The first show Kim Zimmer ever promoted was an unequivocal success. She put Rik Emmett, an established singer-songwriter and jazz, blues and rock guitarist, in front of a capacity crowd of 250 at the Lion d'Or in April 2004. Tickets sold for $25 each and VIP packages, which included seats in the first three rows and a meet 'n' greet with Emmett, were going for $35. Zimmer braced for success-she had secured the right room, chosen a ticket outlet to do her selling, sought out sponsors for a guitar and ticket giveaway, held radio promotions, and even papered cars with flyers when sales were slow.
Zimmer, a thirtysomething investment advisers' assistant, had been looking for a new kind of professional experience and an outlet for some untapped skills. She has since organized two more gigs for Emmett, both of which were financially successful. Her experience with these three shows led her to start Get It Promotions, a company that specializes in fan experiences with artists. "When you see the happiness in people's eyes-one guy brought me flowers when I gave him tickets after the show was sold out-you really see how music touches people."
Zimmer's story could not have turned out better: her organizational acumen and business background put her in prime position to reap a profit. Other acts besides Emmett have approached her but, for now, she is turning them down. "It's a big financial risk promoting someone that I may not have as much interest in or knowledge about. I know what kind of music Rik does; that allowed me to sell him to people. You have to look at it like a business or else you'll lose your shirt."
Most promoters are propelled into the business by a love of music, but money can't be sweet-talked. Fans can be, if you're up on your skills, but how to cater to Montrealers is a constant mystery. "Quebecers have their own star system and they gravitate quicker to up-and-coming acts," says Matt Cundill, assistant program director and the music director of the classic-rock station CHOM 97.7 FM. "The Backstreet Boys broke here before any other market in North America, and so did Genesis. It's tough to say what it is. I know the music that does better is more progressive, more electronic-based. Someone wrote an article many years ago about how the music that was in church ... [Quebecers] gravitated towards stuff like that, that's why Supertramp's "Fool's Overture" works here. A lot of folk singers also do very well, but you'll find a lot of guitar rock does not do well."
Nancy Ross, talent buyer and marketing director at Greenland Productions, suggests that while the politics of the province lean on the tastes of its citizens, an act that seems like it should do well can tank. About a year and a half ago, Brian Neuman, one of the co-founders of the record label and concert promotions company, Blue Skies Turn Black (BTSB), had a string of money-losing events. He and co-founder Meyer Billurcu started promoting shows in May 2000 with a successful screening of Instrument, a documentary about the Washington, DC, punk band Fugazi. BTSB grew by producing albums and throwing shows for the smaller bands its employees enjoyed-not necessarily those they thought would bring in the biggest numbers.
The temperamental nature of the city's concert-goers and Montreal's cozy island-city personality means that the promotional community is atypically interlaced.
After the slump, they diversified. This July, they organized a show for Swedish dark-techno vocalist Jay Jay Johansen; rapper Oh No (beat scientist Madlib's younger brother) will be at the Sala Rossa on July 25. Guitar bands with independent-level street cred like the Dears, Kepler and the Hidden Cameras are also listed on their shows page. A well-publicized show is, naturally, more likely to succeed. In times when police are cracking down on postering, Neuman says they rely more heavily on print ads, flyers and message-board advertising. Zimmer says the key to a well-promoted show is a large e-mail list.
You'd think that staggering shows competing for the same audience would be a no-brainer. But one night this past May had American rapper Common playing at Metropolis for $47.50 and Roots Manuva at La Tulipe at the same time for $21.50. Both shows were competing for the same audience, and Montreal Mirror writer Scott C was threatening to jump out a window instead of having to make a difficult choice.
The temperamental nature of the city's concert-goers and Montreal's cozy island-city personality means that the promotional community is atypically interlaced. Although each promoter has a set of usual venues, they aren't all that possessive about them. "Everyone gets along and even if they're not combining into one company, they respect each others' individuality," said Neuman. "They help each other with what they're doing and then, later on, they return the favour and it works out really well."
"There aren't these fiefdoms that you'll find in other markets," says Cundill, who worked within those confines at a radio station that threw benefit shows in Edmonton. "[Other companies] even lend resources from time to time, and I think the chips are stacked against these guys from the get-go, with the number of obstacles trying to get bands into this city. I think there's a spirit of trying to make it work and trying to make Montreal an attractive place to come [and play]."
"When you see new people coming out regularly, or when you see artists go from being very small to getting more acceptance or reaching a public, that's exciting. I started mostly because I was just a big music fan and I was trying to help people get in front of people."
Greenland looks for artists it can grow-from a medium-sized act to a Metropolis-sized spectacle-and grow with. BSTB, on the other hand, relies on research as well as gut feelings when deciding who they'll throw shows for. Because the volume of shows produced (BSTB throws between ten and twenty per month, and Greenland averages around twelve), some shows will necessarily be more successful than others. Dan Webster of Greenland Productions admits it's "a very up-and-down business."
"You can have a year when all the artists are asking for too much money, and the audiences aren't as affluent," he says, and the promotional companies take a hit. "Sometimes, as long as it's a cool, interesting show, it really doesn't bother us if we lose money," says BSTB's Neuman. "It sucks, but it's not the end of the world. And if we make money, then that's great."
Promoting is a business propelled by sweat, brains and emotion. "You get very excited when you work with someone or when you see a show that you didn't know existed, when you start to see trends happening," says Webster. "When you see new people coming out regularly, or when you see artists go from being very small to getting more acceptance or reaching a public, that's exciting. I started mostly because I was just a big music fan and I was trying to help people get in front of people."
Melissa Wheeler is a Montreal news and arts journalist who used to breakdance until she decided it was too bad for her knees. You can hear her report on the weekend traffic on CJAD 800.