Jazz: It’s All That

Blitz Magazine, May 2003

Festival: n Time of festive celebration; merry-making; [periodic] series of performances.

jazz1Jazz: n Syncopated dance music, of US Negro origin, with characteristic harmony and rag-time rhythm; (slang) pretentious talk; ~ adj Discordant, loud or fantastic in colour ~ v Dance to, play, jazz; arrange (music) as jazz; arrange (pattern) in vivid or grotesque form; brighten, liven, up.

In this day and age, it’s hard to believe that our society’s cultural deep-freeze was such that jazz was something that could be enjoyed only behind closed doors. You had to be a grown-up, you had to be of a certain race or class, or you had to be slumming.

In fact, the first proper jazz festival didn’t take place until 1954. That was the famed Newport Jazz Festival, which has presented Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck and Billie Holiday, among many others, and has stirred a lot of controversy: riots in 1960, 1971 and 1972 caused the festival to move to New York; it didn’t return to Newport until 1991.

Luckily, the Newport idea caught on and, with the help of Newport Fest founder George Wein, festivals were initiated in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin. Today, there are jazz festivals all over the world—from Turkey to Australia to India. Each year, tiny Italian villages burst with festival visitors; the concept is huge in Japan. Canadians, of course, are always up for anything and the country now hosts some of the world’s top jazz festivals, most notably in Montreal and Vancouver.

jazz2 jazz3 

The Vancouver festival consistently presents one of the most culturally-diverse music celebrations in the world, gracing the city with what the Vancouver Sun has called “Ten Days of Heaven”.

All day, every day, inside and outside, jazz of all styles is presented at 40 venues, by 1700 musicians doing 400 shows, many of which are free. With 2002 attendance of 430,000, it is the largest cultural event in western Canada and one of the biggest musical events in the nation.

Festival co-founder John Orysik calls this festival—any jazz festival—‘a cultural lubricant’.

“The jazz festival engages people. It brings music to a large group of people in a short span of time, and it brings the music to everyone—people of all ages, races, socio-economic levels. It allows music to be introduced, and marketed, strategically and effectively, in the biggest context, and it has an event cachet that you don’t get with a one-off concert.”

Orysik explains what it is that makes jazz so popular in every corner of the globe. “It’s the spirit, the energy, the freedom. The music is…everything.”

Sing it Like it Is: The Star-Spangled Banner & O Canada

Blitz Magazine, September 2001

anthem2‘Tis the season. Baseball season. And, as is the case before every game, I sit and listen to the American national anthem. And, as always, I want to throw something at the TV.

A national anthem is a song of praise. It is meant to stir the soul, to remind people of the love and pride they share for their country. And it’s a song written in such a way that all members of a country can sing it. Together. All citizens, regardless of their location or circumstances of vocal capability, should be able to sing their anthem, along with their fellow citizens.

There’s nothing wrong with the US anthem—aside from the reference to rockets and bombs. (Actually, I think they should ditch the Star-Spangled Banner and go with America the Beautiful, but if I suggested it down there, someone would probably shoot me.)

What is wrong is that Americans have let their anthem be hi-jacked. While some Americans must mind, no one complains when, instead of having the anthem led by an able-voiced person who gets up and sings it the way it was written, the performer turns the US national song into a version of gospel entertainment, complete with vocal somersaults and senseless variations, always with excruciating effect. Instead of eagerly waiting to watch the Yankees dust Tampa Bay, you’re searching for the remote so you can mute the noise.


The reason that Americans should mind is that, whether they’re at a stadium, in a pub, or in their homes, they should be able to sing along. It’s everybody’s anthem; everyone should be able to sing it, and share it.

This hasn’t been a problem with the Canadian anthem—so far. Our problem is that we have to quickly figure out if the occasion calls for the French version, and when we’re supposed to lapse into French. We end up blurring our words a little; it’s like singing Happy Birthday to triplets.

Enter David Foster, one of the many proud Canadians who call California home. Foster, one of the most successful music producers around, intends to run for the job of Premier of British Columbia and, to that end, is studying political science and economics at Pepperdine. (He needs a tutor—he told the Vancouver Sun that explorer James Cook was BC’s second premier.)

In June, Foster held a press conference to promote his new (not-for-profit) CD. The CD is called O Canada. It contains six versions of the Canadian national anthem, a full-length version with French lyrics added by screamer-come-lately Lara Fabian, and four standard two-minute versions edited from the original. Foster told the Sun that he tried to up-date the anthem and “put, I don’t know, my flair to it.”

ocanadaWhat? Hello? Foster’s ‘flair’ might have made Whitney Houston a lot of money, but it also turned a sweet little Dolly Parton love song into “And I-EE-I-EE-I will always lHUUUUV you-who-OOOOooWAAAA, HUWAAA will always lHUUUUV youooooooo WHOAHAA.”

And he wants to re-work Canada’s national song? I don’t think so.

If I go to a Canucks game, I want to be able to stand up and sing O Canada, just as it was written, along with my fellow Canadians—not stand there watching some large-lunged kid from the local church make like Celine Dion with a tune that no one can hope to follow. If Foster’s celebrity allows him to gain in-roads in his bid to turn our anthem into entertainment, I hope Canadians, unlike Americans, will stand up, sing their anthem the way it was written and tell the ‘talent’ to shut up.




Gun Violence, Music & Advertising: Enough is Enough

Blitz Magazine, January 2006


I, like all Canadians, am proud of how we’ve been able continue our various cultural traditions, grow our own superb artists and successful industries, and maintain a distinct Canadian identity (no one can quite describe it, but it’s there). We’ve done this in spite of our proximity to the United States, whose culture has permeated that of every nation on the planet.

I, like all Canadians, am also proud of how we’ve been able to keep out the worst of the US—especially the war mongering and the obsession with guns. The proliferation of handguns, long the scourge of that nation, has been kept at bay. Rather, had been kept at bay.

