Stage fright

Recent government investments in the big business of big concerts have had mixed results in Atlantic Canada, ranging from scandal to success. What works, and what doesn’t? And should taxpayers be afraid when politicians get stars in their eyes?

This month, tens of thousands of screaming fans will descend on Moncton’s Magnetic Hill concert site, where iconic Irish rockers U2 are set to play the last date of their 360 tour in North America. A steel structure will rise 50 metres from the floor over a massive stage with rotating bridges. “The impossible will become possible … it promises to be the biggest and greatest entertainment spectacle in Atlantic Canada history,” promoter Donald K Donald modestly predicted in announcing the concert.

In recent years, Moncton has hosted other giants of rock, including AC/DC and the Rolling Stones. The New Brunswick city appears to be the knockout champion of the battle to attract the big act, pouring millions into infrastructure at Magnetic Hill.

Similar efforts by other cities and towns have met with less success. Recent concert-related scandals in Halifax and Summerside have created a stench like that emanating from a wall of porta-potties at the end of a long summer show. And taxpayers have been left holding the malodorous results.

This summer, U2 is not the only star attraction in Atlantic Canada’s musical constellation. Metallica will rock the Citadel in Halifax till the night fades to black. KISS will bring their anthemic power chords and enthusiasm for face paint to central Newfoundland.

All the while, municipalities around the region are pondering what role they should have in furnishing such big-name entertainment for their citizens — to make sure, after the performers have finished showing everything they’ve got, rocking and rolling all night, that tears aren’t falling.

Waye Mason has two decades of experience in the music industry. He has worked as executive director of the Halifax Pop Explosion Association, served as president of Music Nova Scotia and, as a promoter, booked shows that attracted up to 5,000 people. Mason currently works as a consultant and instructs the music business certificate program at Nova Scotia Community College.

He says there are right ways and wrong ways for governments to go about boosting big-ticket concerts. Unfortunately, examples of the latter appear to be more prevalent. Governments generally get in trouble when they either funnel cash grants to promoters, or get involved as would-be impresarios themselves.

“Being a concert promoter is a very specialized business,” Mason says. “It’s as specialized as being an electrical engineer. It’s as specialized as being an anesthesiologist or a dentist. But because everybody knows somebody in a band, and everybody thinks they can rent a hall, anybody with money in their pocket can order up a band and pay a deposit and have them show up. But all the millions of pieces that go into successfully promoting and delivering a show, you don’t know that until you’ve done a bunch of shows. You really have to have experience.”

Politicians often rely on those who lack that practical knowledge, Mason says. “The government would never turn to citizens and average everyday Joes to design a bridge or install a sewer system, but they’re turning to people who just don’t have the professional experience and just don’t have the money to put on these massive concerts, that are in the millions and millions of dollars range.”

Recent debacles in Summerside — “that one is pure idiocy,” Mason notes — and Halifax — where an auditor general’s report flambéed the mayor and city management — are cases in point.

In Halifax, city taxpayers clandestinely propped up a concert promoter through a complex financial scheme that put millions in taxpayer dollars at risk, and ultimately resulted in the loss of $360,000. (See Cash-for-concerts on page 4 of this article).

In Summerside, city officials paid $1.3 million for a Michael Jackson tribute show that never happened. The matter is currently tangled up in a California courthouse, where the P.E.I. city has filed civil fraud charges. (See Who’s bad? on page 5 of this article).

Mason says geographic and economic realities make some types of shows simply unviable in this region. The potential audience is small, spread out, and not as affluent as a place like Toronto, where four times as many people live within driving distance of the Rogers Centre than in all four Atlantic provinces combined. And the “relentless spin” by governments and tourism agencies about the positive economic impacts of concerts can make it difficult to determine their true worth.

He notes that only a handful of events in Atlantic Canada have broken the 40,000 attendance barrier — Victory in Europe Day on Citadel Hill in 1945; the G7 summit in 1994; and recent AC/DC and Rolling Stones concerts in Moncton. “That’s pretty much it.”

Governments, he says, get into trouble when they try to force solutions to unresolvable problems.

“I sound like a raging right-wing Republican here, and I’m not, but in this case it’s as simple as the government has no place interfering with the free market. Either there’s enough people willing to pay a normal ticket price to go and see a band, or there’s not, and the minute the government tries to create conditions subsidizing shows, you’re into a money-losing situation. There’s no way that is ever going to work. You can’t make there be more people in Atlantic Canada to buy tickets. You can’t make there be more people who have more money in their pockets to buy tickets.”

On the flip side, Mason points to Moncton as a success story. The city has invested heavily in site infrastructure — power lines, washrooms, access roads, and the like — to create a world-class concert facility. Unlike much of the region, geography is an advantage for Moncton. And the government has sunk its cash into bricks and mortar, not grants and advances.

Moncton city councillor Daniel Bourgeois says the city held its first mega-show in 2005, when the Rolling Stones hit town. It wasn’t cheap; Bourgeois estimates the cost to the city was $5 million. Additional investments since then have brought Moncton’s total outlay to the neighbourhood of $7.5-million — nearly all of it in infrastructure. Meanwhile revenues to date have only come in at around $1 million. But the city is looking to the long term.

