by carl wilson

Indie Kids Can't Jump?

An Eye weekly article today provocatively called "Torontopia's white-guy syndrome" includes an interview with me, among others, about the downtown arts/music/miscellania scene's difficult relationship with Toronto's vaunted multiculturalism. The headline is an indication of a degree of oversimplification (the word "Torontopia," for instance, was popularized by Steve Kado, who, as his last name suggests, is not a white guy) but the points made are valuable. It's disappointing to see that so far the Stillepost reaction, for instance (not counting Doc Pickles' opening salvo, and only including the first few "yawn" responses that have been posted as I write), partakes of exactly the sort of defensiveness that Jonny Dovercourt describes in the article. Sure, it would have been better if this article had been done when the Wavelength panel was happening, but what exactly makes it "too late"? Did the problem get solved sometime recently when I wasn't looking?

I'm open to an argument the problem is too trivial to make much on (though wouldn't this be a kind of "separate but equal" defence - or else an acknowledgment that the indie/arts downtown scene is too mediocre for accessibility to be worth anyone's while, which would be a weird, or at least sad argument for the people in it to make?). However I'm not convinced that a "big collective yawn" is actually, as Doc P. argues, a sign that all is well. Blase shrugging is in fact the indie scene's favourite form of self-protective deflection.

Final point: The first quote from me in that article, on the David Miller event at Trampoline Hall, is taken somewhat out of context and it was also a response to a leading question by the reporter: She essentially said, wasn't he there because this was a privileged group of people? And I said, sure, that was part of it. But I said he was also there because Trampoline Hall invited him, and because the event is a model of a different way of people in Toronto talking to each other that he apparently liked, and because he wanted to connect to the arts community. And I added that I was sure he spent much more time in the campaign going to community centres with diverse ethnic constituencies than he did talking to downtown white arts nerds - otherwise there's no way he would have won an election in this town. I understand what the reporter was getting at, but her use of that quote was far more insulting to both David Miller and Trampoline Hall than I can let pass.

Still, there's a lot of worthwhile stuff in the piece otherwise, including about the social and practical barriers to a more diverse scene that persist despite anyone's best intentions.

Via Toronto | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, June 07 at 3:45 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (31)

 

COMMENTS

In all seriousnes, reflecting back, I think I may have overstated the problem. That is, sure the scene is mostly white guys and girls but Torontopia is not an exclusively lily-white racist cultural formation, and it sorta reflects some kind of multicultural Toronto.

The problem that remains is the politics of Torontopia or, to broaden things a bit, the uTOpia movement itself. The interesting challenge to me (from afar) is how we (I'll include myself with the old T'topia crew) interact, conceive of and perhaps include parts (geographic, political, otherwise) of Toronto that do not usually interact with us. I was flipping through the uTOpia book the other day and I took out one of the maps in the back and was struck by how it only pictures a Toronto from Bloor Street south (with small inserts from North York, Scareberia, Etobicoke) to the lake. The exclusion of, well, most of Trawna was striking and seems to be a bigger problem than "why are all these dudes white?" (as articulating in the Eye article).

The question then becomes how to include others, to broaden a scene that can be as inward looking and reactionary as Jonny Dovercourt warns against. I don't know but on a music front, bookers could work in bringing together audiences by booking eclectric, multidisciplianry shows, perhaps in non-traditional venues. Fetivals could be expanded or started. Etc. This is all hard work and I realize that I'm not there (right now) to implement my suggestions. But these are the important issues that I think have been avoided for the past couple years.

Posted by Graham on June 15, 2007 1:00 AM

 

 

I wondered if you'd feel that way, Graham.

Too late for you, but some of us still live here.

Posted by zoilus on June 14, 2007 10:46 AM

 

 

didn't I say all these things like a year ago?

too late, by far.

Posted by Graham on June 14, 2007 12:15 AM

 

 

I figured out what annoys me about this subject whenever it comes up.

