Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The business of music

Modern musicians must move the merch, make nice with fans and master the marker if they want to make money

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Tom Wilson became a musician out of love but he became a businessman out of necessity.

The Hamilton-based rocker has been performing for more than 30 years and with every change to the music industry along the way, he's been forced to adapt.

In the early days, he pressed his own records and sold them himself. After he made it big as the lead singer of Junkhouse, he made his money from performing and royalties from retailers' record sales. Today, as a member of two separate bands, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Lee Harvey Osmond, the digitization of music has effectively taken him back to his roots.

Immediately after every show, he rushes out to the venue's foyer, gets behind a display table and starts selling his "merch." That includes CDs, T-shirts and posters. He's a master of the Sharpie marker as he signs whatever is put in front of him while simultaneously giving fans a little extra nudge to open their wallets for something extra.

"Col. Sanders (of Kentucky Fried Chicken) had a way of doing business when he started out. He'd fill up the trunk of his car with chicken and sell it. I don't know anybody who'd want to buy chicken out of a trunk. But whether you're putting chicken back there or records, there's no difference when you're exchanging money," he said.

Wilson is adamant that he's not looking to make as much money as possible so he can retire to the Caribbean.

"It's not like Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are looking for a nest egg. The ultimate goal of all of this is survival so we can play music. I'm looking for a way to continue doing this until I drop (expletive) dead," he said.

"This is where I want to be and the only person that can get me there is me."

Wilson will be in Winnipeg three times in a just a couple of months. He was here two weeks ago opening for Colin James, he returns with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings at the Burton Cummings Theatre on Nov. 18 and he plans to be back as Lee Harvey Osmond in January.

Wilson said the agents and promoters for Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have put together some great shows on their current tour but when he saw some gaps on the calendar, he and bandmates Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing saw an opportunity to promote their own shows and earn a few extra shekels. Of the 23 shows on the current leg, they're promoting six of them.

"As artists, we know exactly what goes on to put an artist on stage. Why can't we do it for ourselves? We found the venues, we bought the rooms and we're doing the promotion. We're doing 80-20 splits with ourselves as the promoters," he said, with a laugh.

"We're buying our own riders and we're taking care of ourselves. It's quite liberating."

The Nov. 18 show, incidentally, is being done in conjunction with the Winnipeg Folk Festival.

Another revenue stream that's long gone -- for Wilson, anyway -- is from selling cocaine before shows. (He has been clean and sober for 13 years.)

"It was the easiest score. People would say, 'Hey, are you the guy?' 'Yeah, I'm the guy.' It was like shooting fish in a barrel," he said.

Wilson likens the life of a musician to running off with the circus. When the tents go up, it's up to the performers to generate the revenue.

"It's very hit-and-run. There's nothing carpet bagging about it. It's a travelling carnie, man," he said.

"It's a bare-knuckle struggle. If you don't have the gloves off, you're not going to survive. We, as artists, have to move our passion into the way we do business. We have to believe in ourselves ever more. We have to be our No. 1 fans. It's not an ego thing, it's just, 'What are you worth, man?' "

He blames the music industry's decision 20 years ago to move from records to CDs for much of his and his fellow artists' plight.

"The vinyl was sexy, it was our identification. It was what we walked down the hallways in high school with, records by Bob Dylan or Supertramp. We belonged to something. When they changed the format, shrunk the artwork and digitized the music, they took all the love out of the music," he said.

"It's our job to sell that and bring back the love of music. There's nobody siting behind a desk who will change that. The only way to do that is get on stage and slug it out in the clubs and drive through the night to get to the next show.

"You're not going to sell a cold, hard, ugly piece of plastic sitting on a shelf. There's nothing sexy about that. The music industry's greed killed the sexiness of their product. What would you rather have, ladies? Four inches of plastic or 12 inches of vinyl?"

Veteran Winnipeg music promoter Kevin Walters agreed that being a musician is much more of a do-it-yourself enterprise than it used to be five, 10 or 20 years ago.

"It's definitely harder to do now. Not only do you travel all day or night, do radio interviews, promote your show and then get on stage for 90 minutes, then you go out and sign CDs. It can be tough but the successful artists know that's what they have to do. You've got to rely on yourself," he said.

International superstars still sell millions of records through their labels but that revenue stream has largely disappeared for mid-level artists, Walters said. Selling merchandise is one way they can attempt to fill the gap. There's also an emotional quotient that's difficult to measure but is important nonetheless.

"If you talk to an artist, shake their hand and tell them how much you enjoyed the show, you have more of a feeling that you're supporting the artist. If you go to a retailer and buy the CD, you wouldn't have that same feeling," he said.


Connecting with 'friends'


Many musicians are active on social media and Tom Wilson is no exception. He uses Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep fans informed about new shows, new information and new music. In fact, he refers to many of the patrons at his shows not as "fans" but as "Facebook friends."

The modern methods are a far cry from the old days when social media was stapling posters to telephone poles.

"All the motivation for my business right now is usually sitting in my pocket. I'm talking on it right now," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2012 B4

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