Big Tobacco and The Pickers
Big Tobacco and The Pickers

​​​​​​​T.O. Live Music Industry Forum Ready To Kick Some Butts

On Monday afternoon,  the Toronto Music Advisory Council (TMAC) hosted a live music industry forum at Lula Lounge that featured an open discussion about the most pressing issue facing live music venues in Toronto, namely their ongoing sustainability.

The gabfest attracted a sizeable audience, including artists and venue/fest operators Molly Johnson (Kensington Market Jazz Festival), Daniela Nardi (918 Bathurst Centre), Charlotte Cornfield (The Burdock), David Dacks (The Music Gallery), and Spencer Sutherland (Nocturne), working musicians, and city officials.

The forum was moderated by TMAC chairs Jeff Cohen (Collective Concerts) and Jesse Kumagai (Massey and Roy Thomson Hall), with Mike Tanner, the City of Toronto's first Music Sector Development Officer, on hand to handle some queries.

Tanner's position was created over three years ago, and the slow rate of progress at City Hall in dealing with pressing issues around Toronto's live music scene has brought criticism.

In his opening remarks, Cohen addressed this head-on. "You may well say, 'TMAC has been around three and a half years. What has it accomplished?' To be honest, I've been a critic of TMAC. There have been problems, a lot of stops and starts, but Councillor Josh Colle, who was one of the people key to starting the Music Office, became the chair of it again in February, and he's kicking ass. He's come to people like Jesse, Mike and I and others and said 'enough already. I want to start writing legislation.' He has asked us to come back with four to six action items we want to turn into a reality in the next year."

Kumagai explained that "TMAC is an official advisory council to City Council. Whatever TMAC wants to bring forward to the attention of Council and staff, they are obliged to take it seriously. It is an easy way for us to get the interests of the music community on the agenda at City Hall. It is an important distinction. It carries with it a lot of bureaucracy and the process can be a little slower than some of us may be accustomed to in our daily lives."

He added that "from here [this forum] there'll be a sub-committee of TMAC entirely devoted to venue sustainability and protection. There has been a lot of talk in recent months about the health and well-being of venues. We have lost several in the city over the last year or two, for a number of different reasons. There is no question that with things like the rising real estate in the city and other regulatory issues it is becoming harder and harder to open your doors, let alone keep those doors open."

"We will take things we hear today and use that to inform a set of recommendations that the music advisory council will bring forward to the Music Office and City Council, as appropriate. What we hear today will hopefully turn into some positive action."

At the forum, the TMAC representatives did take the opportunity to list some of the initiatives they have championed through the Music Office.

These include the introduction of a live music program at Pearson Airport, improvement in postering enforcement, the establishment of a music directory, more extended-hours for venues, an increase in live music in City spaces, and, for the first time, consultations with the City planning department in its review of the official plan for the downtown core.

A lot of discussion at the forum centred on spiralling property taxes in the midst of Toronto's real estate boom and the damaging effect these have on live music venues, with Mike Tanner citing the recently closed Hard Rock Cafe (now a Shopper's Drug Mart) as an example of this.

Kumagai noted that changes to the tax code to protect live music venues "may be a hard sell. Property tax is a big beast to slay." Cohen sounded more positive, stating "I know at least three City councillors ready to draw up legislation right now for some tax relief for music venues. They want to see the industry as one united force, and to provide data and logical reasons why we should get that break."

One working musician at the forum suggested tax breaks for clubs that host live music and pay the musicians.

Another ongoing issue for live music venues in Toronto (and elsewhere) has been that of parking, with musicians often getting ticketed while loading in and out of a clubs. Cohen is confident this situation will improve. "Last Friday Josh Colle came to me and said 'I want to write legislation for a pilot project for unloading zones. To have four to six venues in a six-month project and if it works out, we can do it for every single venue in Toronto.'"

The neighbouring city of Hamilton seems to be ahead of Toronto in that regard, recently instituting 'musicians welcome' signage in loading areas outside some of its venues.

Noise bylaws are another irritant to venue and festival operators. Councillor Mary-Margaret McMahon of the Beaches riding noted wryly that wealthy constituents would call her from their Muskoka cottages to complain about the noise at the Beaches Jazz Festival in Woodbine Park. 

Kumagai explained that "there have been a number of public consultations with it [the noise issue]. There are always lineups with members of residents associations who are very well-organised, then our community sends one or two or people. We just don't show up. That is on us." One such vigilant resident's association is believed to have created significant problems in the long-delayed attempt to re-open the famed Matador club.

Another issue aired at the forum was the importance of completing a definitive study of the economic impact the live music sector has on Toronto. Hopes are that such figures can be obtained within a year, and then used as ammunition at City Council.

Kumagai observed that "the public perception of the music community is that it's a pain in the ass. We need to tell the good side, especially the economic impact." 

The ability of the city's film and television sector to seemingly always get their way at City Hall has created envy within the music community, one that arguably makes a much more significant economic and cultural contribution. "The film industry has been organised at City Hall for 30 years," says Kumagai. "We have only been there three years, but we have the ingredients to make real progress."

Given that the next municipal election is less than a year away, the time for the music community to be louder and more organised in its advocacy is now.

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