Country-music stalwart Brett Kissel says he’s done looking for U.S. breakthrough

Canadian hitmaker says his new album is utterly true to himself — but he’s sure it will put him on ‘big stages, big festivals and arenas’ somewhere.

Nick Krewen, Music

 

There aren’t too many artists who can boast of an appearance by heavy metal guitarist Dave Mustaine and country music legend Charley Pride on the same album.

In fact, Flat Lake, Alta.’s country music sensation Brett Kissel is probably the only one: his new album We Were That Song features both guests on separate tracks.

Margaret Malandruccolo photographer

The 83-year-young Pride contribution to the album-ending reflective ballad “Burgers and Fries” probably isn’t so surprising, considering that Kissel grew up on a steady diet of Charley, Waylon Jennings and his all-time favourite Johnny Cash on the cattle ranch that has been in his family for over 100 years.

The rock-edged “Damn!,” however is a left-field choice that the married father of two reveals stemmed from an unlikely friendship with the Megadeth founder.

“I couldn’t believe that Dave offered to play guitar,” Kissel said recently at a downtown Starbucks. He returns to the city for two performances, including a matinee, at the Danforth Music Hall on Feb. 17.

“We were in Scotland together at a songwriting retreat with his daughter Electra (an aspiring country music singer). We’d become friends a year earlier, but it was here he asked, ‘So, when are you going to ask me to play guitar on one of your records?’”

Mustaine had only one condition.

“It’s got to be the most rockin’ track you’ve ever written,’” the 27-year-old Kissel says with a chuckle as he relates the story.

 While the distorted crunch of Mustaine’s guitar certainly energizes “Damn!” — a complimentary, upbeat song about a desired woman — it’s not out of place on the 13-track We Were That Song, an album where action-packed tempos outnumber the ballads.

Whether it’s the song name-dropping title track, the slightly Celtic Mumford-feel of the joyous “Anthem” or more rock-flavoured edge of “Guitars and Gasoline,” this album has a kick that Kissel said was premeditated.

“It’s definitely a very lively record,” says the nine-time Canadian Country Music Award winner, named Male Artist of the Year for the last three years running.

“When it came to song selection, it had to tell a story and it had to have a place in the set list. It’s meant to be cranked up loud and it’s meant to be played live.”

Kissel, who earned his first CCMA Rising Star nomination at the age of 16 following more than 70,000 in sales of his first three independent albums, makes no bones about the payoff he anticipates for We Were That Song, his fourth on a major label.

Brett Kissel ©MMFOTO

“This is the album that’s going to do it for us,” he says with a confident humility. “We want to take this not just one level up, but two, three, four levels up!

“We believe this music is ready for some big stages, big festivals and arenas. It’s a lot of everything.”

Now 27, Kissel has spent nearly half his life chasing the brass ring, and the homegrown success of such gold Canadian country music radio staples as “Started With a Song,” “3-2-1,” “Something You Just Don’t Forget” and “Airwaves” among others, as well as exciting shows and cheering crowds, has laid the initial groundwork.

South of the border, though, Kissel has been trying — like so many before him — to second guess what Music City wants out of its suitors. Despite having respected industry veteran Bob Doyle, Garth Brooks’ manager, as his co-manager, it’s been frustrating.

“I’ve been able to have great success here in Canada and it’s been awesome,” says Kissel, who is managed here by Invictus Entertainment Group’s Louis O’ Reilly.

“It definitely wasn’t easy, but I know the steps to take. Whereas in the United States, you think you’ll do these five things and it will lead to this result — I’ll do those five things, whatever’s asked of me — and meet a dead end.”

So rather than attempting to hit a mysterious moving target, Kissel has decided to bet on himself.

We Were That Song embraces the true Brett Kissel. He’s finally being himself without kowtowing to imagined U.S. expectations.

“My last albums (Started With a Song, Pick Me Up) were very special, but I was definitely trying hard,” Kissel admits. “There were elements of honesty there, but not full honesty.

“This album is completely honest, a result of Bob and a lot of other influential people in my life telling me, ‘You’re not going to be happy if you’re not doing what you gotta do. It might be the long way, but you’ve got to forge your own path, be who you are.’”

Kissel says fun-embracing, attitudinal songs like “Shootin’ It” and “Drink, Cuss, or Fish” are representative of the new “looseness” he’s incorporating into his songwriting.