Since last January, Canadian cities have been seen a shocking increase in gun-related violence. Edmonton has just clocked its 37th murder, while Toronto experienced a veritable bloodbath, losing 50 of its citizens to bullets. A couple of weeks ago, a promising young artist was shot dead on a Vancouver street by a complete stranger with no apparent motive.

You want creepy? Visit http://www.nra.org. As I look at it, it’s headlines are: ‘NRA to File Lawsuit Challenging San Francisco Gun Ban’, ‘Historic Victory for NRA as President Bush Signs Protection of Lawful Commerce In Arms Act’, and ‘American Rifleman Wins Folio: Gold Ozzie Design Award’. Yee haw.

The NRA exists for no other reason than to ‘protect the right of Americans to own guns’. (In fact, the US Constitution does not specifically grant that right.) Given that the only purpose of guns is to take life, you have to shake your head at the mentality of people who fight tooth and nail to own lethal weapons and endanger the lives of their fellow citizens. In Florida, Jeb Bush—who is obviously as dim and malleable as his brother—has enacted a law that justifies homicide if the killer (read: shooter) feels threatened by the, uh, dead person.

What has this to do with media communications?

Last week, I get home from a party. I flick on the TV, to CNN. But I’ve pressed the wrong buttons and I get MuchMusic.

It’s 3:00 a.m. and I’m watching a ‘music’ video (there’s no actual music in evidence). In it, a scantily-clad young woman is ordered onto all fours, then a man puts his foot on her back and pushes her to the ground. She gracefully submits. I stand there and watch a couple of these videos, one by a band named ‘Pitbull’, sandwiched between ads by Coca Cola, Cadbury and Maybelline. All of the videos feature thug wannabes yacking about who-knows-what and surrounded by half-naked, writhing women and I’m thinking: “Please tell me that these losers aren’t the role models of Canadian teen-agers!”

The ‘musicians’ in all of these bands are black. And they’re twisting themselves into knots trying to show their ‘Street Cred’ and their ‘Hood Gangsta membership, making themselves look very foolish in the process. It’s not only boring, it’s sad. This is not what people should be led to believe of black culture. Black culture is not about crime and rape and abuse and drugs and guns. Millions of people are working to get away from this garbage, and it helps no one to see it glorified and to have these stupid and shameful stereotypes perpetuated.

In the US, the latest media darling is rapper 50 Cent (aka Curtis Jackson). He recently made a movie: Get Rich or Die Trying, and has had great success with songs like How to Rob, Ready to Die and No Mercy, No Fear. His parents (murdered long ago) were well-known drug dealers, he has a very long rap sheet and has survived being shot nine times. “Well, good for him,” everyone says. “He got out of the ‘hood and has become a success.” (The media rarely mentions black teachers and doctors who rose from the ‘hood—too boring. It’s violence that sells.)


Jackson has already faced censorship in Canada—a planned concert was barred from taking place. But I’m loathe to encourage censorship. It can’t be the role of government to control what people read, see and hear. Parents have to do it. And many of them are doing a lousy job, thinking it’s better if their teen-agers play blood-soaked video games and watch the aforementioned crap at home, rather than hanging out at malls.

Advertisers also have to take some responsibility. Marketers have to look at what their ads are supporting—it’s their money and their choice. Does Maybelline, for example, want its customers to think that it’s OK for women to submit to abusive acts by men? No? Then it has to be careful about what it’s advertising around.

Paul Martin was slammed (by the Conservatives) for promising a handgun ban at the launch of his election campaign. People called it “opportunistic”. Deputy Prime Minister Anne McLellan had to do some fast talking in her home province, telling an Edmonton reporter: “The handgun ban doesn’t apply in Alberta. It’s a provincial opt-in.” Her Tory riding opponent, Laurie Hawn, took the tried-and-true NRA route, calling it an “excuse to target law-abiding citizens.” Well, law-abiding citizens don’t own handguns. Handguns are not an effective means of protection: they’re used for crime and, when kept in the home, are often used by children—to shoot other children (anyone remember Columbine?).

As far as I’m concerned, if Martin enacts a handgun ownership ban and makes possession a heavily-punished crime, he’s a hero. The bloodshed and violence and fear associated with handguns is one part of American culture that we do not want, and the Canadian media and advertising industries should not be encouraging it by seeking to profit from it.


Oh Shut Up: Bad Music & Noisy Advertising

Blitz Magazine, November 2004

radio‘Might just be me, but it seems like communication with the public is getting noisier—it’s not a question of sound, but of noise. Aggressive, cloying unnecessary, inappropriate noise.

In BC, the Savings & Credit Unions of BC campaign is torturing us with the grating belting out of You Are the Only One—it’s supposed to give us the warm fuzzies but it ain’t workin’. The Art Institute of Vancouver and the Culinary Institute of Vancouver are using voice-overs recorded by a girl who sounds like an ailing American street kid and is unable to enunciate the letter ‘t’. This is noise.

Vancouver rock ‘n roll fans used to religiously listen to 101 CFMI, the big daddy of the FM band. Then it switched its programming to heavy metal and a lot of us switched to Victoria’s 100.3 The Q, which used to have the perfect play list—good classic rock ‘n roll and lots of new music. Now, The Q has gone after the mullet crowd, delivering a steady stream of Heart, Kiss, ACDC and Van Halen. Ugh.

Back in Vancouver, CFMI now claims to be the home of classic rock. So its play list is Led Zeppelin, Rush, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd (but only the tired standards from Dark Side of the Moon), more Zeppelin, more Rush, ACDC, Led Zeppelin and Rush. The Rolling Stones, The Police, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith etc. are largely excluded. I like Zeppelin as much as the next rocker chick, but when I’m driving way too fast in the honey-bright Vancouver sunshine, I just don’t want to hear Stairway to Heaven. Bad radio is just plain noisy. And, for this market, this station’s music is inappropriate.

