Jim Cressman, president and CEO of Invictus Entertainment Group
After a few rough years due to the slumping dollar, Canadian promoters have high hopes for the rest of 2016 and 2017. The bad news is that the Canadian dollar is still in a funk, making it expensive to buy shows using American dollars. The upside is that the shows getting booked are doing well, with emerging markets in contemporary R&B/hip-hop and new traditionalist country putting people in seats in record numbers.
One of Canada’s iconic promoters, Ron Sakamoto, stuck to the things he knows best in 2016: beloved country acts. And it has paid off in a big way. In the fall of 2015 he did a run of dates with home country legend Shania Twain on her farewell tour and this year he had a three-week run with Keith Urban in Western Canada that was a smash success.
“We are taking it to places like Saskatoon and Prince George… but with country music you have to be careful. You can’t just throw anyone out there, you have to research and make sure the timing is right,” said Sakamoto. You also have to have the appropriate partners, which is why he hooked up with AEG Live for a Brooks & Dunn tour slated for March 2017.
Sakamoto is loyal above all else, which explains why he also got behind a Tom Cochrane anniversary tour. Because Canadian promoters pay their acts in American dollars, Sakamoto said he’s been extra careful buying tours, especially considering how hard the oil economy has been hit in Western Canada and Alberta. “In some places instead of playing 12 dates maybe we play eight,” he said, noting that nearly 70,000 oil industry jobs have been lost in Alberta alone. He is, however, taking a few chances on younger acts with potential, including up-and-coming country singer Brantley Gilbert, mixed in with classic acts such as Johnny Reid, whose 47-date tour in early 2016 grossed more than $9 million.
Partnership is the name of the game for Jim Cressman as well. The president/CEO of Invictus Entertainment Group is partnering with Live Nation for Dolly Parton dates across the nation during a year when they’re also taking acts such as Kip Moore/Jon Pardi and metal gods Slayer/Anthrax, as well as a number of other hard rock bands into secondary markets that have proven more lucrative than in the past. “We [also] launched a very targeted two-day country festival in London, Ontario, called Trackside that was a resounding success,” he said.
“In the country touring space, we upgraded to arenas from clubs with Kip Moore and sold out those shows. We toured ‘Lord Of The Dance’ and ‘Price is Right Live’ for a reasonable ticket price and sold those out,” he said. “Big, entrenched, culturally ubiquitous brands like ‘Price Is Right Live’ always translate well in secondary arenas.”
Next year promises dates from breakout country star Chris Stapleton, which Cressman said went on sale at press time and are doing “monster” business. “I’m also excited about the next generation of country stars who have not toured the Canadian market [yet],” he said. “There’s an ardent fan base up here for young, progressive, sophisticated country.”
Like Sakamoto, Cressman said he’s just putting his head down when it comes to the economy and looking for acts that speak to the native audience. “The key is to target international artists who prioritize their Canadian fanbase and are willing to adjust accordingly,” he said. He also sticks with tried and true native acts, including one he manages and books, Brett Kissel, who has leveraged several years of hard work (and a few big hits) into a growing audience.
While terrestrial radio’s pull in promoting shows has waned in many respects, Cressman said it’s still a great way to reach audiences for country shows. “In small communities using old-school newspaper ads and posters around town can still make an impact,” he said. “If a marketing concept is effective, but no longer chic, we don’t care. We’ll do whatever is necessary to market the show better than our competitors.”
Like a number of promoters VT spoke to, Cressman sees an emerging trend is more targeted festivals, as promoters pull back from kitchen sink lineups aimed at broad audiences and focus in on events that go after specific demos.
EDM festivals have done well in the U.S. and overseas, but True North Sports and Entertainment’s Kevin Donnelly is waiting for dance music gatherings to figure out a scenario that fits safely into his arena. “They’re typically looking for fields or flat spaces where people can walk around, but hopefully they’ll shift into arenas, which are built for a lot of people,” he said. “Nobody’s going to break an arena and they are built to be used. Also, it’s not always summer in Canada, so… I think there’s definitely an opportunity for a couple of theme festivals, whether it’s EDM or classic rock like Desert Trip.”
True North is also benefitting from their purchase of the 1,580-seat Burton Cummings Theatre for the Performing Arts from the nonprofit that had been running it. “Now that we have that other tool – an arena that fits 15,000, a stadium up to 35,000 and now a 1,500-seat theater, we need to be more cognizant of every new band…. We don’t want to be the guy who says, ‘nope, never heard of them.’”
An immediate upside of the Cummings purchase is True North’s plunge back into comedy, with 10-12 shows on the roster in 2016 and more to come. “We did a show with Kevin Hart in the arena, but there aren’t a lot of Kevin Harts,” he said. “But there are a ton of acts at the 1,500-seat level.” In addition to comedians Norm Macdonald and Lisa Lampanelli and an AEG co-promote on RuPaul’s “Drag Race,” the theater hosted a nearly instant sell-out of a show by rockers Twenty One Pilots in April, shortly before the duo graduated to arenas.