“We do want to be the entertainment capital of Atlantic Canada. We do have to invest in it accordingly. Hopefully, now, we’ve had almost 10 concerts under our belts, there will be just minor tweaking, minor improvements to the concert site, and little by little, there will be no more burden on the taxpayers.”

He says Moncton has the advantage of a half million people living within two hours of Magnetic Hill, making it an ideal location. “Moncton has always prided itself, and rightfully so, as being the hub of the Maritimes, so we do have a bigger catchment area of people who can drive up and back.”

Bourgeois says council has already put the brakes on a planned further $4-million investment into the site, whittling it down $1 million (some of which will be cost-shared with the province.) Even so, he acknowledges there are constituents who worry the site could become a “bottomless pit” for their hard-earned cash to be hurled into.

“Is that a good investment of taxpayer dollars? Some people say yes, some people say no.” And what does he say? “Right now, no. In 10 years from now, if we start making money on those concerts, it will be yes.”

The ultimate plan is to have Magnetic Hill become a “plug and play” site, featuring rental-only agreements with promoters. The city will make money off ticket sales, with its share rising as sales go up. “We do not invest in the front end, just the site itself,” Bourgeois says. “Everybody wins.” (Especially, he says, the provincial and federal governments who reap the majority of tax revenues from such events.)

Other governments in the Atlantic region have made hard decisions about whether they should continue to play impresario. St. John’s city council did so until 2007, when nine of 10 concerts it promoted at Mile One Centre lost a combined total of roughly $300,000. The city’s sports and entertainment wing then got out of the band business, opting instead for less risky landlord-tenant relationships with event promoters.

Meanwhile, other municipalities — such as the central Newfoundland town of Grand Falls-Windsor — continue to grapple with their own role in booking big shows.

Anne Blackmore was born the same year her hometown Exploits Valley Salmon Festival began. Since then, many acts — some near the height of their fame, others at various trajectories on the slope away from it — have graced the stage. There have been successful shows, and disappointing ones. But one thing is certain — the event has become inexorably woven into the fabric of the community.

The fear now, however, is that could all unravel — that the days of the big summer show in the community are numbered. Today, in its 27th year, the Salmon Festival is at a crossroads. And Blackmore, now the town’s deputy mayor, is one of those making the hard choices about what the future will bring for the iconic summer concert event.

This month, KISS is set to take the stage in the central Newfoundland town. It’s the type of high-profile rock event for which Salmon Festival was once feted. But recent years have been less kind, with the acts lower profile and the festival hemorrhaging taxpayers’ dollars. After a decade of profitability, four years of Salmon Festival losses totalled more than $450,000 between 2007 and 2010.

Last year, 6,000 people attended the Salmon Festival, according to town figures, compared to 13,000 in 2005. The council hopes to reverse that trend in 2011. “If this concert doesn’t succeed, it’s truly just stating that outdoor concerts cannot succeed in Newfoundland,” Blackmore says. “If this doesn’t work, then realistically there’s probably no combination that can work.”

And the Salmon Festival — which has traditionally been a big-ticket draw for music fans all over Newfoundland — could instead be downgraded to a local civic holiday type of event. (That crisis appeared to be averted when, in late June, council announced the signing of a five-year deal with the promoter of this year’s KISS concert.)

In past years, says Blackmore, council ran the whole show. “The town was 100 per cent responsible for the entire concert. We would fund all the money, we would be in charge of contacting the band, in charge of contacting their promoters, in charge of getting all the sponsors — pretty much running the show as if we were a production company. It did work for a long time, but it’s hard as a municipality, because it’s not our money, right? It’s taxpayers’, so it’s always a risk in what you’re doing.”

While Grand Falls-Windsor is putting some cash into the KISS show — Blackmore is not permitted to say how much — an outside promoter is taking the lead. If the show breaks even, so will the town. If it doesn’t, the council won’t be on the hook for all losses, as was the case in the past. And council also stands to take a share of the profits if the concert is a success. “We have way less money invested, and risk invested — it is a partnership, but not a 50-50 partnership,” Blackmore says.

So why do they do it? Why put so much on the line to get into the entertainment business?

People love music. They love a good time. And they love people who make it all possible.

Waye Mason promoted shows for years. He describes the attraction this way: “It is risky, and you can lose a lot of money, but you can make a lot of money. And it’s addictive. People love putting on concerts. It’s almost as thrilling to be the guy who gets 30,000 people in one place, or even 1,000 people in one place, or 500 people in one place, and provides that amazing magical experience that they enjoy so much.”

But he believes there are options for governments keen to jump on the big-show bandwagon.

“I just think we’ve got to keep our eyes on the prize here. If the only way to do this is with taxpayers’ money, the other thing you need to think about is there’s only so much money to go around. And all of us, in all four provinces, face serious issues of arts centres and performance spaces and community halls and hockey rinks that we also use for concerts that are in various states of disrepair. It’s not just about, ‘Hey, whatever, we don’t care, we really want the Rolling Stones to play.’ That money isn’t going to be used somewhere else.

“And if you want to have music in your community all the time, the way to do that is through small incremental investments in community resources that can be used 50, 100, 200 days a year instead of putting all your eggs in one basket, trying to be cool, and do one or two big concerts every couple of years.”

That opinion will be one of many up for discussion later this year, after the curtains have fallen and the last power chords clanged and reverberated through the summer night air.

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