The voices of Toronto’s DIY music scene carried discordantly throughout 2014
By Tom Beedham
As much as they’re romanticized, do-it-yourself music scenes don’t exist in vacuums. They endure as subtle negotiations of bylaws and thrive on legal ambiguities, avoiding mainstream attention where they can in favour of nurturing communities that are constructive and invested. They are subversive by nature, but there is still a degree to which they have to acknowledge the influence of the dominant cultures they operate within. In 2014, that meant Toronto’s DIY scene navigating a municipal government freshly keen on bagging tourism with the same local talent that stimulate its resilient underground and setting up new bricks and mortar facilities to incubate artists that might otherwise struggle to consistently workshop their materials in bars and other conventional music venues. It spent the year navigating and disorienting the systems and conventions encompassing it to better suit its own needs, its voices carrying far beyond its immediate spheres to engage, push back against, and simply coexist with the socio-political conditions that variably activate, utilize, and neglect them.
A major catalyst for the scene’s stridently responsive year was the Austin-Toronto Music City Alliance, a product of a visit Rob Ford and a group of city councillors paid Austin, Texas in 2013. Heralded as a platform for exposing local bands to international audiences and an opportunity to farm the local music scene for tourism, its champions have pointed to South by Southwest (SXSW) and Austin City Limits as successful festival/conference models Toronto should be striving towards emulating.
Toronto already has two weeklong festival/conference hybrids – North by Northeast (NXNE) and Canadian Music Week (CMW) – but the success of neither has equaled that of Austin’s events. Both offered insight into how the new branding scheme might affect the city’s self-reliant music community. Each included the DIY music community in their 2014 programming – in conjunction with M for Montreal, NXNE partnered with 159 Manning and Tim McCready to make the homegrown gig space’s annual BYOB bands and BBQ party a destination for the festival crowd, additionally hosting a “DIY Label and Art Fair” that welcomed the local community to hawk music, prints, photography, and other related merchandise at Edward Day Gallery; CMW let DIANA curate two nights of local performances around evening-specific artistic themes at the Drake; and hordes of local musicians continued to feature on tap for both – but both festivals evinced critical failures to collaborate with the local community in respectful, supportive ways. A CMW production manager rushed bands on and off stage during DIANA’s Drake residency even though all of the performers were peers, and in response to CMW’s delay to May (it used to take place in March), NXNE extended its previously lax two-week radius clause to a blanket stipulation forbidding all artists from performing in Toronto within 45 days of the festival.
That included local act Birds of Bellwoods, which was scheduled to play NXNE but then struck from the program when the festival learned they played a charity gig in support of the city’s homeless community 38 days prior.
“It’s basically a turf war between them and CMW,” Jonathan Bunce (Jonny Dovercourt), co-founder and artistic director of Wavelength music series – offered Chart Attack about NXNE’s radius clause. “And I guess the perception is that smaller bands playing smaller shows in smaller venues are the innocent bystanders who are getting shot in this turf war between these two big gangs.”
The DIY community responded to by throwing together a series of unrelated showcases over the course of NXNE. Soybomb hosted a Pleasence Records/Telephone Explosion-booked gig featuring performances from Teenanger, Das Rad, Petra Glynt, Toronto Homicide Squad, Wrong Hole, and Cleveland’s Pleasure Leftists. Long Winter’s summer spinoff Construction brought Wild Highways, Zoo Owl, and London’s Zebra Kid to Double Double Land. No Visible Means, Weird Canada, and artists Julia Dickens and Halloway Jones supplanted concertgoers to the island for Unaffiliated 01 and performances from Zacht Automaat, Man Made Hill, and Halifax’s Old and Weird. Stuck in the City co-opted the Horseshoe to present Tampa’s Merchandise alongside New York’s Ukiah Drag, S.H.I.T., and Hamilton’s Black Baron. Dusted and Baby Eagle played free gigs at Sonic Boom. METZ even played a “secret” show with Holy Fuck at Smiling Buddha after making good on its NXNE obligations.