On the larger stage, why is Cadillac using Led Zeppelin to sell its cars?  This is also an example of how a trend can go wrong (and, hopefully, die off). The use of good rock ‘n roll music to sell cars began years and years ago. Chiat/Day mastered the technique, for Nissan. It came back and gained steam in the last five years. Now, agencies all over North America use it to sell everything, regardless of whether or not it’s appropriate. Right now, 2000 Flushes is using R&B music (and women in blue sequin ball gowns). Air Canada is using Celine Dion—presumably to prove that it’s still a champion over-spender and to instill some kind of national pride. When was the last time a Canadian told you that he loved listening to Celine Dion? I think most Canadians wish the girl would just go away.

Back in BC, the long-time formula for Telus has been to show animals, play music and hope that, somehow, consumers will want Telus’ products and services. Aside from the fact that using non-canine or –feline animals in commercials is hopelessly old-fashioned (and, often, cruel and unethical), the animals are irrelevant to what Telus wants to sell, and the music is unnecessary.

Do you remember the days when radio people chose the right music for their markets? Remember the days when agencies commissioned original music for their clients? Perfect, appropriately-crafted music. An example has just arisen with the new Ford commercials, with Kiefer Sutherland’s dulcet tones and elegant, ear-catching music. Hopefully, this is a new trend—it would be such a relief.

It’s true that the best way to get someone’s attention is to whisper. The most compelling TV commercials are those that are quiet—they force people to look at the screen. In radio, the opposite is true, but if the music is so bad that listeners change stations, no one’s going to hear those ads.

Maybe the problem is that creative directors are too young—because it is the twenty-somethings that grew up with noise, addicted to ear phones, video games and head-banging rock. The 30-60 demographic was raised on sounds that were appropriate to the culture at the time. Bringing back those sounds, turning up the volume and slapping them on product ads may get people’s attention, but not necessarily the desired reaction. For the 30-60 set, it’s more likely to make us tune out. And we’re still the ones with the big spending power.

We Got Rhythm: The du Maurier International Jazz Festival Strikes a Chord

 Blitz Magazine, July 1999


              Each June, Vancouverites notice that, everywhere they turn, there’s music. On the streets, in the theatres, in the clubs. It’s part of Vancouver’s summer. Increasingly, it’s part of the vacation plans of jazz fans, who flock here for the du Maurier International Jazz Festival, now one of the world’s most acclaimed musical events.

               The festival’s roots go back decades, to when Vancouver natives Ken Pickering and John Orysik met, in kindergarten. Pickering developed his love of jazz very early; it rubbed off on Orysik and the two have been involved with jazz ever since.

               In 1975, Pickering opened Vancouver’s venerated Black Swan Records, purveyor of avant-garde and international music. Orysik became a jazz writer and worked at CJAZ, Canada’s first 24-hour jazz radio station. There, he met another jazz devotee, Robert Kerr. When CJAZ dropped jazz programming in favour of commercial music, the three men decided to form a jazz society.

               “Ken and I always fantasized about starting a jazz festival,” recalls Orysik. “There’s a lot of fragmentation in jazz festivals–some are traditional New Orleans, some progressive, some swing, some bebop. We wanted to incorporate everything. We never thought the fantasy would come to anything. In the mid-80s, we started discussing it seriously. Vancouver was growing and changing so quickly, but there were no regular jazz events. We figured we could make something happen. But first, we had to form a functioning unit.”

               In 1984, the Coastal Jazz & Blues Society was born, with Kerr as Executive Director, Pickering as Artistic Director and Orysik as Marketing and Promotions Director. They started to produce concerts; their first sold out. In 1985, they mounted a modest, self-funded, seven-day jazz and blues festival, with musicians from BC, Washington State and Oregon. It broke even. That fact was enough to grab the attention of tobacco giant du Maurier, which was heavily involved with jazz in eastern Canada but wanted to make its jazz sponsorship national.

               “We needed corporate sponsorships to do a major international festival,” says Orysik. “Corporations are inundated with sponsorship requests but they want a track record, which most non-profits don’t have. We had one.”

               For the 1986 du Maurier International Jazz Festival, du Maurier contributed $125,000. toward a $500,000. budget (the rest came from sales and government agencies). It was Expo time; the city was packed. The festival was marketed through radio, print media and record stores, and booked events on and off the Expo site.

               The scope of Expo made it easier to score a huge coup when Pickering booked Miles Davis. That led to a publicity boon when Davis had a famously nasty, on-stage confrontation with Wynton Marsalis, an occurrence which was duly covered by the international press.

Miles Davis

Miles Davis (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

               But that was an isolated incident–this festival is an amiable event, with musicians coming from literally everywhere to entertain jazz fans who, last year, totaled 350,000. Pickering stays true to the festival’s mandate of encouraging home-grown talent–each year, Canadians account for 60% of performers. Diana Krall played some of her first gigs here, Colin James is a regular and festival-goers have seen, among many other Canadians, Jeff Healey, Renee Rosnes, Dee Daniels, Fraser MacPherson, Kenny Colman, Oliver Gannon, Jim Byrnes, Kate Hammett-Vaughan and Holly Cole.

               But the festival’s mission statement is ‘To seek out and disseminate the most creative, innovative and adventurous contemporary improvised music from every corner of the planet. To reveal the immense talents of emerging musicians in the jazz milieu, but remain dedicated to the jazz discipline in all of its historical manifestations.’

