An In-Depth Look Into Toronto’s Music Venue Crisis: Part 2

By: Ryan Ayukawa

Photos: Tiffany Shum

If you missed Part 1, read it HERE

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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Machine Gun Kelly @ Kool Haus (Raging With Reindeer 2 Tour, 2013)

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.

The ‘Dollar announced it would close in May as the building undergoes major redevelopment. City Councillor Josh Colle has said it will remain a music venue. Though it’s unclear what form it will take.

Several other Toronto venues closed last year (The Hideout, Not My Dog, Tattoo, Humble Beginnings) A few received reprieves (Cherry Cola’s, Velvet Underground) or major makeovers (Rebel). Whether the Matador Ballroom will ever re-open is still being decided.

Members of the Toronto Industry Music Council (TMAC) and city council continue to meet and hold town hall style meetings to discuss preservation and revitalization of Toronto music venue.

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Phife Dawg @ Tattoo (Big Ticket, 2015)

The Tranzac, around since 1965 (originally the Australian, New Zealand Anzac Club), has had its share of near closures over the years. The venue is a non-profit, board-run, member supported multi-room music venue in the Annex. In addition to music and theatre, the upstairs is the Toronto Zine Library, a recording studio, and the Girl’s Rock Camp office (GRC is for girls 8-16).

Community-run and non-profit music venues have been around for decades and continue to pop up as viable model of operation. Several in North America have music schools, multi-use spaces, federal grants, corporate donations, and tax exemptions.

The Garage in Burnsville, Minnesota is a non-profit, all-ages, youth focused venue. They received over $100,000 in federal grants for restoration and a new recording studio. They offer workshops, internships, and courses to youths.

The Silent Barn in Brooklyn, New York is a non-profit, volunteer run, DIY arts venue. They feature music, dance, engineering and zine production. There is also an artist in residency program with four two-bedroom spaces.

Harlton Empire spoke with Colette Savard, board president of The Tranzac about change over the years, funding efforts, and what makes it special.

RA: Your thoughts on the non-profit, community venues, the Tranzac and how it links to places like Hugh’s Room?

Colette Savard: So a few people have asked me if I think a not-for-profit designation will save Hugh’s Room.

The pros are: you could gain access to granting funds for events and operation costs, the community has a more hands on investment in the place by being on the board (and/or membership if HR goes that route).

The cons are: that there will now be a lot of cook’s in the kitchen so to speak. The running of a board is not all peace and love and togetherness. It’s a democratic process where several people who care about the same thing try to have their vision realized. It’s great if everyone has the same vision but not so great if they don’t. Even when they do have the same vision it’s easy to get bogged down in the details. From what I hear HR has a bunch of great professional people involved at this stage so it could all go very well for them, but there are risks to letting in the many voices.

RA: As far as non-profit music venues go, I’m only aware of a few. They’re attempting a new one in Ottawa folkrun (as in fulcrum). Though it’s not limited to folk genre. Is the concept of community-run a model for music venues that you think could fill a void for new music venues?

Colette Savard: As for how this relates to the Tranzac, it is not our not-for-profit status that has kept us afloat. It is in fact, the opposite. The club is primarily sustained by the business side of things. Our bar sales, rental space, and our parking lot revenues accountant for our budget. Where the community aspect comes in is that when times do get tough we have some other options. When our HVAC died this year, we applied for a grant with the Trillium foundation (fingers crossed that we get it!). We were also designated as a theatre under a thousand seats with the city, exempting us from property taxes and this was in no small part due to the community that rallied to the cause. They wrote letters and sent archival proof of our cultural significance.

I’m interested to see how these venues leverage their not-for-profit status. It’s certain that the Tranzac has a long way to go to leverage the strength of its community. It’s a really big job. What I have found in relation to the Club is that most of our energy goes into the day to day operation of the club and there are fewer resources left over for volunteer coordination, etc. That said, our business continues to get stronger (i.e. our tax exemption allowed us to hire GM Heather Lee who’s been really great!). We can start to look at the ways in which our not-for-profit status can bring us to new heights. If Hugh’s Room and others start this venture with their ducks in row in both the business and charity aspect then it could be a great thing.

I just want to add based on your last question this fact: it doesn’t matter what you call it, privately owned or community owned, if the people don’t show up you will eventually go bust.

RA: As far as other parts of the Tranzac, what do you feel the club’s strengths are? Special shows? Multiple revenue streams? Multiple rooms?

Colette Savard: I want to say this too. Several people have asked me the question: Is what worked for the Tranzac, something that can work for HR? I think this is very funny. I did set out to stop “saving the Tranzac”  because I wanted us to stop being viewed as the downtrodden venue of the city. Clearly this worked because people think we saved the place. The truth is that although we’ve stabilized things, the Tranzac like most of the venues in the city is just putting one foot in front of the other. We’re constantly looking for change in the couch cushions to keep us afloat. So I hope people don’t become complacent. We need our community as much as ever.

Here’s the sad truth. None of these other venues have what has kept Tranzac going. 1- We own the building and have been able to leverage its equity to stay afloat. 2- The building is in the heart of the city. 3-We’ve managed to stay around for a long time and hold a special place in the hearts of A LOT of people who have swept in and saved the day over the years. 4- The Tranzac has a magic about it, maybe it is just that so many people love it, but I sometimes feel like despite the constant problems the old building creates there’s a bit of a magical force field around it. It seems to me like some Hollywood movie we’re always saved in the nick of time. I really hope the magic continues and I think the way for that to happen is that people continue to love it and come and share all the awesome things that happen there.

Scroll Through Our Gallery Of Lost Venues Below:

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