What is the future of live music in Toronto?

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Bad news for music fans in Toronto: it’s going to be quite awhile before we can safely gather for shows again.

Under Ontario’s COVID-19 reopening plan, large gatherings like sports and concerts will be the last to return. When pushed, Doug Ford said not until at least the end of summer, but even that seems unlikely. Toronto has cancelled all festivals and events over 250 people until the end of August.

Live Nation, the biggest concert promotion company in North America, is in major debt and is not forecasting a return to “normal operations” until late 2021. (Though they’re keeping busy from a difference, launching a Budweiser Stage At Home TV series on Citytv this Saturday with the Black Crowes and the Trews.) And when it comes to nightclubs, Toronto’s “club king” Charles Khabouth, owner of INK Entertainment which runs venues like Rebel and Weslodge, isn’t any more optimistic. 

“Nightclubs are gone. Gone. One million per cent,” he tells the Financial Post. “Until a vaccine is found. Maybe,” Khabouth said. “You cannot space people out in a nightclub. That’s not a nightclub. I can’t make little cubes six feet apart, get people to pay a cover charge, then tell them to go and stand in a cube. No, no, it just doesn’t work.”

(INK, too, is keeping things digital with a party they’re billing as “Canada’s largest live stream party this Saturday.)

America’s first socially distanced concert just happened in Arkansas and it involved mandatory masks, temperature checks and “fan pods” distanced at least six feet apart, while venue capacity was reduced to 20 per cent. You may see more creative options like that locally, like July Talk’s upcoming drive-in concert, but small, local shows will likely be the first to test the waters. 

So when live music does come back – and again, not anytime soon – DIY, independent and community-minded promoters, bookers, venue owners and space-makers will be leading the way. They’re used to making things happen with the odds stacked against them

So I reached out to a number of local stakeholders to find out how Toronto’s live music scene can return and what it will look like. 

In conversations with local stakeholders – venue owners, party promoters, festival bookers – it’s clear that it’s too early to make plans for future shows. 

Nothing happens until it’s safe

While many restaurants in the city have been making preparations for an eventual reduced capacity return to business, none of the venue owners or music promoters have gotten there yet.

“I think opening in the middle of an ongoing pandemic would be irresponsible from a health/safety point of view,” says Shaun Bowring, owner of The Garrison and the Baby G. “Also all of the safety measures I have read or that has been presented at virtual meetings are logistically and financially unfathomable.”

That’s a common refrain from everyone I spoke to: showgoers won’t show up until they can be ensured they’ll be safe, and show-throwers won’t put them on until they can responsibly ensure that. A recent Music Canada survey found 41 per cent of respondents won’t feel comfortable going to a live music event at a small venue in the next six months and 43 per cent won’t go at a large venue. 

As much as you can reduce risk through physically distanced fan zones, mandatory masks or constant disinfecting, shows – especially those in indoor venues, where the virus is more likely to spread – won’t be fully safe until a vaccine or widespread testing become available. And many local promoters understand the safest thing they can do is wait. 

“A main focus within the collective for the past four years has been towards establishing our events as safer spaces,” says Tom Beedham, one of the co-owners of local all-ages concert and art series Long Winter (and also a NOW contributor). “But how do you account for an invisible threat like a virus? A group of us just got our Safer Bars and Spaces training through Dandelion Initiative at the start of 2020, and right now I’m thinking a lot about how we can adapt physical events to that value in a landscape that involves COVID-19, if at all.”

The Event Safety Alliance put out a 29-page guide for venue owners and promoters to follow when shows do eventually reopen, including a ban on moshing and crowd-surfing. But, like some local store owners, many DIY promoters don’t want to take the risk in being first when the province does eventually let them resume. It could affect not only their communities, but others throughout the city. 

“We don’t want our events to become control group experiments,” says Beedham. “We have to keep in mind that going back to mass physical interaction could have repercussions far beyond our control. The main demographic that shows up [to Long Winter] could be a vector for transmission. When they leave at the end of the night, they eat late-night food, they take transit. So anybody considering hosting events has an ethical obligation to consider the ways their operations can potentially affect the communities and the neighbourhoods they intersect with, too.”

No more watching through a screen

At-home livestream concerts have exploded during the pandemic to the point where you could choose from multiple every day, practically every hour. It’s been heartening to see the innovation, to see the ways musicians and fans can still connect through distance. But it’s not quite the same experience as the live thrill of everyone being in the same space, feeling each other’s energy. 

For Daniel Tal, who co-runs the roving concert series DDBX and is the creative director of the agency Vox Future, what’s lacking is intentionality. A living room concert is often haphazard, recorded with subpar equipment and digitally compressed through a laptop or iPhone mic. But he’s seen digital parties start to get more immersive, creating an overall vibe for both performers and participants.

