Coalition TO (Part 1 of 2)

Coalition TO (Part 1 of 2)

Local and Translocal Scene Formations in Toronto’s Punk and Metal Underground

Post by: Dennis William Lee (University of Toronto)

This paper is an adaptation of what was originally presented as part of the panel: The Sonic Life of a Neighbourhood: A Team Ethnography of Toronto’s Kensington Market at the Society for Ethnomusicology Virtual Annual Meeting, October 23, 2020.

Check out images from Coalition on the Photos page.

ABSTRACT: How does space become crucial to musical community—and what happens when that space disappears? Though only open from 2014-2019, Coalition TO, a basement bar in Toronto’s Kensington Market neighbourhood, was the city’s home base for underground punk and metal. The effects of its sudden closure were acutely felt in the lives of those in related musical communities, the neighbourhood, and Toronto more broadly. Building on other Toronto-focused research (Ross 2017, Valverde 2012) and scene theories (Straw 1991; Tironi 2012; Bennet 2016), Coalition is presented as a case study demonstrating the continued importance of place and situated identity in local and trans-local scene formations, as well as the far-reaching effects of neighbourhood change beyond a “local” radius. Drawing on fieldwork done between 2017 and 2020, this paper examines the rise and fall of the venue as situated within the history of Toronto’s metal and punk scenes, how it became a hub for related networks—from DIY “crustpunk” communities to Canadian and international touring circuits—and follows scene dispersals after the landlord’s refused to resign the lease. Ironically, all of this occurs in the midst of initiatives by the municipal government to brand Toronto as a “Music City,” and the continued transience of the city’s underground music scenes is indicative of the disconnect between the policy makers and participants in music-centred communities, many of whom are struggling with increasing economic precarity and displacement exacerbated by gentrification.

Thank you for taking the time to read about Kensington Market, and specifically, the music venue: Coalition. Before I get into the main subject of my paper, I’m going to give a bit more background into how this project, “The Kensington Market Sound and Music Research Project,” came to be. This project started in the department of Anthropology in 2014, and the music department joined in 2017 – as a master’s student in ethnomusicology at the time, I was fortunate to be part of the experiment.

This project is a product of collaboration, which comes with some great advantages and also some challenges. We have to be sure not to step on each other’s toes, but we also hear about events and share information, introduce each other to potential interviewees, discuss our ongoing work, and so on.

Now keep in mind, Kensington Market is only around four square city blocks, and this makes for a seriously high density of researchers. This made it as important as ever to address certain issues which are always crucial when in doing ethnographic fieldwork: being cautious not to piss off the people in the community, and beyond that, figuring out what community members might want from this. How can our work be beneficial for them?

My work, for example, began as very specific: I was looking at a single venue called Coalition. As time went on I had to decide how much I wanted to stay geographically centred and how much I wanted to follow the stories of the intersecting communities. I tend towards the latter approach, though I have been interested in how the venue and its related communities interact with notions of placemaking and the mythos of Kensington market.

On that note, let’s get started on this paper.

Kensington, even though it is central, has a remarkably different character than the rest of downtown Toronto: shorter buildings, narrower, more pedestrian friendly streets, plenty of small business. Additionally, Kensington has distinct daytime and night-time identities. In the evenings after the shops close, a handful of bars, clubs and music venues offer a somewhat lower-key alternative to the Toronto nightlife of dance clubs and upscale cocktail lounges found on, say King Street in the financial district. 

Now imagine a warm summer night: the Kensington bike rack, as per usual, is overfull. Across the street is a wide sidewalk populated with punks and metalheads in patched leather jackets and denim vests. A large signboard is painted with the motorhead hog face and the words “Coalition, Toronto.” Next door to the venue is a pharmacy, closed at night, so the punks have free reign over the sidewalk, smoking, chatting, hanging out, sitting or even lying down. 

Beside the sign, a door, out of which almost no sound is heard, leads down to the basement, where any given night of the week bands from Toronto, elsewhere in Canada, or around the world might be playing. The ceiling and the stage are low, but the sound system is top notch. While most venues in the neighbourhood had sound spilling out onto the streets, thanks to Coalition’s basement location the volume can be as loud as it needs to be without disturbing any neighbours. The space outside the venue generally remains remarkably quiet and peaceful. There’s talking and laughing, but no music to be heard. The owners actually eventually put speakers in the doorway piping the music from downstairs outside just so people would know when bands were on.

