Ep. 8 Can we build a Music City?
June 26, 2015
In the midst of ‘festival season’ in Toronto, The Cities Podcast features interviews with two artists deep in TO’s music scene. Izzy Ritchie, from Juno-winning group The Strumbellas, and music critic Ian Gormely explain how they made it as professionals in the industry — and describe the changes they hope to see in Toronto’s music landscape.
Featuring music from The Strumbellas courtesy Six Shooter Records (Tracks: Sailing, Ride On, I Just Had a Baby and The Sheriff) — not available for re-use.
Also featuring Creative Commons tracks from Jazzafari, Pitx and Carb On via the Free Music Archive.
Plus, original music for The Cities Podcast written and performed by Jay Ferguson.
More about The Cities Podcast: http://news.utoronto.ca/podcasts
Ep 8 Can we build a Music City?
This is The Cities Podcast, I’m Brianna Goldberg.
Only the end of June and already we’re well into ‘festival season’ in Toronto. This past week alone the city hosted North By Northeast, Luminato, Taste of Little Italy, the Jazz Festival… and now it’s Pride.
Roads are closed, tents are raised, bands jam out on street corners as the smell of grilled and fried stuff wafts through the air.
And we wanted to be a part of it. So with this episode, The Cities Podcast is having a mini-music festival of its own. Tied to a big question floating around Toronto right now:
Can we build a Music City?
Mayor John Tory has been talking a lot lately about the music scene. He went down to Austin for the South by Southwest music festival and is said to be reinforcing our ties to that city as an incubator of musical innovation.
Tory established a ‘music office’ at city hall but no one is quite sure yet exactly what it will do… likely help smooth out permit issues for festivals, possibly more. There’s talk of attracting more big-name acts to Toronto.
But is any of this useful to the actual artists whose lives make up the soundtrack of Toronto?
Today we’re going to hear from two people deep in the city’s music scene. One performs as part of a Juno-winning band. The other is a veteran music journalist.
They both juggle their musical lives with work at the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto.
Here’s how they got to where they are… and where they’re hoping the city’s music scene will go.
IZZY: I’m Izzy Richie, I play violin in Strumbellas. I started playing violin when I was 5 years old. I went to Montessori School that started offering it in kindergarten. So apparently I came home one day and said I want to do this. And I started playing classical violin and I did that all through high school. I did some fiddling but it was mostly classical. And when I came to university and I sort of went away from music, I wasn’t studying music, after a year I said I want to keep playing. So I was experimenting with different things. I was playing in the Hart House orchestra. I went to the Horseshoe Tavern one night and I saw this band Ohbijou and they had string players. And I thought I could do that. And I went home and I went on craigslist and I went to the “musicians wanted” section and I started like replaying to ads. So that’s kind of a fluke of how I got involved in music as an adult and into the kind of music that I play now. I had a couple of false starts. I played with one band for about 6 months or a year maybe. And then I had a couple of things that, you know, only lasted one or two rehearsals. But I came to the Strumbellas pretty quickly. Like it was the second real band I joined. I guess it was maybe a year-and-a-half or so after my first craigslist journey that I found the Strumbellas. It was at Simon’s, a bachelor apartment on Jarvis. There’s always this thing when you go meet a band off craigslist where you walk up to the door and you think this is something my mother probably taught me not to do — go meet a random stranger that’s on the Internet. And I walk up and Simon greeted me at the door and he was really friendly. And I went in and at that point there were like 10 of us in the band and different people who had answered the ad off craigslist. 8 or 10 people in the room, everyone was super friendly. We had these paper books that Simon had made of chord books or different songs he had written. We played those and I remember this moment where I’m like I’ve got to get in here, I’ve got to make my mark so they want to keep me. And I played a solo and it went well. I was like “yeah, I’m in. I’m in, I made it.” And the rest is history I guess.
IAN: My name is Ian Gormley. I’m a Toronto based music critic. It’s something that I’ve been doing in Toronto since 2008, but it goes back probably about a decade. So when I was finishing my Undergraduate at the University of Victoria, about a month before we were done my roommate suggested to me that I should consider Music Journalism as a path, something that I had never really thought about before.
