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The return of the indie-rock Field Trip festival was announced this week for July. But the lifeblood music clubs are in tough straits, and the Toronto scene at the grassroots level isn’t so pretty, Brad Wheeler writes.Morgan Hotston/Handout

Six years ago the City of Toronto, possibly taking time out from organizing a fantasy Stanley Cup victory parade, officially approved a plan to turn Toronto into a “Music City.” Good times, remember? So many pipes, so many dreams.

Fast forward to 2022: The city’s live music scene has been battered by two years of lockdowns. Another plague, involving skyrocketing property values and rent prices, is crippling music venues and making rehearsal space for city musicians harder and harder to find.

Yes, the renovated Massey Hall is wonderful and open once again. And, yes, the new Live Nation venue, History, is a gleaming mid-size jewel. The city’s festival scene, which once boasted a major event every summer weekend, is showing signs of revival – the return of the indie-rock Field Trip affair was announced this week for July. But the lifeblood music clubs are in tough straits, and the scene at the grassroots level isn’t so pretty.

Music City is still open for business, but who can afford the fare?

At first glance, two recent developments give cause for optimism. Two weeks ago, the currently venue-less Hugh’s Room Live announced it had found a new place it hopes to call home. Thanks to a loan guarantee by the city, the long-running folk club can borrow up to $2.2-million toward the planned purchase of an old church in the city’s east end.

Hugh's Room Live is hoping to purchase this former church in the city’s east end, at 296 Broadview Ave.Chris Churchill/Handout

Last week, Toronto City Councillor Joe Cressy announced plans to turn an empty city-owned building on Queen Street West into a music venue and rehearsal space, with a focus on Black, Indigenous and racialized artists. If the proposal is approved, the space will be operated by It’s OK*, a non-profit DIY live music presenter.

Though it all sounds swell, there are flies in the buttermilk. Even with the loan guarantee in its back pocket, the non-profit Hugh’s Room Live needs to raise another $2-million by the end of June to complete the purchase of the building. As for the west end DIY venue, the lease is for two years only. Long-term plans call for the plot of land upon which the building sits to be used for a public park and affordable housing.

Moreover, the building of a proposed new downtown subway line will likely cause a lengthy closing of a large stretch of a Queen Street strip that is rich with music venues including the Horseshoe Tavern, Cameron House and Rex Hotel Jazz and Blues Bar. Dandy – a Music City that tears apart its own main street.

In 2020, the Canadian Live Music Association released an extensive study it had commissioned. Titled Re: Venues: A Case and Path Forward for Toronto’s Live Music, the report detailed the status of the industry, spoke for the economic value of a thriving music scene and recommended mechanisms for encouraging and protecting venues. Something was missing, though, according to one highly interested stakeholder.

“Where are the dollars?” asks Brian Iler, board chair of Hugh’s Room Live. “To make things really happen in this city, there has to be a commitment from all three levels of government. For venues like Hugh’s Room, it’s very tough to survive, and nothing much has changed in terms of funding.”

A bit of background: Hugh’s Room opened in the city’s Roncesvalles neighbourhood in 2001, operating as a beloved supper club and listening room that hosted the likes of Loudon Wainwright III, Maria Muldaur, Odetta, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins and Richie Havens over the years. Losing money, the venue reorganized in 2017 as the non-profit organization Hugh’s Room Live. Three years later, Hugh’s left its long-time home because they could no longer afford the lease.

Since then, Iler and Hugh’s have looked for space to purchase, not to rent. They think they’ve found it in the church at Broadview Avenue and Gerrard Street East, but money issues are a concern.

Laura Fernandez plays the piano inside the old church that Hugh's Room Live hopes to purchase.Mary Stewart/Handout

One sticking point is the matter of property taxes. While the city has reduced them for music venue owners and operators by 50 per cent, Hugh’s won’t be eligible for the discount until it has occupied the new building for one year.

Another hurdle is a down payment required in a city where real estate prices jump by Superman leaps and bounds. While Iler hopes to tap into the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund, a federal program that supports cultural infrastructure, he’s not optimistic. “They’ve warned us we shouldn’t count on it.”

Describing the task of raising $2-million as “daunting,” Iler is frustrated with what he sees as a lack of co-operation in the attempt by Hugh’s and other organizations to transition from renters to land holders.

“Every arts organization that is trying to survive and trying to do something innovative or new or just own their own property is struggling,” he says. “There needs to be a recognition that the current real estate market is hostile to initiatives like Hugh’s Room, and there needs to be significant government support to assist in getting us off the rental market treadmill.”

Earlier this month, a recently retired Toronto carpenter was in the news. Andrew Smith, a devotee of live music, has dedicated himself to making miniature models of shuttered city music venues. He calls his series, which includes the old Hugh’s Room and other now silent venues, Toronto, Lost Music City. He may be at it for a while.

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