An In-Depth Look Into Toronto’s Music Venue Crisis: Part 1

By: Ryan Ayukawa

Hugh’s Room Photo: Tara Walton / Toronto Star

All Other Photos: Tiffany Shum

The world lost several of its most iconic musicians in 2016 (Prince, Bowie, Cohen). For Toronto, 2017 has started off as the year of lost music venues (The Hoxton, Soybomb HQ, Holy Oak, The Central, Harlem). Closures of two of the most high profile ones, The Silver Dollar and Hugh’s Room, made media headlines.

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Diemonds @ The Hideout -Jagermeister Canada 56 Parts Mural Launch, 2015 (Tiffany Shum)

The closure of The Hideout on Queen St. in the fall of last year was a major loss to the Indie Week festival.  Not My Dog also closing in the fall affected numerous emerging artists.

Increased property taxes, low ticket sales, lower audience attendance, city bylaw restrictions (specifically noise bylaw) have all been factors in forcing venues to close or at least re-think operations.

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Phife Dawg @ Tattoo Rock  Parlour-Big Ticket, 2015 (Tiffany Shum)

Hugh’s Room closed its doors on January 6. A series of financial troubles for the venue and owner Richard Carson forced a temporary closure of the venue resulting in cancelled shows, lost artist and staff income, and difficulties in refunds of pre-sold ticket sales.

As other venues announced impending closures, Mayor John Tory issued a statement in February supporting Toronto music venues saying the city plans to work with the music industry to help revitalize and protect them.

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Hugh’s Room (Tara Walton/Toronto Star)

Since its initial closure, Hugh’s Room has formed a committee to start the process of changing the venue into a board-run, non-profit model. Part of the plans include a fundraising campaign.

Non-profit and community-run music venues have been in operation for decades. In North America, many are multi-use venues with music schools and receive federal grants, corporate donations, and tax exemptions.

The Freight in Berkeley, California has been around since 1968. The non-profit “mission-driven” venue has a long history (change location once) and programs folk, jazz, blues, world-beat and gospel music. The Freight’s majority of income is based in food and drink sales with additional funding from grants and donations.

The Ark in Ann Arbor, Michigan’s is a nonprofit music venue featuring folk and roots artists. They program 300 nights of live music each year. Operations are supported by membership donations of varying levels, receiving perks and discounts to and at concerts with a 400 person capacity.

Harlton Empire spoke with Grit Laskin, Recipient of the Order Of Canada, luthier, and spokesperson for Hugh’s Room about restructuring, fundraising, and the outpouring of support.

RA: In the changeover to a future community-run model, have the folks at Hugh’s Room looked at or spoken with other community-run music venues? And if so, what things are you looking at?

Grit Laskin: Yes, we have been speaking with venues right across the continent, seeking details of how other venues shifted to Not-For-Profit.  There are plenty of models so we are not reinventing the wheel.  Right down the street from Hugh’s Room, Lula Lounge, is one example.  We will be establishing a proper volunteer Board of Directors, and a wider membership base.  Secondarily models of subscription are being looked at for those who are solely patterns of the club, have no interest in direct involvement.  We’ve been talking with clubs as far apart as Vancouver and Halifax, but some US models are actually closest to what we’re looking at: Club Passim (Boston), The Ark (Ann Arbor, Mich.), Cafe Lena, (New York State).

RA: As Hugh’s Room brings in new members to oversee operations (or has already fully), how will their experience and ideas be helpful in the future of the venue?

Grit Laskin: We are obligated to re-think every aspect of how the club functioned.  We will be looking at staff needs and will eventually put out a call for employment submissions. It’s quite possible that a number of the loyal staff will re-aply for positions—and probably get them.  But that is down the road a ways.  Right now, in anticipation of a March 15 startup, we are bringing in some interim staff—general manager, booker, chef, etc.  The General manager who did that job for the first 14.5 years of the club, is coming back out of semi-retirement.  We are working with him to review how things were done and what changes are needed to not only maintain the feel and structure of the venue we all love, but also to enable it to remain viable.

RA: There are very few non-profit live music venues in Toronto. Do you feel there is space for more in the city? Possibly new ones?

Grit Laskin: To the audience it’s really irrelevant how a venue is structured.  Each venue needs to decide for itself what will work best.  But whether every club in the city was Profit or No-For-Profit makes little or no difference to the city-wide scene—other than the fact that if a different structure enables the venue to survive then we all benefit!

RA: Looking at the transition Hugh’s Room is going through, is there advice for other financially precarious music venues that the venue would like to share?

Grit Laskin: To be honest, it’s too early to say.  We still in the midst of sorting out all structural aspects, so have nothing to offer other venues.  At this point, information is going the other way, being gathered, not disseminated.

The committee met again last week to give and receive updates geared toward the eventual goal of restructuring and re-opening Hugh’s Room in the future.

The immediate decision was that it would be necessary to cancel all shows scheduled for February.

The goal? To reopen as soon as possible in March, 2017. And to that end, we have initiated a call for financial support in order to make this a reality.

How much do we need? Our immediate short-term target is $150,000.

What will it be used for? That target may seem ambitious, but this is the amount needed to cover upgrades to the club, current and owed salaries and cover some ticket refunds/losses. In short, it is to pay costs of re-opening and keeping Hugh’s Room open and operating until a new viable business plan is developed.

What does the donor receive? The only return on this contribution is the satisfaction that every effort was made to find a way for Hugh’s Room to survive and prosper, and, if we are successful, recognition of the gratitude that these contributions were there at the most crucial time for Hugh’s Room.

The club re-opens…then what? When ownership shifts to a new, non-profit organization, a second major fundraising drive will take place primarily to cover purchase of the building and to be able to complete serious renovations. Should that second fundraising drive succeed, this will give the club the necessary long-term stability Richard has wanted from day 1.

The focus of the effort to save Hugh’s Room remains squarely on these priorities: Developing a business plan to ensure Hugh’s Room is successful going forward. Making sure that the three communities :- Staff, Artists and Audience members, who are the backbone of Hugh’s Room’s success over the past 16 years are fairly treated

The outpouring of support from so many from all over has been inspiring and so much appreciated. People from ALL genres of music share the desire and will to help Hugh’s Room reopen and continue as one of the premier music venues there is.

Information on the fundraising for Hugh’s Room, board members, and expected re-opening date is available on the Hugh’s Room website and the GoFundMe website: https://www.gofundme.com/hughsroom

Scroll Through Our Gallery Of Lost Venues Below:

 

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