The state of Toronto’s music venues, in conversation at Wavelength


Since 2000 Wavelength Music, a local non-profit, has been working hard on shining a spotlight on the local music scene. Between small artist showcases, learning seminars, and industry conversations the organization puts in work. But the music industry by nature is divided, there are those who chase the stars and those who chase the music. Sometimes a person can be both, but as small venues and new artist showcases often illustrate the majority of people are chasing the stars. Today’s conversation, however, is about access to spaces, and while the audience and attendance were minimally discussed we can all agree that without you – the people, the music fans – none of these spaces would be able to exist.

Music venues in Toronto, and across the GTA, have always been at risk. Some of them are better funded or well established than others but as the latest pandemic has shown many smaller venues were not able to make it out of COVID without the support of their regular patrons. Professor Dan Silver of the University of Toronto Scarborough Department of Sociology and School of Cities, and Jonathan Bunce of Wavelength Music Arts Projects completed a report called Reimagining Music Venues: Towards the Models of Conservation and Innovation for Ontario’s Live Music Spaces. In this report Silver and Bunce argue that music venues serve as “dynamic community centers, economic catalysts, and cultural enclaves” and as such, are an integral part of the cultural and economic ecosystem. The duo proposed a series of solutions to create more musical spaces, increase access to them, and maximize their use.

This report inspired the focus of the panel on the opening night of the Wavelength Winter Festival, East to West: Meet Toronto’s New Music Spaces. The panel, moderated by Jaclyn Tam (City of Toronto’s Music Office), included Michael Booth from Hugh’s Room Live, Kristyn Gelfand from Uma Nota Culture, Benjamin Valliquette from Lynx Music, and Chris Wilson from the new It’s Ok* Studios.

Attendees gathered at the stunning Hugh’s Room Live, now located at 296 Broadview Avenue inside an old church. Over the course of an hour, panelists shared their struggles, learnings, and advice about opening and running a music venue.

The common struggles

“Well it’s money, it’s always money isn’t it” pointed out Michael Booth. Funding for the new Hugh’s Room location took over a year of unexpected obstacles, financial maneuvering, and searching for solutions outside the box. Access to funding was echoed and often intertwined with legalities, rules, regulations, building permits, and liquor licenses, all of which require not only money but a niche understanding of these systems. Chris Wilson pointed out that “a lot of it was learning on the go” and coming to terms with the fact that this process is iterative is important. Your visions may not materialize right away but it can, in time. Surprises also come in the shape of accidents like flooding, plumbing, electrical issues, preparing for which also takes capital.

Advice to be shared

No matter how bleak things might look all panelists agreed that pushing forward with confidence is the best way. You will have to learn things you may have never planned to but “you have to build confidence around those two and … be vulnerable and ask for help,” pointed out Benjamin Valliquette. Creating a network of resources, an advisory panel of people with knowledge you do not have is essential and a great way to establish roots in the industry and community.

Never loose sight of your vision, never let anyone talk you out of it good to your dream, leverage your creativity

~ Benjamin Valliquette, Lynx Music

Be one with the community

A physical space does not exist in isolation from its neighbourhood and that neighbourhood as a community can have a major impact on the success, or lack thereof of your business. This, of course, is no secret, but the hustle of starting a new business should not get in the way of you building relationships in the community. Today’s showcase was a great example of Hugh’s Room setting roots in East Chinatown many of whom showed up for the panel and the musical component of the evening.

Cover image, Just Prince and Abbas Jan performing at Hugh’s Room Live

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