This week’s inaugural Toronto Urban Roots Festival is the most promising multi-day live music event this city has hosted in more than a decade. Its organizer, Jeff Cohen, is the local authority on live music (he owns Lee’s Palace and The Horseshoe), and he may have convinced City Hall that al fresco music fests are a good thing. We spoke with Cohen about his foray into politics and why Toronto is the live-music capital of North America.
Creating the Toronto Urban Roots Festival was basically a case of taking your own advice. Can you explain?
I participated in a study commissioned by Music Canada that compared the music scene in Austin, the self-professed live-music capital of North America, and the music scene in Toronto, which has twice as much going on as in Austin—we just don’t profess it.
Maybe because we’re modest Canadians.
That’s right. And conservative Ontarians to boot. So basically, I [was] a representative for live music. I had a long list of complaints and recommendations about how we could be doing things better and one of those was: Why doesn’t Toronto have more multi-day music festivals? We did Virgin Fest, which didn’t last, and before that it was Mariposa.
Why do you think we’ve gone so long without a homegrown music festival?
When I first came to Toronto about 20 years ago, I was basically told that there were some things at the Harbourfront; otherwise, you had to go to Northern Ontario to see live music in a festival format. Residents associations fought against having outdoor music in the downtown area because there was all of this worry about the noise. I don’t think councillors were very supportive, so there just wasn’t much of a drive. There’s a drive to have the Indy…
Because that’s not loud.
I know, right? I think a lot of these politicians didn’t realize that Toronto is the third largest live-music market in North America and that these things can actually make money and provide jobs and put money back into the city.
So does City Hall now care about live music?
Well, I’m the head of the City of Toronto Music Advisory Board, so I’m going to claim they do. I think the report has already made waves in Toronto. One of the recommendations was a Music Office of Toronto exactly like they have in Austin. The film industry has had that for more than 10 years. There are people who work to encourage movie productions to shoot in Toronto, and we need the same thing for music. There is so much opportunity. Why isn’t someone trying to convince Lollapalooza to come here? Why can’t we open up High Park [to music]?
Part of creating a successful music festival is establishing an identity. You know, like Bonnaroo is for stinky hippies and Coachella is for people who want see Lindsay Lohan walking around in a pair of $500 rain boots. What do you see TURF as?
It’s definitely an indie festival. We thought about putting that in the name, but then it was sounding like TIFF. We’re sort of modelling ourselves along similar lines as the Newport Folk Festival or the Edmonton Folk Festival or Osheaga. Most of the acts are not what you’re going to hear on the radio. We want to be known as a festival for musoids. Sort of like a craft beer that gets popular.
Speaking of beer, one of the biggest complaints in terms of Toronto music events in recent years has been crazy line-ups.
That’s true, but so many of the old restrictions have changed, which is great. The old rule with the AGCO was that you had to buy beer tickets first and then line up to get your beer, but that’s gone now.
So you can buy actual beer with actual money.
Revolutionary, right? I think the line-ups will be pretty much non-existent. Not more than 10 minutes to get a beer and you won’t have to wait for a washroom at all. If there’s a problem on the Thursday night, we’ll bring in extra port-a-potties for the next day. We are really trying to look at TURF from a patron’s perspective and anticipate what will make it a great experience.
I gather that you are a Bruce Springsteen super-fan. How many times have you seen him play?
Holy crap. Is it possible that you’ve seen The Boss more times than anyone who isn’t in the E Street Band?
No, I’m only fourth in Canada. I got busy at one point, so I couldn’t keep up. I had already seen about a hundred [Springsteen shows] by 1988.
So you’re sort of like a Bruce Springsteen Deadhead. Is there a name for that?
We’re called Tramps.
Do you remember your first ever Springsteen show?
Absolutely. It was January 23, 1981, at the Montreal Forum. I was a tried-and-true punk rocker. I thought seeing a rock show was going to be really boring. I got the tickets for free and had no idea what I was in for. It wasn’t just something to drink a beer to. It was a life-changing experience.
What do you find so amazing?
It’s the commitment. He performs in a way that [shows] he understands you’re a fan. He’s not one of those artists who are there to collect a paycheque. He gives everything he can every time he’s on stage. A Springsteen concert is a cathartic experience. Some songs you dance to and then some songs will tear your heart out. His concerts emulate life.
Thunder Road or Born to Run?
Beatles or Stones?
Mick or Keith?
ACC or Rogers Centre?
Rihanna or Beyoncé?
Broken Social Scene or Metric?
Broken Social Scene.
Dead musician you most want to see?
Toronto Urban Roots Festival takes places at Garrison Common at Fort York (and various other locations) July 4–7. Schedule and ticket information at torontourbanrootsfest.ca.