| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Youtube RSS Feed


Exploring the musical past and future of Yonge Street

"Sam the Record Man. Friar’s Tavern. Le Coq d’Or. A&A Records. Town Tavern. Club Blue Note. Colonial Tavern. These names, and many more, evoke an era when the Yonge Street strip was the pulse of Toronto’s music industry."

So wrote local historian Jamie Bradburn in a June issue of Yonge Street, which looked at Downtown Yonge BIA's (DYBIA) efforts to preserve and revive the city's storied music strip. On September 24, courtesy of the DYBIA, a group of music industry panelists convened to discuss the Yonge Street that was, the Yonge Street that is, and the Yonge Street that will be. 

Moderated by musician and media personality Amanda Martinez, the panel featured insights from music historian Nicholas Jennings, City of Toronto music officer Mike Tanner, Music Canada's Amy Terrill, and musician Greg Godovitz. It was a night of reminiscence – Godovitz's mother was a coatcheck girl at Friar's Tavern the night that Bob Dylan first played there, for instance – but also of voiced frustration for the pace of change. In the 1960s and 1970s, Toronto musicians were able to make entire livings from their art; today, they're lucky to get paid for playing at some venues. And, equally pressingly, affordable housing and rehearsal spaces are increasingly scarce in our rapidly developing boomtown. 

The music industry, like all industries, is changing at lightning speed. How will a historic strip like Yonge Street keep up? The DYBIA has a few plans. As Bradburn wrote in June:

Marking the legacy of Friar’s, whose site now houses the Hard Rock Café, will also be part of a project both Jennings and DYBIA Executive Director Mark Garner are excited about: a “neon museum.” If the required bylaw changes go through, visitors find a curated collection of original and recreated signs from the strip’s heyday erected in laneways. The DYBIA has worked with Brothers Markle, which created icons like the Sam’s records, to work on the recreations, starting with Friar’s Tavern.

Garner sees the neon museum fitting in with the DYBIA’s overall strategy to improve the strip’s laneways. “Yonge Street can’t handle the traffic that’s on it today for pedestrians,” Garner notes. “There are over 42 million people who walk north and south on Yonge Street, so laneways need to be part of that active pedestrian node. They need to be clean, well-lit, maintained, and programmable.”

Among that programming is the DYBIA’s Play the Parks concert series. Launched in 2013, the program brings a diverse mixture of performers to five spaces including patios, parkettes, and Mackenzie House museum. Having drawn over 15,000 spectators last year, over 30 performances are scheduled between now and September. The idea, according to Garner, is to “put music in parks, so that people would come out at lunch hours, enjoy music, exercise, get some fresh air, and then go back to the office. They would get to see the music industry and the up-and-coming talent.”

To assist emerging talent, there are plans for a City of Toronto-enabled music incubator in a city-owned building at 38 Dundas Street which previously housed Hakim Optical. Garner sees this site playing a similar role for music professionals as Scarborough-based Coalition Music, with “a whole artist support program where bands, before they go on the road, can go into their facility and hone their chops.” Besides musicians, the incubator would also assist industry jobs such as lawyers and promoters.

Beyond the BYBIA and City of Toronto's joint creation of a Yonge-Dundas musician incubator, neon museum and concert series, there are other reasons for optimism, too. As Mike Tanner pointed out at #yongetalks, today Toronto has far more musicians playing at far more venues than was the case when he arrived in the city 26 years ago. The music scene is flourishing; the way that growth presents, however, is different. Gone are the days of self-enriching music clusters, but that doesn't mean that Yonge Street has no role in shaping the city's sound. In the old days, what happened on Yonge Street stayed there; now, there's an opportunity for Yonge Street to be the beating heart that feeds the city's talent from Dupont and Dufferin to the far reaches of Parkdale. 
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts