This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it is a solid introductory rundown of the common venues for live music around the city. I think I’ll go descending style, so we’ll start off with the best spots, and go down to the…not-so-best spots.
Getting There: EZ PZ. Just a minute away from the Broadview subway station. Parking relatively close too.
Seated?: There’s a seated balcony, but also a GA floor where you can stand.
Pros: It’s great!
Notes: Man, this is what every venue should aspire to be. It’s a decent size, easy to get to, in the heart of the city, and has a sense of style as well (there is a cool circle on the ceiling). Moving around inside during a show is never a hassle, as it’s spacious and there’s always room to go where you want to go. The lighting is almost always on point and the sound is fantastic. The security staff are fair but not overbearing, and are generally friendly people. It’s definitely the best midsize concert hall in Toronto.
Getting There: Real easy like. Right across from the Eaton Centre and Yonge Dundas Square.
Seated?: Yes all seats, but the rare artist allows the crowd to go up to the front.
Pros: It’s really old!
Cons: Balcony seats.
Notes: Just don’t sit in the side balconies if you want a good sitting experience because it’s very tight up there. Other than that, wow what a cool place. The sound here is really good, and the atmosphere is very historic. It’s like 500 years old or something. There’s a hallway with event write-ups and one of them is from the early 1900s and it’s about an explorer guy who just stood on stage with pictures of Antarctica and talked. Cool. Not the best lighting sometimes, but that’s about it for any nitpicking.
Getting There: Oh man, this one’s kinda tough to get to. TTC bus down to Cherry St. is your best bet. Or Uber.
Seated?: Not really. Some in VIP lounge.
Pros: Newly renovated so it has that newly renovated smell to it.
Cons: The VIP section is always full of the worst people.
Notes: The dingy, familiar Sound Academy might be gone, but if you weren’t nostalgically attached to the old place then REBEL is an improvement in every way. It’s more spacious, looks nicer, and is run a lot more efficiently at front of house. It is however still in the middle of nowhere. Getting to it is a trek and a half, especially in the winter. Speaking of which, it is right on the lake so it gets really cold there. There’s no place to grab a bite to eat around, and it sits behind several sources of foul smells. (Shipping yard, factories, specialty supermarket). If the Portlands ever get developed it’ll be a prime entertainment destination though.
Getting There: Subway to Sheppard West, then TTC Bus Route 101/108. Lots of parking.
Seated?: Well you can sit on the grass if you want.
Pros: Best festival location. Free shuttle buses after the show = great.
Cons: Can get very muddy if it rains. Also the line-ups full of thousands of sloppy people after the show.
Notes: It’s a shame this isn’t used more often, as it is a great place for huge shows. Multiple stages, lots of vendors, and a big hill you can sit on and watch everything from. The Downsview Park subway stop is gonna make things even easier for the 2018 season, so Toronto really needs to get on attracting some more top-level talent so it’s not just VELD here.
Size: Pretty big!
Getting There: Tricky. Not much in terms of parking,
Seated?: It’s outdoors, so yeah I guess.
Pros: Historic, ghosts of soldiers.
Cons: The overpasses in the distance are a bit of an eyesore, but that’s about it.
Notes: Some more open-air festival grounds, this time nestled inside some old barracks. Not as spacious as Downsview, but a little more interesting with all the old military stuff lying around. Regular host of Field Trip and TURF.
RBC Echo Beach
Size: Between midsize and large.
Getting There: Lakeshore West GO Train. Tons of parking too.
Seated?: Not unless you want sand on your shorts.
Pros: Scenic, spacious, nice beach vibe.
Cons: Just don’t go if it rains.
Notes: A spin-off from the former Molson Amphitheatre, this venue also changed hands this year, going from TD Bank to RBC Bank. It’s a nice summer venue, although the artists that get booked there might be a little bitter that they didn’t get to play on the much bigger stage next door. If it rains it’s not fun, the ground turns to straight up mud and the mosquitoes come out in droves and eat you alive.
Size: Very big
Getting There: Lakeshore West GO Train or driving.
Seated?: Yes, but also GA floors.
Pros: Big, lawns are nice if it’s not too crowded.
Cons: A bottle of water is $5.00.
Notes: Formerly Molson Amphitheatre. It’s your pretty standard major outdoor venue, with your pretty standard major venue prices.
Size: Large but not large enough
Getting There: I’m sure there’s a bus or streetcar that goes here.
Seated?: Outdoors, sit on the grass if you want.
Pros: There’s this cool looking tower building nearby, looks like some kinda Roman thing.
Cons: Too small for festivals. Too close to residential areas for frequent concerts.
Notes: I’m sure sound issues are a factor, but not too much gets booked here. It’s also a little too cozy for a full festival layout, but a midsize band should be able to take advantage of it fairly well.
Air Canada Centre
Size: Bigly big.
Getting There: Right at Union Station. Easiest venue to get to.
Seated?: Yes, floors as well.
Pros: You know you can expect big talent if you’re going here.
Cons: You know you can expect to be paying a lot if you’re going here.