So we were standing in my room in this house we were sharing. I lived with 6 other guys in a house, not an actual frat house but it might as well have been. In my room I had several racks, probably 600 CDs, and on the wall I’d created a collage of vinyl covers. And I think he was just looking around and thought this is clearly your passion, why don’t you pursue something. So when I moved back to Vancouver which is where I grew up, I started writing for a magazine there called Discorder. So that’s how I got started. From there it has just kind of snowballed over the years. I was probably still really into pop/punk but more into like EMOE stuff, like I really like the Get Up Kids, like Saves The Day, Dashboard Confessional, and I was starting to bridge more into Indie Rock through bands like The Strokes.
I’ve done a couple of reviews at UVIC but the first thing I would kind of consider of any quality that I might show someone today was a review of Nada Surf’s Let’s Go. It’s the first thing I did for Discorder. They were a band who had been considered a one-hit wonder in the90s and had sort of been left for dead at the end of the decade but they had put out this new album that everyone was sort of like wait that band is actually pretty awesome, and they were. And so it was a very positive review and I got a lot of positive feedback from my editor. It encouraged me to kind of continue. It made me think okay I’ve got something of an ear for this.
So I went to Journalism School in Halifax, the University of King’s College, thinking Music Journalism. I got there and was immediately sort of knocked 360 — and I was like maybe I should do radio, maybe I should go to the Northwest Territories and work for the CBC because that was really what they hammered home for some reason. So I got a little bit like discombobulated at first. By the end of the year I’d sort of hot myself sorted…started writing for the local All Weekly and getting paid to do it. And in Halifax you can live fairly cheaply, which is nice. So between writing for the All Weekly and my day job at Halifax’s version of Toronto Life, I was able to make ends meet. So I was living working as a journalist quite soon after graduating Journalism School. I also graduated in 2007, which was about the time that all the shifts in print journalism like hit immediately. Within a week my at the time girlfriend, who’s now my wife, the newspaper she wrote for folded. At the end of that week the magazine I was writing for was sold to another company and I was left writing for the business magazine that a company owned. I didn’t know anything about business nor did I care anything about business. So we got out of Halifax pretty quick and moved to Toronto and things were a lot tougher here. The quality of the journalism was a lot higher I thought. There’s a lot more journalists running around looking for what was turning into fewer and fewer jobs. So the realities hit home pretty quick when I didn’t have a job for 6 months, through both stubborness and a lack of having anything else to do, I was able to eventually start writing for Exclaim at the end of 2008/beginning of 2009. So that sort of really helped me build a bit of a reputation in the city’s music journalism scene.
IZZY: The thing with being in a band is that it has its up and downs and sometimes you’re busier and sometimes you’re not. So sometimes it’s more difficult to balance a full-time job and sometimes it feels pretty easy. I’m lucky to have a really flexible job, take time when I need it, work some later nights, but be able to work the band into it too. So I’m really lucky to be able to sort of balance those two things.
As you’re working towards doing the band full-time you’re also working on your career perhaps or your other interests or you’re starting a family, or whatever it is. So if you’re a musician you always have multiple things you’re balancing. I was lucky enough to do music full-time for about a year-and-a-half. It was really great and got to tour a lot and spend a lot of time on the road. My academic interests and working for the Martin Prosperity Institute is also huge interest of mine, so it’s kind of trying to have it all and do both, and have both of my interests fulfilled to their maximum extent.
When we started off it was sort of just like I want to keep playing violin and I want to find a way to do that. I guess I didn’t really have any expectations of where it would go. Just starting off playing small shows, and I remember when we had our first show. It was at a Farmer’s Market and we were all worried, and then we played it, and then playing at smaller venues…we played some shows at Mitzi’s Sister, and the only people who were at the shows were our family and friends and the other bands we were playing wtih. I guess the real turning point for me was when we started playing at the Cameron House a lot and we did a couple of residencies there. You had a feeling for the first time that people are coming to see us, not just because we begged our friends to come out, but people are here to see us and they’re coming week after week. And that was a great feeling and we started to build a fan base off that. And then the first time we sold out the Horseshoe. That was a crazy thing. This past fall we sold out The Phoenix. So it was just like this huge ascension that starting off playing in the band I couldn’t even envision playing a show at The Phoenix, much less selling it out. It was a slow start. We played a lot of years playing unknown and then it kind of ramped-up really quickly. It’s hard to believe. When we released our album and we had our album release at The Horseshoe, we’re like…can we do that, I don’t know if we’re get enough people out. And how far it’s come from there it’s pretty crazy.
