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Rock and a hard place to sleep

Living the rock ’n’ roll dream sounds a lot like someone else’s nightmare

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Royal Canoe — one of many bands that knows being a touring musician is a real job— spent 150 days on the road last year.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

Royal Canoe — one of many bands that knows being a touring musician is a real job— spent 150 days on the road last year. Photo Store

‘At the heart of the travelling band, you have to understand, there’s a driving need to hit the yellow line’

— from Sloan’s 1998 single Money City Maniacs

 

It’s an idyllic picture. Four musicians piling into a van, rolling down the Trans-Canada, ditching day-to-day responsibilities to play in a rock band. They’re living the dream.

Most Canadian bands — Sloan included — know it’s not like that. Being a touring musician is a real job, and an incredibly hard one. For many Canadian musicians — even the established, Juno-nominated ones — touring means sleeping on floors and subsisting on fast food. It’s nights of three chords, and sometimes more, of high-risk and hard-fought-for-rewards living.

You may play to 300 people one day and 30 the next. You may lose money. You may hit a van-totalling patch of black ice outside of nowhere northern Ontario. You may have your tires slashed or your gear stolen. You may have to supplement your music with day jobs that can easily be abandoned for tours.

Guarantees? Yes, there are a few.

You will have to apply for grants and work permits.

You will leave behind partners, friends, kids and families for long stretches of time.

And for digital-era bands, the drive to hit the yellow line isn’t just about playing live, it’s a necessity.

Touring — and then touring some more — has become an important revenue stream for musicians operating in an industry in which the business model is still struggling to keep up to rapidly evolving technology and listening habits. While the Internet has made it easier to get one’s music into the earbuds of potential fans, record sales continue to nosedive, hitting an all-time low in the cruel summer of 2013.

But the Internet is just one tool. The refrain is familiar: If you want people to care about your music, you’re going to have to hit the road.

And if you want to be a full-time musician, you’re going to have to be agile.

"Being a full-time musician is being an inventor/entrepreneur," says Sara Stasiuk, executive director of Manitoba Music, a member-based, not-for-profit industry association that helps musicians and music-industry professionals in our province build sustainable careers. "You come up with something new, believe in it entirely, and have to figure out how to find a market so you can make a living. The work is never done, and you’re constantly shifting from the creative side of making and playing music (writing, recording, rehearsing, playing live) to the business side (marketing, proposal writing, accounting, distribution, managing copyright, setting up tours, business development). There’s no one I envy more than the career musician — there are so many ups and downs, and many things to learn and negotiate on the business side, never mind the strength it takes to put yourself out there creatively."

It’s that kind of hard work that will be honoured at the Juno Awards next weekend at the MTS Centre. Many kilometres of yellow line have led to the Junos, and the nominees represent a wide cross-section of the Canadian music scene. For every Billboard-charting, arena-headlining act such as Arcade Fire, Tegan and Sara and Drake, there are dozens more that are still working the club circuit, sleeping on floors and spending most of the year in the van.

Still, they don’t put in the work for glass trophies and red carpets. They put in the work because they can’t imagine doing anything else.

All they know is the yellow line.

 

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In 2012, KEN Mode made history.

The Winnipeg noisecore band won the inaugural heavy metal/hard music album of the year award at that year’s Junos for its fourth full-length album, 2011’s Venerable.

That a genre of music so long ignored by the awards was finally getting some recognition was encouraging, but the Juno win couldn’t have come at a better time personally for brothers Jesse (guitar/vocals) and Shane Matthewson (drums), who formed the band back in 1999.

"At the end of 2011, I very much considered stopping touring full time," says Jesse, 32. "We had dedicated one year to trying being a band full time and it seemed like we barely made any ground. Then a whole bunch of things started going right — like winning the first metal/hard music Juno. Since then, we decided to keep going; ride the wave, see when we’ll level out. We are presently trending in the right direction so ‘normal’ day jobs aren’t on the horizon again just yet."