“It’s walking the line of taking different risks on the record and caring more while caring less,” he explains. “I’m caring more about myself and what the fans want to hear, and caring less about being placed in a box.”

Also helping him find his way are the music business tête-à-têtes Kissel has enjoyed with both Brooks and Brad Paisley; he’s toured as an opener for both and Brooks, of course, is country music’s biggest-selling artist.

“Garth was just himself,” Kissel says. “Now that I know the story firsthand from Garth himself; it took a long time to get that traction: for someone to see him as a stock and invest in it, then watch him go to the very top. For the last couple of years, I chased and chased what I thought Nashville, American labels and the American industry wanted me to be. ‘Shootin’ It’ and this entire record is a perfect example of me saying, ‘I don’t care anymore. This is who I am and at least I’m going to be happy putting out this record.’”

Kissel is also taking a page out of the Garth Brooks concert playbook. With his return, Brooks has been performing multiple shows in one tour location, usually over a weekend, sometimes two or three full concerts a day.

In Canada, Kissel is ambitiously attempting the biggest domestic tour ever by a country artist — 100 dates — including 10 to 15 where, like his upcoming Danforth Music Hall shows, he’s staging two full concerts in a day.

Can he handle it?

“I’ve never done it before,” Kissel says. “But if Garth can do it, I’m sure as hell going to try.”

Country-music stalwart Brett Kissel says he’s done looking for U.S. breakthrough | Toronto Star

 

30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp are still at it

Willie Nelson at Farm Aid 30 ©Ebet Roberts

By Nick Krewen | www.samaritanmag.com

Posted on September 23, 2015

CHICAGO — To say that Farm Aid, the annual music festival fundraiser for family farms and farmers, “celebrated” its 30th anniversary this month at Northerly Island would be a bit of a misnomer.

Certainly, there were some festivities, as an impressive lineup of top musicians including Farm Aid founders Willie Nelson, Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Farm Aid board member Dave Matthews, rock band Imagine Dragons, R&B legend Mavis Staples and singer-songwriter Jack Johnson, provided nearly 12 hours of music, entertaining an estimated 27,000 in attendance at the FirstMerit Bank Pavilion on Sept. 19. But the truth of the matter is that 30 years after Nelson organized the first Farm Aid in Champaign, Illinois — raising more than $48 million towards the cause over the last three decades, excluding the most recent event — the plight of the U.S. farmer remains in crisis.

Neil Young at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve, Inc.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) lists the current number of U.S. farms at 2.2 million; it also admits that less than 1 percent of the country’s 313 million citizens “claim farming as a profession;” that farm production expenses average $109,359 per year per farm and that “fewer than 1 in 4 of the farms in this country produce gross revenues in excess of $50,000.” Foreclosures, deep debt, industrial agriculture muscling in and manipulating prices to the point where non- corporate agriculturalists are lowballed for less-than-market crop prices, and high-level stress that often leads to depression and suicide.

The situation is still dire, warned the non-profit charity’s co-founder Neil Young at the Farm Aid 30 press conference. “The American farm is disappearing. This is a reality,” Young stated. “We keep saying, ‘We’re fighting…we’re fighting,’ but it is disappearing.”

Young says a dearth of younger generation farmers isn’t helping the cause, especially when aging farmers hand over their livelihoods to their kin, only to watch it be sold to corporate interests. “We’ve only got a few young people involved. The farms are going to change hands. We know when the farms change hands; that’s when the corporations come in and grab another slice.”

Still, war wages on, fighting commercial behemoths like agrochemical and agricultural biotechnology giant, and genetic seed modifier Monsanto and Tyson Foods Inc., the world’s leading processors of poultry, pork and beef, two companies whose multi-billion-dollar deep pockets and alleged government collusion have transformed them into formidable foes, said Young, whose latest album The Monsanto Years particularly takes one company to task.

“We’re up against a gigantic force that keeps coming at us from everywhere,” Young stated. “It’s centered in our government, and it’s backed up by multinational corporations who have taken over the farmland of the United States, who produce 90 percent of the corn.”

Young says the latest crisis farmers are facing is “seed control.”

“Seeds are owned by these companies, so farmers can’t trade the seeds,” he explained. “Currently, there’s a bill in the Senate that, if it passes, will make it illegal to trade seeds farther than 3 to 5 miles.

“Because of our government and the money that they’re taking from the multinational corporations, we are being forced to give up the right for our farmers to trade seeds,” he added. “We need seed justice in this land.”

