A Music City Manifesto

The other day, progeny of escaped High Park capybaras Bonnie and Clyde were bestowed the names of Toronto legends Geddy, Alex, and Neil of Rush. If I can be honest for a second, I was briefly miffed, since the names I had picked out for my next cats were Alex and Geddy. Thieves!

Then I got over it, because this is the best demonstration of how a big, apparently unfriendly city creates a community. Geddy (the person) in particular is a fixture here, prompting the city to mark Rush’s dedication to their hometown with varied honours, including this. But because the capybara names were decided on by vote, we all felt in on it. Even if we didn’t vote. It still felt like a meaningful moment. It helps that we as a city also spent time earlier this year wondering where Bonnie and Clyde were gettin’ it on during the months they were missing from the Zoo. Geddy’s flower garden? Perhaps.

I also got over it because maybe that’s a sign my own cat will hang on a little longer, until those names go out of fashion. And I further got over it because I have another destination to add to my “Important Rush Sites” tour of Toronto that will mark the last year of my 30s later this month.

I brought this capybara business up in class because we’d done a unit on the band (naturally) and realized later that it’s a fairly specific class where news like that is actually relevant, aside from being another reason to make fun of the teacher. I don’t teach “Mating Rituals of the Capybara,” nor do I teach “Influential 20th-Century Composers: Rush” (though now I’m going to propose that for Fall 2018!). Music and the City instead examines how urban centres facilitate (or impede) musical activity.

Since the course was due for an overhaul, I did a bunch of research on the idea of music and the city. My maddening findings included the innovation on the part of the City of Toronto to feature local artists on the 311 hold music, and their City Hall concert series. Other bold thinkers have paved the way for local musicians to “network,” or found ways to increase outside musician traffic to Toronto, suggesting that it could be musical tourism destination because we have “international acts.” There was even a vote! Toronto City Council was unanimous on making Toronto a Music City. Because, you see, it wasn’t before the vote occurred.

Not one of these initiatives considers how to keep ALREADY WORKING musicians in Toronto. In fact, both Music Canada and the Toronto Music Advisory Council produced studies that suggested one of the first ways to keep any culture – musical or otherwise – in an urban setting is to make space available and cost of living cheaper. You may not know this, but you can’t actually make money as a musician anymore. So if you want a creative fucking city, be fucking creative.

Anyway. Initiatives like Making Toronto a Music City are draped in bureaucratese, turning the straightforward and specific into bumbling platitudes of vagueness. What have they done so far, you ask? Why, “facilitated links to other City departments,” of course. “Provided business-to-business connections.” What could be achieved with a couple of full-time employees instead morphs into tripping subcommittees of ineptitude, resulting in a mayor who “doesn’t have time” to visit sister city Austin during SXSW and stalled debates on whether liquor licensing for venues should differ from pool halls or restaurants. We also get the reports proudly detailing the economic contributions of musical activity to the city, reducing creative processes to dollars – and, supposedly, jobs. “Productivity” wins again. Let’s only value music by comparing it to how many cars are shipped off the assembly line rather than as a central component of any place with good standards of living.

Toronto, and other North American cities, might do well to sit in Oslo, or Copenhagen, for a day or two, where going out to hear music, and building spaces for it to be made, is quotidian. Not special. Because the problem is not that we’re incapable of doing things like reducing artist rent, offering spaces to create, extending the hours of public transit so people can hear music later, reducing rent for music venues, improving parking and loading zones around venues, creating city-sponsored events and concerts, etc. etc. We could do all of that in relatively short order. Instead, we have to change our thinking about what music is. It’s not a commodity the way it might have been in the past. It’s not a generator of “economic activity” – or if it is, that’s a lovely byproduct, not a goal. It’s a social activity, a community generator, a way of life for many people. But if all we do is work, and focus on the output rather than the process, then we misunderstand music – or any art’s – purpose.

What if, in a radical move, governments offered days off to go listen to music events that it funded? What if everyone could be done work in an 8-hour day so they could go out at night? (It does happen in other countries.) What if music was seen as a vocation that could generate a sustainable income rather than a commercial product to be created in one’s offtime and sold in a market oversaturated with competitors? What if there were more tax breaks for presenters and venues and people taking music lessons?

All of these things require a substantial shift in ways of thinking about art. These ways are deeply entrenched. I don’t expect anyone can make that happen.

But it’s the only way to start actually creating a music city. And if there’s ever a moment where that shift is apparent, and we head in the right direction instead of applauding for institutional soundbites, for promises without follow-through, then I’ll get three more cats and name them Peart, Fripp, and Squire in the name of true progressiveness.