               Which is why the festival’s roster has included Etta James, Carmen McRae, Pat Metheny, Otis Clay and Dizzy Gillespie–but also Soweto’s Mahlatini and the Mahotella Queens. We’ve seen Sun Ra, Joe Pass, Herb Alpert, Dave Bruebeck, John Hammond and Maceo Parker–also Johnny Winter and Deborah Harry. Otis Rush could be included one year, along with the Vienna Art Orchestra; Herbie Hancock and the Staple Singers with a Finnish band whose name you can’t pronounce. Brazil’s Caetano Veloso was here this year; so were the Cowboy Junkies.

               Pickering also stages ensemble performances where, often, musicians meet for the first time just hours before the show. With his encyclopedic knowledge of international jazz, he can confidently combine, say, a Swedish guitarist, a Scots pianist, a Kenyan saxophonist, a Japanese drummer and a Czech trombonist. He puts them on stage and off they go–and it rarely backfires.

               This is taking calculated risks with programming. And it’s why Down Beat magazine says the Vancouver festival is ‘The most well-balanced, all-encompassing and excitingly programmed monster-mash in North American jazz festivals. du Maurier Vancouver is the place where all roads converge.’

               As Pickering told Seattle Magazine, which calls Vancouver’s the best jazz festival in the world: “The fact that we’re Canadian means that there’s a different vibe. We don’t have that racial baggage and jazz baggage. We can be a little freer with our choices. We have great respect for American developments, because there wouldn’t be any jazz without that history, but we’re trying to give the audience a good look at a cross section of the music.”

               This risk-taking is also a marketing technique. Since the advent of the festival, Vancouverites have had no choice but to become musical sophisticates. They’re invited to free jazz workshops and can’t help but stumble across free outdoor performances–this year, there were 61 free concerts at six venues. They hear it, they like it, they pick up a program, they buy tickets to paid performances. This year, there were 311 paid performances at 27 clubs and theatres over 11 days. That’s saturation–it’s great for future marketing, and it grows a future audience.

               “We’re a community-based organization so it’s important for us to present a lot of free music,” says Orysik. “For us, what makes a festival a festival is taking advantage of this terrific urban setting and, by letting us close the streets in Gastown, the city lets us put on a great street party. Some jazz festivals have free stuff but not many do outdoor things because they have to worry about public safety. In Canada, you can bring your family to street performances and not worry about endangering your life.”

               Another clever, marketing/programming tool is having obscure musicians, who Pickering feels deserve exposure, open for big-name acts. For example, this year, an up-and-coming bassist, Kyle Eastwood, opened for the Cowboy Junkies. Who are not jazz musicians. Orysik dismisses that point.

               “People may say that an act isn’t jazz. We say, ‘Who cares?’ They play interesting music that we think audiences would like. Jazz audiences are open-minded people. But if I said to people ‘Go see Kyle Eastwood’, they wouldn’t. By having him open for a packed theatre of Cowboy Junkies fans, we created an audience for Kyle. Those people will tell their friends and, when he comes back, they’ll want to see him again.”

               A future audience is also guaranteed by the fact that, in addition to the festival, the society stages 30-40 concerts a year. “We don’t pack up our tents after the festival,” continues Orysik. “We’re here for the long term. We market the other concerts, we distribute a newsletter to 14,000 people and we remind people where they can find jazz on the radio. The more knowledge people have, the more they appreciate the music. As far as the concerts are concerned, each event has an impact on the next and each concert helps increase the festival’s audience.”


               Vancouver also shares projects with the Montreal and Toronto jazz festivals. And the society is involved with Westcan Jazz, a group of societies in Vancouver, Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary and Saskatoon. Through the three associations, Pickering can invite a musician to play Vancouver and, to make it cost-efficient for everyone, arrange dates for him in Victoria, Edmonton, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax. It’s complicated, but Pickering gets the acts he wants.

               Organizing this festival is also not inexpensive. Musicians have to be paid, transported, housed and fed; sets and equipment rented. This year’s budget was $2. million, $500,000. of which came from du Maurier. Earned income is ticket sales ($500,000.), souvenir sales ($50,000.) and concession sales ($90,000).

               The festival operates two concessions, one in Gastown where it brings it other vendors and works with sponsors like Perrier and Snapple. Its largest concession is at the Roundhouse/David Lam Park, where it has developed, with developer Concord Pacific and Subeez restaurant, the full-service Jazz Bistro. The festival also runs two venues–Studio 16 and Performance Works. The rest of the venues have their own operations; in some cases, door receipts go to the festival; in others, the clubs pay the bands and keep the door receipts.

               About 12% of funds each year comes from the City of Vancouver and the provincial and federal ministries overseeing tourism and culture. The remaining 40% comes from sponsorships.

               “Our sponsors have been legion,” says Kerr. “We’ve attracted them by showing them the value of being associated with our event. Sponsorship is an incredible way of developing relationships with individuals who are also consumers, and connecting a company to individuals through something that’s meaningful to their lives. It’s also a way of providing exposure to products in a tasteful and creative way. We try to keep the festival focused on the experience of enjoying the music, while integrating the sponsors within that experience–so it doesn’t become a hard sell, but a way for people to check out what sponsors are promoting.

               “It’s often not easy acquiring sponsors, though–there are endless ways for companies to spend their marketing dollars. It’s always a matter of meeting the company’s objectives–there has to be a good fit between what the company wants to achieve and what the event can provide. So it’s not automatic that a sponsor will come on board with a successful event. But, over the last fifteen years, I’ve seen huge growth in the corporate community’s awareness of the potential of event marketing.

               “Festivals have become one of the key mediums for presenting cultural activity to the public. Nobody goes to clubs any more–our culture is focused on special events, and festivals provide an opportunity for people to engage in an incredible experience and have all kinds of different things offered to them within a focused period of time.”

               The festival’s sponsor recognition depends, of course, on the level of investment. Rewards range from opportunities to feature products, to full identity integration. In the case of the title sponsor, unfortunately, there is going to be a change. Bill C71, which outlaws tobacco sponsorship of events, makes 2000 du Maurier’s last year as title sponsor, although it can participate until 2003.