John Mellencamp at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

This public advocacy is one of the crucial differences Farm Aid has made in the lives of farmers: standing up for the little guy.

“The fact that Farm Aid even exists has given every farmer out there a stand against companies like Monsanto where they didn’t have one before,” country artist Jamey Johnson, who was performing at his eighth Farm Aid Festival, told Samaritanmag in an exclusive interview.

“If you don’t have a voice or a vote, there’s no way you can make anybody change. Farm Aid gives every farmer out there a platform to stand on while they make their case. Farm Aid helps farmers that get pushed out by ever growing corporate business and helps them make a new start on their own, helps them stand up against the Goliath.”

Besides offering hope, Farm Aid also supports farmers through third party administration with programs like The Family Farm Disaster Fund — which helps families survive weather-related disasters by providing emergency funds to buy food and cover living expenses, an emergency hotline and provides legal and financial counseling when foreclosure is threatened — and The Farmer Resource Network, a grid of 700 organizations recommended by Farm Aid that provides “resources, tools and opportunities to help (farmers) thrive.”

Every annual Farm Aid concert funds a year of activity, as artists and crews donate their time and talent, with all proceeds going to the cause save for a small amount of production expenses.

Here’s how it breaks down according to Farm Aid website: 41 percent of proceeds go toward promoting “fair farm policies and grassroots organizing campaigns to develop and bolster family farm-centered agriculture;” 39 percent goes toward “helping farmers thrive; providing farmers with the services and resources they need to access new markets and transition to more sustainable and profitable farming practices;” 14 percent to natural disaster and emergency response and 6 percent towards “growing the Good Food movement,” a crusade that espouses finding and shopping for organic, naturally grown farm food rather than the genetically altered stuff.

Dave Matthews at Farm Aid
©Paul Natkin/Photo Reserve

“When we started Farm Aid, crisis was gripping farm country,” said Willie Nelson, who launched the idea following a remark he heard from Bob Dylan at Live Aid regarding a similar charity for farmers, at the press conference. “Farm Aid called on America to stand up for family farmers. They showed up then and they’re still showing up. All different types of people are coming together for family farmers, and we’re making a difference.”

Farm Aid has also influenced other musicians to lead by example and make a difference.

Jack Johnson, and his wife Kim, for example, have implemented a healthy snack program via their Oahu-based Kõkua Hawai’i Foundation called AINA in 16 local schools, a farm-to-school initiative that promotes childhood health by pushing healthy eating habits, contributes to a healthier local food system by supporting Hawaii’s farming community and their produce, and connects children to the land and water that sustains them.

For this school year, AINA is in 16 schools across the state, where students will experience garden-based learning, compost and nutrition lessons.

“Basically, during the school hours you can come into the classroom with locally grown food,” Johnson explained. “We have parents come down in the morning, they cut it all up, it comes from the farmers, it gets put into the classrooms and kids get to taste it.

Jack Johnson at Farm Aid 2015
©Sabine Carey

“Any kids who don’t want to finish it we get them to put it in a little bin, and we take that off to worm composting. They’re learning about how it goes back into the soil, and what healthy soil is, and we’re happy to be part of it.”

Jack Johnson told Samaritanmag that because his foundation is self-financed, there is a lot more flexibility and direct action in what they’re able to do.

“We’re pretty lucky with our Foundation, it’s all self-funded,” he admitted. “We’ve gotten some grants, but we’ve done music festivals that kind of support it and a lot of the touring I do, I pour money into it from there. So it’s been different than a lot of non-profits that have to rely off the grants, year after year. In that sense, the finances haven’t been a huge challenge but I know it’s been a challenge for other non-profit groups.”

Jamey Johnson at Farm Aid 30, 2015

For the Imagine Dragons, Farm Aid is an inspiration to change their eating habits. Guitarist Wayne Sermon, whose grandfather and father were farmers, said the band is doing its part to promote better eating by setting an example and actively searching out farm-to-table restaurants whenever they’re on tour.

“When I first started this band and we actually got successful, was when I first realized that I can’t eat the way I used to eat,” Sermon told Samaritanmag exclusively. “I have to eat fresh meat and vegetables, making sure knowing where my meat comes from, the non-GMO stuff. It became apparent and actually made a difference in my life. We also definitely encourage people to go out to grocery stores that support local farms as well.”

