A Local Show Rant
Why are people stuck to their couches and office chairs like captive flies squirming fervently in a glob of honey? What the hell is wrong with people that they'll download music on the internet but not support artists for a $5 show? Why do people enjoy listening to music in their car but not at a club? Why is it that The Killers, NIN, and NOFX can sell out in a matter of minutes, but club owners are strapped to get even 200 people out on a Friday or Saturday night? Clearly there are a lot of music lovers in Toronto but as I stand in a half-empty room, longing to share my experience with hundreds or thousands of other people, I can't help but wonder: WHERE THE HELL ARE THEY??
The Ugly Truth
"The people of Toronto seem to be more involved with mainstream popular music," notes Struck By Truth singer/guitarist Jimmy Hat. "And for the music we pump out, Toronto throws us nu metal skids who think we suck cause we're not metal enough or punk kids who say we scream too much." Yes, Torontonians are rather demanding. They're more likely to pay $75 for a traveling artist than $5 for local indies.
"It's very rare to see more than 100 people at a show," Valyear, frontman for Undergods, sighs. "I have seen it, I've done it, but it's very rare."
The local scene presents tons of opportunity to aspiring young bands with a potential audience of millions. In addition, there are a variety of venues to play. In fact there are so many venues that plans were being discussed by City Council to minimize the number of permits they give out for new clubs to emerge. "I don't think that you can ever have enough clubs," argues Dean from Rumsfield. "But there may very well be too many BANDS in the area. Over saturation is a brutal thing for live music."
Singer for Strap-On Tools Brandon agrees. "On any given night in Toronto there are at least fifty bands playing somewhere in the city. People simply don't care anymore, they've all been to see 'indie' bands before, and typically they were dragged there by a friend in a band, paid too much for their drinks, and generally didn't have a good time."
Certain places are definitely busier than others - The Opera House, The Funhaus, Horseshoe Tavern, Club Rockit or Rivoli, to name a few. The Kathedral, like most other places, is usually up and down. While other clubs are notorious for having the worst attendance, with The Vatikan currently holding the record. "I'm not sure a shitty turn out has anything to do with the club," Valyear (Undergods) relates. "If I could see a great band in a shitty club, I would go there way before a shitty band in a cool club."
Maybe it's not the club itself that makes or breaks a turnout, but Promoters and Club Owners are surely to blame for the success of some nights. In the electronic music scene, there are paid flyer teams, street team leaders and event organizers dedicated to the success of a gig. They put in months of preparation to plan a stellar lineup and get the word out to the people who need to hear it. In the rock scene, it's usually just someone's friend running around stapling up a couple pathetic, computer-printed, black-and-white excuses for flyers. Sometimes lineups are so randomly thrown together that people don't want to come back to see the one out of five bands that they actually enjoyed, risking another unsatisfying evening.
Problems & Solutions
Ok, Ok, so it's simple to sit on my ass and complain all day about how lame Torontonian music lovers can be. But I'd like to think I'm smarter than that. I've observed many things, talked with bands and tried to formulate some possible solutions to get people out.
Argument: But Jennn, We HAVE NO MONEY!
Solution: More drink specials in conjunction with shows.
As if $5 cover charge isn't good enough, perhaps some club owners can run $2 drink specials or something similar. I know a lot of people who claim they'd have more fun sitting at home with friends, drinking and listening to the radio. Obviously this ISN'T more fun in reality, so I think what they meant to say was, they'd have cheaper fun at home. I've found myself at some pretty lame places for cheap booze. *Cough cough... Croc Roc... cough cough* And in Erie PA, I somehow endured a whole night of Justin Timberlake and P-Diddy for $0.50 draft and $1 mixed drinks.
Argument: We've never even heard of these F'ing Bands before.
Solution 1: Street teams and Demo CDs.
"Getting people out to see a band they've never heard of in Toronto is next to impossible," Brandon admits. "It's been my experience that for every ten people that tell you they'll 'definitely be there', one shows up."
I first heard of my favourite local band Rumsfield at another show in Buffalo NY. I was handed a simple three-song demo tape. Who could resist playing a new tape? Nine times out of ten, it seemed these half-assed basement recordings sucked... but in the new Millenium, a a little technology and a little cash can go a long way. Even back then, Rumsfield put together a really rockin three songs that I played to death. However, there wasn't much information to be found about shows or where to buy the album. Years later, I was meandering down Queen West and saw a poster with their name on it. A light bulb of recognition lit up over my head and I decided I had to check them out. Street teams are a great way to reward existing fans and generate new ones. If a band's willing to give out something for free... even if it's just a sticker or two song CD - it creates a "branding" of the name and a "positive brand awareness", in marketing terms.
"Hand out a few freebies to random people on the street who look like they'd be interested. Hand out flyers; let some people on the street hear your music... And eventually it'll start coming together to the point where you don't need to make your 50 phone calls," Jason of Futures Past laughs.
"I always found street teams help. Buzzes about your band will get people wondering," Valyear says. "My favorite method is rounding up the kids myself. They need to hear from your mouth how vital they are to what it is you're trying to do. Letting them know you appreciate them coming out will bring them back, without a doubt."
Solution 2: More festivals with 1 or 2 headliners and tons of locals.
The truth in Toronto is that everyone will come out to see Our Lady Peace, Greenday or NIN. But what about unheard of local acts with similar sounds and just as much heart? I find that a lot of my favourite bands today have surfaced on the Warped Tour "emerging artists" stage or were stumbled upon by accident, opening for better-known talent.
