eviction while facilitating safety upgrades following a deadly fire at a local DIY venue in December.

Re-openings offer hope

Though closures started the year off on a sour note, Colle said there's also good reason to be optimistic, pointing to several venues that have shown new signs of life and "the prospect of two or three others that are now in the pipeline."

Hugh's Room, on the brink of permanent closure in January, now plans to reopen and may move to a non-profit, board-run model.

The El Mocambo, at death's door two years ago, told CBC Toronto they will be open in September.

The Silver Dollar Room, thought to be doomed after it was sold to a developer, has been designated as a heritage site to keep it from being demolished. 

"We have saved the Silver Dollar room, so that it will be coming back," said Coun. Joe Cressy, who represents Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina — though it's still not clear if the space will show live bands when it reopens. 

Colle explains these developments largely as the result of Toronto's "robust" music scene, which he says remains "incredibly vibrant" despite financial pressures and recent shutterings.

Coun. Joe Cressy says the Silver Dollar Room will live to see another day thanks to a heritage designation - though it's still not clear if it will be a live music venue when it reopens. (Frederic Lacelle/Radio-Canada)

Market forces will continue to take a toll

But despite that vote of confidence, venues still have to contend with market forces that are bigger than what the city can fix.

Rob Squire, a DJ and promoter, wondered how useful any "financial incentives" or tax credits the city will offer can be in the face of the Toronto's rapid-fire development.

"How is that going to measure up to all these real estate developers, who have hundreds of thousands of dollars?" he asked. 

Unlike rent-controlled apartments, cities do not cap commercial rents, meaning the size of a rent hike is up to the landlord.   

"Nothing is affordable," said former Holy Oak owner Justin Oliver shortly after the bar shut down due to a rent increase.

Market forces that keep commercial rents high still pose a daunting challenge to small venue owners. (Frederic Lacelle/Radio-Canada)

"Rents are high. That makes any business difficult to run," Colle acknowledged.

The saving grace, he said, is that unlike other industries finding themselves in a growth-related crisis, the music industry is now organized, and the city is poised to take genuine action on its behalf.

"It is the one sector of our small business economy where you've got a city government that is engaged and has purpose to try and address this. I don't think it will be too little, too late."


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