Even Micah Nelson, son of Willie and brother of Lukas, who fronted his own Insects Vs. Robots and joined Lukas’ Promise of the Real to perform with Neil Young at Farm Aid, said he’s going to Kauai this winter to help his cousin start a food forest. “I’m going to go help him out and learn as much as I can and apply it to my own life, instead of just going out there and preaching about it,” he said.

The fact that a trio of second generation artists, Micah and Lukas Nelson, and Ian Mellencamp, all performed at an event that initially took place either before they were born or just after, suggests that the Farm Aid will take the fight for the farmer well into the future.

* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.

30 Years of Farm Aid: Why Willie Nelson, Neil Young, John Mellencamp Still at It | Samaritanmag.com – The Anti-Tabloid

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

Actor Musicians

Nick Krewen

Grammy.com

October 2003

Golden Globe or Golden Throat?

There may be a sizeable increase in the number of actors pursuing their muse as recording artists these days, but trying to earn respect from the masses, the music industry and critics is still an uphill battle.

Some, such as Hilary Duff or Jennifer Lopez, are talented television and movie multi-taskers who seem to have no trouble climbing the Billboard charts and finding millions of fans to buy their albums.

But others, such as the Oscar-winning Russell Crowe and ex-Party Of Five ingenue Jennifer Love Hewitt, are still struggling to find an audience for their music.

While public choices concerning such matters as talent and material may be subject to individual tastes, at least one fledgling actor musician feels there’s a bigger obstacle to overcome.

“People just don’t take actors seriously,” says Crazy/Beautiful star Taryn Manning, who is simultaneously pursuing a career as singer of Dreamworks recording act Boomkat.

“It’s been one of my biggest hurdles. The whole deal is the perception that anybody can act, but not everybody can play instruments or write songs.”

Manning, whose Boomkatalog.One was released to critical acclaim earlier this year, says the notion that acting is an easier profession to conquer doesn’t help.

“If you have a pretty face and a nice body, you have a chance to make it as an actor unfortunately. You really do.”

Academy Award winner Billy Bob Thornton, who recently released his sophomore album The Edge Of The World on the Sanctuary label, also feels actors are at a disadvantage when it comes to establishing their musical legitimacy.

“We’re definitely under a microscope,” says Thornton, revered for his starring roles in such films as Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There and his self-written Sling Blade. “I don’t think you have as fair a shake.”

He says the perceived glamour of Hollywood lifestyle often creates suspicion both within public and music industry circles.

“I think that people think that the only reason actors have the opportunity to record music is because they’re rich guys who can get what they want, or that maybe they have an ‘in’,” Thornton explains. “And maybe that’s true to a degree. But there’s a downside – there are people within the music business who have a prejudice against actors doing it.  They watch you with one eye kind of squinted – ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing in my yard?’”

He also feels that much of the bias is media-driven.

“The media creates it and perpetuates it,” says Thornton, who has toured with Willie Nelson and Elvis Costello. “A critic may be slamming your thing for many reasons. You may have slept with his girlfriend, or whatever he thinks you did. If you get a critic who’s got a bee in his ass about you and they want to talk about you in that way, that’s the only way a guy in Wichita, Kansas hears about that. There are people out there always looking for this angle that’s easy for them, a soundbyte.”

And then there’s the residue from the “Golden Throats syndrome,” the ‘60s and ‘70s era of big-name movie and TV idols that regularly savaged pop classics through ill-advised recordings. Remember Leonard Nimoy’s “I Walk The Line?”

However Rhino Entertainment A&R manager and staff producer Gary Peterson, co-creator of the four-volume Golden Throats series for Rhino Records, says a return to such an ear-cringing movement would be unlikely.

“When an artist from the movies or television or another type of entertainment field wants to do a recording now, there’s a safety net of recording technology at hand to fix up the mistakes because the production values are higher,” says Peterson.

“Of course with these artists now, and the high profiles that they maintain, they’re much more guarded about what comes out.”

“The fact of the matter is that you’ve got to look at people for what they’re doing and not who they are,” says Billy Bob Thornton, who received critical acclaim for his Marty Stuart-produced first album Private Radio.  He says he considers music and acting equal priorities.

“I consider it all the same thing,” he says. “ It’s all about telling stories and moving people in some way or another. But there are different feelings you get from it. What movies do that music doesn’t do for you is put you into a different world for a long time, whereas a song might tell a story and put you in another world, but you’re not able to develop it that far.

“What music does for you is more immediate. You can write a song and go cut it that night. If you’re writing a movie, it’s going to take you awhile, and then you have to go get it financed or set up in a studio.  Then they’ve got to cast it, so it’s a long process.”

