Location TBD How Toronto's Electronic Music Scene Is All Grown Up with Nowhere to Go
Published Nov 28, 2018As strange as it sounds, Toronto's dance music scene is thriving and struggling at the same time. On one hand, the last few years have seen acts like Jeff Mills, Ben UFO, Objekt, Ben Sims, Hunee, Daniel Avery, Essaie Pas, DJ Stingray and countless others come to the city (all providing a great platform for local acts to get a leg-up as well). On the other hand, you might not have even known they were playing, simply due to the challenges that promoters are currently facing.
In terms of bona fide venues catering to this style of music, Toronto is extremely limited. Bambi's (1265 Dundas St. W.) is solid, but it has a capacity somewhere close to 90 people. Coda (794 Bathurst St.) books a gem now and then, but as promoter Joel Norton aptly puts it, "Do you see them booking a lot of good techno shows these days? Or any OG house acts? No. It's different now." (We should mention that he still sees it a "fine institution.")
So, where is Toronto's electronic music scene? It's actually right where it should be — in warehouses, factories, art spaces and back-alley depots. For anyone who's into the scene, this provides something that's hard to find these days: underground dance music started off in warehouses and getting a chance to relive that in a city like Toronto is rare. For the patrons, it's great, but what they might not realize is the amount of effort, panic and bureaucracy that goes into putting on a DIY show in the city.
It all starts with a Special Occasion Permit (SOP) that is granted by the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario (AGCO), which allows promoters to host one-off events and serve alcohol. Now, while you may have been somewhere along Geary Avenue, or in a disused garage for a party, and thought, "Sweet, I'm at an illegal rave," you probably weren't. Unless the person hosting the party was either brave or stupid, they applied for an SOP. The only problem is, there are three types of SOPs granted by the AGCO and each comes with its own headache.
First, there are Industry Promotional Events SOPs, but they don't really factor into this. Then you have one for Public Events, but they usually require you to get a letter of cultural significance from your local councillor, which is rare and very time-consuming — there is another possible route to take with that SOP though, which we'll get to later. The main one, which most promoters are operating under, are the Private Event SOPs, and while they are easy to get, they include rules so stringent that it causes a lot of promoters to just give up entirely.
We talked to a number of promoters around the city about this issue, and it's tricky, to say the least. "The problem with the Private Event SOP is that you're not allowed to make any profit from the sale of alcohol — it's just so that you can serve it at your event," explains Lukas Switlicki, a member of Toronto collective Forth. "This makes it very difficult, as a promoter, to make any money from a show," Hadi Mousattat (also from Forth) adds. "Your entire existence hinges on the sale of alcohol, which means that sooner or later, you're out of the scene."
As if that weren't tough enough, these Private Event SOPs don't allow you to advertise your event either, which clearly presents another problem in itself: promoters who can't promote. This means that most DIY promoters in Toronto are restricted to text and mailing lists that go out to their friends and followers, which greatly limits the size of their parties and inevitably stunts the potential growth of their audience.
With all this hassle, sucking it up and going through a conventional venue doesn't sound like such a bad idea, but aside from the sparse number of options on hand, there's a lot be lost with that move too. "We've talked about putting on a show at the Velvet Underground [508 Queen St. W.], for example, but that would probably ruin our reputation, in a sense," says Mousattat. "Once you start working in more corporate environments, you'll likely lose a lot of the people who've stuck with you for the longest time."
"When you do a DIY party, the cool thing about it is that it's essentially a blank slate," says Switlicki. "You get to decorate it, sometimes you get to appoint the security guards and the bartenders. When it comes to throwing a party, that mix of all those different aspects produce that safe, good vibe that everyone's looking for. If you go into a nightclub, you don't have any of that control. I have no say in who the security guard is, whether he's going to be a douchebag or not."
