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Toronto is often venerated as a “music city." Indeed, beyond Québec—where there are different barriers and logistics around language laws —there is really no other place in Canada that generates momentum quite like this. Some will remember the promise of the “music city” from back in 2016 when city council unanimously approved the Toronto Music Advisory Council’s plan to help the industry flourish. Affordable housing was part of this strategy. We are still waiting.
While “music city” likely still escapes the lips of developers and city councillors, the term is now nothing more than a branding strategy, as the skeptic in our hearts promised it would be. For many artists, “music” and “Toronto” are oxymorons nowadays because of the government’s consistent inability to secure affordable housing for its vulnerable populations (many musicians fall into this category) and the short-term vision of suits who force essential music businesses to close or relocate at a loss. The final nail in the coffin was the COVID-19 pandemic as the city neglected Toronto’s music infrastructure, leaving music venues and rehearsal spaces begging for support.
Local film No Tickets At The Door documents how gentrification and COVID-19 hurt the local music community. One of the most notable losses during the pandemic was the closure of the Rehearsal Factory in Toronto. Active since 1989, the business rented out rooms with equipment to bands for practice. Musicians will remember the alarming news that Rehearsal Factory owner Chris Skinner was selling the well-used 330 Geary location to the mega-church C3. The transaction closed at $13.5 million, although many—including residents of the area and some city councillors—opposed the cult church’s presence in the neighbourhood.
Skinner claimed that he was forced to sell after his business suffered staggering losses due to COVID-19. Currently, 330 Geary houses Main Stage Rehearsal Studios which took over for the Rehearsal Factory, but it is unclear what its relationship with C3 is. Reports surfaced around the time of the sale that Skinner was working on a lease agreement to allow his studio to operate for about another three to five years.
Main Stage did not directly respond to emails asking whether the business pays rent to C3. When asked by a regular musician there if the business pays rent to C3 the owner said they do. This means that musicians facing a shortage of rehearsal space are helping fund a controversial church’s future property development plans rather than any self-sustaining infrastructure that would benefit them.
Musicians in Toronto—when not in concert—occupy a spectral (ghost-like) position within the for-profit infrastructure that plagues the city. At times, this position helps nurture community micro-environments for self-expression. The DIY venue SoyBomb HQ was one of those spaces, offering a safe haven to skaters, musicians, and artists for years before it closed in late 2016. Many speculated that the reason behind this closure was because of coordinated attacks from right-wing groups (linked to 4Chan).
The financial and creative costs for Toronto-based bands are often not visible to external communities. Aside from needing constant output of songs, music videos and performances, musicians have to buy and diligently maintain their instruments and accessories, as well as pay $25 to $40 per hour for rehearsal spaces (the average rental per month can be between $500 and $1,000.) Money from gigs — which is not benchmarked to the size of the band — usually goes into a collective fund. Some bands use this money for transportation, when they are developing merch, recording or pressing a record. Because the price associated with these things is already high, most bands have to supplement the cost out of pocket.
Touring is a whole other ballgame which Exclaim! has deemed currently unfeasible for many Canadian musicians. Having a contract with a record label also doesn’t necessarily make things cheaper. Although artists do get support and networking opportunities, being signed means essentially being in debt to their record label.
Mourning the Venues
The spectral (ghost-like) subject position also renders artists invisible when it comes to advocating for space since pleads are rarely acknowledged. I am struggling to think of instances where the music community won a fight with developers. Sneaky Dee’s fate still remains uncertain, as it is unclear whether the unnamed developers looking to tear it down will be re-submitting their application.
Others claim that the new Silver Dollar is a success story, but it really isn’t. The Silver Dollar was a beloved dingy beacon for the local music community with an amazing and rich history. The venue was recognized as a heritage building, but that did little to protect it from Fitzrovia Real Estate. The Silver Dollar was rebuilt as an exact replica but remains destroyed for many who do not fit in with the “boutique rental community” that now lives above it. In retrospect, The Silver Dollar’s designation as a heritage building made the wound cut deeper. It signalled that nothing is sacred in this city. While this loss was already mourned, the dismantling of essential music businesses continues today.
In October 2022, Candle Recording Studio was forced out of its space at Sterling Lofts where the business has been for over 10 years. Three musicians and sound engineers (Josh Korody, Ewan Kay and Dylan Frankland) run the mid-level recording business. The studio presents flexible pricing models to suit different tiers of musicians—from recording Dilly Dally’s debut album on a shoestring budget to hosting bands like Tokyo Police Club who could afford a whole month at the space.
A pleasant recording retreat for local and out-of-town musicians, Korody reminisces about the early days of the business. “We were able to keep the cost of building the studio low because we got tons of help from the music community and because the rent was pretty low when we first moved in,” he says. “It really helped us establish an affordable space for small and mid-level musicians.”
This sanctuary was relatively short-lived as The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) disrupted what Candle Recording and other creative businesses in the area had built. A marker of impending gentrification, MOCA finalized the push out of the nurturing spectral position and into the public spotlight. Korody remembers the atmosphere of 2018 well.
“When MOCA came to our neighbourhood, many people were really happy but for us it spelled trouble. It completely changed the whole area which is unfortunate, because this was one of the only West end spaces left where you could run this kind of creative business.”
Surely enough, MOCA’s presence rendered the area hyper-visible to a new kind of public. Around 2018, Firm Capital (the company that owns Sterling Lofts) stopped its annual rent increases and some commercial tenants were left in a state of precarity by paying month-to-month rent with no lease. Four years later, Firm Capital presented an ultimatum to Candle Recording: accept a doubling of operational costs or vacate.
“They didn’t ask us for a normal increase. They demanded a 40 per cent rent increase and asked for higher insurance coverage which is an extra $300 in insurance alone. They justified their asks as being the current market value but they clearly didn’t want us to stay either,” says Korody, who attempted to negotiate to no avail. It is disturbing that corporate entities like Firm Capital can get away with this softcore eviction strategy. Musicians are left wondering why there are no policy mechanisms set in place to accommodate and save businesses like Candle Recording, especially when they are essential for the flourishing of an already struggling community.
As it is painfully customary during such proceedings, the developers set up Zoom consultation meetings with residents and businesses in the area. Even though the residents “poured their hearts out”, everyone who has attended consultations like these knows how performative they really are. In these spaces, power is shown in conversation flow through various tactics. Some are more obvious, like muting the chat feature, and others are less so. Korody reported that “[the developers] were very formal and purposefully used language that people who were not in real estate wouldn’t understand.” He went on to describe these Zoom meetings as “deeply depressing” and “punishing.”
“The people on the other side were clueless. They kept disregarding our worries and pushing examples on us of the good things they have done, like building a condo where there is a shared art space or something like that,” says Korody. In these consultation meetings, where public input is carefully controlled and directed, it becomes clear that decisions have already been made and that the aggressors are checking a box.
The good news is that Candle Recording Studio has found a new home in uncharted territory (the East end) but this too came with a cost. The business will no longer be able to welcome established and mentor emerging producers and engineers as the space is shared with a record label.
Keep Us Here
Musicians desperately need government intervention, compassion and greater funding to settle the war that real estate developers have waged on niche creative communities before it is too late. We are nearing the final stages. With these harsh disruptions and our struggle to find success stories about our music spaces, Toronto has become the “condo city,” a much less exciting and disheartening turn of events. The constant displacement erodes our communities. Many move away, looking for more music-friendly cities to live in. We need policies that support community-run venues, services and businesses in order to resuscitate what is being thoughtlessly wasted.
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