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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


SXSW 2016: Punter’s Survival Kit (2016 edition)

By on Tuesday, 19th April 2016 at 11:00 am

Ah, sweet relief! Our coverage of SXSW 2016 is very nearly in the books here at TGTF. I’ve now attended the music festival for 3 consecutive years, and each year for me has ended in a combination of heady exhilaration and overwhelming exhaustion. Over the course of those 3 years, I’ve learned that creating a positive and memorable experience depends largely on your level of preparedness. Flexibility is the key to making the most of your time at SXSW, and a little bit of advance planning can make switching gears on a moment’s notice much easier to accomplish. With that in mind, I’ve put together the following SXSW survival kit, a list of items that any punter worth his or her salt will need to make it through the week.

Light jacket or sweater – The weather in Austin during SXSW-season is notoriously temperamental. It could be sunny and blazing hot one day, cool and rainy the next. It could even be both in one day, if you’re really lucky! One thing you definitely DON’T want to deal with is an umbrella. Bring a rain hat instead, and a plastic bag to stash it in if it gets wet. Dress in layers, and have a sweater or jacket handy for when afternoon fades into evening.

DMcK shoes internal

Comfortable shoes – Wear shoes you know to be comfortable for long days of intense walking. Again, keep an eye on the weather forecast and choose accordingly, especially if the prediction is for rain. Style is secondary; nothing will ruin your day faster than soggy socks, blisters or sore feet. If you insist on a certain degree of fashion (and I speak from painful experience here), you might want to carry a spare plaster or two, just in case your footwear plan goes awry.

Bag – You obviously don’t want to schlep a huge and heavy bag all over Austin, but you’ll need a good-sized tote or messenger bag to carry your personal items, as well as the odd items you’ll invariably find yourself collecting through the course of the day. Bring a sturdy bag that you can carry comfortably and that you don’t mind getting dirty. Be aware that some venues may have bag restrictions or need to search your bag on entry.

Sunglasses – Outdoor gigs and long walks between venues in the bright Texas sunshine necessitate a good pair of sunnies. Also, they work in a pinch to disguise the dark circles under your eyes after the previous night’s shenanigans.

Spook School internal

Suncream – I can’t emphasise this one enough. If I had a dollar for every sunburnt British or Irish musician I’ve met at SXSW over the past 3 years, I could probably finance my trip to Austin for 2017. If you’re spending any time outdoors, you’ll want some SPF on any exposed body parts, especially if you’re fair-skinned. [I met a Scottish woman at SXSW 2015 who actually wanted to go home red as a lobster. Don’t be that person. Your body will thank you for it, especially when laying down to sleep at night, and painlessly. – Ed.]

Earplugs – It took some pretty steady convincing on Mary’s part to sell me on the need for earplugs. I normally hate wearing them, as they (obviously) dampen the sound of the music and make conversation generally difficult. However, by the end of a long day of showcases, your ears will undoubtedly be tired from the constant barrage of noise. Even if you plan on seeing only acoustic-style shows, many of the showcases feature a variety of genres, and you never know when your favourite folkie might be preceded or followed by a considerably louder act. Added bonus: I’ve had some great conversations with fellow punters at SXSW, but wearing earplugs is a great excuse for not conversing, if you so choose.

Big Thief internal

Smartphone – Absolutely indispensable. You’ll need it for keeping in touch with your friends and business contacts throughout the festival, as well as for any social media sharing you might want to do. You can access maps and directions if you’re not familiar with your surroundings, find RSVP information for unofficial parties and shows, as well as keeping up with the latest official schedule information on the SXSW App. Keep it in a safe place, like a buttoned pocket, where you can access it on the run if you need to.

Camera – This seems like a no-brainer, but have a separate camera ready for photo opportunities. Don’t depend on your smartphone for pictures! Taking photos will quickly eat up both the storage and the battery on your phone, especially if you’re live Tweeting or otherwise sharing events on social media. Also keep in mind that most of the venues, with the exception of outdoor day parties, are low-light settings, which are difficult to photograph without flash and nearly impossible with smartphone cameras. (Do I need to remind you to keep your flash turned off when photographing artists on stage?) I’ve found it convenient to wear a small camera bag with a neck strap during gigs, so that I can have my hands free between photo opportunities but still get to my camera quickly when I need it. [SXSW is also a prime opportunity to take photos with the future stars of tomorrow. Enjoy a band’s performance? Be respectful, don’t be pushy and let them pack up first, then say hi and express your appreciation. Remember, the majority are far from home, they’ve worked hard to get to Austin and they’ll appreciate your effort. – Ed.]

Spare batteries, chargers and cords – There are often charging stations set up at different locations around the downtown area, but you never know where you’ll be when one of your devices runs out of power. Plan to recharge everything overnight and make sure your devices are fully charged before you set out each day, but also have extra power sources at the ready whenever you can. Keep a second charged camera battery in your camera bag and carry a mophie (Mary’s preference) or other spare smartphone battery pack—mine saved me more than once near the end of a 12-hour (or longer!) day at SXSW 2016. Don’t forget the connection cables!

Energy bars or other snacks – The food options at SXSW are as many and widely varied as the music options, and showcases and parties often include free refreshments. But you might find that you’re so busy running between shows that you aren’t able to partake in the provisions as much as you’d like. Take every possible opportunity to sample the local fare, but also keep a protein bar or other handy snack in your bag in case you need a quick nibble to keep your energy level up. A bottle of water is also a nice idea, but keep in mind that many venues won’t let you bring it inside, so you’ll have to drink it before you go in.

Even with a handy list like the one above, it’s practically inevitable that you’ll forget something or encounter a circumstance you hadn’t predicted. The trick to surviving those moments, I’ve found, is keeping your head and maintaining your sense of humour. An awkward moment in the present will translate to an interesting story to tell later on! (Just ask Ciaran Lavery, who wins our ‘prize’ for ‘suffering’ the most unforgettable pre-show incident at SXSW 2016.) If you need a helping hand, don’t be afraid to interact with your fellow festival-goers. Almost everyone at SXSW is in the same situation—far from the comforts of home, operating on precious little sleep, and loving every minute of the chaos.

See ya next year, Austin!

Ciaran Lavery internal


About Us

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

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF is edited by Mary Chang, who is based in Washington, DC. She is joined by writers in England, America and Ireland. It began as a UK music blog by Phil Singer in 2005.

All MP3s are posted with the permission of the artists or their representatives and are for sampling only. Like the music? Buy it. If you want a track removed, email us and we'll sort it ASAP.

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