               Kerr is not happy about this, but says they’re not panicking either–the society is financially healthy. It hasn’t always been profitable–it has lost money once, broken even a few times. Now, it runs at a surplus–$90,000. in 1998. That money goes back into program development.

               “A lot of arts groups spend and spend, then go crying to the government to bail them out,” notes Orysik. “We’re more strategic. Booking the Cowboy Junkies helps us pay to bring in a Dutch musician no one’s ever heard of. It keeps us solvent and successful and allows us to use our surplus to advance our musical agenda and grow as an event.”

               Since its inception, the festival’s audience has grown by 20% each year–no mean feat, considering that its product is music which is considered ‘difficult’ (‘truth be told, the odd act can make you yearn for a root canal). The festival’s primary market is music fans age 25-45, in BC, Washington State and Oregon. Orysik reaches them by doing a lot of media interviews, mostly in BC and the Pacific Northwest US. He visits Seattle, distributing posters and programs to music stores, record stores, coffee shops, libraries. And he gets tons of advance coverage in Canadian and American papers, through sending out media kits, sampler CDs and a steady stream of news releases.

               Ticket sales are aided by enormous local media coverage. With an annual marketing budget of $540,000., the festival does buy radio, television and print advertising, including full pages in international jazz magazines like Jazz Times, Down Beat and Coda, and insert distribution in the Georgia Straight and Vancouver Sun.  BCTV is a long-time supporter; so is the CBC–English and French, radio and television. The festival partners with CFOX on blues programming; V.TV was involved this year. Z.95 aired remote broadcasts, Fairchild Radio helped the festival reach the city’s ethnic communities.

               “As the festival grows, my job gets easier,” he says. “Now, journalists call me. We have journalists coming from all over the world and, with the Internet, our reach for both media and concert-goers is international.”

               The festival’s web site (www.jazzfest.mybc.com) provides loads of easily-accessible information. It carries artist photos and bios, sound and video clips and links to artists’ sites. Visitors can search by musical styles, link to other festivals and down-load venue maps, transit maps, weather information. There is a link to Ticketmaster, as well as hotel and restaurant information, archival information and information on volunteering (the society has a year-round staff of seven, but the festival relies on 800 volunteers).

               Another key marketing tool is the festival’s graphic image. Each year, Orysik et al work with their design firm to come up with one image to represent the festival.

               “That image becomes our trademark for the year,” explains Orysik. “Our festival is considered to be hip and adventurous. The image has to illustrate that–it has to be fresh, cool, sophisticated and appeal to a broad cross-section of the population. It’s very important that the image reflect the music and the attitude we have to that music.”

               This image goes on the festival’s 10,000 posters and the 5,000 shirts and caps which it sells each year (Roots is the official souvenir sponsor). It also goes on the program, the event’s key marketing tool. Each year, 150,000 programs are printed and distributed free of charge. The program is exhaustively descriptive, containing an at-a-glance calendar, an alphabetical listing of acts and short, informative descriptions of what can be expected from each performance.

               “I like to market the festival by informing people about the music and the musicians’ backgrounds,” says Orysik. “You may not know who someone is, but if I can describe his music in an interesting way, it may pique your interest enough that you’ll come out.”

               Both Kerr and Orysik envy Montreal, whose festival is five years older than Vancouver’s and is now North America’s largest jazz festival. The envy stems from the huge support which Montreal’s festival receives from government agencies.

               Kerr sits on the board of Tourism Vancouver, which he says is beginning to understand the value of promoting cultural and entertainment activity here, and of broadening the scope of Vancouver’s image beyond the outdoor/recreational/gorgeous city aspect.

               “Vancouver used to be able to get by with very little promotion for the summer season–all efforts were focused on the October to April season. Now, there’s more focus on summer because, with the Asian economy being what it is, summer tourism is no longer a slam dunk. And our festival’s worth supporting–in 1985, we measured its economic impact at $13. million. It’s a high-quality event and it’s an excellent draw for the city.”

               Orysik is less thrilled with Tourism BC.

               “BC has always been marketed as a place with gorgeous scenery, which it has. But what about what people can do when they’re not fishing or hiking? What do you do at night? We’re trying to impress on Tourism BC that Vancouver is also a great cultural destination with a lot of night life and a thriving arts community. They’re starting to get it.

               “But I look at Quebec, where the government just pours money into its events. It stages press conferences all down the US east coast, where it tells Americans; ‘Come to Quebec! We’ve got this event and that event!’. BC’s competition is growing–New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong are all marketing heavily. You’ve gotta’ have an edge and that edge is culture. So I wish Tourism BC was more involved in supporting culture. Enough of this: ‘Come see a bear, then go to your hotel and go to sleep!’.

               Neither man is at all discouraged, though. “One of the beautiful things about this festival is that we haven’t hit our saturation rate,” says Orysik. “We are now the largest cultural event in Western Canada and there’s no end to how far we can grow. It also sets a creative tone for the city, and shows the world that there’s a lot of interesting cultural activity taking place on the west coast of Canada.”

               “We’re thrilled by the popular response to the festival,” concludes Kerr. “We’ve been able to develop a distinct identify for ourselves. We’re not seen as a clone of Montreal or New Orleans–through broadly-based programming and our integration of urban clubs and theatres with outdoor spaces, we’ve put our own stamp on the festival milieu.”




   Blitz Magazine, July 1998

            To most of us, the music industry is an inky labyrinth of promoters and payola, percentages and publicists, studios and sharks. ‘Not an industry for the faint of heart. But three Vancouverites have successfully navigated their way through this maze to build one of North America’s top independent record labels — Nettwerk Records.


               In 1983, Mark Jowett and Terry McBride, both 22, were working at Odyssey Imports, then Vancouver’s source for imported music — most of it eclectic or ‘alternative’. At night, McBride worked as a DJ at Vancouver’s pre-eminent alternative music club, Luv Affair, while Jowett played bass in an avant garde syntho-rock band called Moev.