Sanctimonious white boys condescending theoretical constructs to the supposedly unenlightened.

Posted by Dylan on June 11, 2007 9:15 AM

 

 

Yes, I agree. We need FORUMS for this kind of talk, and honestly, ManifesTO and CYAN (the Canadian Youth Arts Network) are two of the best forums I've seen in a considerable amount of time. I invite all who have something to say about this issue to come to the Ignite discussions. http://canadianyoutharts.net/info.html

On the 12th and 13th at the Gladstone, they're holding these exact kind of discussion, with a direct connection to Ottawa about "how people really feel" and "what needs to be done". Please come and speak your mind.

Posted by Ryan M on June 11, 2007 2:30 AM

 

 

Despite all the sarcasm in there, Mike, I basically agree with everything you just said. One of the big questions is in what forums, what contexts, those exchanges can happen, because they don't seem to happen a lot now. The Eye piece, whatever its flaws, was a good start to a much more multifaceted conversation.

Posted by zoilus on June 10, 2007 10:44 PM

 

 

I'll make this my last post, lest I flog this horse until dead.

"...any cursory glance at Canadian and Toronto economic and demographic statistics would tell you"...

Statistics? Nah. How about a cursory glance outside your window? How come no one around here ever refers to their experience of actually living in Toronto? Statistics are for people too lazy to get out and find out for themselves. I quote Mark Twain: lies, damn lies, statistics.

"Besides, the fact that class status and racial identity don't always coincide only means that there's more than one set of issues to talk about. They don't cancel each other out."

My point exactly. Glad we agree. But where is the subtle analysis that explains how people of every background are represented at every income level? I reject the idea that white = middle class, just as I reject the idea that not white = lower class. No one here likes generalizations, right?

"I'm sorry about the exaggeration of "ridiculously easy" above. "Comparatively easy" would be better. This shit isn't easy for (almost) anyone, of course"

Word to God! I'm up all night thinking about it (seriously). But "comparatively easy" isn't any better unless you're going to tell us, compared to who? "Other groups"? Which ones? How so?

To move forward, I think this discussion (here, on Stillepost, in our minds and hearts) needs to come out from behind the abstractions and get specific. The city is not simply white people vs. everyone else. It is a gigantic confusion of people from every part of the world (Karachi, Lima, Peggy's Cove, Malvern...), with every kind of human experience (rich, poor, success, failure, lucky, cursed...). We don't need to share statistics, we need to share stories: who we are, where we come from, what we see, how we feel (an "honest assesment", as you say). Let's take off the kid gloves and get our hands dirty; we have a city to build!

I'll go first: my name is Mike, I'm from Agincourt, and my number one social fear is being ridiculed by Black people...

Posted by Mike on June 10, 2007 7:03 PM

 

 

Minor quibbles with content and choice of interviewees aside, I wanted to mention that my first comment - out loud - upon reading the piece was: "this is really well-written."

I'm all for challenging an article's content or point-of-view if you disagree with it. But it is truly irksome to dismiss the argument of a piece one disagrees with by saying that it's poorly-written.

Especially when it isn't.

Posted by spitz on June 10, 2007 12:32 PM

 

 

The fact that both individuals exist does not make these two things "just as likely," Mike, as any cursory glance at Canadian and Toronto economic and demographic statistics would tell you, as would any honest assessment of indie music and other downtown arts scenes (hampered by the fact that many individuals will avoid divulging much about their background).

Besides, the fact that class status and racial identity don't always coincide only means that there's more than one set of issues to talk about. They don't cancel each other out.

But I'm sorry about the exaggeration of "ridiculously easy" above. "Comparatively easy" would be better. This shit isn't easy for (almost) anyone, of course.

Posted by zoilus on June 8, 2007 6:16 PM

 

 

"Can we not agree that the stakes are higher financially for, say, a guy who came to Canada and has no family nearby but wants to play music than they are for an OCAD student who lives in a hovel in Parkdale but if the chips were down, could always take the GO bus back to Brampton or Ajax?"

