Darryl Hurs: We’re All Responsible for Toronto’s Venues

Image courtesy of Jeff Hitchcock

It was a packed house for the Toronto Music Advisory Council discussion on protecting music venues, and the long list of speakers — including artists, promoters, venue owners, festival organizers, city staff and councillors — meant the meeting ran an hour over schedule. Many speakers raised valid concerns, but there was also a lot of finger pointing, as each side of the table asked what the other was going to do to help break the recent pattern of venue closures.

Darryl Hurs spent his allotted five minutes trying to bridge the gap between spectators and the council, saying that artists, the city and venues themselves each have different roles in shaping a vibrant and sustainable music scene. We caught up with the Indie Week CEO to find out what he thinks these roles are:

The City
If you look at London’s map, there’s defined boroughs. If you go to New York, same thing. Toronto is just segmenting now — the Distillery, Ossington, the Junction, Dundas, Lansdowne, even Queen East are all starting to be small scenes. Each little district will end up being its own thing, where for a long time it was just Queen West. Toronto is like a teenager, going through our growing pains.

The City’s job is to create an ecosystem. Part of that is promoting the scene. People are pointing at the City to save venues, but that’s not its job to save businesses, unless maybe it’s a legendary venue that’s being encroached on by new neighbours. It’s the City’s job to promote and help develop the culture of Toronto. It should be working with these neighbourhoods to promote what’s special about them — to tourists but also residents. This would help put people in venues and avoid the City having to choose which ones to save.

We also have to work on our noise bylaws. When I booked clubs in the entertainment district in the early 2000s, the cops would come every weekend because one specific neighbour would complain about the noise. This law still stands — if one person calls, police show up and you have to turn shit down and a noise complaint gets filed. It’s crippling for venues.

If we’re going to call ourselves an international city and play in that big market, there are going to be things that draw big crowds and noise. If you look at the festivals in Italy, it’s marching drums and trumpets til 4 a.m. four nights in a row, and if you asked anyone to turn it down they’d laugh at you.

Artists
People talk about the Toronto scene on a more community level, but we’ve never really had a big one, expect maybe Yorkville and Gasworks. It’s the responsibility of the artists to build a scene by supporting each other. Look at Seattle grunge. All those bands sounded different, but they played together, toured together, supported one another. We’ve got some of that right now but it’s small and niche.

When artists are playing, they need to work hard promoting the show. I’ve seen too many bands promote one show heavily and sell it out, then put in half the effort for the next one and it’s a dud. But, they say, it’s ok “Because our show next week will be better.” That can’t be the attitude.

When they’re not playing, artists need to go out for the sake of it. If each artist in the city went out one night a week to a show, we could pack our venues. If the rooms are full, people who aren’t in bands would say “Hey that’s a fun time, there’s a line up” and go.

Venues
Venues are fighting to survive and pay rent every single day. The most successful venues I’ve seen are the ones that are able to develop strong brands. Right now the Dakota Tavern is doing great because you know what you’re going to get. As a booker, if you can afford to keep it consistent, you can slowly build up a reputation. People drop by the Bovine because it’s a rock and punk crowd there, not always because of specific bands. This is a long build though.

Overall, there’s an onus on everyone involved to understand that we’re in business together. And for this to be good business it has to be busy and profitable for everyone involved, or we won’t do it again. The City needs to promote our talent, artists have to hustle with the promoter, promoters have to work with and respect the venue to make sure it’s filled, and the venue has to provide good sound, stage and lighting and a safe, welcoming environment.