Notes: Affectionately known as “the ACC”. The sound is surprisingly good for a big metal hull like this one, especially compared to its friend down the street which we’ll get to soon. It’s a pretty basic arena and you know you’ll get some great visuals if you go here. Lots of cool graphics and lasers and such. The atrium layout is a little confusing- finding the right gate can be a hassle and then once you’re in you usually have to make a few circles around the place before you find the right level.
Size: Larger end of midsize
Getting There: Close to Union Station
Seated?: Yes and just seats.
Pros: Very classy, high end.
Cons: Not the best place for a rock show. Kind of strict with photos and very much a “sit down venue”.
Notes: If you’re reserved and/or lazy but have money, then come see bands here. It’s a very pleasant, upper class venue meant for more performance oriented art. Not really a “high energy” venue, so come on down Jeb! A lot of the artists who play here forbid photos so watch out for that.
Getting There: Subway to Bathurst station.
Seated?: A few tables but mostly no
Pros: The iconic mural in front, lots of places to eat nearby.
Cons: None really
Notes: Hey, it’s the Scott Pilgrim place! It looks a lot bigger in the movie. A pretty standard venue, with some great seats on either side of the stage.
Getting There: Streetcar down Bathurst.
Pros: It’s ok.
Cons: It’s ok.
Notes: In the heart of Little Italy/Little Portugal I think? There’s a scary statue in front of it. Nice building inside and out. That’s about it.
Getting There: Good luck
Pros: The venue is good.
Cons: The area is bad.
Notes: The Phoenix deserves to be a little higher on this list, because the venue itself is great. Kind staff, good security, standard rock club vibe, nice lounge area, generally roomy. The surrounding neighbourhood though, is so incredibly sketchy that it brings the whole place down a notch. This is by far the most poorly located major venue in Toronto; scalpers are the least of your worry here. Crackheads roam everywhere, not to mention other suspicious vagrants- and that’s at noon on a Tuesday. Definitely make a hard right onto Carlton Street when you’re leaving after a show because walking down Sherbourne late at night means you won’t be getting an encore the next morning (music joke).
Getting There: Walking down Queen St. West.
Seated?: Well there is a bar…
Pros: It’s legendary I guess?
Cons: Sketchy downstairs bathroom.
Notes: It’s a respectable establishment, but man that bathroom downstairs is grimy. The venue itself is tucked away at the back, separate from the tavern itself. It’s small but serviceable, good for all the local upstarts and smaller bands that play here.
The Opera House
Getting There: Such a pain.
Seated?: Maybe a few here and there. Mostly standing.
Pros: They finally fixed up the adjoining diner.
Cons: Why is it so far.
Notes: Hey, it’s the other, less iconic Scott Pilgrim place! It’s alright for a small venue, even if does get a little tight in there. Getting there however is incredibly frustrating. There’s an unreliable streetcar that you can take, but it’s best to just take an Uber. If you must walk, take King Street to avoid the bad part of Queen Street and the bizarre time-space continuum warp that results in about 20 extra minutes. Honestly Queen Street East is just the worst.
Size: Very smol
Getting There: Walking further down Queen St. West.
Pros: It’ll do.
Cons: Lighting, layout of the stage/backstage entry.
Notes: If you’re up at the front against the stage near the right hand side, you’re gonna have a bad time. Security and bar people are constantly walking in and out of there and there’s always at least one who glares at you the whole time. This place also gets very cramped and sweaty really quickly, so enduring a whole set from a band is a straight up gauntlet. The lighting also isn’t the best, though the sound is top notch.
Size: H U G E
Getting There: Just down the street from Union Station
Seated?: Yes but also floors.
Pros: Lots of tourist stuff around it.
Cons: Sound is real bad.
Notes: There’s a reason that performers tend to skew towards the Air Canada Centre, and that’s because this place sucks as a music venue. The sound is tinny and hollow, and the overall atmosphere is that of “well, we can put a lot of people in here to listen to a band”. It just doesn’t give concerts any sort of special consideration. They’re just an event that happens to be there as opposed to a musical event. Booking agents take note, ABCACC (Always Be Choosing Air Canada Centre).
Size: Barely there.
Getting There: Wander around the entertainment district and eventually you might find it.
Seated?: A few seats
Pros: You can get close to the performer?
Cons: Everything else.
Notes: I’ve never seen a venue trying so hard to not exist. They just don’t want to be there. See that first picture up there? I had to get that off Google Maps because this place literally doesn’t have a front. It’s tucked away INSIDE an alleyway with no signage whatsoever. Most people find it only after a long perilous quest involving maps and jewels and jumping over fire pits and other lord of the rings medieval stuff.
Once inside, you’ve got one of the smallest venues in the city, with big poles obstructing views all over the place. The sound is decent, but the lighting is incredibly bad. Some bands can barely be seen as it’s so dark, and they can’t really move around a lot because the stage is about ten square feet. The floor gets real crowded very fast and getting out is a pain because both sides are blocked with barriers. The security guards are very nice though, so kudos to whoever hired them.
Getting There: A long bleak walk down Ossington Avenue
Pros: Not really
Notes: What a nondescript place. It’s literally just a dingy room with a stage. It might be bigger than Adelaide and maybe even Velvet Underground, but it’s a terrible venue. It looks run down, and there’s all this random junk lying around on the floor. There’s absolutely nothing conducive to a concert environment. I’m sure there are basements nicer than this place.