Wavelength: Reimagining Music Venues


Music venues are more than just a room with a stage. They are community centres, cultural incubators, economic drivers, and vessels for our collective memory. As demonstrated in Wavelength artistic director and project co-lead Jonny Dovercourt’s 2020 book Any Night of the Week: A D.I.Y. History of Toronto Music 1957-2001, clusters of small music venues incubate original emerging artists, becoming the leading edge of musical movements, and changing the urban fabric of the city, as seen in Yorkville in the 1960s, and Queen West in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Yet music venues can also be inequitable, exclusionary, and unhealthy. Few are owned or operated by BIPOC entrepreneurs. Access to coveted performance stages is often given to privileged genres and communities. And venues’ economic dependence on alcohol sales can create an environment with negative consequences for mental health and addiction.

Live music venues in major cities such as Toronto were already facing existential threats prior to COVID-19: gentrification, rising rents, development pressures, dwindling audiences, and the urban exodus of the artists they serve. Many venues have closed their doors permanently under the pandemic. Though the vaccine rollout means an end to the crisis may be in sight, there is an opportunity for a “Great Reset” within the live music venue ecology as well.

Image Credits: Wavelength Music; DESIIRE


Project Description

This research project will explore new models for the organization, operation and programming of Ontario music venues, in order to make them more sustainable and equitable. These spaces may need to be re-envisioned as a public good, on a par with parks or museums – and may need to better incorporate outdoor public space. As the live music sector is large and diverse, the focus will be narrowed to discuss small (under 300 person capacity) venues that primarily support new and emerging artists in Toronto and other Ontario cities, while finding the commonalities between these spaces across a wide range of genres, communities and backgrounds. Stakeholder interviews will be held with Toronto and Ontario-based artists, venue operators, and DIY presenters, as well as with their international peers, while data analysis will examine long-term trends in elements ranging from genre programming and representation to audience behaviour and geographical distribution.

This research project will use Toronto and Ontario as case studies and targets for recommendations, but will be applicable to other regions and countries, showing that this province is a global leader in the creative industries. The result of this research will be a detailed report. Potential beneficiaries include: municipalities across the province (as well as nationally and internationally), property owners and developers, for-profit and non-for-profit concert presenters, existing venue owners/operators, and aspiring DIY organizers and artists.


In this project, the Client expects the team to design the following: 

The Reimagining Music Venues initiative is anticipated to consist of three phases: (1) research, (2) case studies, and (3) designing new models. It is anticipated that students will support the research, case studies, and design elements through their studio work.

  1. Research Students will conduct research to establish an inventory and mapping of existing small Ontario music venues (under 300 capacity). Through a combination of literature reviews, secondary research, online surveys, and stakeholder interviews, students will assist the project leads in determining the following:
    • Analysis of pre-COVID musical genre programming, diversity and representation
    • Breakdown of existing business models, eg. for-profit vs. not-for-profit, dependence on earned revenue sources such as alcohol sales, pre-COVID access to public funding
    • Admission or exclusion of all-ages audience members  
    • Qualitative value of small venues to artists and presenters
    • Success in accessing COVID relief and recovery funds
    • Identification of strengths and weaknesses of existing models, in consideration of current post-COVID reopening plans
  2. Case Studies The project will identify 2-3 existing small music venues with alternative business models, potentially located outside the City of Toronto, which can serve as case studies for more equitable and sustainable avenues for venue operations. Examples could include DIY (do-it-yourself) spaces that have successfully reinvented themselves as non-profit multi-arts centres, performance spaces based in post-secondary institutions, or spaces gifted to arts groups and music companies by municipalities with the aim of establishing a community-accessible cultural space.
  3. Design of New Models Students will prepare conceptual designs, to establish 2-3 new models for sustainable, equitable music venue operation, potentially following a community land trust (CLT) framework or other not-for-profit structure. Students may propose a possible pilot project that could be adopted by a municipality such as the City of Toronto.