Toronto's New Music Hub

By Stuart Berman

Sure, Toronto may have bigger venues, but there’s a prestige to the Massey Hall and the Allan Slaight Stage that no arena can match. A date with Massey is a benediction of sorts — the moment where rising stars graduate from club-level phenoms to big-stage luminaries. Performing there may be the first time they’re greeted with the roar of thousands of appreciative, attentive fans. Massey Hall is the place where dreams turn real.

But these days, Toronto is running out of places where fledgling musicians can deign to dream. In the first half of 2017 alone, our city lost nine notable music venues, and the lights went out in a handful of others the previous year. While the circumstances of each shut-down are unique, they speak to the intense financial pressures of running a live-music venue in Toronto, be they rising rents and tax bills, properties sold for redevelopment, or owners of existing clubs relaunching with a different focus.

“The systemic issue that Toronto is facing is the city’s success,” says Ward 15 Councillor Josh Colle, who also chairs Toronto’s Music Industry Advisory Council. “Because so many people want to live here, and there are more developments, and rents are going up, it does put pressure on every independent business.” This success imposes an ironic twist: “Music venues face an added element: neighbourhoods that weren’t heavily populated are now becoming home to lots of condos and lots of new residents who might be more sensitive to what they perceive as noise.”

As an historic landmark that’s located in a commercial district and operates as a not-for-profit charitable organization, Massey Hall is mostly immune from the hardships faced by small venues. But when you cut out the bottom link in the live-music food chain, the effects ripple up through the ecosystem.

Every artist who’s headlined Massey Hall has put in countless hours on tiny stages, given the opportunity to flail and fail as they developed into the powerhouse performers they are today. On December 5, Emily Haines will return to the Massey stage that her band Metric first graced in 2009 for two sold-out nights. But 15 years ago, you could find her at a weekly music residency at the shoebox-sized Art Bar, initiating Metric’s transformation from downtempo synth-pop swingers to disco-punk provocateurs

“In many ways, it is harder to play for a small crowd than a big one,” Haines says of those character-building days. “It’s up to you to somehow transform a small space — whether it is charming and intimate, or crappy and primarily dedicated to selling beer — into a mystical realm where your music is transporting people. It’s not unlike turning a pumpkin into a chariot. Later on, if you are fortunate, you have the benefit of lighting, staging, and powerful amplification. But even at the biggest shows in front of thousands of people, at the core I am still playing to that smallest room and somehow mustering the courage to get up there and bare my soul again.”

A major-league baseball team can’t thrive without a well-managed farm-team system feeding it fresh talent year over year. And as Haines’s experience illustrates, big concert halls such as Massey ultimately rely on Toronto’s small venues to groom tomorrow’s Canadian icons today, particularly in an era where downsizing record labels are chasing viral hits instead of facilitating long-term artist development. In light of all these pressures, both local and industry-wide, Massey Hall is taking matters into its own hands: it’s building its own farm team.

When Massey Hall’s redevelopment is completed in mid-2021, Canada’s most hallowed soft-seater will no longer be the only venue on Shuter Street. The main hall will become the crown jewel of a three-venue network that includes the addition of a small stage to the Centuries bar in the basement, and another brand new live-music room — to be located on the fourth floor of Massey’s addition — with a scalable capacity ranging from 250 to 500 people.

The Centuries stage, as well as hosting pre- and post-show events, will also function as an intimate stand-alone venue. The new as-yet-unnamed performance venue will also function independently, showcasing artists who have the potential to one day play Massey’s main stage. As Massey’s Director of Programming, Jesse Kumagai, explains, the new venues represent the culmination of a 10-year strategy to make Massey Hall less of an institution available only to big-ticket performers, and more of a community-oriented organization that nurtures artists on all rungs of the ladder.

“We’ve been presenting in other venues throughout the city for most of that time, always with an aim to cultivating artists’ careers and their audiences, with the goal of having them grow and one day be able to perform at Massey Hall,” says Kumagai. “Our time in those other venues was very much a pilot project, and in the back of our minds we knew we were testing the concept that would eventually become a major piece of the Massey Hall project. So the combination of our aspirations to help artists, combined with so many small venues under threat, made us think about what this venue would look like. We learned a lot about what we wanted, and what was needed in the city — incredible sound, modern recording facilities, great character, and a really broad and diverse programming mandate.”

Kumagai is especially excited by that last aspect. “Massey Hall is a big room,” he says, “and presenting a show there means an artist has to have an audience to match.” As a result, the programming leans toward established career artists. The new room, however, “gives us a chance to take a little artistic risk, and work with artists and communities who we haven’t had much of a relationship with in the past. We’re building it with flexibility in mind — equally suited for a full-blown rock concert, a hip hop show, or an intimate solo singer-songwriter set. Just like Massey Hall, we want audiences and artists to feel at home in the new venue, regardless of the kind of music.”

And though the new venue will be tucked up on the fourth storey, it will have grand windows overlooking the streets on both sides of the building—a visual connection to the city below. Councillor Colle anticipates Massey’s new space will yield benefits extending beyond the immediate music community. Despite its rich history as a breeding ground for rock legends from The Band to Rush, the Yonge Street strip today is noticeably bereft of night-time entertainment — once the offices and shops close, Canada’s longest, busiest street can feel like its most deserted. Massey’s new room will provide a crucial — and hopefully contagious — sign of life.

“I think most major cities around the world are finding that you want economic activity happening pretty much 24-7,” Colle says. “It makes a main street healthier and safer to have activity at different hours, and not just shut down. It’s fitting that Massey would be the catalyst to make Yonge Street relevant again for music, because they’ve been there through everything. Hopefully, it will lead to more, and reverse a couple decades’ trend of not seeing any nightlife on Yonge.”

So consider what’s happening near the corner of Yonge and Shuter not a mere renovation, but a sound investment: in the careers of young artists, in the revitalization of a legendary venue, and in the long-term health of our city.