Sunday, May 13, 2007

Book 'em!

First off, if you don't care about any of this and would rather be watching the Gilmore Girls, I highly recommend that you skip this entirely trainspotty post and read this instead.

My indie promoter story in this week's Eye has turned into quite the tempest on the Stillepost message board--five pages and counting. Perhaps against my better judgement, I jumped into the fray--somewhere around page four, I think.

Much of the chatter is the usual qualms about why so-and-so wasn't mentioned--mostly smaller club promoters, in a story that is about promoters who book larger venues and festivals. But it has broken off in several different tangents, including a spirited and somewhat productive discussion about why artists and their agents don't take smaller promoters with them when they jump to larger venues.

Naturally, there's also been much discussion about how much my article didn't cover in the 1000 words I had to play with. So, for the uber-geeks who care passionately about this issue, here are the notes.

I didn't transcribe these as faithfully as I do everything else here, because at the time I didn't think anyone would care about the minutiae. Some questions are reconstructed from memory, or reduced for the sake of brevity. Also, the conversations frequently went off the record or went on irrelevant tangents, so there are large chunks missing from each of these. I also interviewed other people as background that don't appear here.

All of these interviews were conducted between April 25 and May 7, 2007.

Ali Hedrick, booking agent with Billions [large American booking agency that handles people like Joanna Newsom, New Pornographers, Constantines, Sufjan Stevens, etc.]

How has the Live Nation/House of Blues merger [of July 2006] effected the live market in the U.S. over the past year?
Hasn’t changed it too much. I don’t have a problem with Live Nation so much. I have a bigger problem with Ticketmaster, the facility fees that are on top of tickets, meaning you can have a $15 ticket with a $6 service fee per ticket from Ticketmaster. The band doesn’t see any of this money; the promoter doesn’t see a dime. They’re a big part of the problem with higher ticket prices.
With Live Nation buying House of Blues, they’ve kept all the same promoters intact, as far as I can tell. I’m dealing with all the same people I dealt with at House of Blues.

What differences do you see on both sides of the border, in terms of how the markets operate? Is it easier to use independent promoters in Canada than it is in the U.S.?
I use a mixture of both. I’ve been booking bands for 12 years, so in Canada I do use independent companies. In Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto, I always use independent promoters. In the States, I do use Live Nation and larger promoters a lot more. When I work with smaller promoters, the costs are down, which in some ways helps the bands make more money. But in Canada, your taxes are so much higher than in the States.

Because of border crossing?
No, to do a show in Toronto, 16 per cent comes off the door automatically from dollar one. Your tax rates are higher everywhere. But it’s understandable.

Any hypotheses as to why there are more indies here?
Live Nation and Clear Channel bought up a lot of the smaller companies in the States. They’ve done a bit of that in Canada, but they haven’t bought the companies I’ve been working with: Against the Grain, Peter at Timber in Vancouver, Sealed with a Kiss in Vancouver and Victoria, Blue Skies Turn Black in Montreal. They all do fabulous jobs. There’s no need to use a larger promoter.

Is that a last resort for you?
I try to pick a promoter based on who’s going to take care of my bands and do a good job for them.

How does the fact that Live Nation owns many of the large venues effect things?
Live Nation does own a lot of venues and you’re kind of forced to work with them. Even if I wanted to avoid them, I really can’t. I would have to skip a certain city altogether. It can be done, but it’s very, very difficult.

Are local independents locked out of those venues at all?
No. A lot of my independent promoters can still go into Live Nation venues. They don’t lock people out, unless they feel a promoter doesn’t know what they’re doing. It’s certainly not company policy. I have Sealed With a Kiss going into the Commodore, which is a Live Nation venue in Vancouver. My San Diego promoter will be doing a New Pornographers show at the House of Blues.

