If this province has a rockstar, it’s Jerry Stamp. When he’s not writing music — either for himself or other people — he’s either recording it or performing it somewhere, with barely enough time in between to sleep.
Stamp admits having spare time makes him feel a little uncomfortable, but luckily for him, he’s in demand.
Stamp, who recently released five albums in one calendar year alone, is recently home from a tour which took him from St. John’s to Alberta, playing 44 shows in 52 days with Saskatchewan singer/songwriter Nick Faye. Though it’s exhausting, Stamp thrives on the small-market tours that are an expensive necessity for local musicians looking to make it in the business.
Pub tours are costly before they even start, he said, since it takes two days and close to $1,000 just to drive across the island and get the ferry to Nova Scotia with a band, but it has benefits that reach much further than a bar stage.
“One benefit is you’re definitely making a brand and a name for yourself in your home community,” he explained. “People in St. John’s say, ‘Man, that guy works hard; that guy goes on the road all the time.’ They’re talking about me, so I guess it’s working.”
Norris Arm native Chris Kirby, who has two CDs, a MusicNL award and four East Coast Music Award nominations under his belt, credits his multiple Canada-wide gigs as a part of his success. Though he’s comfortable using the Internet as a way to get his music out to fans — including hosting live, web-only concerts — there’s nothing that can compare with face-to-face time with music fans, promoters and bar owners.
“The more you try to push yourself without touring, you realize that it’s not as effective as it could be,” Kirby said. Everybody thinks with the age of the Internet you don’t need to go anywhere, but the fact is since there’s so many people doing that, it’s hard to stand out, especially when your product isn’t just the songs, but you, as a show. The only way to really do that is to be physically present.”
If travelling is expensive, so is hiring a manager to come on tour with you; that’s why the majority of local acts self-manage, meaning artists are always on the clock while on the road. While it’s a great experience, Kirby said, it also means artists don’t get a chance to shut off, even if they’re not in formal meetings. Everything is a business opportunity.
For Sherman Downey, every show is also a chance to make a first impression.
“Even if we’re in a bar that we’ve played in countless times, I know there’s one person in the audience who hasn’t heard from us. I’m always playing for people who’ve never heard of us before, and I think that’s important,” said Downey, who’ll embark on another mini-tour this fall with his band The Ambiguous Case, after playing the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival in Fredericton, N.B. “When I started playing, initially it was about the live show and getting the music out, but now it’s about what are we doing six months from now. I’m starting to really love the business side of it.”
Kirby feels that’s one thing people generally don’t understand about touring musicians: whether he’s performing or standing up at the bar after the show, talking to the bar owner, he’s working.
“Technically, I’m trying to sell a product, whether it be immediately or as a conversational investment,” he said with a laugh.
The same goes for performing, Kirby said. Intimidating as it might be to play in a town you’ve never visited, a bar you’ve never been in before and to an audience who might not know who you are, you’ve got to suck it up and carry on.
This can be frustrating when the audience consists only of a handful of people.
“If you’re going someplace new, you don’t know what you’re getting into, a lot of times. You go there and book the gig and all hands think it’s going to be a good time, and then you get there and maybe there's half a dozen people in this little room and maybe they’re just there to have a little friendly reunion and talk amongst themselves and couldn’t give less of a care who’s on stage. You just roll with it,” Kirby explained. “I do find it frustrating to stay somewhat entertaining, but someone is bound to walk in that’s there to be entertained and they certainly don’t want to walk into an atmosphere where the performer is feeling cheated.”
Stamp, who’s got years of touring experience both as a solo artist and with his band King Nancy, has learned how to work a small crowd.
“You’ve got to be zen about the whole thing. Not every gig is going to be 100 people sitting there quietly, theatre style, absorbing everything you do and hanging on every note you sing. There might be five people in the room, talking, but I make sure I engage those people, either by talking directly to them or by watching them react as I find. You tailor your set depending on what the vibe of the room is like.”
A tour is a learning process, Stamp and Kirby both said, and it’s as much about networking and meeting new people as it is about getting the music out to a bigger fanbase. Each small tour could be — and often is — a stepping stone to a bigger one.
St. John’s chanteuse Mary Barry agrees. Barry recently played the famed Place des Arts in Montreal, having met the manager at an Acadian festival in New Brunswick last summer. She’s also in talks to perform at next year’s Montreal Jazz Festival, after making connections during a showcase event at the East Coast Music Awards in Charlottetown, P.E.I. in April.
“Because of our geography and because of the ever-accelerating cost of travel and accommodations and everything, the only way to go is with the smaller block-booking tours,” Barry said. “Combining that with the showcases and other various events, I think you can be constantly reaching new audience members and be playing in front of promoters, which is, of course, equally as important.”
MusicNL fosters the success of local artists in part by offering them funding in the form of demo and full-length recording, market access and professional development grants. Musicians touring inside the country can receive up to a maximum of $2,500, while those touring overseas can get up to $4,000. The organization encourages artists to tour as a way to access new markets, advising them to start within the province, then branch out to the other Atlantic provinces before going national.
Hey Rosetta! is a great example of how the programs do work, said Jen Winsor, MusicNL executive assistant.
“They started with us and they followed the steps right up through, receiving demo funding and recording funding and market access funding. Now it’s at the point where, the last time we gave them money for a European tour, their manager contacted us halfway through and said, ‘We don’t need the money anymore.’ It’s a fantastic success story.”
The catch with the program, Winsor said, is the more the organization encourages artists to take to the road, the harder job the granting committee has in deciding where the money goes, and the less money it has to go around. The more business-savvy local artists become, the stiffer the competition gets.
“We’ve always had the talent, but people weren’t so used to the business aspect of the industry. Now that everyone’s starting to get used to the programs, in some cases over the past two years, our money has run out before the fiscal year, which has been very sad,” Winsor explained. “We’re trying to make the money last as long as we can. With how well everybody’s doing and the great tours that are happening, hopefully down the road we’ll have even more funding to go around.”