We can, but only if we're talking about two specific individuals. Beyond that, no way. It's just as likely that the immigrant, when the chips are down, gets in his Mercedes and drives to his waterfront condo as it is for the OCAD student to take the GO bus to Ajax to move back into his working class mother's basement apartment. I've known both kinds of people, and I can't be the only one who has.

Posted by Mike on June 8, 2007 12:11 PM

 

 

P.S. The Manifesto website is www.themanifesto.ca, and the site for their series One Drop is www.themanifesto.ca/onedrop/v2

Posted by Ryan M on June 8, 2007 11:42 AM

 

 

Can we not agree that the stakes are higher financially for, say, a guy who came to Canada and has no family nearby but wants to play music than they are for an OCAD student who lives in a hovel in Parkdale but if the chips were down, could always take the GO bus back to Brampton or Ajax? There is a difference between voluntary simplicity and necessity.

To my mind the article is not particularly well-written but it's important to put it into perspective -- it's not hard-nosed journalism, it's an opinion piece, and is made particularly relevant by being authored by someone who feels she experiences the phenomenon she's writing about. To complain that no minority individuals were interviewed is absolutely valid, but doesn't (in my mind) negate everything that was said.

And I also think there can be too little recognition of the difficulty in alt-weekly publishing of juggling journalistic integrity and thoroughness with the fact that the bosses have given you 700 words to work with. People like Edward are in the difficult position of trying to work that's worthwhile within the structure of a company like Torstar that sells 75% of the magazine as ad space. I appreciate the effort and don't think we should avoid the subject just because some people have talked about it and don't feel like getting into it anymore.

I guess I just think instead of getting up in arms it's better to put it into perspective as one person's take on things and an approach (successful or not) to starting discussion.

Posted by julie on June 8, 2007 11:32 AM

 

 

If the question is "why does indie rock get so much attention", only the press can answer that. When I worked at Eye, there was a constant drive to find someone that wasn't a white male to put on the cover, and yet white males (can we call them whales?) most often made the cover.

I think geography, or more accurately density, plays a large part. For every one event happening in Etobicoke, there's 50 in the core, and there's a larger arts audience in the core than out.

I went to a Board of Directors meeting for ManifesTO, a Toronto urban arts festival that has a focus and philosophy that's very similar to Wavelength, and one of the problems in their scene is the geographic divide. People from Teesdale won't go to show in Parkdale and people in Rexdale don't go to shows in MnL. And it gets more complicated from there.

But there seems to be a sense of "you come to us" or "we go to you" and not finding middle ground. ManifesTO is working to bring people downtown (the last event was at Crosstown, the next at the El Mocambo), but there's a lot of work to do in order to create a middle ground, not just for the urban scene, but for the arts scene as a whole.

Posted by Ryan M on June 8, 2007 11:29 AM

 

 

White indie rockers don't need to go to bank for a loan. We can just dip into the Broken Social Scene trust fund!

Posted by Dylan on June 8, 2007 10:53 AM

 

 

"part of the reason I think diversity's worth pursuing is to share the resources that young white middle-class people find ridiculously easy to accumulate with other groups of people who don't have that luxury."

Can we defend the claim that white middle-class kids find it ridiculously easy to assemble the resources necessary for indie-rock? As Dylan points out, the great majority of white indie-rockers on the scene in Toronto had to long ago abandon being middle-class to pursue their passion for music; the ones I know all have shitty dead-end jobs, and if they lived in Scarborough listening to rap music instead of downtown listening to indie-rock, no one would think twice to call them members of the underclass. Living this lifestyle is certainly a choice, but it's not a "ridiculously easy" one. It's struggle, toil, and always having to buy the cheapest beer available. And once you're there, it's not like a haircut and a fresh shirt gets you back onto Bay Street. White skin doesn't save you from a decision to drop out of the mainstream.

