By: Aliya Karimjee

Alia Arcángel came to Toronto looking for relief. The musician fled civil war and dictatorship in Perú, first to New York, then Ont., partly because their GTA-based partner had insurance. Then reality hit. Life in Toronto was overwhelming and rent was sky-high. So was the cost of groceries. In Canada, they found the freedom to openly express their sexuality, gender and cultural identity through music. But with the high cost of living, Arcángel, who previously experienced houselessness, fears it could happen again.

Musicians like Arcángel are struggling in the GTA due to high living costs. According to the Wellesley Institute, the GTA’s cost of living has skyrocketed 33 per cent for single adults since 2017, making it increasingly challenging for musicians to survive on music alone. According to Numbeo, life in the GTA adds up: the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $2,280.60, a monthly TTC pass is $156 and groceries cost around $354.36 per month. All in, the average cost of living in Toronto is, at a bare minimum, $3,252.45 per month. Work costs add up, too: studio time’s up to $200 an hour, music videos range from $300 to $300,000 and touring demands cash for gas, vehicle rentals, hotels and food.

Musicians sacrifice a lot to make it in the industry, which is why many rely on government funding for help. The Canada Music Fund (CMF) is a government initiative helping Canadian music artists connect with audiences. However, most musicians find the funding insufficient to live on. Since Feb., more than 20 music organizations nationwide have signed an open letter asking the government to permanently increase the CMF to $60 million to provide financial relief to musicians feeling the pinch of inflation.

On the flip side, making a living as a musician in the GTA is increasingly challenging. Streaming royalties are anemic: 86 per cent of musicians on Spotify have less than 1,000 streams and receive just below $70 a year through this platform. Then, in April, Spotify decided to fully demonetize smaller artists. Physical sales are also down: compact disks might see a near end with a decrease of 12.7 per cent less sales. This lack of funding and resources hurts smaller, independent acts most – especially those needing to finance their tours. As a result, most up-and-coming musicians turn to jobs in unrelated fields. This pinch also leads performers like Arcángel to make difficult decisions, like between buying groceries or medication, and to take on a multitude of side hustles and to spend countless hours grant writing in hopes of obtaining enough funding to live and create new work.

This isn’t the life most musicians imagined growing up dreaming of becoming rock stars. One local musician, Tae Hauk, recalls a special memory that initiated his love for music. One hot summer day in his childhood, he sat on the warm grass listening to his dad singing a Clash song with his band on stage at an outdoor show. He felt an “infectious” feeling and from that moment on, Hauk knew he wanted to reproduce it when he grew up. Now, the 19-year-old Toronto-based songwriter and producer realizes working in this industry requires both passion and money. He has been working as a line cook for the past three summers. Those summers in the kitchen have felt like wasted time, but he’s got bills and tuition to pay. Hauk, who is studying music at Toronto Metropolitan University, recently landed a summer job as a sound designer. Still, he worries about whether a future working in the GTA as a musician will ever be financially feasible. “I think as a musician in today’s landscape, you’re doing 10 different jobs at once,” he said.

Some musicians decide the hustle isn’t worth it. Éric Bélanger, a 24-year-old bassoon player, recently quit music as a career and transitioned into construction. He started working in construction during the summer between his masters degree and realized it was as rewarding, if not more, than a music career. He’s relieved he can now pay rent and expenses with this job and even has enough left over to start saving for his future. At night, after work, Bélanger still practices music as a hobby and a form of self-expression.

During his university years, his professor convinced him to study music performance. He dreamed of being a part of an orchestra and composing music on the side. Trying to reciprocate the effort needed as a musician to “make it,” he got exhausted and decided to prioritize a work-life balance. “A musician’s whole life is to practice, practice, practice. That’s all you do, music and nothing else. It feels like you need to sacrifice your entire life to be a great musician.”

Live music is where many musicians make the bulk of their income, but that’s become more complex, too. As part of the call for a bump to Canada Music Fund, the Canadian Live Music Association submitted a pre-budget document indicating recommendations to help the live music industry. According to the document, artist revenue is threatened as 75 per cent or more of their earnings are through touring and live performances. The group said an additional $10 million is needed to keep live music in Canada prosperous.

The cost of living crisis isn’t just hitting musicians – it’s also hitting their fans. Part of what’s happening, according to University of Toronto music professor Catherine Moore, is that concert-goers have limited resources, especially since the pandemic, and save their money for the big superstar shows, which has hurt smaller musicians and venues.

“Young people literally just can’t afford the $30 to $40 it costs to go out. So they’re only going to do that on special occasions,” said Hauk. Touring the GTA is also becoming untenable for independent and smaller musicians, even if they have government support. Ottawa’s Hans Vivian-Wenzel, who goes by the stage name “Hans!“, received a grant from Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent On Recordings and he was hoping to use in part to tour the GTA, as he’d done prior to the pandemic, but he said the cost would still leave him in the red. For him, coming to the GTA to perform would mean losing profit due to gas, equipment, and food costs.


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In their hunt for funding, many musicians are turning to fundraising through crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe. Artists are looking for money wherever they can. And many GTA musicians continue to persevere despite the high cost of living, the lack of governmental support and the declining live music industry. It’s an uphill battle, but many musicians still find this career worth the struggle.

For Alia Arcángel, “[Music] feels like you’re part of a constellation. It’s as if you’re shining alone in the dark and just trying to throw light all over the place. Suddenly, you open your eyes and see you’re part of something bigger and beautiful.”