               McBride became Moev’s manager, and they quickly realized that the only way to get its music released was by doing it themselves. They borrowed $5,000.00 and, in 1984, opened Nettwerk Records, with McBride’s living room as head office.

               While they were recording Moev’s debut album, they heard a demo by Kelowna’s folk-oriented Grapes of Wrath. Then they found Vancouver’s Skinny Puppy, a gothic-rock band which wanted to record its first album. McBride and Jowett signed the two bands and released all three albums. Economies of scale aside, there was no money left for marketing, so Jowett and McBride devised their own ‘organic’ marketing method.

               “If you’re innovative, you can do it inexpensively,” says Jowett. “We marketed the three albums together, through the alternative press, through the clubs, through performances — nothing dramatically different from how we market records now. Also, from Odyssey, we knew the UK and European labels, we knew who released what kinds of music and we knew who to contact. From them, we learned about building a strong identity for the label — that was important in the early stages.”

               Nettwerk licensed its first releases to Brussels’ Play It Again Sam Records. With licensing agreements, the label/owner sends the master to the licensee, who bears all marketing and distribution responsibilities. The licensee pays the label a royalty — usually 20-25% of sales, which is shared with the artist/s and writer/s for the life of the release. In this case, Nettwerk was able to get a small advance — luckily.

               “The Catch 22 was when the product sold and distributors wanted more but wouldn’t pay for ninety days,” continues Jowett. “We had to keep coming up with more money to produce more product and we had difficulty raising it. So our success was potentially our failure.”

               Failure was averted because one big market for alternative music is the North American universities, and Nettwerk releases were soon making regular appearances on US college radio, then Billboard’s alternative charts. Moev and Skinny Puppy became cult bands, but Grapes of Wrath had commercial appeal, and this led to a 1986 distribution deal with Capitol-EMI. Not only did this increase sales, but EMI paid in 30 days, alleviating cash-flow problems and allowing Nettwerk to sign more bands — and not just local bands.

               One reason for Nettwerk’s success is its global approach. Nettwerk now has offices in New York and London, and representatives and/or distributors in Australia, Mexico, Japan, Western Europe and the Scandinavian countries. It has not only marketed its music to the underground urban dance culture, and licensed its music to international labels, but it has sought out international acts, brought them here and marketed them continent-wide. It brought Severed Heads and Single Gun Theory from Australia, The Tear Garden from Holland, Chris and Cosey from the UK, Bel Canto from Norway. With the goal of building a roster of varied, quality music, it also signed folk-pop acts like Lava Hay, and hard-core bands like Consolidated, MC 900 FT Jesus and SPK — bands you may have never heard of, but who produce the type of music for which Jowett and McBride knew there was a large, eager audience.

               Today, the term ‘alternative’ could mean almost anything — shock-rock, industrial rock, electro-rock, electro-rap, hip hop, acid jazz. Pre-Nettwerk, it was music which no other label would touch. But Nettwerk knew it would catch on. Today, no self-respecting dance club would be without it and the major labels seek it out.

               “The industry wasn’t always into alternative music,” says Ric Arboit, the former sound technician and Skinny Puppy tour manager who is now Nettwerk’s President. “In the early days, there were many records which we were told were ‘too alternative’. Now, there’s a whole industry of US stations which play strictly alternative. We take no credit, but when Nirvana hit Billboard’s number one in 1992, I knew there was a God.”

               While industry experts credit Nettwerk for the legitimization of alternative music, and for the industrial-dance boom of the ‘80s, Arboit says this was not strategy.

               “Alternative is who we are. We believed in what we were doing and did what we wanted to do. We surrounded ourselves with people who understood our goals, worked hard and put every dime back into the company.”

               Sound fiscal management is another reason for Nettwerk’s success.

While the major labels spend $250,000.00 on first releases by new acts, Nettwerk spends $25,000.00. It releases no more than one CD every six weeks and releases music only when it can afford to. Of course, this was moot at the beginning — 1985 sales were $70,000.00.

               Arboit calls it ‘luck’, but the three partners knew what their market wanted. Moev and the Grapes of Wrath became very successful; Skinny Puppy’s sales hit 1,000,000 before it disbanded. While all releases aren’t huge sellers — 20,000 is about average — the important point is that few lose money.

               Nettwerk doesn’t particularly care if an album doesn’t make a lot of money. The main criteria remains that the partners have to believe in the music — if one of them doesn’t like an act, it doesn’t get signed.

               “It’s mostly instinct,” says Jowett. “The artist has to be powerful and unique — someone that moves us and will hopefully move other people. We’re not looking for hits — we’re looking for originality and vision. We sign bands we like and let them make the music they want to make. What’s most important to us is releasing great, cutting-edge music and finding a home for it, as opposed to looking for music that people might like. It’s harder to hang on to that now because we’re a much bigger organization. One of our biggest challenges is to keep that philosophy and integrity while being able to grow.”

               There is a screening process which takes place before Nettwerk signs an act. “You have to explore an artist’s expectations and goals,” says Jowett. “If an artist has high expectations and you know that his music is important and has potential but is niche-based, then the artist’s expectations won’t be met and we’ll all be unhappy. Also, we look for centred people with a good work ethic, because it’s like a marriage — everybody has to get along and respect each other.”

               Dozens of demos from hopefuls arrive daily. All are listened to and Nettwerkers keep their ears to the ground. While months can go by without anything inspiring coming along, they occasionally find an artist and just know.

               In 1984, Moev was playing in Halifax. The opening act was a teen band with a lead singer named Sarah McLachlan. Jowett, recognizing a born singer-songwriter, tried to sign her on the spot. But she was still in school, so he kept in touch and, in 1986, she signed with Nettwerk and moved to Vancouver. She hadn’t yet written a song and it took her two years to build a repertoire but, in 1988, Nettwerk released her first album, Touch, which sold 19,000 copies.