Jonathan Ramos, REMG [Toronto hip-hop/R&B promoter, responsible for this July's Rogers Picnic featuring the Roots]

How do you think the Toronto, or by extension Canadian, live music scene compares to the U.S., where they’re increasingly headed towards a monopoly situation?
We’re on par with what’s going on in a lot of the major cities. There are the bigger corporate promoters, but like any other city, we have an amazingly prosperous independent scene. It’s an oft-used word, so it depends on how you look at it. I don’t think we have more or less than either. The players in the U.S. are the same players here, though Live Nation and House of Blues are still operating as two separate companies here. I don’t know how they’re working exactly.

Are there barriers for a promoter of your size to booking larger venues?
Not really. The natural barrier is money. With myself or other independent promoters, when bands start playing at that level, then you’re on the radar screen of the major promoters. That’s when it starts to get tough and you have to start fighting. REMG has existed since 93, usually in harmony with everyone around us. We co-produce shows with HoB all the time. I have co-produced shows with what was at the time Clear Channel. We all bump heads once in a while, but that’s just the business. I’ve run across Jacob [Smid of Emerge] and Amy [Hersenhoren of Root Means Square] with competing offers, but that’s music today.

What effect, if any does this have on concert consumers?
It effects it on a larger level. When you start dealing with acts who play venues larger than 3000 people, that’s when the monopoly comes into play. It’s like any industry: it’s in the consumers’ best interest to have competition. When they operationally complete the merger in Canada, that will create a situation where there’s only one player on that level on a national scale. That’s a problem: for me, for everybody, because it’s a natural function of a monopoly to bully. That’s just what they do. When I say bully, I mean everybody: independent promoters, agents, bands, and right down to the consumer. That’s a dangerous thing. But on an independent level, we have a thriving scene at every level: from the grassroots to where REMG exists.

What effect does a competitive and independent promoter scene have on the local music community?
You can compare it to the recorded music industry. Just as there are lots of independent labels out there doing their own thing and not relying on major label distribution or funding. Same with promoters. People like Eric Warner find acts and a market for those acts that most people haven’t heard of. Companies like ADD do a lot of parties, and it’s very healthy.

When did this change in Toronto? My memory of the mid-90s were all about MCA Concerts doing the bulk of the large shows I saw.
It’s the function of the music business changing, and how people access that music. It used to be that if it was on the radio and MuchMusic and it was in the print media, that’s how people got their music. Now, a company like House of Blues can’t troll websites and be on blogs looking for the next big band. It’s not as simple as having MuchMusic on in the office eight hours a day and talking to the programmers at the radio stations. If it’s an act like Final Fantasy, that came through a whole different side of it, not the major media. Those are the things that make Toronto’s live music scene healthier than it’s ever been.

Scroll through Eye Weekly or Now, and it’s astounding to me to see how much music is coming through the city. The audience is there, and how early some of these things develop. There isn’t a week that goes by when I read either of those publications where I don’t discover a new band. Or my jaw drops, and I think, ‘How is that band playing the Kool Haus?’ Or, ‘These guys got 300 people to the ElMo on a Monday night?’ It’s astounding. People like ATG, RMS, Emerge, ourselves, we’re all having great years. Look at the number of shows Jacob is doing. It was unheard of five years ago for an independent promoter to be taking out a full page ad in the weeklies. That was the domain of House of Blues. That says a lot.

What have been your biggest shows, beyond, say the Kool Haus?
Erykah Badu at Massey, R. Kelly at ACC, 50 Cent, K-Os and John Legend at Ampitheatre. All shows there were co-productions with HoB. That’s a condition. You either cut them in on it, you co-pro with them, or they’ll send you the rack rate sheet for how much everything costs, which of course will be inflated beyond belief. That’s just the cost of doing business. If you want to grow, you have to do business with the big boys, and dollars aside, it’s hard to compete with them on a national or—in the case of these companies—a multinational level. If a band really wants to work with REMG in Toronto, the company could say [to the band], ‘Listen, as a company we represent 40 per cent of your touring schedule, and you want to jeopardize that for one show?’ Those battles you can’t really fight. We bump heads with them on a regular basis.

