'There's a Buzz in This City:' How Toronto Fuels Talent, From Drake To Deadmau5 to Shawn Mendes

Joseph Okpako/Redferns via Getty Images
Drake performs on stage at O2 Arena on March 24, 2014 in London, United Kingdom.

Major players in the city explain what makes the scene, which claims 80 percent of the music capital in the country, so special.

As Canadian Music Week opens in Toronto (May 1-10), it draws the spotlight to a city that its boosters say ranks second-to-none as a great music capital.

“To say Toronto is a great music town, you use a hockey analogy,” says Randy Lennox, president/CEO, Universal Music Canada. "How many great players are coming from it? And when you think that this city brought us everyone from Rush to Drake to The Weeknd to Serena Ryder to, recently, Shawn Mendes, we have had creative output in this city that is far greater than many of the major cities in North America and Europe.”

CMW begins May 1 with Canadian Music Fest, and will continue with a four-day conference beginning May 6, the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards May 7, and SiriusXM Indies, the Independent Music Awards May 9.

But CMW is not alone in raising Toronto’s profile higher than its famed CN Tower.  

North By Northeast brings its mix of music, culture and tech back to the city June 12-21. Toronto-raised Deadmau5 headlines the Veld Music Festival in Downsview Park Aug. 1-2.   And Toronto native Drake has announced the return of his OVO Fest Aug 1-3. The superstar rapper will headline the final night of the festival at the waterfront Molson Canadian Amphitheatre. 

Often, however, the coolest music events in Toronto happen in smaller venues.

As Mumford & Sons prepared for the May 4 release of Wilder Mind, the arena-filling British band decided to stage a small number of promotional club-level shows. “Toronto is one of three cities [in North America] they did this in -- L.A. and New York being the other two,” said Lennox, who was in the crowd of some 600 fans for that April 3 show at Lee’s Palace. 

Both from the stage and in conversation after the show, the band members “just went on about how much they adored” Toronto, recalls Lennox. “It was magical and the band [was] abuzz and amazed at the attention paid to 12 or 14 new songs back-to-back. That says a lot about us, as music fans and about our city. In another city, half the back of the room would be talking because they weren’t [playing] songs that they knew.”

In large venues or small, the city’s live scene is dynamic, says Jeff Craib, president of The Feldman Agency, the long-established booking agency which has offices in Toronto, Vancouver and Los Angeles, whose roster includes Canadian superstars Bryan Adams, Diana Krall and Michael Bublé.

“There’s a ton of people that support a variety of music, so that makes any city that’s music-driven a great place to be,” he says.

Riley O’Connor, chairman of Live Nation Canada, agrees. “Toronto has just got a great tradition of people wanting to go out and see concerts live, indoors and outdoors. It’s part of our makeup now. It’s a vibrant city [that’s] always rejuvenated with new cultural influences and constant growth.” 

The musical, cultural and economic diversity of the city helps explain its strength, says Michael Coteau, who serves as Minister of Tourism, Culture & Sport under Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne.

“When you come to Toronto,” he says, “you can find pop, country, blues, jazz, rock…” And the city’s population includes “over 200 cultures,” he notes. “So we’ve got a strategic advantage, I would say, over other jurisdictions. On top of that, our interactive digital media, our film and television, which are such strong sectors -- all of these are other pieces that play into the music sector.” Events from the Toronto International Film Festival to the Luminato Festival have fed the $6.9 billion tourism industry in the city “and music plays a huge role in that,” he adds. 

The government of Ontario, as well as the Canadian federal government, allocate funds to support the music industry. In the latest round of funding from the Ontario Music Fund, $14 million was award to 123 music companies, from major labels to indies, from festivals to smaller venues. The provincial government also assigned $19 million in Celebrate Ontario (festival and events) grants for 2015.

“We want to make sure that Ontario, representing over 80 percent of the music sector in Canada, that we’re competing with New York or competing with Los Angeles; we’re competing with Texas; we’re competing with Nashville,” says Coteau. “We want to compete to be the best in Canada, but we want to go further than that and be one of the top jurisdictions in the world.”

In the view of Chris Taylor, founder and partner of the entertainment law firm Taylor Klein Oballa and founder of Last Gang Entertainment, a recording, publishing and artist management company, that government funding makes a difference for artist development in Toronto.

“It’s the added support,” he says, “that creates a really healthy nurturing environment that can produce artists like Metric, Death From Above 1979, Crystal Castles, Broken Social Scene, and City and Colour.”

Toronto's city government also has shown its support for the music industry, creating a new Music Office at city hall, headed by Mike Tanner, former director of operations for NXNE.   In March, Mayor John Tory of Toronto traveled to SXSW to promote the Austin-Toronto music alliance, established in 2013 to boost the music business in both cities.

The Canadian performing rights society, SOCAN, has about 125,000 members “and about 57 percent live in Ontario and a significant portion, more than 24 percent, live in the greater Toronto area,” notes Eric Baptiste, CEO of SOCAN. “So there’s a concentration of [creative] people.

“You can argue forever about the greatest music cities in the world,” says Baptiste, “but nobody could dispute that in urban music, Toronto is currently one of the indisputable hubs -- maybe THE hub -- around Drake and the people that work with him. They are from Toronto and they are not shy about this.”

Joel Carriere is a leader within Canada's indie music sector, as president of Toronto-based Dine Alone Records (City and Color, The Lumineers, Swervedriver, Marilyn Manson, Jimmy Eat World) and Bedlam Music Management. He praises the willingness among Toronto music fans “to not let music become background but rather put it up front and be part of everyday life.

“I think we still have a couple of growth spurts before we become a [music] city like Nashville,” he says. “But the people are fighting the good fight and we are one our way.”

Perhaps the greatest endorsement of Toronto as a music capital comes from a relatively recent arrival. Tim Leiweke, the former president/CEO of AEG, moved from Los Angeles to Toronto in mid 2013 to become president/CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, parent company of the Air Canada Centre and other venues.

“I was pleasantly surprised when I came here from L.A.,” he says. “This is as good a music market as I’ve seen. To me, it reminds me a lot of London and the music market there. Toronto has that feel to it, partly because it’s very international. The majority of the people who live in Toronto are not Canadians, so you have the European flux, the Asian flux [and they have] a different cultural taste in music that they bring into the Toronto landscape. 

“It’s young. It’s very hip. There’s a buzz in this city. It’s an exciting place to live.”