Recap: Toronto Music City Town Hall

The first-ever Toronto Music City Town Hall took place last Saturday (April 25), co-hosted by Wavelength and The Garrison. More than 200 people came out on a sunny Saturday afternoon to pack the back room of the Dundas West music venue, for a two-hour open-floor discussion with special guest, Mike Tanner, the City of Toronto’s Music Sector Development Officer. The turnout and resulting discussion was an incredible display of community engagement and interest in how City Hall might better support the music scene — and vice versa.

Just a bit of background: the Town Hall was the follow-up to two panels that took place at the last two Wavelength Music Festivals, entitled “The Toronto Music Moment.” When the first panel took place in Feb. 2014, Mike Tanner had yet to be hired, and a certain someone else was still Mayor – at that time, we wanted to go “beyond the headlines” and find out what was really going on with the City’s sudden interest in the music business, beyond just “Rob Ford goes to Austin.” A Toronto Music Industry Advisory Council (TMAC) had been struck, but no one in the music community seemed aware of who was on it or what it was doing. Was the City just going to create an Austin City Limits style mega-fest? Were the established industry players going to be listened to more than the independent or DIY music community?

Much more clarity was provided a year later when Mike Tanner joined the second Toronto Music Moment panel in February 2015 at the Wavelength Pop-Up Gallery, alongside Sergio Elmir (Harbourfront Centre, Dos Mundos), Dalton Higgins (Rap N Roll, NICE), Aubrey Jax (BlogTO), Cheryl Maciver (NXNE) and yours truly, Jonny Dovercourt (Wavelength). Eighty people packed into the tiny Huntclub for that engaging and illuminating discussion back in frigid January, and we the participants wanted to keep the positive dialogue going, but open the floor and give the music community a change to interact with the new Music Officer directly. At the April 25 Town Hall, Tanner was joined on stage by moderator Shaun Bowring, owner & booker of The Garrison, and the previous panel’s members acted as “mic runners” to help ensure equitable audience participation.

Tanner began the Town Hall by stressing that he is currently a one-man office — the Music Office “exists as a concept” — that is part of the Film and Entertainment Industries team, comprising Film, Television & Digital Media; Live & Recorded Music Development; Event Support (the people who help out festival producers with street closures and such) and the City’s in-house Tourism Service. The City created this team in 2013 to recognize the cultural and economic impact of industries such as music, yet Tanner wished the stress that “it’s not just the major players that everybody hears about that are important, but also the whole ecosystem that’s worth of attention.” Tanner seemed eager to assure the crowd that the “music industry” is not just “Sony and Warner’s and Universal and LiveNation and MLSE” and that maybe a better terms would be “music community,” to encompass “the folks up on Geary Avenue, and people whose names I don’t know, and everyone that feels they have a stake in music in Toronto.”

The Geary Avenue situation became a flashpoint during the afternoon’s discussion as it unfolded. If you haven’t been following the story, here’s a recap (within a recap): at the time of the last Music Moment panel there was a lot of talk about Geary Avenue, a small dead-end street up at Dufferin and Dupont, becoming the new hub for independent music, thanks to art space Geary Lane, DIY punk venue S.H.I.B.G.B., and the announcement of the spring opening of licensed music venue Mercury Social Club, all in addition to the long-time presence of the Rehearsal Factory practice space for bands. Given the area’s mostly industrial character and still relatively affordable rents, it seemed a promising place for poor musicians to make noise. But unfortunately, afavourable Toronto Star profile of the rising musical district may have led to some unfavourable attention from the City’s Municipal Licensing and Standards, who on March 17 shut down the venues on Geary Avenue, as the area is currently only zoned for “Employment Industrial,” which means that private rehearsal spaces are fine, but public performance spaces are apparently not.

The owners of the Mercury Social Club, Kristjan Harris and Amelia Laidlaw, were in attendance, and understandably stressed about the threat to their new investment, having given up their successful Christie Pits area café Saving Gigi; the couple also organizes the free, community-oriented Bloor Ossington Folk Festival.

The whole sad situation certainly cuts against the “cutting the red tape” mantra of new Mayor Tory. But one “win” that Tanner has scored so far is that he has managed to grant a weekend-long exemption for Geary Lane to host its inaugural Sound Séance event in mid-June, a new experimental music mini-festival presented in collaboration with Montreal’s Suoni per il Popolo fest.

Other ideas that were floated throughout the afternoon included: making it easier for for-profit promoters to get Special Occasion Permits to serve alcohol at non-traditional venues (currently only non-profit or charitable organizations may do so); encouraging music fans to contact their City Councillor to tell them they support music in their community; and (mine!) adding ShowGopher to Tourism Toronto’s music listings page.

The discussion also continued on Twitter under the hashtag #TOmusiccity (which went Top-10 Trending in Canada!) and user @ellhah pointed out the exclusion of hip-hop from the live music scene: “Apparently there’s 140 music venues in Toronto yet somehow, 130 of them say they don’t want ‘that’ type of crowd re: hip hop.”

The fellow who got up and asked Mike Tanner if he could ever institute a “musician’s salary” might have been barking up the wrong tree – and the room sure turned on him for it – but his heart was in the right place.

Overall the first Toronto Music City Town Hall was a fascinating, energizing, positive and hopefully productive discussion, with a wide range of musical scenes and sectors represented – though obviously more work needs to be done to reach out to people of colour and marginalized communities.

Wavelength will continue host more of these events along with our music community partners in the very near future – so please stay tuned.

Listen to the full recording of the Toronto Music City Town Hall meeting here thanks toTRP.

Music City Town Hall Meeting Streamed Live on TRP – 25th April 2015 by Trp on Mixcloud

And ICYMI, you can also listen to the full recording of Wavelength’s Toronto Music Moment panel from January 25 here thanks to Exclaim.

And oh look! You can go all the way back to February 2014 and listen to the full recording of the first Toronto Music Moment panel at Wavelength Music Festival 14 here thanks to There Was No Sound.

Photos by Derek Flack / BlogTO