Toronto was to become the next big music city. Where is it now?

The return of the indie-rock Field Trip festival was announced this week in July. But the life nerve music clubs are in dire straits, and the Toronto scene at the grassroots level is not that pretty, writes Brad Wheeler.Morgan Hotston / Handout

Six years ago, the city of Toronto, which may have taken time out from organizing a fantasy Stanley Cup victory parade, officially approved a plan to turn Toronto into a “Music City.” Good times, remember? So many pipes, so many dreams.

Fast forward to 2022: The city’s live music scene has been hit by two years of lockdowns. Another plague involving skyrocketing property values ​​and rental prices is paralyzing venues and making rehearsal rooms for city musicians harder and harder to find.

Yes, the renovated Massey Hall is wonderful and open again. And yes, the new Live Nation venue, History, is a shiny jewel in medium size. The city’s festival scene, which once boasted a major event every summer weekend, shows signs of revival – the return of indie rock The Field Trip affair was announced this week for July. But the music club’s lifeblood is in dire straits, and the scene at the grassroots level is not so pretty.

Music City is still open for business, but who can afford the award?

At first glance, two recent developments give cause for optimism. Two weeks ago, the currently homeless Hugh’s Room Live announced that it had found a new venue that it hopes to call home. Thanks to a loan guarantee from the city, the long-standing folk club can borrow up to $ 2.2 million for the planned purchase of an old church at the eastern end of the city.

Hugh’s Room Live hopes to buy this former church at the east end of town, at 296 Broadview Ave.Chris Churchill / Handout

Last week, Toronto City Councilman Joe Cressy announced plans to turn an empty city-owned building on Queen Street West into a venue and rehearsal room focusing on black, native and race-oriented artists. If the proposal is approved, the space will be run by It’s OK *, a non-profit DIY live music host.

Although it all sounds bloated, there are flies in the buttermilk. Even with the loan guarantee in the back pocket, the non-profit organization Hugh’s Room Live must raise an additional $ 2 million by the end of June to complete the purchase of the building. As for the do-it-yourself place at the west end, the lease is for two years only. Long-term plans require that the land on which the building is located be used for a public park and affordable housing.

In addition, the construction of a proposed new subway line is likely to cause a prolonged closure of a large stretch of a Queen Street strip rich in venues, including the Horseshoe Tavern, Cameron House and the Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar. Dandy – a music town that tears its own main street apart.

In 2020, the Canadian Live Music Association released a comprehensive study that it had commissioned. Entitled Re: Venues: A Case and Path Forward for Toronto’s Live Music, the report described the status of the industry, spoke in favor of the economic value of a thriving music scene, and recommended mechanisms to encourage and protect venues. However, something was missing, according to a very interested stakeholder.

“Where are the dollars?” asks Brian Iler, chairman of the board of Hugh’s Room Live. “To make things really happen in this city, there has to be a commitment from all three levels of government. For venues like Hugh’s Room, it’s very difficult to survive, and nothing much has changed in terms of funding.”

A little background: Hugh’s Room opened in the city’s Roncesvalles district in 2001 and served as a beloved communion club and listening room that over the years hosted the likes of Loudon Wainwright III, Maria Muldaur, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and Richie Havens. With the loss of money, the venue was reorganized in 2017 as the non-profit organization Hugh’s Room Live. Three years later, Hugh’s left his longtime home because they could no longer afford the lease.

Since then, Iler and Hugh’s have been looking for space to buy, not rent. They think they’ve found it in the church on Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East, but money problems are a problem.

Laura Fernandez plays the piano inside the old church, which Hugh’s Room Live hopes to buy.Mary Stewart / Handout

One problem is the issue of property taxes. While the city has reduced them for music venue owners and operators by 50 percent, Hugh’s will not be eligible for the rebate until it has occupied the new building for a year.

Another hurdle is a payout required in a city where property prices jump with Superman jumps. While Iler hopes to leverage the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, a federal program that supports cultural infrastructure, he is not optimistic. “They have warned us not to count on it.”

Iler describes the task of raising $ 2 million as “disgraceful” and is frustrated by what he sees as a lack of cooperation in Hughs and other organizations’ attempts to go from tenants to landowners.

“Any art organization that tries to survive and tries to do something innovative or new or just owns their own property is struggling,” he says. “There needs to be a recognition that the current real estate market is hostile to initiatives like Hugh’s Room, and there needs to be significant state support to help get us off the rental market treadmill.”

Earlier this month, a recently retired Toronto carpenter was in the news. Andrew Smith, a fan of live music, has dedicated himself to making miniature models of closed city music venues. He calls his series, which includes the old Hugh’s Room and other now silent venues, Toronto, Lost Music City. He may be at it for a while.

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