Indeed, things have been on an upswing for the band, which is rounded out by Andrew LaCour. KEN Mode is up for another Juno in the same category for 2013’s much-acclaimed Entrench, which was also long-listed for the Polaris Music Prize. As with Venerable, the trio has been touring relentlessly behind the album, logging hundreds of hours on the road. "For us, touring is paramount. Nobody would give a crap if we didn’t tour the way we do."

It wasn’t until 2009 — a decade and three full-length albums into their career — that the Matthewsons made the decision to quit their jobs as accountants and prioritize their music. It was a now-or-never moment.

"We never wanted to look back and wonder ‘What if?’ " Jesse says. "I always thought we were good enough to fit in with the best in the world in this weird subsection of music, and I always thought touring was the one thing holding us back, as it’s very much an uphill battle for bands who sound like we do coming from where we do. Why should people in the U.S. care about some noise-rock band from Winnipeg, Canada? We showed them why."

Still, it hasn’t been without personal and financial sacrifice.

"I barely have a home, I don’t have a girlfriend, I basically live in a van and sleep on floors year-round, I work 24/7, 10 out of 12 months a year, I don’t get sick days and I barely scrape by. Glamour. Success is relative."

 

● ● ●

 

Slow and steady sums up Mahogany Frog’s trajectory. Early in its career, the Winnipeg electronic prog-rock rock act, which is up for a Juno for instrumental album of the year for its sixth album, Senna, was a victim of timing.

"We were told what to do from a marketing perspective, but we didn’t make the connection that we were this weird instrumental band," says guitarist/keyboardist Jesse Warkentin, who is joined in the band by Graham Epp (guitar/keyboards/trumpet), Scott Ellenberger (bass/keyboards/trumpet) and Andy Rudolph (drums/electronics). "When we were starting out (in the early 2000s), the Strokes were popular. Then indie rock hit, so it was another four years of unpopularity."

In the latter part of the 2000s, however, the band landed some crucial support gigs with like-minded experimentalists Caribou, Deerhoof and the Besnard Lakes. Mahogany Frog was finally united with a fan base that welcomed it with open arms.

The band, which has been active since 1998 and relocated here from Saskatoon in 2003, never aspired to be road warriors. Mahogany Frog is judicious about the shows it plays; in 2013, it was mostly festivals. "We went pretty hard for eight years," says Warkentin, 34. At its peak, he figures the band played 50 or 60 shows in a year.

"I don’t think any of us wanted to be full-time touring musicians. We wanted to find that elusive balance between making music and having loving relationships and functional friendships."

Epp, 35, has a wife and kids; Warkentin is finally making good on his goal to go back to school. Over the years, their expectations were managed by reality and their definition of success changed.

"When we first formed, success would be being Billy Corgan (then frontman for the Smashing Pumpkins). Being able to wear shiny pants and play massive arenas," Warkentin says with a laugh. "Once we started touring, success was having 100 or 200 people at your show."

But even the healthiest attitude doesn’t offer immunity to low morale. In 2010, Mahogany Frog had a U.S. tour cut short after a collision outside of Chicago that resulted in the band having to abandon its van on the side of the road. They were presented with a harsh choice: try to keep going on a tour they knew would bleed money, or pack it in and go home.

"It was hard to pick ourselves up after that," Warkentin says. "It was hard to get excited about making new music. We were so demoralized that we weren’t even sure if we wanted to put Senna out under our band name."

Still, the band rallied — and Senna went on to win a Western Canadian Music Award for instrumental album of the year. Mahogany Frog is getting more attention now than it ever has.

"Even at its most demoralizing, there was always this carrot," Warkentin says. "There were always these green lights telling is to keep going."

 

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The most sustainable careers are built on a foundation of industry knowledge and self-awareness, Stasiuk says. Musicians need to learn as much as possible by taking advantage of workshops, mentorships and conferences, which Manitoba Music offers through a host of professional-development programs.

"The ‘signed by a major label’ story is such an incredibly rare story these day," she says. "It is very much about building from the ground up, knowing who you are artistically, what your goals are and really understanding the many potential revenue streams that can make your art your career. Once you have a handle on the basics, the next steps are finding champions and team members — agents, managers, labels, publishers — who can help you realize your goals. It isn’t easy, but it is possible."

