Shuttered music venues raise fears of 'homogeneous' Toronto culture

It's something musicians, business owners, city councillors and even the mayor can agree on: powerful market forces are making it harder for live music venues to stay afloat in Toronto.

Recent months have seen a spate of music venues and DIY spaces shut down, including Harlem, Not My Dog, the Hoxton, the Central, and Holy Oak.  

For the Hoxton and the Central, it was looming redevelopment that did it. For Bloorcourt's Holy Oak, it was a sudden, untenable increase in rent.

"People are getting kicked out of everywhere, because condo developers are buying up everything. Nothing is affordable," said Justin Oliver, a former owner of Holy Oak.

"Rent control exists for residential people, but for a business, if the landlord wants to raise the rent by $300,000 or $1 million, once the contract is done they can do whatever they want."

Coun. Josh Colle, a member of the Toronto Music Advisory Council, explains it as an unfortunate side-effect of Toronto's accelerated growth.

"We are a growing city, with 100,000 people moving to it every year, increasing property values, increasing rent — so every independent business is under threat."

Remembering a bygone musical era

The recent rash of closures stands in contrast to the Toronto music scene remembered by older musicians like Rosina Kazi, who arrived in the city about 20 years ago.

Affordable for artists, and with a vibrant hip hop and house music scene and plenty of DIY and warehouse venues, she said it was once possible for musicians to "live and work here part time."  

"We've just seen it get so expensive, particularly for poor artist folk who don't have a lot of money," she said.   

Rob Squire, a DJ and promoter, feels that same nostalgia when he sees the newly constructed condos of Liberty Village.

"That's where the after-hours scene used to be, right there and all the way to the end of the east end. That's where the biggest clubs in the city like The Guvernment were."

DIY spaces in jeopardy

Tucked into apartments, warehouses, lofts and art galleries, so-called "DIY" venues, where musicians can perform outside of bars and clubs, are also on the ropes.

The spaces aren't legal and cities have a difficult time understanding them, explained Colle, who is calling for a more "thoughtful and open-minded" approach.

In early 2017, long-standing DIY space Soybomb announced it was closing at the behest of Toronto Fire.

Soybomb co-founder Jason Wydra explained that he believes a complaint was submitted to the authorities as a result of a coordinated attack against DIYs originating on the message board 4chan.

Following a deadly fire at Oakland DIY Ghost Ship, members of the message board systematically reported DIY spaces in North America, with one participant describing them as "open cesspools of radicalism and liberal degeneration."

"At some point a lone GTA participant offered up Soybomb, like, 'Oh! there's one place like that in my city too!,'" said Wydra.

Shortly after, Kensington Market DIY space Double Double Land also closed, this time due to zoning contraventions.

Meanwhile, the operator of a DIY space said they're doing everything they can to keep their venue underground and operational. CBC Toronto has agreed not to publish their name.

"We don't post the venue on Facebook, we email the location to people who buy tickets," they said.  

Musician April Aliermo, of bands Phedre and Hooded Fang, explained that DIY's are a key part of Toronto's creative fabric, and give smaller groups a chance to perform.

"When bigger bars have no room for us to play or have never heard from us before, it's these small DIY spaces and venues that have taken us in," she said.

Since their overhead is lower, DIYs can take risks on newer bands and avant-garde music, making them an important incubator for musical talent.  

"Some of our biggest Canadian exports have started in small venues and DIY spaces, like Grimes, or Arcade Fire," said Aliermo.

Fears of 'homogenous culture'

Squire, a DJ whose record collection is built partially out of collections other Toronto DJs who "are so frustrated they have just stopped playing," fears that it's the city's creative lifeblood is at stake.

"The consequence of not nurturing cross-cultural dialogue or creating safe spaces for people of colour, the gay community, the trans community or the super straight community, [for them not] being able to nurture ideas is, you end up with a very homogenous culture, and that's what I feel like is happening in Toronto," he said.

Eytan Tobin, a producer with the artists' collective Bedroomer, shares Squire's concerns. 

"I think we'll become closer to what Vancouver is right now, and just open up a lot of space for condo buildings and restaurants and one day we'll wake up and a large part of 'Music City Toronto' just won't exist," he said.

Fortunately, said Colle, who released a statement about the importance of protecting venues alongside Toronto Mayor John Tory in early 2017, the city is clued in to the problem and is taking steps to intervene.

"There's so many things being worked on," he told CBC Toronto. "People feel like there's a crisis, but the good news about that is that people are talking."

Tomorrow, CBC Toronto will be back with a look at what venue owners and city politicians believes will turn the tide for Toronto music venues.