TURF war

Four-day music festival supports city as facility for live music

Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF) is attempting to act as harbinger for a new time in Toronto's history of live music. (Photo courtesy of TURF)

Toronto Urban Roots Festival (TURF) is attempting to act as harbinger for a new time in Toronto’s history of live music. (Photo courtesy of TURF)

That Toronto Urban Roots Fest is being marketed under the abbreviated “TURF” title is probably no coincidence.

The premiere of the multi-day outdoor music festival comes to the city July 4 through 7, and features headlining acts like Belle and Sebastian, She & Him, Neko Case, Joel Plaskett, and The Arkells. But beyond a concert event, in words that forgo exaggeration, TURF is a political battle cry championing the city’s place in North America’s music scene.

According to Jeff Cohen, the festival’s founder, TURF and multi-day festivals like it coming to the city mark a victory for the city’s music scene.

And Cohen should know. He was appointed Chair of the City of Toronto Music Advisory Council after consultee work he did with music lobbying organization Music Canada on a report comparing the music scene in Austin, Tex. to that of Toronto.

“Toronto City Council has some policies in place and some rules in the city books that are not conducive to people wanting to do outdoor summer events in downtown Toronto,” Cohen says he told Nikki Rowling, the author of the report, in 2012. “They have allowed the residents’ associations to rule the roost, and it’s time for politicians to rethink this and start having the business associations get in there with the residents’ associations and explain to the residents that one of the wonderful things about living in downtown Toronto is summer events.”

“Toronto is the third-largest music market in North America, yet it has very few outdoor concerts, and it does not have a multi-day festival. There’s something wrong there,” Cohen said. Before TURF, he saw a need for someone to step up and create a business environment that would allow private enterprise entrepreneurs to feel that they could back festivals without the anxiety that they would be entering money pits and logistical nightmares. TURF is his way of putting money where his mouth is.

But even with someone to act as harbinger for the festival scene in downtown Toronto, what if the residents’ associations still oppose the prospect of having more live music?

“Why don’t they move to Barrie or Dundas?” Cohen said over the phone on July 2, just as setup for festivities were getting underway to set up two stages at Fort York, the centre of TURF’s action. It’s tough love, but Cohen insists the tax base generated from the newly created jobs and ticket sales revenues, as well as the more simple appeal of easy access to live entertainment, are benefits reciprocated to area residents that outweigh things like noise complaints and other negative concert fallout.

In the same spirit, Cohen said that after some initial hesitation, Fort York saw hosting concerts as an opportunity to improve their revenues otherwise left dependent on the City of Toronto, as well as a promotional strategy that would bring approximately 15,000 people on site that had potentially never visited before, encouraging new repeat visitors in between concert dates. It also hosted Field Trip – the celebration of Toronto label Arts & Crafts’ 10-year anniversary – in June this year, and in August it will open its gates to a two-day presentation of touring punk festival Riot Fest.

The two stages at Fort York will allow for staggered performances and a seamless concert experience. Also on site will be local independent food vendors and a children’s area (access to the festival is free for children 10 and under).

After things wrap up at the fort, other TURF events will take place at Cohen’s bars, popular Toronto concert venues The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern and Lee’s Palace.

As TURF approaches and more outdoor venues and music events are finding their place in the city (Cohen is quick to namedrop Live Nation’s new Echo Beach venue and festivals such as Field Trip), Cohen’s attitude – although already passionate – is markedly more electrified speaking on the present state of music in the city, saying that the atmosphere of communication between the music industry and City Council has undergone “a total change,” something he credits to new councillors Gary Crawford, Josh Colle, who – informed by the report Cohen was involved with – travelled to Austin during South by Southwest this past March to propose a musical alliance with Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell, as well as Mike Layton.

“Instead of finding reasons not to have outdoor shows at Fort York, they’re finding reasons financially and spiritually and emotionally why we need those shows.”

Meanwhile, Austin evinced its support of Toronto on June 27 when its city council passed a resolution to begin a “Music City Alliance” to encourage tourism and general, cross-cultural exchange between itself and the City of Toronto once the latter passes similar legislation.

Originally published by The Ontarion on July 4, 2013.

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