by Jake Pesaruk

When it comes to the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be safely said that no cultural touchstone has been kneecapped as hard as music venues.  Venues across Canada have had their doors shuttered for a year now, and even with the promise of vaccinations, there is no foreseeable timeline for when these businesses can reopen. 

It’s no secret that Toronto’s relationship with live music operation had been tumultuous long before the first sneeze of COVID.

“There was a complete lack of understanding and dialogue from the city at the time,” says Spencer Sutherland, a former co-chair on the Toronto Music Advisory Committee. 

The Toronto Music Advisory Committee has been operating with the set goal of working with the municipal government to ensure that stage spaces across the city receive the care and attention they require. 

It’s been an uphill battle. 

Within the last decade, the committee has been working closely with Toronto’s city hall to ensure that venues maintain oversight and protection in the face of the city’s ravenous developmental landscape. 

Spencer Sutherland of the Toronto Music Advisory Committee – Courtesy of CBC.ca

Sutherland operated the former venue Nocturne, which closed in 2018. His venue was one of many that dotted the map of vacancies in the years leading up to the pandemic. 

“Back then, gentrification was sky-high; Toronto had more cranes dotting the skyline than any city in North America at the time. Real estate prices were climbing astronomically fast. Very few venues owned the property themselves because a vast majority are leased.”

When the rapid pace of city development came to a grinding halt last year with the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the cannibalistic maw of urban renewal was substituted with stagnancy — a stagnancy that took a crowbar to the already weakened Achilles heel of live music in Toronto. 

Luckily, the Toronto Music Advisory Committee had already been working on implementations to ensure venue protection in the form of tax cuts and designation.

“The city realized that they had to do something about venues and regarded a new tax class as something that was more feasible and that could be done faster.”

Speed being of the essence, the city got to work on a tax designation that would spare venues further costs as a result of the pandemic.

“They pushed it through in record time. The council put forth the motion in March, it was approved by May, by June applications were put together and by July venues had them submitted.”

48 venues in Toronto were approved for the program and received a retroactive deduction on their taxes. This ensured a 50% tax reduction in property taxes, preventing any further hemorrhaging of funds and saving dollars in the tens of thousands. 

The icing is that this implementation is ongoing, and venues can reapply for it on an annual basis. 

“It wasn’t just a one-time thing; it has been renewed for permanence, so now it’s as simple as renewing it every year, like insurance.”

This afforded a much-needed breather for venues, yet with the touch-and-go nature of reopenings in the city, resource reallocation had become a necessity. Many stage spaces were overhauling their layout to comply with safety measures dictated by the city.

“Anybody who had a patio this summer was able to make a go of it, the ones that didn’t, well, when their lease came up for renewal, they closed.”

Even with relief from the city, venues proceeded to bleed funds while hoping to see the slightest semblance of operation still. 

“Most venues thought that there would be a sense of normal by fall; of course, that didn’t happen, and we got hit with the second wave. Over autumn, spirits were declining, the general sentiment being that there hasn’t been enough done for venues and restaurants. A lot of them were upset that you could walk into a Walmart with tons of other people with little to no security or contact tracing, and yet, restaurants and venues even after they had been told to invest in barriers, tables, and spacing standards, had to close anyway.”

Sutherland’s optimism for the future is slowly being extinguished, a sensation many venue operators in Toronto can associate with. 

“The general sentiment right now is… I think only a handful of venues believe they’re going to get through this,” he says with a sombre tone. 

His concerns only continue to find new roots, as the nature of survival for venues in the city is hardly built on an even playing field.

“Venues can be kind of categorized into a couple of basic groups. The larger venues that are corporate-owned have significant backing and will probably be able to weather the storm. Then the middle tier being ones that have a favourable relationship with the property owner or are family-operated. Then there’s the vast majority, which are independents. They don’t own the property and are subject to commercial leases; it’s not looking good for any of them to survive.”

Sutherland has also heard of rampant tension and landlord harassment stories surrounding these smaller players, despite Ontario’s eviction ban. There is growing concern around venue spaces being poached for quick and easy retail locations amid the pandemic. 

“My biggest fear is that when all these places close, it opens the floodgates for developers to snatch them up and do something else with them.”

Sutherland stresses the integral importance of live music venues. They not only supply patrons but the surrounding area as well, referring to the recent loss of a Toronto venue to a Taco Bell. 

“The difference between a live music venue and a Taco Bell is that a venue draws people in; it adds value to the neighbourhood. Taco Bell may be able to spot more on rent, but on a neighbourhood scale, it’s a cannibalistic type of business. Nobody goes to a neighbourhood for Taco Bell; Taco Bell sells to the people who are already there.”

If there is any spoon-full-of-sugar to help down this bleak notion of the future, the Taco Bell Sutherland mentioned has also closed.

Jake Pesaruk is a MacEwan journalism graduate and is known in Serbia as Balachko.