But it’s not so adversarial, by the sounds of it—not if you’re doing co-pros with them.
Sometimes it is, and it goes there quite often ... A lot of people who work at these big companies now were never independent promoters. They always had some kind of backing as a buyer, whether they worked for universities or whatever.

Elliott Lefko, ex-House of Blues Canada, currently at Goldenvoice in L.A. [also co-presenting V-Fest this September in Toronto, with Jacob Smid of Emerge]

How would you compare the Toronto live market to American cities, specifically the number of independents here?
It’s difficult in L.A. for independent promoters. In America, most of the good independent promoters have been gobbled up by Live Nation or AEG, so everything falls under those two. In Toronto, there is really only one major promoter there with Live Nation and House of Blues working together, so there is room for other people to come in there. What happened is that a number of promoters who were working as little ones and developing artists were able to maintain their relationship with those artists, such as the Arcade Fire with Amy. And in Jacob’s case, a lot of artists really like working with him.

When I was working in Toronto, doing stuff by myself with no money, I’d go out and get great acts, but then CPI would gobble up all my acts and push me to the side. I wasn’t able to maintain a relationship with artists like Nirvana, Chili Peppers, people like that, that I worked with. Now, because there are a lot of independent booking agents out there, who are less likely to just turn everything over to a bigger promoter, they don’t mind working with people who brought them to the table in the first place.

Plus, these guys are more sophisticated. When I first started doing shows, I didn’t know what a monitor board was or why it was important, or why bands needed catering. I was just na├»ve. That’s not the case anymore. People are more sophisticated, and the independent promoters in Toronto can deliver the goods so that acts don’t feel the need to work with a big promoter.

Does any of this make a difference to a concert consumer?
They get to see a lot more shows, more than other cities. And there are probably more shows in Toronto than there was 10 years ago, because there are so many people bringing artists up here now. It’s a healthy thing for artists and for the fans to see all these shows. It gets so many shows because a lot of times, artists might not play outside of New York or Los Angeles, but they’ll put Toronto in there to get some representation in Canada. It’s an important market to play.

Look at someone like Craig Laskey at the Horseshoe, he covers a certain base of music so completely. Explosions in the Sky did two great sold-out nights there [at the Opera House two months ago], and now all their friends in bands will come back and play because they know what a great market it is.

One thing that’s happened recently here is the ability of indies to put on big festivals or work in big venues.
When I was working in Toronto and starting out, I couldn’t do a show at Massey Hall or Air Canada Centre or some outdoor festival by myself. I wasn’t sophisticated enough to do that. Amy is sophisticated: she knows how to do it, she gets the job done, everyone’s happy, they want to continue working with her. Arcade Fire, a long time ago they would have gone with a larger promoter. Now they can say, wait a second, we don’t have to sacrifice the people who worked with us before. A lot of bands want to maintain a relationship with an independent promoter because they want to get a good relationship with them and they’re covered. The way the technology is these days, it allows people to grow faster in terms of their ability to put on concerts and do everything for people. Her and some of these other people have acts who are able to get to these bigger places faster.

It’s been suggested to me that the Toronto live market opened up considerably when you left. Would you care to comment?
In some cases, it opened things up a bit, the fact that I was gone. I had a lot of great connections and people liked to work with me. Some stuff went to HoB, other stuff went to some other people. It opened it up a bit. Again, some of the independent promoters were already established, people such as Amy and Craig and Jacob and of course Ramos. They were all doing really great shows, so they were well on their way to making things happen.

[talk turns to the Arcade Fire, and the fact that they didn’t have a manager for the first six months after Funeral took off]
People like Arcade Fire are very protective of what they’re involved with. Years ago, people just signed with the first guy who came along and then got in trouble. Now they know they can do it themselves, and when they’re ready they’ll find somebody. With Win, he’s very, very protective of what he was doing and who he was going to work with. He wasn’t going to be swayed by people telling him this is what you got to do. That’s why he’s working with Amy, with Botch [at Billions], with [manager] Scott Rodger. He got the people he really wanted to work with, and now he’s surrounded. A lot of the horror stories of people surrounding themselves with bad people are less and less.

