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The Bowl at Sobeys Stadium in the heart of the York University campus can hold more than 9,000 people in its concert configuration.Handout

Toronto’s live music scene is looking up in 2024. Up, as in the northern reaches of the city – the bungalow belt above Highway 401. With two new venues that include an underused tennis stadium and a 5,000-seater in a recently opened megacasino, promoters are gambling that Toronto is not only looking up but growing up.

“The volume of business is here,” Jeff Craib said of North America’s third-largest concert market, after New York and Los Angeles. “Toronto is a mature international city, and there should be venue options for not only fans, but for the artists.”

Craib is the co-owner and chief executive officer of the Feldman Agency, a well-established entertainment talent company built and formerly owned by Sam Feldman that represents some of the country’s most illustrious artists, including Avril Lavigne, Shania Twain and Bryan Adams. In partnership with Tennis Canada and York University, Craib and the agency are moving into the concert promotion business with the establishment of the Bowl at Sobeys Stadium, an open-air venue in North York built for serves, volleys and Rafael Nadals.

Located in the heart of the York University campus, the stadium can accommodate up to 9,100 people in its concert configuration. The venue is currently used for events including the annual National Bank Open international tennis tournament in the summer and the York convocation ceremony in the spring. The yet-to-be-announced summer concert season for 2024 will fill in dates with music and comedy in a venue that otherwise often sits dark.

“It’s just sitting here,” Craib said, leading a tour of the venue last month.

To the west, the Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto adjacent to Woodbine Racetrack just played host to Tom Cochrane at its new venue, the Theatre, on New Year’s Eve. “Life is a highway,” the veteran rocker sang, and, for millions of residents of the Greater Toronto Area, those multilane roads are indeed a way of daily life.

“We are easily accessible from the 401 and 427 highways, and we are 10 minutes away from the airport,” said Gavin Whiteley, chief marketing officer of Great Canadian Entertainment, which owns Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto and two dozen other gambling, hospitality and entertainment properties across Canada. “This is an area with a growing demand for entertainment, and there is no other venue in the vicinity.”

The room’s official grand opening takes place on May 3, with a concert by singer Gwen Stefani. Country crooner Blake Shelton performs one night later.

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The Bowl was used this past summer for the National Bank Open international tennis tournament.Peter Power/Handout

Over the years, music fans in the city’s outskirts have been sporadically serviced. Arrow Hall, in Mississauga, was a regular stop for international punk-pop acts and the Vans Warped Tour through the early 2000s. But it has long dropped off the touring map.

Many Torontonians have fond memories of Kingswood Music Theatre, a 15,000-seat amphitheatre located at Canada’s Wonderland in Vaughan, Ont. Opened in 1983, the facility played host to such artists as Don Henley, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Bette Midler, B.B. King, Eric Clapton, the Fugees and, regularly, Kim Mitchell.

“I grew up at Bathurst and Steeles, and I used to go to all the shows at Kingswood,” said independent music manager Jake Gold. “Back then, that was where you went to see summer shows.”

In 1995, however, the newly built downtown Molson Amphitheatre (now Budweiser Stage) began squeezing the suburban bandshell out of business. After 2011, it was shuttered.

The waterfront Budweiser Stage, owned and operated by concert promotion behemoth Live Nation Canada, is still there. If Kingswood and its nearby roller coasters could not compete back then, how will the Feldman Agency make a go of it now with its Bowl in the burbs?

The location may well work in its favour. The venue is as accessible by car (with some 7,700 parking spots) as it is by public transit (Pioneer Village TTC station). Meanwhile, because of traffic congestion, Budweiser Stage can be an ingress-egress hassle.

“Getting downtown these days is not as easy as it used to be,” says Gold, who manages the affairs of the retired Tragically Hip, among other Canadian acts.

Comparing the facilities themselves, Sobeys Stadium offers 20 executive boxes with outdoor seating that Budweiser Stage can’t match. And because the rows of stadium seats at Sobeys are banked steeply, the venue is much more intimate than the sprawling seating arrangement at Budweiser Stage. As well, like the historic built-for-tennis Forest Hills Stadium in New York, which has held culturally significant performances by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan over the years, Sobeys offers completely unobstructed views.