Opening its doors in 2014, it only took a few years for Coalition to become the most important venue for Toronto’s underground punk and metal scenes. In an interview with Toronto musician, Matt Black, he told me in 2017: “Oh yeah, I feel like we’re home base for it. Like more than anything. More so than I think other venues are.”

Coalition brought out bands from all over the world and put them on bills alongside Toronto’s finest, all while keeping a focus on punk, metal, and related genres. It should also be noted that Coalition’s initial rise was in the midst of Toronto’s much talked-about “vanishing venue crisis”, as dozens of beloved spaces, big and small, old and new closed over the course of a few years, from Guvernment to the Soybomb to the Silver Dollar.  Coalition, a new venue was not only surviving but sticking to its guns and flourishing. It seemed almost too good to be true. Then it turned out it was.

From Matt: “We heard rumblings, leading up to about a year. We knew definitely about 8 months before.” The venue closed in April 2019. The landlords had told them they were not re-signing the lease. No reason was given.

Before we get to this, let’s go back in time again and talk about how Coalition became so important in the first place. Underground metal and punk in Toronto didn’t start with Coalition. They’ve been here for decades.

Over the course of my research, a number of venues came up as important scene hubs over the years. While a few of the venues are in or near Kensington, overall they’re scattered all over the city. Most of these venues are now closed. Several closed during the course of my research.

Note also that there has always been a mix of official venues and informal DIY venues. Matt Black used to live in and run Siesta Nouveau in the East end, a legendary Toronto DIY space. So, while Coalition was a legit venue with a live music permit and a liquor license, it had a DIY lineage which gave it credibility within the scene.

Now I’m going to have a bit of an aside here for a bit of theoretical framing. What am I talking about when I’m talking about scene? One way of framing a scene is by geographic area. Will Straw’s well-cited but often-criticized early work defines a scene as “that cultural space in which a range of musical practices coexist, interacting with each other.” (Straw, 1991, 372) So, for example, the Toronto scene, and all the types of music played therein. Another idea of scene, of course, is delineated by genre or aesthetic (Tironi, 2012), for example: the punk scene or the metal scene.

In terms of scene, I’ve mostly been talking about a construct that combines parameters of place and genre: the Toronto punk and metal scene.

But we need to get even more specific in how I’m looking at scene, because that definition could include things like Metallica playing at the Roger’s Centre, or NOFX playing at Echo Beach for thousands of people. This isn’t what I’m interested in today.

A third way of talking about scenes is in terms of networks. Alan O’Connor sees an important distinction between scholarly definitions of scene (particularly Will Straw’s) and the way “punks” presumably use the term, which O’Conner defines as: “the active creation of infrastructure to support punk bands and other forms of creative activity” (2002, 226). For O’Connor, it’s important that the infrastructure is created at a grassroots level, usually with people who actually know each other and hang out.

Here’s Matt again:

“People could… I think they felt that they could go there any given night, there would at least be something that interests them, and they would see friends. All the time. You know, so, you know, that’s what you need in a community spot.”

Matt brought up another key term here: community. The close connection between scene and community is regularly invoked in punk literature, as I mentioned in O’Conner, as well as a lot of recent metal studies literature, from scholars like Jeremy Wallach (2011, 2012) and Nelson Varas-Diaz (2014, 2016). And, like we just heard, it’s also invoked by the people who take part in these scenes every day. For them, it’s not just an abstract concept.

Coalition was homebase for Toronto punk and metal communities, but it also became a hub on the Canadian independent touring circuit, thanks in no small part to Matt’s experience as a touring musician. He would book whole tours for bands, using Coalition as an anchor date. But he always emphasised the importance of the local. Whenever bands asked him how to get started touring on playing shows, he always told them to start by going to shows and meeting the people around them. Before Coalition, the communities in Toronto already existed for years, moving around from space to space across the city. Coalition provided what seemed like more stable spot for the communities to thrive, and for people to get to know each other.

Another thing that made helped the venue was its location within Kensington Market….

Continue reading about Coalition’s connection to Kensington Market in: Coalition TO Part 2.

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