He points to Club Quarantine as a good example, a nightly Zoom party that feels like a whole vibe, a community of people all dancing to the same music and dressed to impress. He envisions other similar events where, for instance, everyone is delivered a specific menu item or a different coloured lightbulb to make you feel like you’re really all doing something together. That’s also something, strangely, artists have been able to find in the world of video games.

Tal hopes to see that intentionality continue at IRL concerts once they return. 

“DIY [music communities] have blazed a trail in terms of community engagement,” he says. “There might be 60 people [at an event], but they’re all active, they’re all there building. I’m hoping that can carry over when this starts to clear. People could be much more active about how they engage with communal spaces, about connection and respect, about participating in the safety of one another. These are things we’ve been lacking at large-scale cultural events.”

Aerin Fogel, founder of the feminist arts festival Venus Fest, has similar high hopes for the community. 

“I hope that this experience has helped people integrate community care a little more into their daily lives,” she says. “Later down the road when it’s safe to start running small shows, we’ll all be thinking about how to care for the wellbeing of the artists, workers and audience members. And really this kind of care is something we can always be looking out for, regardless of the situation.”

And after watching so many shows through an iPhone screen throughout this pandemic, we might be ready to be fully engaged in real space without constant captures for Instagram. 

“If venues can make it to the post-COVID world (via medical or vaccine solution, and/or herd immunity) they will actually thrive,” says Bowring. “When people feel it’s safe to attend shows at our venues, I think more people than ever will drop their smartphones in the garbage, turn from their screens to go out and enjoy live music with other people!”

A new evolution of live venues

“The trick is getting to that post-pandemic place,” Bowring continues. 

Toronto’s music venues were already vanishing at an alarming pace over the last few years. The city, led by the Toronto Music Advisory Council (TMAC), the Music Office and many local stakeholders, had been slowly responding to the economic pressures music venues have felt as real estate has gotten more expensive. But now with the pandemic keeping doors closed for an indefinite period of time, local venues are more endangered than ever. According to a TMAC estimate, up to 70 per cent of live venues could close without government assistance.

Bowring, along with Jeff Cohen, whose Collective Concerts promotion company owns the Horseshoe and Lee’s Palace, have been organizing meetings with local venue owners and operators to share information about the challenges they’re facing and to lobby the government for help. He’s been supporting a petition to the ministry of Canadian heritage to widen the Emergency Support Fund to include independent for-profit venues, promoters, agencies and  festivals. 

“The federal government has traditionally supported non-profit businesses in the cultural sector, but we know that independent live venues, though technically for-profit, represent an important part of the lifeblood of our cultural ecosystem,” says Toronto city councillor Joe Cressy. 

Cressy, the chair of TMAC, has been advocating for live venues to fall under a new tax class that would see them pay 50 per cent less in property taxes. That proposal, with some amendments to include venues that host live DJs and to take the onus of application off the landlord, will go in front of city council this week for potential immediate adoption. 

Whenever shows are able to resume, it’s not going to be the giant hulking spaces like Budweiser Stage and Rebel that we flock to right away, but the smaller ones that need the protection. Some are finding ways of adapting in the meantime, becoming flexible multi-use music and community spaces. DIY venue Unit 2 is upping its tech to do more online shows and workshops, says Rosina Kazi. The Baby G could be rented out as an hourly rehearsal space, says Bowring, while the Garrison is preparing to do some live broadcasting of bands and DJs. The Comfort Zone has been doing live DJ sets from the venue throughout the pandemic.

“The live music scene as we know it today will have definitely evolved once the city shows start to come back. Live streaming will definitely be a tool we continue to use,” says Tinesha Richards, the new operations and partnerships director of Toronto’s urban arts organization and festival, Manifesto. “This will give not only Manifesto, but all creatives a global reach, that may not have been possible prior. If we embrace the changes to come and remain innovative, I believe the sky’s the limit.”

Again, everyone agrees that any future movement will depend on public health regulations and safety. But when music begins to return to Toronto, the resilient venues and spaces will be more than live venues – they’ll be flexible community hubs, whether those communities gather in one place, online, or both. 

A return to local

The first shows to return will be local acts playing for small audiences. That’s out of necessity – huge festival-style crowds and touring bands aren’t going to be possible for a very, very long time. But for fans accustomed to supporting the local scene, that’s good news. 

“One thing I have been thinking about is the potential for more mainstream type audiences (or even audiences who are usually at Danforth [Music Hall] type shows) to start supporting more independent acts, once shows do start running again,” says Fogel. “Because whenever that is, they will be small. That will be an opportunity for emerging and independent artists to get a lot of well-deserved appreciation.” 

For Simone Schmidt, the Toronto singer/songwriter behind Fiver, this could be an opportunity for long-needed changes to finally happen. 

“I really hope to see a full restructuring of how we’re relating to each other,” they told NOW at the beginning of April. “For a long time touring has been unsustainable for artists – not just in terms of our mental health, but in terms of the environment, the sheer amount of fossil fuels that are burned to cart around these small businesses that we call bands. Those things have to change anyway.”

@trapunski