Wavelength: Indie Rules the Toronto Music Scene

Wavelength is a community of Torontonians coming together to celebrate the local underground music scene. I sat with Jonny Dovercourt who’s been with the organization since its origin in 2000. He joined up with some friends to “start a collective with an energy and excitement around local music in Toronto.” They also wanted to celebrate Toronto’s history of underground culture, like the fact that “Toronto had one of the biggest punk scenes in the world in the 70s. Third largest after London and New York.”

Talking Heads performing at Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto in 1978.

Talking Heads onstage at Horseshoe Tavern in 1978.

Wavelength’s first curated concerts were a weekly series tied together with a monthly zine of comics, interviews and columns. They became a hub for artists to connect and share new work in the days before the internet took off. Wavelength has a history of filling the void for Toronto artists and concert goers. Their first festival event was ALL CAPS! in 2009, the brainchild of Ryan McLaren who wanted to “address the fact that a lot of the local music scene wasn’t accessible to people who were underage .” The series partnered with Artscape Gibraltar Point to curate an annual all ages festival. In 2015  ALL CAPS! evolved into Camp Wavelength, a three-night retreat in August on Toronto Island. 

Performer onstage at Camp Wavelength

Dirty Frigs at Camp Wavelength 2015

The ethos of the Wavelength, from its collective organizing body to its small intimate shows, taps into the collaborative nature of Toronto’s music scene. “Toronto has a really tight knit, mutually supportive scene. Bands actually talk to each other. People know what’s going on outside their little pockets of activity. That creates a really diverse interconnected scene that a lot of creativity can emerge from. And as a result there’s not one dominant sound which is actually really good.” – Jonny Dovercourt

Since 2014 the City of Toronto has been working on a plan to invest and support music, re-branding Toronto as a Music City. Before that, emphasis was on huge shows with mass appeal that bring in the most tourists and money for the city. But that misses the true flavour of Toronto. While a bigger budget would help ease financial pressures for Wavelength, there is strength in its multiple small shows. The small size means it doesn’t have to answer to an enormous corporate sponsor or multi-national label. The partnership with ArtScape continues strong allowing Wavelength to  maintain control of their programming. Upcoming collaborations include 21st Century in May. It’s an effort from The Royal Conservatory of Music to access Wavelength’s young crowd and break down the formal viewing experience of classical music. There’s a magic to the Wavelength community that other organizations are noticing.

Montreal band Organ Mood coordinates his set with projection

Montreal band Organ Mood at WL16

Wavelength shows have been called the place to see the big thing coming out of Toronto, but that’s not the reason for the festivals. Jonny knows that “every artist has their own trajectory [and] not everyone has to make it big.” If they do have a pattern of booking bands before they hit it big, it’s because of excellent curators and some element of “right time right place”. Grimes played in 2011 for $200 just a year before signing with UK label 4AD and playing SXSW. The Constantines played at a weekly series in 2001 and were “reviewed by five different music critics in Toronto saying this band is amazing…and they became really popular right after that.” There’s a reason these bands come to Wavelength and not any other festival for their breakout performances.

Wavelength is an organization run by artists for artists. It facilitates cross-pollination of genres and a unique listening experience. “Playing Wavelength is now viewed as a rite of passage for indie artists coming out of Toronto. It’s a really great kind of stepping stone between sort of the basement and going on to [be a] buzz band or [playing an] amphitheatre,” says Jonny. There’s a need for this intermediary performing space, which is abundantly clear from the sixteen years Wavelength has been around. It’s a sustainable model because it focuses on the artists, not the sponsors or the branding. They keep the community engaged between shows with their online presence on Facebook and their blog Wavelog.

For the next Wavelength experience, head to Array Space tomorrow evening for Don’t Speak. Wavelength has been using projections to create immersive concert experiences since the beginning of their weekly concert series. As more festivals jump on the bandwagon, Wavelength is once again doing something different by creating a quiet space. Audiences are instructed not to talk, but to write to communicate and let themselves be submerged into the sights and sounds of the series. For those looking for an all-consuming festival experience with guaranteed great music, Wavelength has you covered.

Photos by Danielle Burton & Emily Scherzinger.


One comment

  1. Neil W. · March 24, 2016

    Some of my favorite Toronto music moments have happened at a Wavelength concert both as a musician and as an audience member! Wavelength is as important to Toronto culturally as any of the more established cultural spaces, event or happening this city has. I love that something DIY has such a solid foothold in our city, it helps to show the diversity that is Toronto. Great post and interview keep it up!!


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