KEN Mode is proof of Stasiuk’s theory. As you’d expect from accountants, the band is pragmatic. The risks it takes are calculated, which is why it focuses much of its attention Stateside, where there’s a bigger demand for the kind of blistering noise it makes. It just wrapped up a 36-date U.S. tour with influential Chicago instrumental outfit Russian Circles. Jesse used to book all of KEN Mode’s dates himself; now he has support in place.

"We still manage ourselves, but we are booked by the Agency Group in North America now, thankfully. This really means we can command guarantees and start getting support tours that lead to something — à la the one we are on right now with Russian Circles."

The Paquin Entertainment Group — a full-service entertainment company founded by CEO Gilles Paquin here in Winnipeg — is home to the hard-working people behind the hard-working people out on the road.

The artist management division supports, oversees and directs the creative efforts of performers, focusing on maximizing marketing and distribution opportunities. "Managers are pretty damn important," says Grant Paley, an agent at Paquin. "It’s one of the hardest roles to fill. These are the people that handle the day-to-day stuff, like grants, reviewing contracts and talking to your agents. They look at your one-month goal, your three-month goal, your five-year goal."

Paley, who toured for years as part of Winnipeg’s acclaimed funk collective Moses Mayes, says touring itself has become a competitive market because everyone’s out on the road. "That’s what makes my job stressful; you’re handling people’s livelihoods."

And it’s not just the musicians’ livelihood that’s on the line; it’s also the agent’s. To make a wage, they need to work with multiple artists. For Paley, it’s working with 25 artists every day. But the payoff can be huge — for both artist and agent.

"Look at Royal Canoe," Paley says. "For three years I picked up the phone for those guys — and now the phone is ringing for them."

 

● ● ●

 

Royal Canoe had a career-making year in 2013. The advance buzz surrounding the band’s sophomore album, Today We’re Believers, was deafening; taste-making blogs and music writers were all over it long before its September release. The band — Matt Peters, Bucky Driedger, Matt Schellenberg, Derek Allard, Brendan Berg and Michael Jordan — spent 150 days on the road last year, with stops at Pop Montreal, the Halifax Pop Explosion and the Iceland Airwaves Festival in Reykjavik.

Today We’re Believers is up for alternative album of the year at this year’s Junos. On April 11, the band will leave for a 28-date North American tour.

Not bad for a band that began as a one-off recording project several year ago. Indeed, the band’s success wasn’t overnight; there was a long period of figuring out what Royal Canoe could be and where it could go.

"I feel like everything up until now has been deliberate," frontman and founder Matt Peters told the Free Press last August. "We’ve made mistakes and figured out how to do things correctly. We have the tools now. We’ve taken all the steps so that (this album) can have the biggest impact it could have."

And now, Royal Canoe is a well-oiled machine, but not without personal compromise.

"(We sacrifice) money, security, relationships," says Driedger, 28. "Doing this thing is all-encompassing. We write music, plan videos, manage tours, bookkeep, file taxes, organize travel, record, repair vans, design merch — and the list goes on. It takes up so much brain and heart space. But we are not complaining. We also get to travel around to amazing places with our best friends playing music for great people. It’s a pretty enchanted lifestyle, but it’s a lot of work."

All of RC’s members keep day jobs.

"But a couple years ago we all started planning other work around making music, and not the other way around," says Driedger. "Matt P records other bands and bookkeeps for his dad’s construction business. Matt S does freelance graphic/web design. I bartend at the Park Theatre and do some live sound. Derek builds duct work, Brendan bartends at a hotel and Michael maintains the river trail at The Forks. But music is the priority. If a tour comes up, we peace out. We all have very understanding employers."

And Royal Canoe owes its success to touring.

"For our band, it is the most essential thing," Driedger continues. "We don’t make radio hits, so the main way that we connect with new fans is via Internet media — YouTube, blogs, Facebook — and going to people’s town to play shows. For our band, it has become evident that once people see us live, they really seem to get what we are all about."