Heather Jane, who runs Deep Gold with Kadar Ibrahim, is on exactly the same page. "Clubs have their own vibe, and that's very different from what we're trying to create. You don't really have a say in how the whole night 'feels.' There's just a lot that you might not agree with, and it's completely out of your control. I don't want to compromise, and I don't want to go corporate, which leaves us in the underground DIY scene and all the problems with venues that come along with that."
While "vibe" might be one of the most overused words in music, it's really what sets these events apart from an established nightclub. There is simply a different buzz at these shows and it attracts an entirely different crowd. At the last DIY event I attended, I chatted with a stranger who summed it up perfectly: "You go to a regular club and bump into someone, they'll be like 'what the fuck yo,'" he says. "But here, I stepped on someone's shoe earlier and the guy ended up buying me a drink." That same night two strangers, whom I'd just met, gave me a big smacking kiss on the cheek, whereas the last time I was at a conventional nightclub, I spent half the night in the washroom cleaning some guy's puke off my girlfriend's jacket. Big difference.
Cultivating a certain vibe aside, the almost profitless aspect of running DIY parties in Toronto should be enough to turn any promoter off entirely, but they're still doing it. And the reason why might just be one of the best explanations for doing anything on the planet. "I see this more as a service to the community than anything else," says Jane. "It's a way in which we feel connected. A big part of the reason I do this is because I don't have the opportunity in my life to make 100 people really happy at once, other than this. When you see people leaving, and they're high as shit and they're just smiling and sweaty: It's like you just got to make love to all of those people. They're going out for cigarettes after, and it's like, 'Yeah, I did that. I made you feel that way.' I don't know any other way to do that."
With scarce venues, strict permits, and little-to-no profit, groups like Forth and Deep Gold are struggling to keep Toronto's electronic music scene afloat, but there is another side to this: enter Joel Norton, who runs Apollo Inc., and Fahad Ahmad, of Format. They too have had their fair share of battles with permits for shows in odd venues — they've run parties in a disused art space near Spadina and Queen, in a church, and even in an old ammunitions factory on Sterling Road. What separates them from other promoters in the game (apart from the ridiculously high volume of shows they organize) is the fact that they're the only ones who've managed to secure a space, and keep it legally above board. They've all but ditched their Apollo and Format labels, and are now promoting shows under the venue's name and address, 500 Keele.
Over the last couple of years, a number of groups have put on shows at that address, with great success, but the owner was very close to putting a stop to all that. That's when Norton and Ahmad did what any good entrepreneurs would do in that situation: they straight-up paid for the lease. Now, they're free to host their own shows there, as well as rent it out to other promoters. By day, it's a textile factory (a fact that's obvious when you see barriers separating one half of the place from the slew of machinery that it normally houses), but by night it plays host to one of the last by-the-books vestiges for underground electronic music in Toronto.
The reason for this, and in actuality the only reason we're even mentioning its exact location, is because they've managed to go the alternate route of getting Public Event SOPs, by partnering with a non-profit organization. Again, this is no easy feat, and requires a lot of legwork from Norton and Ahmad, but accomplishing this means that Public Event SOPs are easier to acquire, and, unlike the Private Event ones, they allow you to legally advertise your event and earn money from alcohol sales. By managing to tick all of those AGCO boxes, they've increased their output ten-fold, and are now at the forefront of actually building a legitimate scene in the city.
"This is how the scene grows," says Norton. "It doesn't grow from anything else but literally lobbying other people to come to our city and saying, 'this is where shit happens.' Doing one-off events are not sustainable in any type of business. If you do one event a month or a year or whatever, that's great, and I'm all for it, but it's like a band-aid. If you're trying to build a scene, start a culture, you have to put money into it. I don't go away, I don't travel, this is where all the rest of my money goes."