Boomkat’s Manning says she shouldn’t be pigeonholed.

“I like to dabble in and hone all my talents, which range from singing, acting, and dancing to making clothes, doing hair and makeup.”

Manning, who has begun working on Boomkat’s second album, says she’ll honor her musical commitment through action.

“You’ll have to start believing in me when I’m five records in, because I never plan to stop making music. People should open their minds and not be so judgmental.”

Postscript:  This was published by Grammy.com in either October or November 2003. The site has since been upgraded and some of the archival files are no longer available.

I also remember Billy Bob Thornton telling me during this interview that he wrote the script for his Academy Award winning Sling Blade while Frank Zappa and the Mothers Of Invention’s Burnt Weeny Sandwich served as the soundtrack.

The Russians have landed!

 

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

March 2003

Roll over Beethoven and tell Tchiakovsky the news: The Russians have landed!

While recent breakthroughs of controversial Moscow pop duo t.A.T.u. and Grammy nominated country sextet Bering Strait may not be as prevalent as the British invasion that first introduced The Beatles, the message that North America is finally open for business is resonating throughout the former U.S.S.R..

And that gives new hope for Russian artists hoping to tap into a potentially lucrative new market, says Bering Strait’s Ilya Toshinsky.

“Maybe t.A.T.u and Bering Strait will be part of the movement that’s going to change the face of Russian show business,” says Toshinsky, the multi-faceted guitarist and banjo player who grew up with his fellow band members in the scientific community of Obininsk, 60 miles west of Moscow.

“There are a lot of talented artists and writers in Russia who don’t get the chance for exposure. I’d like to help them out eventually. There are a lot of artists there who need to be heard.”

Whether any of those artists — ranging from ‘NSYNC-like popsa hitmakers Na-Na and gender-bending singer Shura to Enrique Iglesias duet partner Alsou and Parliamentarian Josif Kobozo – will be able to navigate the waters of American consumerism is debatable, but the commercial headway made by t.A.T.u. offers plenty of incentive.

Fueled by high-pitched vocals, pounding electric beats and a racy schoolgirl video supporting the classically trained Lena Katina and Julia Volkova’s hit single “All The Things She Said,” t.A.T.u. has taken the world by storm. Its debut album, 200 km/h In The Wrong Lane, is a heartbeat away from gold in the U.S., and has already sold two-and-a-half million copies around the world – including an unprecedented one million in its native Russia.

The brainchild of Ivan Shapovalov, a former child psychiatrist and advertising executive with a gift for exploiting Lolita lesbianism, t.A.T.u. is only the tip of the iceberg in a country whose population numbers 146 million people.

“I think it could be the beginning of a discovery by the West of Russian talent,” admits Interscope’s Martin Kierzenbaum, the A&R executive responsible for tattooing t.A.T.u. to a North American record deal.

“The impressive aspect of t.A.T.u. is that a band is coming out of Russia and traveling across the world is actually appealing to people on a global scale, something that has never, ever happened in rock music.”

Kierzenbaum credits a post-communist era of liberal expression that has allowed the artistic community to “have one foot in the tradition of Russia and the other foot in MTV culture.”

“Julia and Lena are part of the first generation to have grown up after communism, reach out to the West and beckon us to pay attention. They’re able to communicate some of exoticism and the excitement of Russian talent to us in the West because they speak both languages culturally.

“There are a lot of super-talented people in Russia that we may have been closed off to until now.”

Not that there haven’t been previous attempts to crack the West. While such revered composers as Petr Ilich Tchiakovsky, Modest Mussorgsky and Igor Stravinsky had no problems establishing Russian classical music supremacy, pop acts have largely met Iron Curtain resistance from American audiences.  Despite eight albums and three movies, the stylistically outlandish Leningrad Cowboys largely remain cult favorites, while Boris Grebenshikov, the “Russian Bob Dylan” whose album Radio Silence was given a serious push by Sony in the late ‘80s, failed to gain any lasting foothold.

Even Kiev-born supermodel and actress Milla Jovovich has been ineffective in convincing the market to support her music, although her 1994 effort The Divine Comedy received critical acclaim.

 

The only exception has been Ukrainian émigré Dimitry BrillSuper DJ Dimitry – whose tenure in now-defunct New York disco troika Deee-Lite in 1990 landed him a gold Top 10 hit in “Groove Is In The Heart” and a platinum album in World Clique.

