This weekend, music fans will flock to Fort York for the first Toronto Urban Roots Fest, a four-day affair that sees the appearances of Flogging Molly, Hold Steady, Lowest of the Low and more (Saturday) and Kurt Vile, Neko Case, Belle & Sebastian and more (Sunday). The festival also includes off-site club gigs at Lee’s Palace and the Horseshoe Tavern. The event is the brainchild of Jeff Cohen, the owner of those two clubs and a prominent local concert promoter. He spoke to the Globe and Mail on how it all came together and how the festival is a part of an erupting Toronto live music scene that already thrives.
From what I understand, Music Canada approached Michael Chan, The Ontario Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, to discuss tax credits for the recording industry, to lure artists to record in Toronto. But there’s a bigger picture, so you were invited to represent the live music side for these talks. What did you tell the minister?
He was hearing a lot of doom and gloom about the recording industry. But I told him that live music was really happening in the city of Toronto. I told him that there were more agencies than ever before. I told him that there were more clubs than ever before and that there was a void in the outdoor summer season, but that the scene was starting to happen. The government was intrigued by all of this and kept asking me to attend the meetings.
Many of your ideas were represented in a trade paper that applied the practices of Austin, Texas, to Toronto. Where does this weekend’s Toronto Urban Roots Festival, which is your baby, fit in to all this?
If I was to keep going to these meetings and keep saying that Toronto was the third largest live music market in North America and that there was a lack of outdoor shows in the summertime and a lack of multi-day festivals, at some point I was going to have to look in the mirror and ask myself what I was doing about it. So, I’m doing something about it.
It’s not just you. This is the busiest summer music calendar here that I can remember.
There’s something going on. Toronto has found its expression of live summer music like never before. Echo Beach has 20 shows this year, almost double from last year. Fort York did three or four shows last year. This year, it’s like 10. And new summer festivals? There’s Field Trip, TURF and the CBC festival. TURF will be the first multi-day festival there. We’ll be the guinea pig.
Do you have an explanation for this eruption?
I think the trade report had something to do with it. I also think there’s a big change in city government. In my opinion, three city councillors, Josh Colle, Gary Crawford and Mike Layton, have turned the tide. There used to be a thing where someone would want to do a show in High Park and the councillors and the residents’ association would just pummel it before it got to be. I think that’s one of the reasons Mariposa left Toronto in the 1990s. I was on the board of the festival then. The interaction with the city was horrific. They didn’t want us here. Now you talk to some of the councillors, and you find out they’re fans of live music.
And fans of the economic activity the festivals can generate, right?
Councillor Layton is the councillor who oversees Fort York. He’s decided, that even though the residents’ association might complain about some concerts there, that there’s a greater benefit of developing another concert site in downtown Toronto. It isn’t just about arts and culture. There’s an economic reason for it. The rent goes directly to the city, to support Fort York.
The goal is to sell Toronto as a “music city,” to draw in tourists and other aspects of the music industry. How long a process is this and where does an annual TURF fit in?
I think by 2015, we will be able to boast a festival or major outdoor show on every weekend of the summer. When the government sees it happening, they’ll help us organize a little more and talk a little more within the industry. We’ll start getting logos and slogans and we’ll start promoting Toronto to the rest of North America as the place to come to for live music. And TURF is just a part of that evolution.