AEG Live is still expanding in Canada and Goldenvoice VP Eliot Lefko — a Toronto native who promoted in the area for 20 years before joining Goldenvoice 11 years ago — said the company is also experiencing some growth and success with younger country acts such as Sturgill Simpson. “Sturgill and alt country acts like the Lumineers — who are playing to a listening audience who are not just there for the party — are doing quite well,” he said. “As a company we’re trying to stretch out and play more than just Toronto and Vancouver and reaching out to other cities. We’re working across the country from Victoria to Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, London, Montreal and Ottawa.”
Like all the promoters VT spoke to, AEG is determined to grow acts from clubs to theaters to arenas and beyond, the kind of slow-and-steady work that takes time, but is worth the effort. An example is a partnership AEG has fostered with liquor brand Jim Beam, in which the pair are putting on showcases with emerging Canadian including the Strumbellas and Yukon Blonde.
“We found a partner here and a way of helping bands grow their social media and at the same time investing in younger clubs and promoters,” he said. “It’s a way to have a presence — even if we don’t have an office there – and invest in bringing shows there one at a time.”
AEG has been hooking up mid-size (1,000 capacity+) venues such as Union Hall in Edmonton, MacEwan Hall in Calgary and Victoria’s Royal Theatre to co-promote with local promoters to help ensure lots of local publicity. “Venues want to work with a large promoter like AEG and that helps bring in bigger acts, but it also helps us make sure we’re covering all the bases and getting the word out on these bands,” he said.
While they’re nurturing acts such as rockers Volbeat, AEG has also, of course, kept its eye on the big game, with Canadian dates from Justin Bieber and Carrie Underwood, as well as a recent arena show in Toronto with Ellie Goulding.
Lefko said tapping a band’s social media database is ideal, as are old school print and radio ads, but AEG has also tried a few other tricks to get names and numbers for its lists. “We had Alessia Cara play her first show in Toronto [last year] and we handed out pins to the audience in exchange for their emails so we could stay in contact and reach out the next time she was in town,” he said. “It was so effective and it was a little reward for the audience.”
One of the surprise successes Lefko pointed to – in addition to the continuing growth of British acts such as James Bay, George Ezra and Lapsley – was Asian acts such as hologram band Hatsune Miku, who drew 3,000 to Toronto’s Sony Centre thanks to the large Japanese community in the city, as well as the popularity of anime and gaming culture.
Some will say there is no such thing as a recession-proof business, but Cirque du Soleil Senior Vice President of Touring Shows Finn Taylor will tell you that Cirque has found a way to weather the storm by simply doing what they always do: providing top-quality entertainment for the consumer’s dollar. Cirque most recent success was the launch of a new big top show, Luzia, which opened in Montreal in April with a run of over 200,000 tickets sold.
“But we also had an amazing end to 2015 in Vancouver with our best results ever in that city,” said Taylor. “It was a very good year for us in Canada.” The “Avatar”-themed Toruk is about to pass a full year in North America, breaking previous Cirque road records, and Taylor said it is looking like their most successful arena show ever. “This show has done everything from east to west, Montreal to Vancouver, 37,000 in Chicago over six performances at the United Center… and it was a creative risk because it has more of a story than our shows typically have,” he said. “A calculated risk, but we still know how to put on a damn good show.”
Cirque is gearing up for a few new shows in 2017, including a new big top kicking off in Montreal in April and the arena re-launch of one of the troupe’s most successful shows ever, Corteo, which he promised will have a “very different layout” than any arena show they’ve ever done in North America. An arena show is also slated to start in Europe in 2017.
“We feel bullish about the North American market,” he said. “We’ve seen attendance numbers higher than we have in a few years, even in a year when there were a lot of global events to compete with – the European Soccer Championships, the U.S. and Canadian elections, the Olympics… all drawing the public’s attention away. We just had to get more aggressive in our marketing approach.”
That meant trying new things to promote shows on social networks including Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Keying on Cirque’s close relationship with Facebook, Taylor said Cirque can now do “amazing targeting” on the world’s leading social network, especially using Facebook Live.
“Facebook Live has been amazing for us because we have amazing content,” he said. “It’s not someone in front of the camera trying to convince you… we can show what’s going on backstage, do live interviews with artists before and after they go on stage. We can show the green room at intermission. It gives fans a unique glimpse at the shows that they’ve never seen before.”
True North’s Donnelly said he recently had a booking meeting with his team at which they realized that social media engagement has become such a crucial part of their business that they may need to make it someone’s full-time job. “It’s so quick, whether you’re posting early or late door times or a support act change and people are re-posting things so immediately… it’s not like running an ad one day and waiting five days to run another one,” he said. “We don’t have someone who just does that, but we’re finding that we need that.”
Interviewed for this story: Jim Cressman, (403) 262-2245; Ron Sakamoto, (403) 327-6680; Eliot Lefko, (213) 742-7155; Finn Taylor, (514) 723-7646; Kevin Donnelly, 204-926-5503