“I know some in this audience may be skeptical of my positivity as live music venues are closing, but venues are opening too!” proclaimed Mayor John Tory at the opening ceremony of the Canadian Music Week's Music Cities Summit last year. Unfortunately for Tory, his remarks are often drowned out by the sound of bulldozers destroying many of this city’s cultural landmarks. It might surprise some newer Torontonians, but this city was once a hub of grunge, rock, counterculture and musical innovation. Long lost venues — such as the Rockit, Bigbop, Silver Dollar Lounge, Funhaus, Wrongbar and El Mocambo — have hosted (and birthed) many famous musicians. Despite this rich history, it seems every week a new development proposal is tacked on another venue door. Despite Tory’s reassurance, the never-ending conversion of culture into condominiums and Rexalls will continue unabated. Nevertheless, a shift is happening — a retooling, and maybe one that signals a revolution in live music in a city built on NIMBYism and chain pubs.
On a cold Thursday night, a friend and I stumble down a dark, industrial alleyway in the Junction. Surrounded by shipping containers and an eerie lack of noise, a small handcrafted sign points us up a staircase. We look at each other and momentarily consider backing down — heading to the nearest Firkin Pub and hiding under the covers of boring familiarity. I squint at the email on my phone confirming the address and boldly head up into the unknown. Inside, we’re greeted — not by a serial killer — but by a spacious studio filled with oddities, beautifully painted canvasses and a makeshift stage and seating area. A group of 20-somethings are looming about, exploring the space, chatting. Mel Coleman, the owner of the studio, called Junction Art Crossing, greets me and thanks me for coming and gives me a tour of her impressive work.
About an hour later, an inspiring scene unfolds. Three local artists — Kevin Foster, Kate Suhr and Graham Ko — sit in front of the small crowd and play their own original, acoustic music. After each song, the audience and performers discuss the piece, ask questions and participate in the art. It oozes intimacy and participative culture. Being completely inept at anything resembling musicality, I sat there in awe, not only at the artists’ talent, but at the whole grassroots nature of the event. This was not about amassing a huge crowd or selling out the ACC, but about passion, talent and community engagement. I found out about this event on Artery, a new website connecting performers, hosts and audiences; the site itself is a brazen attempt to circumvent the traditional music industry. Word of mouth alone is not enough to save Toronto’s sound, but the internet, social media and other 21st century tools may be. Just a month ago, I was still living in Europe — which has largely fought back against gentrification and ‘condo-creep’. Coming back to Toronto just in time to watch a wrecking ball knock down Honest Ed’s was almost a little too depressing. As venues continue to close (and they are closing, make no mistake), I worry for the city. Is our creative pulse being ignored by City Hall and bought out by fat cat developers? Are we doomed to become one giant strip mall?
If history has shown us anything, it’s that the artists will not go quietly. The steam-pressure of creativity will find a release — whether it be traditional bars or far-flung lofts hidden in the nooks and crannies of this pubescent metropolis. After one of her songs, Kate, in referencing her hometown of Peterborough, said something I think Toronto can learn from: “Peterborough is a city that cradles their artists.” While most Torontonians would scoff at learning anything from Smalltownsville, Ontario, I think Kate presents an important question we need to ponder: Do we want this burgeoning city to be one that cradles its artists, and valorizes their cultural offerings? Or do we want to be one giant financial district that grinds any sort of creativity under our heel? As our generation gradually begins to grasp the steering wheel, we need to decide: do we follow the route of Manhattan and price out any quirks from the city, or do we carve our own path? While it seems the current top brass is doing little to help, millennial ingenuity and makeshift stages around the city offer us a new hope.