Meanwhile, Weird Canada circulated a petition soliciting over 3000 supporters in favour of abolishing the clause for local artists, and in a press release issued three days into the music phase of the festival, NXNE acknowledged the misguidance of its clause and pledged to cooperate with CMW moving forward.
“We are so fortunate to have such an engaged and vocal music community,” NXNE director and NOW editor-in-chief Michael Hollett was quoted. “Unintended consequences of our policy were pointed out. We are making changes that address these issues – changes that don’t hurt up-and-coming bands, and yet still protect the integrity of NXNE’s lineup.”
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Other undertakings served as more symbolic subversions of the specific kind of “musically diverse” utopia the municipality has conveniently opted to align itself with. While city hall continued promoting its music city vision, it ignored the emerging and fringe artists that appear unproductive in the context of capitalist tourism schemas like the Austin alliance.
Toronto gained four DIY spaces facilitating regular concerts over the course of 2014 – all of them invested in elevating the presence of art that is often overlooked by permanent, profit-accumulating venues.
While it is worth mentioning that Hard Luck, Magpie Taproom, Smiling Buddha and other bars in the city have proven reliable portals for Toronto’s emerging hardcore, punk, and noise acts, they are also business spaces, and their booking strategies often favour offering diverse event programming that can attract different communities throughout the week, which does limit the availability of event spaces, even if they are receptive to a given genre. So when local punks S.H.I.T. opened S.H.I.B.G.B’s on Geary Avenue in April, that local scene gained an important stronghold.
Geary Lane – another DIY venue that opened on Geary Avenue – emerged in July as a concert space emphasizing avant-garde and experimental music programming, often incorporating impressive visual displays. Together with S.H.I.B.G.B’s, it contributed to the avenue’s ongoing transition from industrial strip to bustling artistic centre. Ratio and 8-11 (although the latter is primarily the home base for a visual art collective) also materialized as new underground hubs for experimental music.
While all of these spaces daylight as homes, practice spaces, and art galleries, and few offer weekly concert programming, begetting break-even gigs and limited patronage, they are investments nonetheless: not only do they generate tight-knit communities that cross-pollinate with other like circles, they inspire values that translate to actions that permeate throughout culture.
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It is difficult enough to stimulate a fringe music scene, but that didn’t prevent underground musicians and artists from reaching out to embolden the mainstream as well.
As women came forward at the end of October to allege the sexual abuses suffered at the hands of Jian Ghomeshi, members of the DIY community including Amy Lam (Life of a Craphead) and Simone Schmidt (Fiver, The Highest Order, One Hundred Dollars) drafted and circulated a “Gesture Of Love And Support” petition.
Schmidt explained to The Huffington Post that the petition wasn’t “meant to appeal to someone in power to see it and make changes," but a project concerned with disrupting the culture of victim shaming and survivor silencing that only serves to further marginalize the already oppressed.
“Instead, this is a petition that is meant to create a stronger sense of community for the women and anyone who supports them who has felt powerlessness over the past few days.”
By the evening of its first day online, it had amassed 1,884 signatures, among them early signatures from Owen Pallett, Fucked Up, Jennifer Castle, Geoff Berner, and members of Austra, Constantines, Ketamines, and New Fries. Margaret Atwood was the 5859th signatory.
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What moments like the love and support petition, the abolition of NXNE’s draconian radius clause, and the establishment of some of the city’s new DIY concert spaces add up to is a local DIY scene that dedicated itself to communication in 2014. All readable as instances of DIY achievements, they illustrate that when these communities champion a connectivity that is not simply an inward-looking kind of self-policing concerned solely with nurturing their niche factions, but instead with understanding, engaging, and advancing the spheres they operate within, they can be successful in activating a wider culture of collaboration and mutual support. DIY scenes don’t exist in vacuums, and in 2014 we learned that the culture Toronto’s participates in doesn’t necessarily get to call the shots, either.