But hey, it doesn't have to be Warped Tour or Ozzfest to draw a crowd. I saw a flyer online for this festival-type event Baroque, Futures Past and Rumsfield are playing this Saturday. It's out in the country somewhere, with a keg, camping, food and a whole day's worth of live hard rock. It's like a super-vamped house party... and who doesn't love a good house party?
In this way, bands of similar sound should form more alliances and subscribe to the "birds of a feather flock together" motto. They shouldn't be paranoid about trading and sharing fans. Dean points out, "There needs to be more interaction between like-minded bands and there needs to be more promoters like S+S who aren't out to screw bands over but are really there to help nurture the scene."
Solution 3: Myspace and Pure Volume
I really can't push these websites enough. In a lot of ways, these sites can at least generate awareness, desire and band camaraderie. Typically, I'll just spend a few hours searching for Toronto artists in my fields of interest. The search tools are incredibly useful and guaranteed to pop up something worthwhile. It's always exciting to think I could be seeking out the next Sum 41, Tea Party, Finger 11 or Tragically Hip, finding myself a member of the In-The-Know club. Think of the bragging rights! "Yeah, I hung out with those guys at shows BEFORE they were even famous." And bands don't forget that kind of loyalty!
Argument: There are too many choices.
Solution: One club needs to take the initiative to become first rock "Superclub".
Within the last year, I've seen a lot of renovations happening in Electronic Music venues. I've also noticed a minimum attendance of 200, ranging up to thousands, on any given night. They understand that with surround sound home theatres, Ipods and a plethora of options, people demand more. Wealthy nightclub owners are willing to invest in multi-million dollar lighting and sound renovations, big talent, atmospheric improvements and drink specials to get ahead. The Guvernment has a longstanding tradition of upgrades. Boa Redux also set a new precedent when they arrived on the block. Soon thereafter I was reading about elaborate renovations at The Docks and System Soundbar. Now Lucid and Republik have entered the scene with just as much glam to offer patrons. The message is clear: Step Up or Get Out.
The rock scene for whatever reason just doesn't have as many wealthy backers behind them. Many local rock club owners are skeezy, drug-ingesting swine out to make a quick buck without putting in an investment; and their clubs generally reflect that culture, being skuzzy, cramped holes in the wall with sub-par sound and horrifying washrooms. Back in the day, the Horseshoe Tavern The Beverly Tavern (which is now Much Music's lunchroom) and The Rivoli were known as premier rock clubs. Today Club 279 (above the Hard Rock Cafe) is evidence of what a rock club can look like, if given enough financial support. "It feels weird playing here," says Carlo of Simmer. "It's like, too nice almost! But I love it."
Brandon relates, "There is no 'one great place' to play in Toronto anymore, and there doesn't seem to be any venue in Toronto that's trying to become that great place to play anymore. All the places are just looking at the bottom line now." He goes on to say that it's understandable that rent is expensive and club owners need to stay in business; however, places like the Elmo, Horseshoe and Classic Studios had always put on amazing shows, despite cost of operation. "Now something has sucked the desire to care out of these venues. You simply cannot go to a venue and be sure that you'll see a good show anymore," he adds.
Argument: I have no one to go with.
Solution: Tell your friends or go out and make friends.
I've had some of the greatest times going out alone. Forced to be a social butterfly, I find that meeting people out can be a really rewarding and interesting experience. A lot of times I've dragged my friends out to something they normally would never indulge in on their own, but they wound up having an amazing time. Chances are, if there's a low cover, beer and decent tunes, no one will complain.
Argument: I'm not 19.
Solution: More All Ages Shows.
I've been heading to shows almost every month since I was fifteen. This wasn't always easy though. Many times it involved connections or fake IDs to see my friends and local artists play. The big traveling acts were always all-ages but I always yearned to hang out at Buffalo's Ogden Street Concert Hall in the 21+ section. Then I turned 21 and the club had been long since shut down.
In The States, they typically have "over/under venues" (which are 18 to get in, 21 to drink with a wristband). There are also many all-ages concert venues. Aside from The Kathedral, there seems to be a lack of all-ages venues in Toronto because the bar sales constitute most of a bar's success. "Ninety percent of the clubs in Toronto NEVER have all ages events," Brandon of Strap-On Tools complains. "Music is something that the under 19 crowd appreciates much more, but they KNOW that they usually can't go to shows, so they don't bother. Without fail, the best shows we have ever played, from a crowd enjoyment factor, have been all ages shows."
Dean (Rumsfield) agrees, "People are really difficult to impress in Toronto. The younger crowd usually gets more into it and isn't afraid to go wild. Whereas a lot of times the 19+ crowd just stands there with their beer." Though most of us never want to be the oldest one at a show, the energy and dynamic that a younger crowd brings is undeniable.
In the end, everyone KNOWS Toronto just straight up rocks. Jason has a lot of love for the City. "I'd definitely say we've gotten the best vibe in Toronto, no doubt."
Valyear feels similarly. "The vibe in Toronto is just more intense. When we play there, we are welcomed, we've never left Toronto feeling unloved. I've left some other cities feeling pretty shitty, but never the T.DOT", he beams.
I'd have to agree that Toronto is an amazing city with a lot of talent and potential. Yet, at the same time, I envision so much more. Cities like Montreal and Vancouver seem to have this local music thing down pat. Something must be done to expose people to more music, get more dynamic shows lined up and entice people to give the scene a chance again. It's time we turn up the volume before we get muffled.
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