Still, all that won’t matter if the Feldman Agency can’t put quality product in front of fans.

“It’s really all about the acts,” Gold said. “The building has decent infrastructure, and if the Feldman Agency can put enough good talent in there, it’s a great opportunity.”

The Feldman Agency has little experience in promoting concerts. What it has a lot of is talent. Its stable includes crooners (Michael Bublé), pop icons (Nelly Furtado, Sarah McLachlan), opera divas (Measha Brueggergosman-Lee), indie stars (Feist, Bahamas), R&B and hip-hop artists (Alessia Cara, Snotty Nose Rez Kids) and Can-Con legacy rockers (April Wine, Barenaked Ladies, Trooper, Chilliwack). Also, comedians and professional wrestlers.

Clearly the agency has an abundance of talent to draw upon to help fill a 2024 summer season of 15 concerts and a 2025 schedule and beyond that is expected to double in dates annually. Playing his cards close to the vest, Craib said he expects to leverage the agency’s relationship with its artists “only when it makes sense.” He did allow that they’ve had some “pretty good receptivity” in preliminary conversations with their artists.

All told, despite the access to premium talent? “It’s a lot to put together,” he said. “It’s not for the faint of heart.”

Craib would know. He was with the Feldman Agency in 2011 when it booked acts for the Black Creek Music Festival of a dozen pop and classical concerts at the tennis facility then known as Rexall Centre. The event was run by Garth Drabinsky, a showbiz mogul convicted for fraud and forgery in 2009.

The ambitious but poorly organized festival, which booked John Fogerty, Placido Domingo, Diana Krall, the London Symphony Orchestra and other A-list acts, was cancelled after one calamitous season.

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'We are easily accessible from the 401 and 427 highways, and we are 10 minutes away from the airport,' said Gavin Whiteley, chief marketing officer of Great Canadian Entertainment, which owns Great Canadian Casino Resort Toronto, above.Jeremy Chan/Handout

Still, the idea to present music at the stadium wasn’t completely written off. “We sure saw what not to do,” Craib said. “But it also planted the seed in my head, ‘Hey, this could really work.’ ”

At first blush, the recent announcement by the Feldman Agency of its concerts at the stadium would seem to be a shot across the bow of Live Nation, which owns and operates an increasing number of venues in Toronto. According to Craib, however, it’s not a power move against Canada’s dominant promoter: “It’s more about the marketplace and the scarcity of options.”

Indeed, Budweiser Stage can only hold so many acts each season. According to Live Nation, its venue played host to a record 65 shows and some 850,000 fans in 2023.

The reality is, that if an act wants to play Toronto outdoors in the warm months, there are few options outside of Budweiser Stage and festival sites at Downsview Park, Fort York or, further afield, Burl’s Creek Event Grounds in Oro-Medonte, Ont.

And while younger audiences have no issues with festival fields, older fans might be attracted to comfortable environs at Sobeys Stadium. “People in their 50s don’t want to stand in the dirt,” Craib reasoned.

As for competing with Live Nation, Craib and the Feldman Agency will actually be partnering on some concerts with that company and fellow titan promoters AEG Worldwide as well.

Live Nation is also the exclusive concert booking partner with Great Canadian Entertainment for the latter’s six Canadian music rooms that include the Theatre at the Toronto casino and hotel. Together they co-promote shows at suburban venues that attract older audiences who appreciate the easy-minded but excitable pleasures provided by slot machines.

“There’s a demand for live music in these areas, and we’re filling it,” said Great Canadian Entertainment’s Whiteley. “We’ve all experienced downtown congestion, and although we may look far away on the map, for many fans it takes less time to get here.”

It isn’t only the fans who appreciate the accessibility of highway-friendly concert sites. Easy in-and-out logistics are the dream of any tour manager worth his collection of Rand McNallys. Moreover, a gambling-house gig in Toronto instead of a show further north at Casino Rama in Orillia shaves hours off the itinerary.

For Great Canadian Entertainment and the Feldman Agency, the dice are being rolled on the viability of venues on the outskirts. “To us, it just makes sense,” Craib said. “Now we’re going to find out.”

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