Massey Hall neon sign in downtown Toronto.
Downtown Toronto's Massey Hall. Credit: Ryan Raz / Flickr Credit: Ryan Raz / Flickr

The pandemic hit the live music industry extremely hard in Canada. Many live music venues, without income for two years, permanently closed. But even before the pandemic, many venues were struggling with increasingly unaffordable rents.

Is there a way to put live music venues onto more solid financial footing that allows them to focus on the artists and their development?

A group of us in Toronto – Hugh’s Room – are, with the support of our community, doing just that.

Hugh’s Room presents more than 200 concerts a year. Over its twenty years its hosted notable Canadian artists like Jane Siberry, Michael Occhipinti (also one of our programmers), Carlos del Junco, Dione Taylor, and Connie Kaldor, international artists like Maria Doyle Kennedy, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, and many more.

Richard Carson founded the space in memory of his brother and owned it for 17 years. He built its stellar reputation as the place musicians want to play; a place with a captivated and engaged audience, always. In 2017, we registered it as a charity: Hugh’s Room Live.

Our thinking?

Live music venues don’t make money – they’re mostly labours of love. Because of that, they don’t attract investors.

The live theatre world relies heavily on donors. Patrons and funders of the arts allow us to focus on the art and the artists. As a charity, we engage a community that both donates and volunteers their time. Donors and volunteers are much more likely to become loyal patrons.

Our approach worked well. When we first opened in 2017, we asked our community for support, and raised, entirely from individual donations, the necessary $150,000. Within two years, our audience grew to the point that our revenue stream covered our costs.

It was all being threatened…

We always operated in rented spaces. The landlord was demanding much higher rent – far more than our operation could afford. In March 2020, we reluctantly let the space go and closed our doors.

The saving grace, came a week later. As COVID-19 hit, everything closed, and, while we had no revenue, and no venue, we also did not have rent to pay.

The hiatus allowed us time to imagine what Hugh’s Room could be.

We were invited to participate in Metcalf Foundation’s Staging Change program for arts organizations, designed to provide: “tools to unearth deep-seated challenges and develop resilient solutions to address them.” It energized us.

With renewed determination to re-open, we expanded our board and got to work. We wanted to get away from paying rent and find a permanent home – one we own.

We found the perfect building: a historic church, just east of downtown Toronto. The main hall’s size ensures that the intimacy and warmth our concerts were known for. Its basement means we could offer a host of music-oriented activities to benefit the local community and provide support for emerging musicians. Programs like a music school for kids and workshops for songwriters.

Could we buy it when real estate prices are rising so outrageously?

A number of pieces have fallen into place that might make our dream come true:

  • The building’s owner agreed to a four million dollar price point. She also gave us until the end of June to find the purchase money. In today’s hot real estate market, she is being extremely patient, and we are grateful for that.
  • Toronto City Council, recognizing the dire state of live music, unanimously agreed in February to provide a loan guarantee to us for about half the purchase price.
  • Vancity Community Investment Bank agreed to lend us the city‑guaranteed amount.

Projects like these are really hard to pull off. Several more pieces need to fall into place quickly for us to succeed. We need:

  • Sufficient and timely financial support from our community.
  • A substantial grant from Canadian Heritage’s Cultural Spaces program that covers 50 per cent of the acquisition.

There are precedents for what we’re doing. Winnipeg’s West End Cultural Centre, founded by Mitch Podoluk, who also founded the Winnipeg Folk Festival, bought a former church in 1987. Their project is hugely successful.

Locally, we are inspired by the success of Massey Hall’s $184M revitalization project. That project also relied heavily on donations and government funding.

But artists don’t play Massey’s stage without first building their career in smaller venues with supportive audiences. Hugh’s Room has supported artists for the past twenty years and our dream for our own space will make sure we don’t stop now.

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Pro Bono

Pro Bono is a monthly column written by lawyers and legal experts at Iler Campbell LLP that explores the murky legal waters activists regularly confront in doing their work.

Brian Iler

Brian Iler

Brian Iler is a contributor to rabble’s Pro Bono column. He is a partner at Iler Campbell LLP where he advises many of Ontario’s co-operatives, non-profits and charities. Iler is counsel...