And he’s not alone. There are other people taking the same path at that level: Sufjan Stevens, Bright Eyes, people who build things up from the bottom.
Things have definitely changed from the way they used to be. The artists that you mentioned, and Explosions and Spoon and these guys, have created their own record company world. I’m sure when those guys and Arcade Fire get their statement every month, they’re getting paid because people like Mac [of Merge] can get the job done. When all these artists are doing it their own way, they’re not making less money because of that, and they're keeping control.

There are so many independent booking agents out there now, too. There’s one guy who is the agent for Jack Johnson, and he just operates out of his house. For years he thought he had to work for someone else until he realized he could do it from home, have a few clients and do a good job for them so that they don’t need to go to a bigger company. He gets the job done, everyone’s paid, everyone’s happy, and his life is easier because he doesn’t work for a giant company. There are all these other people out there like that.

Amy Hersenhoren, Root Means Square

Five or ten years ago, would it have been possible for you to book Massey Hall or Ricoh Coliseum?
It would have been possible, but I wouldn’t have had the confidence to do it, in terms of both myself and the acts I was booking. Ten years ago I was not here [she worked in NYC from 97-99], but five years ago, probably not. I grew into what I’m doing now.

Was there a specific shift when it became possible for smaller promoters to put on bigger shows?
I think there was a shift in the business at a certain point. The 90s was a time of big record company advances and big tours and that came to an end. The benefits for independents increased after that. It happened more in the record business, but there was a shift in the entire business where people realized that working with independents could be better for them, whether that was a record label or a promoter. I personally saw that in New York more than I saw it here.

In both record companies and promotion?
Not necessarily in live music, but there was a trickle down effect. Bands like Franz Ferdinand, I’m not sure that would have happened in 1997, the way it went down. There were a lot of cool people who worked at major labels. It could have ended up on a major label and…

It is on a major label here, though.
It is, but it started off on an independent, and that independent is still very involved in their career, even touring in America. Look at bands like Modest Mouse, too. They stuck by people like Peter McCullough out west for their whole career. He’s their promoter in Vancouver. He does all their western dates, from Vancouver to Winnipeg.

Did it make it easier to artists to stick close to people who helped them up the ladder as opposed to signing over to the first big cheque that came their way?
I think it did. If you go back to the book you wrote, go back to that time [1985-1995], that whole independent scene at the time was a bit fake, because no one had any real success at it. There was the odd thing like Hayden, but a lot of people on independents couldn’t support themselves financially or achieve any kind of middle class existence within what they were doing.

Many of them wanted to sell out. They still thought a major label deal was the end goal, because remaining independent at that time required lots of work and limited access.
Yeah. There were a lot of people who jumped on that bandwagon, and then failed, and then the business of throwing money at everything failed, and when everyone came back down to earth, people were comfortable with finding independent people who could get the job done and work within everyone’s means.

What does this mean to consumers?
Independents keep ticket prices down. Me, I’m in a unique situation because I have a free office, being part of the ATG infrastructure without necessarily having to be ATG. For me, it’s just me. I do everything: my ticketing, run my own shows. I’m not trying to support 100 people. If I charge $10 to see something, that’s fine. I think the consumer does benefit from that.

Is it a given, then, that HoB would have a higher ticket price for the same act?
I can’t say that for sure... The agent drives a lot of what the ticket price is: more than the market does and more than your opinion [as a booker]. But I don’t have to make money in a million different areas to keep a big office afloat.

What does it mean to artists? Do they care about loyalty to a certain promoter?
Absolutely they do. I’ve been very lucky that way. So do agents. The live music business is entirely based on relationships. [plenty of off the record talk] When you’re tight with an agent, you take the good with the bad. [They might say,] ‘Maybe that band is worth $200, but I really need you to give me $1000.’ Plus immigration, and, and, and. You do it, you take the hit. You have to be smart about it, because it’s a valued relationship.