The band is signed to Nevado Records and has both an agent and manager, but band members still take care of the day-to-day nuts and bolts — advancing shows, travel plans, bookkeeping.

"I spend at least three to four hours a day (and often more) answering band-related emails," Driedger says. "Essentially we are the owners of this business and we are responsible for everything at the end of the day, but we are lucky to have a team of people that helps make everything happen."

Still, there has to be a good product at the core.

"Your band will only do as well as the work you put into it," he says. "You can be signed to the best label and have the best manager, but if you don’t work hard at your music and your business, it’s worthless. Those team members magnify your efforts and push them way further than you could take things on your own."

 

● ● ●

 

By day, Desiree Dorion is a divorce and child-protection lawyer. By night, she’s a country singer/songwriter with a burgeoning career.

Dorion’s latest release, Small Town Stories, is up for aboriginal album of the year at this year’s Juno Awards. But while the nod came as a surprise for the Dauphin resident, it was always one of her goals. For Dorion, 30, music is a creative outlet and a respite from a heavy day job — but it’s also something she takes seriously. Don’t let the lawyer designation fool you; she’s not a music hobbyist. She released her first album at age 13 before putting music on the back burner for the sake of her education. Her 2010 album, Soul Back Jack, was her re-entry into the industry.

"Now that (the Juno nod) has happened, I need to re-evaluate," she says. "I’ve regularly told myself that I will continue to make music as long as it is enjoyable and fun for me. When the fun runs out, I can’t see myself being as driven to put in the work that’s required to continue to be a visible artist. Either way, I’ll likely be a granny in my rocking chair on my front porch before I’ll quit writing."

A far as quitting her day job is concerned, "If the right set of circumstances presented themselves, I would absolutely quit my day job and pursue music full time. The timing thus far has not been right for me to do this."

Being a touring musician is also not a viable option for Dorion. She has a two-year-old daughter and another baby on the way. "I know many artists tour with children at home, but I just can’t imagine it for myself. In the meantime, I try to play as many one-offs as I can and keep sending singles to country radio. As my kids get older, maybe I’ll look more seriously at becoming a touring artist. For now, it’s just not a possibility."

Still, her family has made sacrifices in other ways. Dorion recalls many post-gig drives back to Dauphin. "We have forgone family vacations if it was an album year so that the investment could be made into a new album. I have spent countless nights away from my daughter and husband.

"On the other hand, there have been too many perks to mention that have made this all worthwhile."

 

● ● ●

 

Manitoba is home to a diverse and vibrant music industry that contributed $71.3 million to the provincial economy in 2011. More than 4,000 people work in music in Manitoba — people such as Paley, who parlayed his experience as a musician into a career as an agent.

"There’s all kinds of avenues to make a living," he says. "Artists are adapting. I mean, I did. I didn’t end up making music full time, but I ended up working in the music industry. I make a good living and I love what I do."

And thanks to organizations such as Manitoba Music and Manitoba Film and Music, artists who want to make a living through music have a supportive infrastructure in place.

"Manitoba is spoiled," Driedger says. "Manitoba Music is amazing. They offer financial assistance to showcase for industry people. Not only that, they are at those conferences hustling on behalf of Manitoba bands, making sure people know the good things that are happening in our province. They offered us so many words of advice and guidance as we started getting the band off the ground."

But Manitoba’s local industry can only continue to thrive if it’s supported by the public.

"People sacrifice a lot and lose a lot for their art," Paley says. "People complain about concert tickets, yet they have no problem paying $200 for a Jets ticket. They admire these athletes that have trained hard and put in all this work — but the same goes for musicians."

Stasiuk encourages people to go out and support local performers like KEN Mode, Royal Canoe, Mahogany Frog and Dorion.

"There are plenty of free events where you can get exposed to the different kinds of bands from right here in Manitoba," she says. "When you find one you like, interact with them on social media, buy their music and T-shirts, and take a friend to go see them play the next time they play. It’s a slow, word-of-mouth build. Let your kids know that there’s more to music than the glittery pop stars — help them find local bands they can enjoy and support."

 

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

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