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DIY Can't Die: The Messy, Triumphant Story of Toronto Punk Venue S.H.I.B.G.Bs

S.H.I.B.G.Bs was always intended to be a home for the punk community to grow and spread in Toronto, and initially it succeeded.

by Michael Rancic
Jun 20 2016, 2:55pm

All photos courtesy of Alex Kress

The role of a DIY music venue, ancillary to that of a performance space, is to act as a hub for a musical community, helping people make connections through participation and empowering artists to create by giving them a platform for their work. But relying on those spaces, or the people who run them, to do the work of fostering community alone undermines the very ethos of DIY. The power of DIY is its emphasis on inclusion, agency, and creation. When a venue becomes the source or site of that agency, the people who run it become the most powerful and visible aspects of that scene, contrary to DIY’s ability to extend visibility to all of those who participate. Nestled just north of Dupont on the quiet Geary Avenue, Toronto’s S.H.I.B.G.Bs was supposed to be just that, and although it initially seemed like it was the result of the hardcore punk scene galvanizing, it ended up having the opposite effect. It was only through its closure that the reigns were finally handed back to Toronto’s hardcore punk community.

Greg Benedetto, former owner and operator of S.H.I.B.G.Bs (affectionately known as “Sheebs”), recalls the final show at the space this past October as bittersweet, because while the majority of the sixteen bands that performed that night formed in the few months that the space was open, only a handful of them actually stuck around to see the very end. For Benedetto, the night the venue closed for good was “a perfect metaphor for the space itself: it was packed when it was cool and convenient for people, but for a small few it was a marathon.”

S.H.I.B.G.Bs was always intended to be a home for the punk community to grow and spread in Toronto, and initially it succeeded, in more ways than anyone could have ever anticipated. Ryan Tong, Benedetto’s bandmate in hardcore punk outfit S.H.I.T, remembers those early months fondly, having helped out at the space whenever he could. Citing it as an inspiring time, Tong saw first hand the effects it was having on community building in the punk scene. “We started holding community meetings and tried to engage the people who came through the space in a more involved way,” he recalls. “It started to feel like a real community. Everyone was getting to know each other. Everyone was starting bands.”

But just as activity and enthusiasm were at an all time high, the future of the space became uncertain. The day after a Toronto Star article announced Geary Avenue as the new trendy spot for DIY spaces, S.H.I.B.G.Bs was hit with a bylaw infraction for noise. The venue became embroiled in a fight between City Hall and a host of the DIY venues that took up residence in the same area.

Having all eyes on Geary kicked up a flurry of activity with regard to how City Hall deals with DIY venues. It was a welcome and much needed conversation between the city and the music scene, but it came at a cost: operating under the fear of being hit with another bylaw infraction, or of being forced out of their space, completely derailed the momentum the venue had quietly built and the active community behind it. Tong recalls that “all of a sudden community engagement and getting people involved was not top priority.” “We had no insurance. We were breaking a lot of rules, fire code and otherwise,” Benedetto notes. “The stress of that combined with knowing somebody's watching was too much to bear.”

Since the venue’s closure, Benedetto has focused his efforts on S.H.I.T., Pure Pressure, and remaining active as a promoter, but in the months since that final show, he’s also had some time to reflect. He explains that not only did the community get derailed, but not being able to spend time on community organization inadvertently made him a focal point of the scene. Rather than being the person who was seeing through his own DIY project by helping to elevate the community through sharing responsibilities at the venue and encouraging activity, Benedetto defaulted to being the guy everyone thought they had to go through to book shows. Perceptions of Benedetto shifted from being the scene’s supporter to its gatekeeper.

“I was too much of ‘the guy.’” Benedetto recalls. “There were kids who were excited to go to S.H.I.B.G.Bs when it just opened and by the time it closed, they think I'm an asshole. I ended up being very removed from the community.” Being the go-to person for booking shows undermined the DIY ethos Benedetto and his bandmates in S.H.I.T. were trying to espouse with S.H.I.B.G.Bs. Putting all that focus on one person erased the contributions and hard work of the people behind the scenes at the venue, like Benedetto’s partner Sardé Hardie and friend Andy Weaver. Elaborating on what exactly the point of contention was between Benedetto and the community, he said there were a number of complaints criticizing the “opportunities” provided by the venue. “I saw somebody say that they were “disappointed with the opportunities offered to me.” I’m not here to fucking offer anyone opportunities!”