Q: Do you know what pushed it?
IZZY: I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. I think there’s just building momentum, having played so many shows across Canada and Toronto over the years, the Juno nomination and the press we got around that, and the playlists certainly helped. We did get a lot of support from CBC and Indie 88 and having that radio play certainly makes your music reach a wider audience. And that was, I think huge for us. Toronto has such a vibrant and strong music community and there’s a lot of people out there trying to make things happen. And I think a lot of what the city could do isn’t huge sweeping initiatives. We have CMW, we have North by Northeast, we already have so much going on in terms of festivals and industry and bands, and I think a lot of it is maybe just supporting grassroots initiatives and things that are going on now. One thing that happened recently is there’s this great even in Trinity-Bellwoods Park called the Great Heart Festival. They needed to have the license. Having to pay several thousand dollars if you’re just a free-fun festival that bands are playing for free, that’s a lot of money to come up with. And the city did end up working with the festival to halve that cost. And I think that’s the kind of thing that we need to be doing. It shouldn’t be reactionary. We shouldn’t say this poor festival we need to do it. There’s so many initiatives that may be don’t even get off the ground because they say we could never afford that, we could never do that. So maybe changing the framework around which we talk about these festivals so that people can be supported and people can start them and bands can play them and people can go to them.
IAN: When I first got here I would open up NOW and see the concert listings and my jaw would just drop because I couldn’t believe how many shows there were to go see. In Halifax maybe there was one show a week, and everyone would just go regardless of who it was because that’s what was happening that week, which is fun in its own way. You sort of took what you could get. When I came here, I think we went to like 2 shows in the first 3 months we lived because there was just too much to choose from and learning how to prioritize was a real skill to learn. It’s a great city to be a music critic in, in that at least in Canada, and that this is where most things are happening. The city has got a very vibrant and active local music scene which is great. And a lot of cities in Canada have that but on top of that you also get the international acts coming through. If a band puts out a new album they’re going to stop in Toronto. If a band reunites they’re probably eventually going to come through Toronto, which is really great as a music fan and as a music critic. And I think it’s good for the scene too, or as I think some scenes do succeed because they’re insulated. I think it is also good for bands to see what else is out there and realize what they’re going to be up against when they leave the city. The get exposure too because they end up opening up for bigger international acts as well.
Things have really shifted in a lot of ways because the biggest artist in the city now is Drake obviously. Not that he’s here that often, I assume, but like he’s the biggest artist to come out of Toronto in probably, I don’t know, 30 years. He’s internationally massive. It’s tempting to say that hip-hop is the biggest thing in Toronto but outside of Drake and a number of producers that have sort of followed him to the States, Toronto’s urban music community is still really diffuse and like not part of the downtown core. And the same would go for our Caribbean music scene as well which has been extremely vibrant for the last 4 years. Jamaica to Toronto, which is a compilation put out in 2007 by Lights In The Attic Records out of Seattle…it collected a group of musicians who had moved from Jamaica to Toronto and continued to perform in like R&B Funk and Reggae bands. They just played at the Arts & Crafts Field Trip last weekend. And to me it was sort of like a signal that yes this is part of Toronto’s music scene. But you still don’t get that very often. They’re still very like separate. And when big international Reggae acts come to town, and they do, they play at the JCA, they play in North York, they play out by the airport, they don’t play downtown. These artists are not playing in the Horseshoe Tavern and they’re not part of that sort of world. There are these different communities not interacting the way that if it was a smaller city maybe they would be. I always think about Minneapolis where you had a hip-hop act like Atmosphere playing shows with Lifter Puller, which was like the pre-cursor to the whole study who are kind of cited as one of the world’s best bar bands basically. Those artists were interacting and playing on the same bill. And you don’t get that in Toronto as much. It’s a testament to the health of the scene that we can have these silos of music that are all like very healthy and do well, but I think creatively it’s more interesting when they are all coming together and forced to interact with one another and therefore they’re going to influence one another. We add a producer like Wonder Girl who was this teenaged producing phenom like out in the suburbs picked up by JayZ and is on the new Drake album. No-one downtown really knew her. I’m sure people in the hip-hop scene knew who she was. Same with an artist like Jazz Cartier who is really cooling up right now. He plays what people have called cinematic trap. He seems to have come out of nowhere. But again, these artists have been toiling away for years putting out mixed tape singles and stuff like that.
IZZY: This year especially there’s so many festivals and there’s so many new festivals coming to town, a lot of them are a great way for people to see bands that maybe wouldn’t normally come to Toronto or wouldn’t play these big festivals. And it’s a great way for Canadian bands and Toronto bands to get exposure on a larger stage. TURF is doing a really great thing this year where they’re putting an emphasis on Toronto bands and they have all these great amazing bands, The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons — huge bands playing but they’re also making sure that the Toronto based bands get on the stage. So I think that organizers making sure that they’re bringing great bands from outside of Canada and outside of Toronto into the city, but also supporting the community that’s here.
IAN: I think what you need to ensure is that whatever you’re doing is going to be aimed at everybody and not just specific types of music or specific scenes. Like you’re not just propping up what’s already there. You’re going to offer opportunities for new venues, new spaces, new sounds to sort of proliferate. Because otherwise it’s just going to become cyclical. I’ve talked to Izzy a couple of times about this. I have a beef that I find the Canadian music industry, once an artist has sort of made it, they kind of are never not talked about again. Like how often do we have to hear about The Barenaked Ladies still. Whenever they do something it gets written about in the papers. All power to them. In that respect they did a lot for Canadian music back in the day. You know you’ve got to make room for the new, especially if the new is doing something really notable. There are very few full-time music writing gigs in the city. I don’t have one. I’ve been successful relative to some people, but I have a day job. And I’m fine with that and I’m not complaining. But it would be nice if we could all only write about music because that’s going to give you more time to explore these sorts of things. Work a full day and you come home and then you’ve got to do all your freelance stuff, you’re probably going to stick to a bit more about what you know than maybe exploring outside of your comfort zone just because you’ve only got a limited number of hours in the day, you’re tired, a bit burned out, and you’re probably going to see a show later too, so you’ve got to do it in-between. It would be great if we could prop-up the media around the music scene the way we do the actual musicians, with subsidies and Pitchfork for all its might does not pay its writers that much. And from what I understand nor does BIAS and again not to pick on them, they’re just two of the bigger fish, so let’s call a spade a spade.
IZZY: If you want to be in a band just do it. If you want to get into producing or recording or you want to be a session musician you just sort of have to take the leap and put yourself out there and go to shows and try and meet as many people in whatever musical community your interest lies. The thing that we always noticed as we’ve travelled across Canada and played so many shows is that people are really nice and people really want to help people. And we’re really blessed to have the support of community and if you just get out there and talk to people I think that’s a great first step.
[CONCLUDES WITH SONG ” I’M NOT THE SHERIFF”]
That was Izzy Richie from the Strumbellas and Ian Gormely from Exclaim Magazine. They both work at U of T’s Martin Prosperity institute in their non-music-related time. They’re part of a team that looks into, among many things, ways innovation can best transform cities like ours.
Thanks to Izzy and Ian. And thanks also to friend of the podcast, Vass Bednar, for suggesting this episode in the first place.
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Music you heard in this episode comes from the Strumbellas, courtesy of Six Shooter Records. We also heard a few tunes from Jazzafari, Pitx, and Carb On – all made available on the Free Music Archive. And great big thanks to Jay Ferguson for the original music he produced for The Cities Podcast, which you heard at the top and tail.
This series is produced by me, Brianna Goldberg, with help from U of T News editor, Jennifer Lanthier.
Thanks for listening.