Exhibition Place

Toronto’s Exhibition Place votes to ban electronic music gatherings. Who will profit?

A city committee votes to halt EDM shows in city buildings on Exhibition Place. We look at who started it, and why.

- Apr 11, 2014

Today, the Board of Governors at Toronto's Exhibition Place voted 4-3 in favour of a ban of electronic music gatherings within city-owned buildings. Scheduled shows will be honoured, but for the moment it seems EDM's presence, which brings $1 million dollars annually in revenue for the city of Toronto, will be extinguished from the publicly-owned venue. And it seems the man who succeeded in stopping them is now seeking to snag the profits from as many orphaned raves as he can.

Following the vote, I spoke with Councillor Gord Perks, a member of the Board of Governors who voted against and vigorously opposed the measure (and, at one time, new bars in Parkdale). He gave me some history, and his version of it was troubling:

In January, the Board of Governors was contacted by Zlatko Starkovski, owner of Muzik, a privately-owned club also located at the Ex. He requested a lease change to include exclusive rights for live music performances at Exhibition Place. According to Perks, the grounds were dubious: "He was concerned these Electronic Dance Music events were ruining his reputation, and also mentioned that the booking agency that he used was now working with the EDM guys," Perks says. "And that this was costing him business."

Muzik also hired the services of Jamie Besner and Sussex Group, a powerful Canadian lobbying firm. That was when the rhetoric began to focus on the dangers of raves, and Councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, another member of the board, "suddenly started going after getting the dance music events banned [from city-owned spaces]." (Mammoliti is accused of hosting an illegal fundraiser, which Besner attended).

It's important to note the vested interests of the key pushers of this bill. Starkovski is on a nickname basis with Mayor Rob Ford, who lit up social media when he visited Muzik in January. Perks says that the Mayor also pushed for City Council to appoint Mammoliti to the Board of Governors early on in his tenure. In addition, Muzik hosts 19+ EDM events – enough to be listed on EDMCanada.com as recently as last month.

Starkovski claims to be motivated out of concern for the children who attend the all ages EDM events on city property. But if he is one of few licensed rave promoters at Exhibition Place within a city that's hemorrhaging venues, his club could, in a perverse twist of fate, become an epicentre for raving. This is something Mammoliti seems to be hoping for, and Perks doesn't mince words: "This is about a business trying to make more money and stirring up a moral panic to chase their competitor out."

Although Starkovski succeeded in stopping the raves next door, his request to be granted exclusive rights to live shows was deferred until the board's next session, which Perks tells me should come "in the next month and a half" (he also promised to see if City Council had the power to overturn the vote). During that session, the board will decide whether or not Starkovski will see a financial windfall at the expense of a culture it's profiting from.

The hearing of today's vote, as documented in the Twitter feed of Toronto Sun reporter Don Peat, is riddled with scare tactics and unsubstantiated claims, a familiar sight to many in Toronto electronic community. In 2000, Toronto's rave culture was one of the largest in North America, with parties at the grounds drawing as many as 10,000 people. Following 20-year-old Allen Ho's overdose on ecstasy at a rave, then-mayor Mel Lastman folded to intense political pressure and passed the Raves Act. It contained a new series of restrictions that made holding raves prohibitively expensive. The act decimated the events, and diminished Toronto's renowned place in global electronic community.

Ho's tragic death fourteen years ago led to an inquest. It laid out 19 "preventative" measures, most of which were adopted by city council. At today's vote, staff from Toronto Public Health reiterated the claim that raves hosted on city-controlled grounds like Exhibition Place are more safe and have better security. According to Perks, this level of control costs the promoters three times as much to hold an all-ages event at the CNE than at a privately-owned club. And yet, all that legislation was not enough to curb the latest round of reductive fear-mongering which, like fourteen years ago, came with cries to "think of the children." 

There is a teachable moment here: Moral panic, the kind that halted raving in Toronto a decade and a half ago, is too obstinate for bills and ordinances. To be "carefully policed and regulated" as Councillor Perks described the restrictions on today's raves, when enacted, hinder the culture and, for a population ignorant to it, only confirm their worst fears.

These rules did nothing to prevent today's body blow. The fear has circled back around, to be capitalized on for monetary and political gain. If Toronto wants to be a world class destination for live music, its citizens need to learn from the past and curb reactionary pearl-clutching to youth-popular genres.

Councillor Mammoliti, Jamie Besnar, and Zlatko Starkovski could not be reached for comment.

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