And what groups of people don't have access to the resources of indie-rock (or any music for that matter)? To use but one example, how many white indie rockers own a nightclub in Toronto? I'd wager it's ZERO. And yet, in my years of promoting, EVERY club owner I worked with was a person of colour, recent non-anglo immigrant or both. Not once did I work with an owner who was born in Toronto or come from its supposed mainstream. Given that owning a nightclub calls for access to immense resources, it's impossible for me to square my experience with the orthodoxy that white = access and non-white = exclusion. When we were booking El Amigo last summer, I asked the owners (Ecuadorian and Peruvian, respectively) how they came to own a nightclub. Their answer: they got a bank loan and opened a nightclub. Does that sound like they, or people like them, don't have access?


Posted by Mike on June 8, 2007 10:18 AM

 

 

I think a major flaw in the article is referring to Torontopia and the music scene in the same breath. Early in 2004, Toronto bands dropped the ball on Torontopia, and it was picked up by municipal activists like Dave Meslin. The bands saw a glimmer of success and started infighting like any scene, or set of scenes, does. Moreover, there was the term "Torontopia" to argue about, which made for a nice unifying aesthetic, but which is a viable reality when it comes to politics. The article is about a fiction rooted in surprise that people are going to see local bands play live; to this end, the article conveniently ignores what groups like Who Runs This Town? and Spacing provide on a citywide basis for those seeking to make a difference (note how little detail to what Spacing does actually appears in the piece, and that City Idol was not even mentioned).
To Jonny, Carl, and Matt Blackett, I say this: be careful who you're answering questions to, and make sure you answer questions they aren't asking. For close to a year now, Manhunt has had a "hang up" policy when we realize the interview being given is for a story we want no part of (for instance, the all-too-frequent "adults playing kids games" articles, which seem to fail to notice all the kids at the games they write about). I've been interviewed enough times to know what the story is going to look like from the questions being asked, and I'm sure all of you guys are familiar with it too (on second glance, it shows in Matt's answers, which are comically city hall-esque).
This links back to Carl's argument that the indie scene wouldn't have to give outreach to the smaller scenes if they got more coverage in the weeklies.
A question that could easily be asked about this piece is, "Why are you writing this editorial and not giving the space to articles on non-white performers?"
What is the ratio in this week's issue of Eye, anyway?

Posted by Matt Collins on June 8, 2007 1:49 AM

 

 

Oh, and saying "Hey! They didn't interview any female symphony conductors!" is not the same thing as saying, "Hey! Gender imbalance in symphony conduction isn't a problem!"

Posted by Dylan on June 7, 2007 9:33 PM

 

 

If by "flourishing", of course you mean "eking out a lower middle-class existance by working day jobs and occasionally playing $5 shows for their friends", then yes. The indie rock scene is certainly flourishing.

Posted by Dylan on June 7, 2007 9:28 PM

 

 

Marco, I'm not trying to distance myself from her. When I used "the reporter" I was disputing how I was quoted and stressing the functions and responsibilities that are being let down when someone is quoted out of context. The second time I called her "the writer" because I was referring to how she inserted her own p.o.v., which again has to do with the structural choices she made in that role (in that case, good ones). But a sentence before that I called her Denise because I was referring to our conversation.

As a writer and reporter myself, I hardly find those perjorative terms, anyway. The tone just reflects the fact that I don't know her personally so I'm not likely to refer to her as familiarly as I do Matt or Dylan. I agree that the central point is valid and have said so several times. I also think some of the complaints about the article are valid (choices of interviews, for example), but pointed out that some of those criticisms seem defensive and serve to shrug off the article's critique.

Since half of my original post consisted of an objection to how I was quoted, I'm afraid a bit of faintness of praise was inevitable. That's not a reflection of what I think of her argument - which is obvious enough since it's an argument I've made on this site and elsewhere many times in the past.

