I've often marveled when talking about artists from Toronto at how interwoven and robust the scene there must be that everyone seems to makes guest appearances on everyone else's records. Neil's email is an inside look at exactly how vibrant the Toronto independent music scene really is.
It got me really excited.
I've been meaning to write you for a while but only found some time today. I'm at work and everybody else is in meetings so I'm stealing time to do what I want. I'm a musician living in Toronto, trying to balance a full-time job with an obsession with music. This is pretty common practice for me and a lot of folks I know. We all spend 40 hours a week doing jobs that we don't care too much about, dreaming of the whistle at the end of the day when we can go home and create. Nobody I know considers working a day job to be a hold-over before we get rich and famous (as I'm sure a lot of musicians do); most of us have come to terms with the fact that this is the way its going to be for the rest of our lives. And I think, for the most part, we're all okay with that.
I would never assume that we were the only ones who felt this way but I can say that I feel Toronto has a pretty unique thing going on. Let me give you a little background on what it's like to play music here...
This city has experienced a cultural renaissance over the last few years and, even though I only moved here in 1999 and am by no means an authority, it's generally agreed that Toronto's music scene has never been as healthy as it is now. I'm not talking about Nu-Metal bands playing for a line of teenagers at the Reverb. I'm not talking about shined-up rockers who brag about the A&R reps that were at their Friday night showcase at the Horseshoe. I'm not talking about buzz bands that swing through town for a one-off at the Phoenix. I'm talking about the real homegrown community that exists here, that peculates below the surface, sustained entirely by the people who create, contribute to and take part in it.
My introduction to this world came thanks to the Wavelength music series. As a freshly minted Torontonian, the weekly series gave me a window into what was really going on in the city. You could always count on unique and interesting bands on Sunday nights and, as time wore on, I could see what it was doing to help plant the seeds for a vibrant climate for independent music in Toronto. Partly inspired by Jonny Dovercourt and the other folks who helped kick off Wavelength, it seemed that every forward-thinking guitar player or show-goer started to try their hand at putting on shows, putting out records and generally throwing their two cents in the pile. It's continued exponentially since then and now there's almost too much to see or do in the city every week.
Labels like Blocks Recording Club and Fig Records have made it possible to work with like-minded people that live where you live, venues like Sneaky Dee's, the Boat and the Tranzac have opened their doors to the weird and wonderful underbelly, promoters/booking agents like Eric Warner, Keith Hamilton and Steve Himmelfarb have ensured that good bills are happening all the time and new series like the All Caps all-ages shows (booked by Ryan McLaren) and the Poor Pilgrim experimental weekly (booked by Matt Cully) have provided a consistent supply of amazing live music. Surrounding cities like Hamilton and Brantford have come on board too, building strong communities of their own and providing more outlets for people just like us to play.
The masses don't know about this stuff and the weekly papers only just scratch the surface of it but the people who are surrounded by it rarely think of anything else... and I think you'd be surprised how many of us there are. Shows by local bands are constantly sold-out, hand-crafted CDs are flying off the shelves at Soundscapes and Rotate This and people who just live down the street are responsible for the most important pieces in our record collections. Records by Glissandro 70, the Constantines, Rockets Red Glare, Les Mouches and many more are far more important to us then what would normally be considered a "classic" record.
Aspirations for the big-time just don't come into play. Truthfully, the real big-time seems pretty ugly to most of us. In Toronto, we aspire to impress our peers. We set up shows with our favourite local bands and try to out-do one another. Most of the people who show up in the audience are other musicians and the mutual enthusiasm for each other's work is what keeps us coming back. If we do look outside of Toronto, we look to similar communities and people around the world (something like this exists, to varying visibility, in ever city) to latch onto what we're doing and visa versa.
There's been a lot of international attention put on people like Feist, Broken Social Scene, and Final Fantasy lately but I don't think that would have happened if those people didn't get their hands dirty in this community first. Sure, a couple favourable write-ups in Eye can give way to some coverage on CBC, which can give way to a Pitchfork review (and from there, world adoration), but all of those musicians would tell you that it was the local support that truly launched them. And that's why you still see Kevin Drew or Leslie Feist or Owen Pallett at the Boat on a Friday night or watching some new band at Sneaky Dee's on a Wednesday. They know the terrain and, I think, they're just as eager to boost up Toronto as anybody still operating within it. And the cycle will continue... when the world starts talking about Jon-Rae and the River, Oh Bijou, Great Lake Swimmers or any number of local bands poised to take things to that next level, those bands aren't going to forget where they came from. In fact, they're gonna try their hardest to bring their friend's bands along for the ride.
