Following the closure of several live music clubs in Toronto, a debate is gathering steam about whether this is a trend or a streak of bad luck. It's the former with dozens if not hundreds of cities in Europe, the UK and across Canada falling victim to rising rents that are pushing owner-operated businesses out of the city cores.
In a twist on the theme, Matador Ballroom owner Paul McCaughey has sunk a pile into the vintage venue and finds himself in quicksand fighting the red tape at city hall with simple servants tied to a stack of regulations and departmental challenges that are wasting his time, money and patience.
This 100-year-old club has a colourful history, and once offered late-night solace to the likes of Leonard Cohen, Stompin' Tom Connors, and Blue Rodeo back in the salad days when the city's liquor laws were more stringent and the range of late night bars fewer.
The Matador has been closed for a decade, but McCaughey (who purchased the building in 2010) has been toiling hard to reopen it as an event space and music venue. He won a hard-fought battle to receive a liquor license in 2016, but ongoing bureaucratic red tape and local opposition have kept its doors closed.
McCaughey has taken the matter public, via an open letter he sent to John Tory this month. It begins "The Matador Ballroom greets your press release on the venue crisis in Toronto with great relief, and we find it hopeful that you are reaching out to venue owners for their input. No one knows the issues like we do at the Matador Ballroom, having spent seven years overcoming hurdle after hurdle in our efforts to reopen this iconic live music venue. In spite of egregious red tape and obstructive behavior from many quarters, we are still here working towards solutions."
The letter continues, "Your acknowledgement of this crisis is the first step. We hope other venues never have to suffer the kind of roadblocks the Matador Ballroom has encountered. If the City of Toronto is serious about attracting cultural investment, then the fate of the Matador as a beloved venue will certainly make a statement heard by investors and music enthusiasts all over the country. It is our opinion that it will take no less than a shift in civic culture to save music venues in this City and we need your leadership to do that! We hope that you will welcome this feedback in the spirit of Music City."
McCaughey's story has been picked up by local media, including The Toronto Star, and on Feb. 13 he presented a submission to a meeting of the Toronto Music Industry Advisory Council (TMAC), a group established by Toronto City Council in 2014.
McCaughey tells FYI that “we submitted a 13-page brief on the Preservation and Development of Music Venues in Toronto, using the Matador Ballroom as a Case Study. I had five minutes to speak, and the questions from the Advisory Council were on point and good.“
Mike Tanner, City of Toronto's Music City Development Officer, recently stated that “we take the matter of the Matador Ballroom’s future seriously," but the fact that further discussion on or action upon the issue by City Hall has reportedly been deferred until June does not please McCaughey.
“Our project cannot wait until June. My concerns have to do with a tendency for adversity to divide, slow and stop projects and that with respect to music venues there needs to be a New Consensus from Inspectors, Councillors through Examiners that endorses Music Venues, treating Music City as an asset on par with TIFF (the Toronto International Film Festival).
"When we do that, then the attitude of a Producer or Project Manager who does not take "no" for an answer will have the currency to solve these bureaucratic and political bottlenecks that plague many venues. Much work to do. A change of attitude and cultural shift is in order!”
This needs to happen quickly for the Matador to survive. McCaughey told The Star that "The Matador will be the next headline [re club closures] if we do not get serious movement within the next two months... Otherwise I will sell it to a condo developer and they will have a Shoppers Drug Mart in the bottom of it, OK?”
The Matador is now being viewed as a very real challenge for TMAC, Mike Tanner, and the whole much-hyped notion of Toronto as a "Music City." Stay tuned.