What barriers are there for you to book a larger venue?
Toronto is a wide-open market that way. There is no barrier. If you have a deposit, you’re good to go. The only barrier is the risk, if you’re willing to take it. When you do shows like that and you’re a little business, the risk is that much more. If you’re off by 100 tickets, that’s a substantial loss, like four or five thousand dollars. At a place like Massey Hall, you only make your money on the last few hundred tickets. It’s important to have good instincts about moving things up to that level. In the case of Arcade Fire, it’s a no brainer. They didn’t want to go larger—I tried, oh, how I tried! They wanted to play a venue that size, but we could have done six nights there.

The bigger the event, the easier it is to execute. If you do something at the Air Canada Centre, the people who work there are going to make sure that nothing goes wrong, that you haven’t forgotten to order security. There’s no way the building itself is going to let you screw up badly, because it’s a risk for everyone.

What do you think will happen if Live Nation decides to buy or build venues?
I do think about it, but I’m not sure I have an answer. Half of me wants to say that my relationships will stand through whatever. Currently, because all the venues in the city are independently owned, it’s in their best interest to deal with as many promoters as they can. Because they want to fill the room. If HoB or Live Nation built a thousand or two thousand seater, there will always be the Phoenix and the Kool Haus.

Any final thoughts?
It’s a great, healthy scene here. Having so many competent people doing what they do keeps us all honest. The scuzzy promoter behaviour of the 70s would ever dare rear its ugly head here, for fear of being caught. You have a choice of moving over to a bunch of other people you could work with. Toronto gets so many more shows here than almost any other city in North America, and we all do well.

It’s great that I can do Arcade Fire and Interpol and all these other things that jumped to a next level, but let’s not forget that I do about a hundred shows a year at Lee’s Palace for a couple of hundred people. Most of my ticket prices are about $12-15, and no matter how depressed the economy is, people usually have $15 and enough money for a couple of beers.

Jason Grant, talent buyer at House of Blues Canada [email response to on-the-record questions, some of which inquired about the current relationship between Live Nation and House of Blues Canada and the pending merger]

I can only speak to any of the questions as an employee of House of Blues Concerts Canada. I'm not privy to the status of any dealings with Live Nation, so I can't speculate or offer any info on any of those questions.

I think that Toronto has, far and away, the most (and the most successful) independent concert promoters of any city in the country. This stands to reason based on the population size alone... but it's also a product of the tremendous appetite for live music here, and the very informed and culturally active populace.

In most American cities the independent concert promotions scene is tied to venue ownership and exclusive booking arrangements that given promoters enjoy at particular venues. Toronto is more or less free of that particular scenario, which levels the playing field and allows promoters (big and small) to work with an artist from their infancy to superstardom, as long as they are willing and able to take on the extra financial risk as the artist grows.

What this all means to consumers is kind of unclear... artists want to come here because Toronto is a large and important city where they can command decent fees and have a successful show. Good promoters help nurture the environment where that success can perpetuate itself, but no more so than good venues, supportive media, or the fans' enthusiasm for live music in general. If a bidding war erupts among promoters over an artist it can drive ticket prices up, but most artists' representatives and promoters have a good feel for the marketplace, so having a show so grossly overpriced that people won't attend on that basis alone is pretty rare. That's the only potential downside to the consumer as a result of superheated competition among promoters.

What this means to artists is also unclear... some artists and their representatives are fiercely loyal to the promoters who were there at the beginning of their career, others less so. Some of them get to know us by name, go for dinner with us, or even stay at our houses, while others could care less. If you do good work as a promoter, everyone profits... you make a little money, the artist makes money and has a great experience, and most importantly, the fans have a great experience.

Most artists recognize that, but in the whirlwind of a 20 show tour in 21 days, every club, arena or theatre can look the same as the last one, and it can be hard for some of them to make those kind of fine distinctions about why their show went very well that night.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

fascinating reading, Michael, thanks. Interesting to get a look into a side of the industry that's usually quite enigmatic to the outsider.