Ever wondered what a Music Promoter does, exactly? Peter North, host of both Dead Ends and Detours and Points North, has been a promoter for almost 40 years and tells us about his experience.
How did you get started as a promoter?
I got started as an offshoot of being a student in Performing Arts at Victoria Composite high school in the early 70s. In those days, liquor laws were very stringent and you needed a society to get a liquor license – so a bunch of us started one and called it the Geodesic Dome Society for Alberta. We actually built a dome out of two-by-sixes. It was huge – we could get 60 people in it.
Our society used to hold annual parties in June in a little town called Alix near Stettler, and we’d do street theatre, have fireworks, host a couple of dances and sort of take over the town. Somebody had to book the bands, and at some point it became my turn and I just sort of got the bug from that. Our first booking was the group Pontiac in the early 70s, consisting of Lionel Rault, Ron Rault, Chris Nordquist and Rob Storshaw. I’ve actually known Lionel since I was 20. I used to manage Lionel (if you could call it that) back in the late 70s.
Around the same time, I got involved booking a few shows in Edmonton’s Theatre 3 after their theatre season ended in April. I had actually been the stage carpenter at Theatre 3 when I was in high school – and I just liked the stage of their new place. There I did shows with P.J. Perry and Bob Carpenter, the great folk singer. I noticed they were playing both Winnipeg and Vancouver folk festivals, and of course this was long before the internet or ways of finding people. I just called the Winnipeg folk fest office and they gave me the name of their agent (who happened to be Richard Flohill).
And Richard led me through the whole thing about how to book American acts including work papers and immigration stuff that had to be done. They played two nights, and they were amazing shows. They’d just left Paul Butterfield’s Better Days band, and were really at the top of their game. I could probably still write down the set list. That was my first international touring effort.
I then went back to school in Thunder Bay, taking Arts Admin at Confederation College. It taught me a lot about the arts world in general, including grants and accounting. After a short stop in Toronto I made it back to Edmonton at the request of Larry Wanagas, who started Homestead Recorders. We started booking more bands together and then one day kd lang walked in to audition for a western swing band and within months, if not weeks, Larry was managing kd – so we were booking her everywhere.
What are the steps in promoting a show?
I’ll use the example of my most recent project, the Front Porch Tribute to the Band.
You start with an anchor date from a great venue like Festival Place, who have been very supportive. You don’t just want it to be a one-nighter. Then you go and find a couple other great venue gigs; in this case two nights at the Ironwood. And then it’s my job to promote those shows, because the Ironwood is like a lot of places – it’s a showcase room with a door deal, which means you charge what you think will work and you take the door, the club takes the bar.
I’m responsible for paying for the guys’ rooms and their wages, I hire the publicist, make sure the posters are done and put up, help with the promotion in Calgary and Edmonton. That’s where the trick is – not to lay an egg in a certain marketplace or else you’re going to be out of pocket.
In this case I also produced the show. So Ron Rault and I started the process of picking tunes and then inviting the other artists to give us ideas about what songs they would like to perform; coming up with set lists and a flow to the show; and just the logistics of who would be on stage when, making sure The Band’s repertoire is properly represented from the earliest days right through to the last incarnation with Levon Helm and Rick Danko and Garth Hudson, the last original members.
Do you have any words of advice for people interested in becoming a promoter?
So many people are trying to be promoters, with varying degrees of success. It’s such a different landscape these days, with more acts than ever out there, and lots of people wanting to become a musician. But there’s no middle class of musician – they’ve almost been wiped out. You’re either playing the Jube or Rexall Place, or working door deals and hoping someone’s going to show up. The days of guarantees of playing 6 nights in a hotel tavern and making good money a couple of times a month, allowing you to work on other artistic endeavours… those days are gone.
To a degree they’ve been replaced by folk clubs and community theatres but those are one-nighters, and competition for those gigs has become even stiffer over the last 2 years with the implosion of the American economy. Lots of great American acts are roaming the land up here playing for half of what they would have played for 2 years ago.
I also think there are more people between the audience and the artist, vying for a piece of the pie – everybody’s taking a slice. I’m appalled by the greed factor; by some of the fees that certain artists want these days. In some cases they can get it, but in others, managers are ruining their artists’ careers. They have to go back a couple years later with their tail between their legs. I can think of people I’ve worked with, who 4 years ago were asking $5000 or $10,000 are now asking 6 or 7 times that amount. And it’s not based on a proportionate rise in popularity.
Everybody looks after themselves in that business. You have to be really tough, laying down the law sometimes, knowing when to place a desire to work with somebody on the back burner and realizing the financial equation just isn’t going to work in your favour -a lesson every young promoter needs to learn right off the bat. Sometimes it’s just cheaper, if you really want to see someone, and you really appreciate their art, it’s just cheaper to get on a plane and go see them somewhere and then you get to see the whole damn show. Because when you’re a promoter, you’re always doing financial settlements in the back, or managing catering; making sure the venue’s looked after, paying crew members, making sure they haven’t trashed the hotel room…