Granted this is much easier said than done. All the DIY promoters in Toronto have day jobs, and having the capital and time to start operating on a bigger scale is almost impossible. Having said that, Norton and Ahmad are proof that it can be done. They've had about four years of struggle, and are only recently starting to see potential profit on the horizon, but it's still a labour of love. "The amount of stress that goes into any promotion company is always something unnatural," says Ahmad. "When you break it down, you're getting paid less than minimum wage per event. The amount of work that it takes to put one show on is insane. Imagine the amount of work in a series of events."
"You look at these big Toronto guys that go and come back, like Nathan Barato or Carlo Lio — the city gets no benefit from them," says Norton. "They don't come back and make a label or a nightclub or an event series. We don't have many musicians that are actually doing anything for the city. Kenny Glasgow, all those guys, they don't do shit for the city. They're great and all, but these are guys that make money and that's about it. With us, there is an addiction that's beyond making money. We want to build something in Toronto."
It's obvious that Norton has a much more business-minded approach to this whole situation. "Look at Charles Khabouth; he opened up the Guvernment and basically moulded the entire Toronto party scene," says Norton. "That's what we'll have the ability to do now. It's no coincidence that I started my company the minute after Guvernment closed down. As soon as that place was gone, I was like, 'Right. It's open game.' There is a big crowd in this city that like to go out and see this kind of thing, but they don't want to go to clubs. And that's why these kinds of spaces are important."
Currently, there aren't a ton of people dedicated to bringing these acts to the city and the ones we do have are meandering through mounds of red tape at every turn. Norton and Ahmad may be the exception, and while they're secure at 500 Keele for now, who knows what the future will bring. There are places that have attempted to solve this problem, and with positive results. Cities such as Amsterdam, London, and New York have appointed a night mayor to act as a liaison between the government and the nightlife scene — they essentially lobby the benefits of nightlife to a city's overall cultural significance. On the West coast, Vancouver has piloted its arts events license program, allowing smaller promoters to throw events in DIY spaces, without having to jump through a plethora of hoops.
These solutions, however, came from unified organization, where large groups of like-minded people rallied together and talked to their politicians. Toronto, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have that unification, but it's not for lack of trying. "It's Not U It's Me [another Toronto collective] was born out of the desire to collaborate and work together to create something that was sustainable," says Jane. "And what we found was that not a lot of people are interested in creating community here. It would be great to get everybody on the same page, but right now it feels very uncooperative."
"The narrative of, 'we're getting fucked over' is bullshit," says Norton. "It's not that the city isn't doing enough, it's that we're not doing enough. Right now, I'm okay with the way the city does things. It shouldn't be super easy for everyone to go out and do this. But if you want anything to change, you need to be more organized. The reason cities do help out isn't because they decide to, it's because communities formulate and complain as a group. So, yeah, the city can do a lot more, but they can only do as much as we ask them to do, and right now we're asking them to do fuck all."
At the moment, there aren't many in office who can even see the benefit of DIY shows, but they're more important than politicians might realize. A city is nothing without culture and it all has to start somewhere. "It's a big issue, and it's really applicable to any underground music scene in Toronto: punk shows, rock, hip-hop, everything," Mousattat explains. "People need to be able to put on underground shows. We need help, you know? It's not about Forth or electronic music, it's about the music scene as a whole in Toronto. It's a universal thing. The current regulations are really crippling us. We're heading towards becoming a boring city. These DIY spaces are the grassroots of any music scene."
Toronto's electronic music scene definitely has a lot potential — we've started to see a ton of great acts come to town, and the amount of talented locals is staggering — but its trajectory is unknown. To keep it alive, it looks like we'll either need to take a more business approach to the whole affair, like Norton and Ahmad, or somehow band together and explain to city councillors that a softer touch is needed in terms of legislation. Toronto is on the cusp of becoming a musical hub, but in order to grow, something or someone's gotta give.
Forth will be bringing Actress to Toronto on November 30, with support from local producer Egyptrixx.
Oscar Mulero (Dec 7), Kerri Chandler (Dec 8) and DJ Bone (Dec 22) all have upcoming shows at 500 Keele.