It's this support system and overall good vibration in the city that makes it easier to play music without making tons of money. Nobody really makes any significant dollars around here, a lot of people lose some with every show, but the reaction that we receive from the crowds or the encouragement we get when somebody says "Hey, I want to help you put out a record" is more than enough.
I guess I just wanted to give you a glimpse of what's going on here, if for nothing else than the fact that it's a pretty remarkable model of where I think things could go in the music "industry". We buy locally, we go out and support our friends, we don't wait for somebody else to put things together for us, we just try it out for ourselves...
Without that, I'm sure we'd all be left wondering why we spend 40 hours at our jobs and another 40 at home recording or practicing every week. With it though, there's really no other way to live. I could work a shitty job for the rest of my life, just as long as I got to play for friends and peers in the city every few weeks.
I don't doubt that this phenomenon is happening in cities all over the world - an alternate music industry that never wanted much to do with the old model. The more that this localization and collaboration spreads, the less relevant big time marketing and publicity stunts seem to matter. I could avoid ever listening to a mainstream pop act again if I wanted to and I couldn't be more thrilled about that. I'm interested in seeing what this community and other like-minded people in suburbs and cities elsewhere have to offer and I spend my time scouring the Internet for the chance. I haven't been into an HMV in 4 or 5 years and I haven't paid $50 for a ticket to a show or a t-shirt since I was 15. It's going to stay that way and I know that there are a lot of people who have made a similar vow.
Anybody that thinks they need marketing dollars and radio plays to feel successful is missing the point entirely. To really feel like you made it, all you need is some supportive people around you and a local community that cherishes its own.
Neil Haverty (of Bruce Peninsula, www.bruce-peninsula.com)
PS - if I've piqued your interest about Toronto, check out these links...
Wavelength Toronto - http://www.wavelengthtoronto.com - weekly music series still going strong
Stillepost.ca - http://www.stillepost.ca - local message board, responsible for a lot of community bonding/bickering
Poor Pilgrim - http://www.myspace.com/poorpilgrim - local avant-garde music series
All Caps - http://www.allcaps.ca - all-ages show promoter Ryan McLaren
Aperture Enzyme - http://www.apertureenzyme.com - local photo galleries
Over the Top - http://www.overthetopfest.com - Eric Warner's annual music festival
Fig Records - http://www.figrecords.com - new label with lots of local releases coming up
Blocks Recording Club - http://www.blocksblocksblocks.com - well-known Toronto-loving label
The Ford Plant - http://www.thefp.ca - amazing all-ages venue in Brantford, ON
Oh Bijou - http://www.ohbijou.ca
Great Lake Swimmers - http://www.greatlakeswimmers.com
Jon-Rae and the River - http://www.theriversings.com
When I lived in Providence I witnessed something like this almost happen. For whatever reason, the critical mass required to sustain a self-supporting scene never quite materialized when I was around. But I'm liking what I saw when I went back the other week. Band Stand Live (not actually in Providence, but close enough) provides an impressive performance venue in addition to rehearsal space, and could really be the Petri Dish that finally brings the scene to life. And AS220, a non-profit community arts center located right downtown that was in danger of closing its doors when I left town seems to really be surging.
The guys in The Beagle Club get a glimmer in their eye when they talk about vocalyouth.org, which has, in various incarnations, been an online home for the Johnstown, PA scene since before every scene had a message board. Incidentally, these lyrics from Endless Mike and The Beagle Club's "Nobody Listens to the Last Song on a Compilation" ran through my head as I read Neil's letter:
I'm playing a show at home tonight
I'm friends with all the bands
The PA's too quiet to hear the words
But we all understand
We sing about what we came here for
And why we'll come here again
So pick the perfect song to end your set with...
Not everyone is doing it as well as Toronto yet, but you can be sure Neil's right when he suggests that small cities all across North America are experiencing similar musical renaissances. Your future favorite band is playing tonight at the KOC. With three other bands they're friends with. None of them have dollar signs in their eyes, and none of them will ever sign with a major label. You will be able to believe in them always. You will feel compelled to give them $5 for a burned CD. And you will want to tell all your friends.