CMW 2016: what you need to know about Toronto’s city music festival

By on Friday, 13th May 2016 at 11:00 am

This year at Canadian Music Week (CMW) 2016, there was a special Spotlight on the UK, as well as a Focus on Ireland. So how could we here at TGTF say no? As it was the first time for TGTF to cover the event, I thought I’d start my coverage of CMW 2016 by setting the stage for you, if you will. I want to explain to you what Toronto is like and how Canadian Music Week is different from other events you may have heard about or attended yourself. That way, you’ll have a better idea about whether you’d like to attend next year.

Distance / transport
1. The venues participating in CMW are far apart. I mean, seriously, this is no joking matter. If you decide to hoof it entirely because you’re tight or you have too much confidence that you’re built like a triathlete, you’re going to get sore feet. Even with those sensible shoes we’re always telling you to wear to festivals. I should know. I wore trainers for the most of the week, and even I got tired!

CMW 2016 Google Map
venue map taken from the CMW Web site

2. Toronto has a great network of public transit, allowing you to traverse the city via subway, streetcar or bus. So why wouldn’t you want to take advantage of it and let your tootsies get some rest? Pick up some tokens from the local store, convenience store, or subway station to save some change per ride. And don’t forget to grab a transfer from within the subway station or from your friendly streetcar or bus driver so you can make a free transfer to another mode of transit within an hour of the first fare being paid. (Yes, you read that right!) If you’re really a masochist – or a tree hugger, I guess – you can also rent a bike in this cycling-friendly city.

While we’re on the subject of transport, let’s say you’re a real daredevil and have decided to drive to Toronto. Or rent a car upon arrival. My host for the week reminded me how often Toronto is used as a film set. She described a hellish incident when she got stuck in her car for hours because the city decided to shut the road she was on down for a film crew and it was a major artery into and out of town. So don’t be foolish. If you really must drive to Toronto, park your four wheels somewhere for the week and utilise mass transit. Bonus: you won’t need a designated driver! Note: TGTF urges all music event goers to drink responsibly. Everywhere! Let’s stay safe.

3. Uber may or may not work for you, so have a backup plan. Toronto does not currently participate with Lyft, one of SXSW 2016‘s sponsors, so I had dutifully downloaded the Uber app, expecting to use it in the wee hours of the morning. Stationed by the bar at the Smiling Buddha at close to 3 AM, I tried for a half-hour to hail a taxi from the app, only for it to go into a continuous loop, claiming it didn’t recognise my *Canadian* phone number. I thought I was going to beat my head into a wall. This was after Broken Hands had successfully hailed two Uber taxis and had departed long before. My host reported similar issues in the past with the app, and she’s a Toronto native.

Finally, my new friend and bartender at the club Gabe, along with Brian and Tadhg from Meltybrains?, helped me the conventional way, flagging down a passing taxi driver to get me home. I did some calculations after the fact, and I think I would have only saved at most CAN $3 using Uber. Though Toronto is by and large a safe city, I tell this story because I think I might have started crying if as a single woman, I didn’t know anyone there and had been stuck there as long as I had been.

Electronics / safety
4. Related to that and as we have suggested in past survival kit features for SXSW including Carrie’s post-SXSW 2016 article here, be sure to bring your phone charger or better yet, a spare, charged up battery pack in case you need to consult a map on your smartphone when you’re half-asleep. Bizarrely and amazingly, some of the buses and streetcars run 24 hours in Toronto, so figuring out a way back on what mass transit was still running would have been my plan C.

5. Yes, cannabis is legal in Toronto. There’s shops on Queen Street and in the Kensington Market area that brazenly advertise their wares, but I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that they do so now that current Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called for the legalisation of its use. That said, if you’re visiting from another country and wish to partake, I’d err on the side of caution so you don’t find yourself doing something that will get you into trouble, so you find yourself on the wrong side of the law. Which is true of all things and all places, yeah?

Venues / shows / do I really need a badge or wristband?
6. Unless you’re going to the biggest shows in town during CMW – and these will be obvious because you will need separate tickets to attend in addition to your badge or wristband, and you’ll see they will sell out quickly too – chances are when you turn up at a venue, there won’t be a queue greeting you. Even though I’d been clued in on this at the start of the week, I was pleasantly surprised by this, as Toronto is *the* music city of Canada and all bands who are anybody tour there when they come to North America. So if you hate queueing at city festivals, this one’s for you.

7. You can buy tickets for some venues ahead of time. However, for many other places, there are perfectly reasonable cover fees at the door that won’t break the bank. CMW offers a good bargain per night if you have specific bands or bills you already know you want to see. In that respect, CMW is less like SXSW and more like CMJ, which takes place in New York City in October. To give you some financial context, our friend Mar on Music put on a showcase on Wednesday at The 300 Club that I will be reviewing as part of my CMW coverage, and the cover at the door was CAN$5 if you didn’t have a badge or wristband. That’s less than a drink in most pubs, isn’t it? Many others I saw, including the Handlebar where I saw Meltybrains? Tuesday night, were only charging CAN$10. So in essence, it’s a music festival that’s highly affordable, if you plan ahead.

Tuesday night Handlebar sign

While I didn’t have time to check out cover charges at all the venues, the cost to get into the UK Trade and Investment showcase Saturday night at Velvet Underground is a good contrast. The bill included The Orielles (England), The People the Poet (Wales), The Undivided (Wales) and headliners Fat White Family (England; artsy photo of them at the showcase at top) had a cover charge of CAN$20. That seemed entirely reasonable to me if you decided to have a night out in any major city in the UK or Ireland and wanted to see a band like Fat White Family headline at a good club.

8. Toronto is cold. Even in May. I have no idea how anyone survived CMW when it took place in March, the week after SXSW. I don’t know if this was a fluke, and perhaps all of you in the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe are shaking your heads and laughing at me for being a wimp. But most times, I was absolutely freezing outside. The natives laughed at me and my coat and hat, but at least I was warm!

9. Toronto is actually not as cheap as you might have thought. Each Canadian dollar is about US$0.80 at the time of this writing. It led me to believe that eating out, drinking and shopping would have been cheaper than if I had holidayed somewhere else in America. Because there are the GST and HST tax schemes in the province of Ontario where Toronto lies, unless you’re buying produce from a stand (counted as basic groceries and exempt from GST), the final price will be higher quoted on a menu, bar chalkboard or clothing shop sign. Also factor in a 13% alcohol tax when dining in, and your eyes will water when the bill for your Caesar arrives.

Caesar at George Street Diner

10. Toronto is vegetarian and vegan friendly. I feel really bad for bands with veggie members when they come for SXSW and barbecue is constantly in your face. I was surprised by the amazing wealth of options for those who follow any sort of vegetarian or vegan diets or those who are just curious about what’s out there beyond huge hunks of meat. There is some truly inventive cuisine in the city, for omnivores and vegetarians alike, some of which can be seen on my Instagram. Also, being in a country where there is a strong French influence, there’s cheese seemingly everywhere. Sorry, vegans.

Alex Farm Adventure in Cheese at St. Lawrence Market

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

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