               McLachlan has since sold over 8,000,000 records and won two Grammy and five Juno awards — Arboit says he has to occasionally look at her Rolling Stone cover to realize it’s real. But her experience epitomizes Nettwerk’s philosophy of nurturing artists and allowing them to develop over time — and how that pays off, both creatively and financially.

               “We don’t sign artists for overnight success — we’re in for the long haul,” says Arboit. “Remember that we’ve had Sarah under contract for ten years — and she’s just getting started. They’re all developing, every one.”


             Nettwerk won’t compete on money for artists. What it offers is more important: the opportunity to develop on their own creative terms — something which isn’t always possible with the majors.

               George Maniatis is Nettwerk’s VP Marketing and A&R (Artist and Repertoire). He is also an Odyssey and Luv Affair alumnus, but he left Vancouver in 1993 to spend three years in New York, at Polygram subsidiary London Records.

               “With the big labels, the shareholders want to see a return right away. We’re easier to satisfy. We never tell an artist to hit a home run. We say, ‘Go to first, chill out on first. Take your time, people will catch up.’ And with each release, the artist’s audience does grow. In the early days with Sarah, we all had black eyes from rejection — from press people, radio people saying ‘This is derivative, she’s not talented.’ Then she went on tour, people saw her live and were convinced. As she grew as an artist, she toured more, attracted more fans, they bought records and so on. Some artists take off immediately. With others, you know they’re ahead of their time, but you see the potential,  make the investment and stick with it.”

               One current Nettwerk investment is Tara MacLean, a local singer/songwriter who was discovered singing to pass the time on a ferry. “We’re not trying to make money with Tara,” continues Maniatis. “She’s developing. But her audience will find her. It’s like hiding money under a rock — once they know it’s there, they’ll find it. The important thing is to never try to make records to suit the consumer climate. When you do that, it becomes about marketing and whether you can get the artist on lunch boxes. That doesn’t interest us. We’re not about market share and quarterly reports. We still have to be realistic, but our priority is the quality of the music.”

               There is, obviously, a bottom line. And the goal is a win/win situation. Because a recording deal is a loan, an important point which artists must grasp. Every recording dollar spent is recoupable from sales — which means that the artist pays for the making of each release. Which is why it’s important for a record company to shepherd an artist through the process — and why we’re surprised when we hear that mega-stars are broke.

               “You can financially support the artist while the record is being made but, by the time it’s released, the artist is deeply in debt,” says Jowett. “Or you do things cost-efficiently and have artists support themselves — Sarah, for example, worked as a waitress while she was writing Touch. There we get back to artist expectations. We sign niche acts. If an artist wants to hire U2’s last producer, we would point out that his fee would exceed the budget for the release. You can’t spend commercial money if you’re making music for a niche audience. If you spend $300,000.00 making your album, sell 50,000 records and generate $100,000.00 in royalties, you’re still $200,000.00 in the hole. And it will take longer for us to recoup our investment. Sometimes we don’t get it back, sometimes it takes two or three releases. It’s always a gamble. The group could break up, and we once had a band jump to another label just as it was about to take off. But we learn from our mistakes — now, we have long-term, multiple-release contracts.”

               The profit-sharing formula is complicated, but it’s basically that the label owns the master, the artist gets a royalty of $1.00 – $2.00 from the sale of each CD, the songwriter gets a royalty and the label takes its margin, from which it pays for manufacturing, marketing and promotions.  Marketing and promotions are unrecoupable costs, the artists pay tour costs, video costs are split 50/50.

               Then there are licensing deals, which are necessary to help an artist reach full potential. McLachlan’s music, for example, is licensed to Arista for US distribution.

               “We place artists with labels which have the facility to take artists further,” says Jowett. “Terry is Sarah’s manager and we handle her production and A&R, but the cost of marketing an artist like Sarah in the US is enormous. With an artist of her potential, you need a large, well-run organization with expertise and relationships in its market. Arista’s a commercial label, and one of the best. But it’s about mall culture — about reaching huge amounts of people. Many of our artists are about niche and they need that. So we work with smaller labels, and we have our own US label out of New York.”

               Nettwerk also has a multi-media division in New York — Nettmedia. This is another area in which Nettwerk was ahead of its time. Nettwerk was the first label to have a website. A site carrying discographies, biographies, news releases, tour schedules, catalogues, merchandise and ordering information. Not only does this help sales, but it makes artists more accessible, widens the fan base, and gives new bands exposure.

               In addition, in 1994, Nettwerk became the first label to release an Enhanced CD — Ginger’s Far Out. Shortly thereafter, McLachlan’s Freedom Sessions became the first Enhanced CD to debut on the Billboard 200 and then go gold. Enhanced CDs can be played on normal CD players or computers with a CD-ROM drives. In addition to music, they can include artist information, video clips, album covers, lyrics, interview transcripts or  photographs. Enhanced CDs cost 20% more to produce and most labels pass that on to consumers. Nettwerk doesn’t, preferring to see it as added value for fans.

               In New York, Nettmedia produces multi-media products for a variety of outside clients, who know of  Nettwerk’s devotion to quality in presentation and packaging. Back in Vancouver, Nettwerk’s art department is larger than many design firms.

               “It is unusual for a record label to have an art department to this extent,” says Jowett. “But it’s an extension of developing a strong look for the label and its artists. Design is so important for non-mainstream acts. It has to draw people in and say what the music’s about. If people are confused by a cover, they sub-consciously think of the product as confusing and they won’t buy it.

               “With every release, we have to build a unique awareness of the music. We have to find the best approach to retail, the best way to approach the press, decide whether or not to do a video, whether or not to tour. All of this is precisely thought-out, and the artist is involved at every step.”

