music venues toronto

Toronto concert venues don't think Stage 3 will help the live music scene

Live shows are permitted once again in Toronto with the arrival of Stage 3 across all regions in Ontario, but don't expect concerts to be anything like they were before the pandemic. 

Live music venues, musicians, those coming to watch them perform are now expected to adhere to a number of rules under new Stage 3 bylaws. 

That includes mandatory Plexiglass barriers between musicians and audience members and capping the number of people allowed in an indoor venue at one time at 50, regardless of how large the space is. 

It's an obvious enhancement from Stage 2, which prohibited live shows completely. 

But a number of music venues in the city say this current stage of the reopening plan just doesn't work, with the new rules making it near impossible to get muscians and concert-goers back in the door. 

Jeff Cohen, owner of Queen Street's legendary Horseshoe Tavern, says the business has never had to close like this in its 73-year history.

The 'Shoe is operating strictly as a bar with its front patio since Stage 2, and Cohen says the stage which has hosted acts like The Rolling Stones, Etta James, and The Tragically Hip will have to stay off-limits until regulations ease up. 

"The [Stage 3] model doesn't work for the Horseshoe, period," said Cohen. "We'll be able to open our front bar, but we decided to keep the live room closed." 

"Frankly [with] a limited cap 50, our local artists can't make any money, nor do we think watching them play like fish in an aquarium while also being seated is conducive to the magic that is the Horseshoe Tavern," he said.

The sting of losing venue after venue in Toronto is nothing new to music-lovers in the city, and the pandemic hasn't helped to ease the paun: Just last month, the 25-year-old Little Italy staple Orbit Room closed permanently due to COVID-19 uncertainty. 

The CECRA program has helped (having a reasonable landlord is even more helpful), as has groups like Support Canadian Venues and the Canadian Independent Venue Coalition, which lobby the government for better aid for music venues.

The newly introduced 50 per cent commercial tax rebate from Toronto City Council set to kick in later this year will also help performance hall owners take a load off, says Cohen. 

But with patio sales only covering about 5 percent of their revenues, and about $40K a month in rent and property taxes, The 'Shoe likely won't reopen until they can get at least 250 people back in the building at one time. 

"We think it's a good start for the much smaller venues in the city, a larger one like ours [isn't] likely to re-open until later in the fall, or next year." 

With two floors, Houndstooth on College Street isn't particularly small, but the rehearsal space and venue has been able to navigate Stage 3 by leaning more heavily on its bar and cafe status. 

"With Stage 3 we have no real plan of changing things," says co-owner Alex Gray. "We’re playing it by ear all the time, hence the hours being fluid. We're seeing how people are using the space." 

A new front patio that can serve up to 20 people has helped the business to get by, says Gray. Meanwhile, the bar's lower level DIY space, which was able to host intimate concerts pre-pandemic, is still off-limits. 

Though the bar's ground floor is large enough to accommodate 50 people, Gray says he doesn't plan on running any shows inside just yet. 

"That's tough for me. I don't want to throw my money into things we're going to throw out. It's a bummer to think of putting up a giant piece of Plexiglass between the band that's playing and the audience," he says. 

But there's potential for innovation: Gray says he playing with the possibility of the live streaming performances from the DIY room to a screen outside, or having DJ sets broadcast to the outdoor patio. 

While evidence overseas (namely English singer Frank Turner's trial concert in London with physical distancing measures in place) show that the pandemic blueprint for live shows just aren't viable for a good performance, Toronto music venues are doing what they can to stay float, as always. 

Lead photo by

Hector Vasquez


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