Posted by zoilus on June 7, 2007 9:26 PM

 

 

The author's central point is as valid as it's ever been, and so I feel the faintness of your praise is thoroughly unjustified. I think the way you distance yourself from the author by referring to her only as 'the reporter' is intentional, uncharacteristic, and unbecoming. Sure, the article wasn't wonderfully written, but then again neither were most of the self-congratulatory essays in the coach house anthologies. In its message, it was a fine article and an important one, even if token counterexamples can be found of at least partially non-europeans flourishing in the Family Compact of the scene establishment.

Posted by marco on June 7, 2007 8:13 PM

 

 

Well, for the most part, I'm not there- precisely because I find it horrible. For the past year, I've been more into things like City Idol, Manhunt and Strong Words- all of which seem to sidestep a lot of these accessibility issues by not requiring much in the way of resources in order to participate (I will acknowledge the money being spent by the organizers, as an organizer who spends the money so that people can have a thing to do with their time), and all of which see/have seen diverse participants from all over the city.
Another big one is that really, if you're keeping people out late, you had better give them a wicked good time. It's not even the money- the indie rock scene is notorious for refusing to spend money. I would wager a big reason scene crossover is difficult is getting those "Queen Street, Annex" kids to spend more than five dollars to see someone perform.

Posted by Matt Collins on June 7, 2007 6:03 PM

 

 

Point taken, Dylan.

Matt, your argument is the one I meant when I referred to "an acknowledgment that the indie/arts downtown scene is too mediocre for accessibility to be worth anyone's while."

I don't think it's as bad as you make it out, but there are two questions that come up: First, it's not true that nobody cares, as the indie scene gets pretty big crowds, media and other kinds of attention - part of the reason I think diversity's worth pursuing is to share the resources that young white middle-class people find ridiculously easy to accumulate with other groups of people who don't have that luxury. On that level (a) quality isn't the main issue, resources are; and (b) a more diverse scene would probably be higher in quality anyway.

But secondly, I gotta ask: If it's that bad, what are you doing there? Is it just a self-esteem issue or what?

Posted by zoilus on June 7, 2007 5:54 PM

 

 

Franky, her own POV didn't really cut it for me.

If I'm reading an article (or opinion piece or whatever) on why there aren't any female symphony conductors, I'd want to hear from a woman trying to become a symphony conductor. I don't want to hear solely from three male symphony conductors acknowledging that it is an issue and then offering a bunch of conjectures on why it is so. Even if that article were written by a woman.

Just not good enough.

Posted by Dylan on June 7, 2007 5:39 PM

 

 

Defensive, whatever. I said it on stillepost and I'll say it clearer here: given that I want to dance and have a good time and can't be bothered to waste my time with a 9 piece folk/psych group who sings about ghosts and talking to sad birds, why the fuck would anyone else? It's wildly condescending that the people championing shitty, pointless and barely enjoyable "art" music are worried that they're even important enough to be excluding people. Personally, I'm even amazed that they get a crowd at all, white or no. I'm going to ruffle some feathers here, but I'll wager that the reason many stay away from 90% of these shows is the same reason I stay away from 90% of these shows: The music is no fun, I can't dance to it, I can't drink to it, and who's going to get laid or meet cool people in a room full of people who enjoy terrible music? Who needs that? Even the people who like it don't need it.

Posted by Matt Collins on June 7, 2007 5:28 PM

 

 

Whoa. Hold on. Edward, I must call you out on this:

"Denise Balkissoon is not just another scenester wondering about her own guilt. She's a legitimate outsider from the great mass of Torontonians that who live outside of downtown and have heard all the hype and wonder if there's a place for them in the scene."

Legitimate outsider? No way. Not only did she go to school with and know personally many Torontopians, she has been a culture reporter at Toronto Life for years! There is no way she just stumbled onto Torontopia recently, and to say that she is a representative outsider from the great mass of non-downtown Toronto is totally disingenuous. When it comes to life in Toronto, you can't get more inside than Denise.