Arina Moiseychenko, one of the next generation of punks to come up after Benedetto, agrees, citing the closure of S.H.I.B.G.Bs as the kind of kick in the ass necessary to reinvigorate the scene. “Greg closing Sheebs is him saying ‘go do it yourselves.’ This is DIY. Toronto needs this right now.” As important as S.H.I.B.G.Bs was, Moiseychenko adds that it affected people’s willingness to organize events on their own. “There were lots of basements and garage spaces before Sheebs, and they all disappeared in the past year.” Now that the space is gone, she’s “hoping more stuff like that pops up so we can have some sort of consistent space. I'm not sure people are going to always want to go to the Smiling Buddha.”

A major reason why Toronto’s hardcore punk scene is unfazed in the months since S.H.I.B.G.Bs closed is the growing segment of young punks not waiting on anyone to offer them opportunities, starting bands, booking their own shows, and pushing for inclusivity in a scene known for the opposite. Lia Lepre, one of the most active members of the Toronto punk scene, echoes Benedetto and Moiseychenko’s feelings about what it takes to succeed, but also agrees with some of the more structural criticisms levied at how it operates. “The scene fronts itself as extremely inclusive and open to everyone, and in reality there are people who are self-proclaimed spokespeople who have more social capital, who are men and make all the decisions that matter. At the same time I think that if you did your shit, it would happen. There's a perception people have that they need permission to do this, when in reality I don't think anyone would tell you ‘no.’”

Lepre would know a thing or two about getting shit done. Out of the few current bands who’ve recently managed to leave the city to go out on tour, Lepre is in two of them: VCR and Triage. She’s also in Conman, Winter ‘94 and does a great deal of flyer and album artwork for many bands in the scene. Being so involved has led to Lepre taking on a kind of leadership role in the community, using the visibility of her bands to promote change and help encourage newer ones. Two months prior they also used their powers for good when allegations of abuse against all-ages concert promoters Johnnyland started surfacing online via a now-deleted Tumblr. Though Johnnyland have denied the allegations, the conversation about safety at all-ages shows spurred by the Tumblr post continued throughout the Toronto music scene. VCR responded in their own way with a pink, all-caps manifesto railing against exploitation and abuse. It was a powerful message, reminding youth that they don’t need to put up with that behaviour and that they already have the tools they need to make their art themselves.

Lepre explains that she was behind the message, using the band as a platform to reach an audience she wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Though she’s 22 now, it wasn’t long ago that she was underage and forced to choose between what few options there are for all-ages events in the city. “Even then I was hearing Johnnyland had a pay-to-play policy and were exploiting young bands,” she recalls. “It really made me mad to hear that was still happening. Then to hear that the people running it were accused of sexual abuse-- for bands whose first show is a Johnnyland show, they’re probably going to think that’s what it’s like everywhere.” Lepre is adamant that DIY is the best way to sway power away from gatekeepers like Johnnyland and into the hands of the creators themselves. She explains that her optimism is already being encouraged by the younger punks coming up after her who are proving to be excited and energized by the potential that DIY affords.

Tong says he’s noticed the link between membership and sound as well. “If you have less boundaries, less restrictions, then you're opening the scene up to a whole other realm of people,” he says. “I hope that makes it less exclusive or intimidating. Visibility is a very important and powerful thing. If you see somebody that you can identify with doing something you didn't think was possible before, it opens up that possibility for you.” Having grown up in Oakville, and coming to shows in Toronto since the early 2000s, Tong says he’s glad he stuck around to finally see the scene become more diverse. Living in a mostly white suburb, Tong says he was “constantly being reminded that I was different, that I wasn't like everybody else,” which is what steered him to punk in the first place. The scene was still very white but he felt more like himself around people who also felt outside the norm. Tong credits Benedetto’s involvement in the scene and the initial excitement in developing S.H.I.B.G.Bs as the reason why he stuck around long enough to see things change. Now “there are a lot of queer people, people of colour, a lot more women. Just seeing that community around me change into something I could identify with just fired me up more. Finally there's people around me who look like me onstage. I felt a connection to what was happening that reinvigorated me and my interest in what was going on outside of what my friends were doing.”

The strength of DIY comes from its openness. Limitations of membership enforced by genre, sound and spaces all work to turn punk into an exclusive club that it was never meant to be. In the ashes of S.H.I.B.G.Bs, Toronto’s scene is fighting against that, finding its strength in difference and redefining what it means to be punk while working to train and uplift the next generation. For Benedetto, the doors are open for anyone who’s ready to take on the challenge of organizing: “What the next year looks like is really up to the people that want to do the work. It's work to be done,” says Benedetto. “Hardcore is a room and a PA. That's it. Anyone can organize that.”

Michael Rancic is a writer based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter.