The discussion around Toronto’s music venues has often included bad news over the last few years, and that’s something that a report titled Reimagining Music Venues would like to change. The report is the result of a collaboration between the University of Toronto School of Cities and Wavelength Music.
“My background is I’m an indie musician and writer and concert presenter,” explains Jonathan Bunce aka Jonny Dovercourt of Wavelength Music Arts Projects. With his varied roles, he says he became interested in “the intersections of music and city building”.
As he went from musician to journalist to music presenter with Wavelengths, he began to look at venues in a different light. More and more, he found himself programming concerts outside the usual venues, in spaces like churches and shops.
In the Foreward of the report, he pinpoints the crux of the issue when it comes to small venues:
“Small, grassroots music venues like Sneaky Dee’s, El Mocambo, or the Drake Hotel were the cultural centres that incubated the local music community in my hometown, Toronto. To me, they seemed no different from a symphony hall or an art museum. It was only after I developed a career as a journalist and then a concert presenter that I understood these spaces were simply bars and clubs licensed to serve alcohol, with no explicit cultural mandate — and little to no public support.”
Realizing The Need
During the pandemic, his book Any Night of the Week, A D.I.Y. History of Toronto Music, 1957-2001 was released on Coach House Books. The book chronicles the history of Toronto’s modern live music scene as a community that nourished and supported creativity. A recurring theme was the importance of small venues to a thriving music scene. If anything, it added weight to his focus. Small venues are not valued or considered as a part of the music ecosystem when it comes to policymakers, yet their existence is crucial.
“I’ve been drawn to cultural policy,” he says.
He met Prof. Daniel Silver, Department of Sociology and School of Cities, University of Toronto, and co-author of the study, in 2011. “We hit it off.” He says Silver had worked on reports with a similar focus during a previous post in Chicago. In 2021 they’d gathered the necessary funding and resources together to get started.
The report is designed to fill a knowledge gap. “[We’re] trying to get a better understanding of this musical ecosystem,” he says. Since many bars are not officially recognized as venues, it’s a difficult area to get a fix on with hard data about economic impact and other issues. “They’re often accidental and organic,” he says of such music hubs.
If the typical concept of Western classical music performance has to do with galas and glittering concert halls, nowadays, the genre is returning to its grass roots. Toronto’s indie classical music scene depends on those small venues as much as the latest pop artists.
“I’ve been a big fan of the indie classical movement for a while,” he says. “It’s definitely an interesting scene.” As he points out, classical music requires a certain degree of acoustic sensitivity in a room that is not well served by the bar environment, generally speaking. “There are still not many spaces [that are suitable for that],” he says.
“We wanted to avoid some of the pitfalls of previous reports,” he notes. That includes defining problems, but only offering vague suggestions about using under-utilized spaces, with a lack of nuts and bolts practical applications.
He also wanted to focus on the positive, and avoid the doom and gloom narrative that often surrounds a discussion of Toronto venues these days. He’s empathetic to the outcry that surrounds the closure of popular venues, but there’s a bigger picture to consider. “There is a natural lifecycle of venues,” he says. “They open and close.”
The concentration of music venues in the downtown core made it a particularly vulnerable sector when real estate prices, and the pressure to develop properties, began to grow. It displaced many spaces which, in previous decades, were able to survive as commercially viable spaces. That era seems to be gone.
He recalls places like Ted’s Wrecking Yard, a venue known for its eclectic programming. Open from 1997 to 2001, Jonathan notes it was a product of the time, an era when space was affordable. “Opening a space like that is unfathomable now.”
“Profit margins are so much smaller,” he notes. The cost of booking alternative venues has also risen.
A system of splitting the revenues between the door receipts (to the artists) and bar (to the owner) was imperfect, but worked for many venues for a solid 40 to 50 year period. However, one inherent limitation was the way that the music was inevitably linked to alcohol. If your music didn’t draw a drinking crowd, it had little chance of exposure. Looking for alternatives to that combination became one of the report’s goals.
Among the key findings:
- It’s no surprise that financial issues top the list at all levels from the artists up to the presenters and venue owners — everyone is struggling;
- A negative atmosphere with artists feeling underpaid, venue owners feeling pinched, and the public feeling overcharged for music they don’t know;
- Even before the pandemic, lots of aging and declining venues, while ticket prices continue to rise.
The report makes a number of concrete suggestions.
- Finding innovative models, such as the Stage Truck, a self-sufficient mobile stage to bring music to areas without the infrastructure, with a feasibility study that was completed in 2022.
- Thinking outside the box when it comes to venues, and using parks, parking lots, beaches, shops and other alternatives that don’t involve alcohol consumption.
- Multidisciplinary arts centres along the lines of the project being developed by Tapestry Opera at 877 Yonge, with spaces designated for multiple uses, and where artists and organizations can spread the costs.
- Dedicated music centres that incorporate rehearsal space, recording studios, cafés and social spaces and other uses along with performing space.
- Cultural land trusts, created when members of the community raise funds to purchase a property under a non-profit trust, which can then lease the space to members at affordable rates.
Jonathan points out that multidisciplinary arts and culture spaces are common throughout Europe in both smaller and larger centres. They are still few and far between in the province.
Despite the challenges, the goal is to offer solutions. “We really wanted to be based around positive solutions.”
Policy suggestions include consolidating efforts, and practical suggestions such as designating specific parking and loading zones for music venues, creating a Music Office, evaluating zoning to facilitate creating new infrastructure, and so on.
A live music ecosystem that is healthy at every level is what’s required — you can’t have the upper echelons in the world’s concert halls if there’s nowhere to begin.
Jonathan is hoping the report will lead policymakers to view the situation with a new lens. The report includes examples of positive solutions that have worked in other parts of the world to uncover models that haven’t been tried in Ontario. “To make policymakers understand that, this is something we’ve failed at.”
- Download the whole report [HERE].
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