Posted by Mike on June 7, 2007 5:28 PM

 

 

I agree - and said to Denise when she called that I'd talk to her but I didn't think I was necessarily the best person to ask. I wish she'd asked Daniel Nebiat about his experience at Wavelength, for example, rather than relying on Jonny's account. So it was a great Wavelength, but was it a great Daniel Nebiat show, from his pov? And of course there are people in "the scene" that she could have asked.

But to be fair, the visible-minority position in the article was also represented by the writer herself, and she included her own pov quite explicitly.

Posted by zoilus on June 7, 2007 5:25 PM

 

 

Seriously.

How fucking refreshing would it be for an article about "why aren't there more visible minorities at indie rock shows" to actually talk to some visible minorities?

VERY FUCKING REFRESHING.

Posted by Dylan on June 7, 2007 5:12 PM

 

 

What makes the article too late? Just that by now, anyone who knows what Torontopia is knows that it has acknowledged and challenged its whiteness for years. The writer is picking a bone that has already been picked by the very people she seeks to criticize.

If the writer really wanted to move the discussion forward, she should have talked to almost anyone other than you and Jonny et al. If her point was that Toronto's avant-garde needs to hear from a greater range of voices, she could have done a great service by introducing some of those voices to the conversation. Instead, she asks the usual people the usual questions and no surprise, gets the usual answers (which are good answers, but well known). All the tough questions about "icky" things are yet again left unasked, and no one is any closer to understanding why there is still a mental divide between Jane & Finch and Sneaky Dee's.

Posted by Mike on June 7, 2007 5:09 PM

 

 

Lots of typos. Sorry. I was in a hurry.

Posted by Edward Keenan on June 7, 2007 5:02 PM

 

 

Hey Carl:

I'm sorry you feel your quote was taken out of context. I'll follow up with Denise about it and try to ensure she learns from the experience, if that is what's called for.

But further to your point on the whole "too late" thing: I know I've been thinking/hearing/talking about this for two or three years, during which time I've seen next to no change in the situation (not no change -- next to no change). So perhaps it's too late if what we mean is that insiders will find the discussion fresh and inventive. But if we mean is that this scene that may eventually mean something to the city should open up to the city at large, then I don't think it's too late at all. Whatever fatigue Dylan feels: has it resulted in change? And moreover, the rest of us might care to have a discussion even if we don't attend Wavelength and brave the wrath of the Stillpostistas.

An article like this -- certainly at this length and in a place like Eye -- can only ever really begin to raise an issue and encourage discussion. But I think it's worthwhile to note that Denise Balkissoon is not just another scenester wondering about her own guilt. She's a legitimate outsider from the great mass of Torontonians that who live outside of downtown and have heard all the hype and wonder if there's a place for them in the scene. I think she came in with an open mind and I hope her observations are of some value to those of us on the inside who can't always see the forest we make up.

One more thing: I originally had an extended digression -- almost a sidebar -- about the fact that there is SOME diversity in the scene, and that was pegged to the fact that Steve Kado coined the term Torontopia and all of that. But man, we only have a little bit of space. So, you know.

BUt of course Torontopia is not used here or in the headline in its Blocks Recording Club sense but as a name for the entire crowd, which is a kind of shorthand Denise needed to be able to talk about the scene as a something rather than as a million things. And I carried that through to the headline. Hey, it's catchy. And besides, headlines are provocative -- which maked people read the stores -- and they need to simpify. If they didn't need to oversimplify, we wouldn't need any stories to accompany them.

Posted by Edward Keenan on June 7, 2007 4:59 PM

 

 

In response to the Wavelength anniversary discussion panel, there was a lengthy and intense Stillepost thread on this very topic less than four months ago. The thread featured both indepth discussion and heated/passionate arguments. And even a bit of name-calling. Some feelings were hurt. There was quite a bit of frustration.

I don't think it is unreasonable for people to be too fatigued to dive into it again so soon.

Posted by Dylan on June 7, 2007 4:30 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson