By Hallie Switzer
In a city like Toronto where there is no shortage of entertainment available on any given night it can be a little overwhelming. Because of this, we rely on curators, promoters and organizations we trust and are aligned with our interests and values to highlight and showcase talent that we should be checking out. Zoe Smith is a music booker, show promoter and organizer who understands the importance of facilitating all ages shows, allowing youth to engage with the music scene and fostering safe and inclusive spaces. What she provides to the music scene is an incredible asset to youth and others who want to access music in a context where the people running the shows care about their well being, as well as showcasing incredible bands that are being treated fairly and respected as artists. It is now more important then ever to support live music. Caring about exposure for diverse artists means attending their shows, getting the band t-shirt at the merch table, and buying and sharing their music. Nothing matches the feeling of discovering music as it is happening live before your eyes, socializing, dancing with friends or alone, moshing or quietly swaying, the feeling of live music is electric and unmatched. Luckily, with curators like Zoe Smith at the helm, engaging with live music is a positive experience that prioritizes safely as well as fun. Come out to the next Zoe Smith Show, you might find your new favourite band!
I had a chance to ask Zoe some questions about show promoting as a young woman and artists in the Toronto music scene:
1) What initially drew you to organizing your own events?
I originally started organizing my own events because I felt frustrated with the way young people were treated in music scenes, specifically in Hamilton (where I'm from) and Toronto. For those who don't know, I played in a band [Good Anya] from ages 16-18 and I / my friends my age faced a lot of challenges from promoters and condescending musicians. Throughout my time as a performer, I realized that this frustration extended to everyone under 19 who have been systematically barred from attending live music events due to archaic and exclusive liquor laws. Fortunately, I was privileged enough to earn my place as a very young musician, and I used/still use that clout to make the changes I wanted to see in music scenes.
2) How does being a musician yourself shape the way you run shows?
Because I was in an incredibly active band, I feel like I have the best perspective to be putting on shows that are extremely band-focused, instead of business or profit-focused. I also feel like the adversity faced as a young, female-bodied person in the music scene allows me to be a more compassionate and understanding booker towards people who are in similar scenarios.
3) Your perfect show, starts when? How many bands on the bill? How late does it go?
The perfect show for me is 4 bands! Three amazing locals with their own unique audiences that are open and caring, and a touring band that I adore and want to share with the world. The perfect show for me revolves around mutual appreciation and love for bands, new music, each other, and moving the music community forward.
4) Have you noticed any elements of the job specific to being a female show organizer/promoter?
Honestly, I feel like being socialized as a female has given me a greater sense of compassion and understanding for those who are non-male. A lot of the promoters I originally looked up to as a musician are male, so I modeled a lot of my work around this mentality striving to be like my male superiors, which gave me this incredible demand for equality and respect because men usually don't have to work for it like non-males do. It also gave me this sense of courage and strength that what I wanted for the music community was possible because I'm not afraid or intimidated by men in power as much as I used to be.
5) What is your favourite way to showcase female artists?
Treating them as equal and not as pawns to get ahead. I deeply care about all of the bands I book and their well-being at my shows (and they often feel comfortable confiding in me about their struggles with other bookers or shows), so not only am I there to pay them and
put them next to male musician counterparts, but to make sure they feel safe and empowered.
6) What are some of the challenges you face when organizing an all ages event?
There are SO many challenges to hosting an all ages show. In my eyes, the venue needs to want to do an AA show, be relatively cheap to rent, enough people need to come to cover that rent and offer a good payout for the bands, the folks who are underage need to be responsible for themselves and not drink or do anything stupid (because liability is a huge concern for venues), and even with house shows, you really have to stress that no underage drunk kids disrespect each other or the property.
7) What do you think is the most important thing for people to know if they are putting on an all ages show?
TAKE CARE OF EACHOTHER. There are so many unspoken rules of shows that I can name off but this phrase covers so much of it.
Similarly, I enforce a strict 0 tolerance policy for any offensive behavior at any of my shows (venue or house), which includes hatespeech, all forms of assault and harassment, or property damage. I'm only one person, and monitoring and mediation of this stuff requires so much emotional labour, so I try to instill this policy as a form of mutual care for each other and the community.
8) What’s something you know now you wish you knew when you started?
I wish I knew that I could trust myself and relax. I'm always worried that I'm not doing a good job or that something is going to go wrong, and I think that's why I value the sense of validation that comes with doing shows. It’s more so an existential validation that means I'm doing something for the greater good and that, in turn, makes me feel good about myself, but I've also taken a break from shows to develop my self-love and personal confidence that deals with anxiety and forgiveness with the full belief that it can transfer to my outlook on the world.
9) What is one of the highlights of your promoting career?
Honestly, the highlight of my entire booking experience has just been how rewarding and validating it is to feel like I'm making an impact on people. I've become friends with so many kind and loving people, worked with incredibly talented musicians that I deeply admire, and as much as this sounds cliché, I've learned so much about myself and humanity and what makes me feel positive about the world. My favourite and best shows have been any of the shows where I made someone else do doors so I could go dance to my favourite bands, be with my friends, and have everyone tell each other how much we love and admire each other.
10) How does putting on events in Toronto compare to other cities you've worked in?
Toronto is definitely the epicenter of events to me because of the sheer amount of musicians and music-lovers who are willing to participate in a community.
Bonus question – What’s the most effective way for bands to get on your radar?
I feel like everyone knows me for how well-curated my shows are, so if you feel like your band would fit in well, it's important to tell me or get me out to one of your shows and develop a connection before I can actually book anything. It’s so important to be a good person first with people who love you and want to see you succeed first and foremost than my opinion on your music, and eventually they both go hand in hand to make up the craftsmanship of my shows.
Thanks so much Zoe! Thank you for working to showcase female artists and foster safe spaces for people of any age who want to enjoy, experience and engage with their music community.