Media Releases

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:


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.






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.


If you want to do the same and give me a heads up about sto­ries you’d like to hear, just tweet with the hasth­tag #uoftc­i­ties or send me an email at


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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.