               This artist-friendly approach is another area in which independent labels differ from the majors.

               “Big labels can sometimes develop a mechanistic approach to releasing music,” says Jowett. “Music comes from the heart, and when it’s funneled through a heavily departmentalized company, the artist can lose control. There are very good people at the major labels and the majors don’t try to be intimidating, but when an organization becomes too big, it’s hard to remain in contact with the music’s source.

               “That’s why we limit the number of acts we handle — we currently have sixteen. We don’t want to get to the point where we can’t make each release a priority. If a label has one hundred artists and fifty are pop acts putting out releases at the same time, who gets priority? That’s also why we keep our roster diverse. We never have a situation where two releases of the same type of music are trying to get attention at the same time.”

               There is also Nettwerk Management, a separate division headed by McBride, who manages seven acts, including McLachlan, MacLean and Barenaked Ladies (which is signed to another label). An artist manager controls everything, from singles picks to artwork to videos, to marketing plans to promotional plans to tour schedules. McBride says that the most important components in the artist/manager relationship are trust and education.

               “You’ve got to be able to trust your manager. This is a fast, sometimes brutal business and you have to have the confidence to deal with the sharks. And while many managers prefer to keep artists in the dark so they can focus on music, our artists know the business. When they go into a situation, they know the parameters — we don’t have to explain research, scan numbers, or the history of the marketplace. When artists understand the business, they make educated decisions.”

               “Terry is probably the most gifted artist manager in Canada,” says Maniatis. “He knows marketing, retail, he knows the road, the clubs. And he knows how to work a record company. He will go to the epicenter of a record company, get to know everyone, the politics, what works for them. This is not a test. The pilot has to know how the plane flies.”

               Maniatis has the aggressive, pragmatic approach which is essential in dealing with said sharks — and in competing for chart and shelf space.

               “There is huuuge competition at the marketing level. Our distributor, EMI, is very good at what it does and it does a great job for us. But we still have to fight for everything we get. We’re not its only client — it’s got Spice Girls and Janet Jackson, I’ve got Delirium and Tara. But we also have great relationships with our retailers. Retailers want records that sell, and they want to know that we support them. And I’m not just talking about the big guys — the Mom ‘n Pop stores are equally important. Their customers are avid consumers of eclectic music. Once you have those people on your side, you have a heartbeat.”

               We would assume that videos are all-important. Maniatis says they’re a waste of money.

               “Most of our acts don’t lend themselves to MuchMusic. And with the $50,000.00 you spend on a video, you could release another album. Videos add too much to the cost of a release. The key to success is keeping the front-end costs low.”

               Maniatis prefers to put artists on the road. “I don’t have endless supplies of money. I can’t do blanket marketing and hope that something clicks. Marketing Sarah is one thing, but with developing artists, traditional marketing — where you put out ten thousand CDs, buy full-page ads, do a video — is an extreme waste of money. We create awareness at the regional level, conquering markets one by one. It’s organic marketing.

               “That’s why touring is most important. People want something real, and touring allows them to see the artist’s natural side. So, for a new release, you set up a four-month tour, book soft-seat venues — so people sit and listen — plan your media relations and promotions, have the artists visit radio and TV stations, make in-store appearances. The artists have to make a presence for themselves and make their audience aware of their release. You can’t shove it down people’s throats with advertising. But if you let them know it’s there, and if they hear it — especially live — they’ll buy it.”

               What about mainstream radio? Well, Nettwerk has succeeded, largely, without it.

               “Radio is not the lifeblood of the music industry — it’s the lifeblood of certain acts,” explains Jowett. “Much of our music is avant garde and Canadian rock radio won’t play it. But our music still has a large audience. If you stay focused on your market, you can still take artists very far.”

               Jowett says that Nettwerk never encourages artists to make radio-friendly music. “Often, labels will push an act to make its music appeal to the mainstream. But radio is very much of the moment and if you sculpt music around what radio wants, no one will react to it because it sounds like everything else being played at the time. The record will have a short life span and the artist will date quickly. It’s much better to release records with important songs, then work the artist through touring, press and retail.”

               “Radio in Canada is not very exploratory,” says Maniatis. “Some stations have supported Nettwerk, but most programmers are afraid that alternative music will offend advertisers. We have a radio person here and his job is to stay on them and not give up. You can’t give up. Look at Sarah — she’d won four Junos before radio really took notice. They didn’t understand that she transcends demographics.”

               McLachlan has certainly forced the music industry to look at things differently — it wasn’t long ago that radio stations wouldn’t play back-to-back female singles. Then she came up with the idea for an all-female concert tour — Lilith Fair.

               “Lilith Fair was not a marketing idea,” says McBride. “In 1996, Sarah was trying to write and thought that playing live would help get her past a road block. But she didn’t want to head-line and she decided she wanted all female artists. We played four dates, saw the reaction and knew we had to do something bigger.”

               Lilith Fair was the most successful musical tour of 1997, and its CD was recently released to critical acclaim and healthy sales. But it won’t be a permanent fixture. “It’s not about money,” says McBride. “It has to be fresh and feel right. When that changes, we’ll stop doing it.”

               Well, really, it is about money. Nettwerk’s artists depend on Nettwerk for their livelihoods. Nettwerk needs to profit so it can continue to release important music. With the company’s growth — 1997 sales were $7.3 million, excluding Arista’s US sales — there is more pressure. Hundreds of releases later, McBride’s living room is a fond memory, replaced by an 11,000 square-foot office, where 50 employees work frantic, 70-hour weeks. And love it.

               “This is fun for us,” says Maniatis. “And we all still have that hunger. When I lose that, I’ll go away.”

               McBride says he’ll never do anything else. “Sometimes it wears me down. Then I see one of our artists play live and I get blown away. All I feel is huge pride.”