Although he applauds the success of artistic comrades t.A.T.u., Ilya Toshinsky says Bering Strait is taking a decidedly more organic approach to global domination.

With “Bearing Straight” receiving a Grammy nomination last month for Best Country Instrumental Performance and the recent release of a new self-titled CD on Universal South, Toshinsky finally feels some vindication for the decision to relocate from Obininsk to Nashville five years ago.

“If we stayed in Russia to play country music — which was considered exotic — we’d be bound to Moscow bars and restaurants for the rest of our lives,” notes Toshinsky, who co-founded Bering Strait as an instrumental bluegrass band in 1988 before going the country route.

Speaking on behalf of singer Natasha Borzilova, keyboardist Lydia Salnikova, steel guitarist Sasha Ostrovsky, drummer Alexander Arzamastsev and bass player Sergei “Spooky” Olkhovsky, Toshinsky admits Bering Strait’s street of dreams was almost the road to ruin.

After signing with Arista Nashville, Bering Strait decided to follow label president Tim DuBois to his next venture after a downsizing prompted the executive’s departure. It took DuBois five years to land at Universal South, and through the transitional phase Bering Strait signed four contracts.

“For awhile, I didn’t believe the record was ever going to come out,” said Toshinsky, who became infatuated with the banjo at the age of 10 after hearing an Earl Scruggs recording of “Cumberland Gap.”

“ Some of our families started losing faith. And now with the Grammy nomination, and a huge push in Russian media, now they can see what it can be. I think they believe again.”

He’s also happy that band members have a chance to earn a living again.

“The worst time for us was a few months before the MCA deal,” Toshinsky explains. “The money was extremely tight, and with the visa situation  we could only work in the music business. We couldn’t work at K-Mart or Burger King and make any extra money. It got really tough. It was discouraging.”

But with recent appearances on the Grand Ole Opry and a favorable slot on 60 Minutes, Toshinsky is much more optimistic.

“We’re still not making too much money because people in Russia think that with the Grammy nomination, we’re now millionaires,” he says. “Hopefully it will lead to wonderful things.”

Even though t.A.T.u. and Bering Strait are exploring new commercial frontiers, not everyone from the homeland is convinced U.S. success is a good thing.

“The Russian music scene is generally horrendous, just second-rate derivative American pop,” says Mark Ames, editor of eXile, a Moscow-based alternative weekly.

“The only lesson learned is that if you use under-aged lesbian sluts to Trojan Horse your shitty pop music, then you might make it in America.”

 

 

Casino Royale

Casino Royale

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

March 2003

As the concert business continues its uneven ebb and flow, the casino circuit is continuing to establish itself as an increasingly safe anchor for the touring performer.

Not only is the $25.7 billion casino gaming industry on an upswing — with over 430 commercial establishments operating in the U.S. alone — but many locations outside the seasoned hubs of Las Vegas and Atlantic City are now booking high profile acts as an incentive to increase consumer traffic.

And it seems to be working.

“There’s a marked increase on the revenue we make off our gaming floor on the nights we have concerts,” reports Leslie Herslip, Events Manager for the New Town, North Dakota-based 4 Bears Casino And Lodge.

“I don’t have a percentage figure, but it’s substantial.”

Concert headliners have also proven to be a very effective calling card for casinos located in remote, rural areas.

“You’d be amazed at the number of people willing to travel 75 or 100 miles for quality entertainment,” says Herslip, who has filled her venue’s future calendar with country legend George Jones, classic rock icons Grand Funk and veteran Motown favorites The Commodores.

“It’s a great avenue for us to bring in new people who may not come out here to gamble and expose them to the experience.”

4 Bears isn’t alone in its findings. Casinos across North America are bolstering their bottom line by booking renowned singers, groups and comedians. In turn these renowned singers, groups and comedians are discovering a substantial increase in the demand for their services from on-land, riverside and racetrack gaming houses.

“This market has actually grown pretty rapidly in the last few years, largely because of the growing number of Indian-based casinos,” observes Pollstar Magazine Editor-In-Chief Gary Bongiovanni. “We’ve never done an analysis on it, but I know there are more and more places for artists to play than ever in terms of gaming situations.”

The growth has been phenomenal. Considering the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which legalized gaming operations on reservations in a number of states, wasn’t passed until 1988, the movement has catapulted from an upstart $100 million industry to an $8 billion powerhouse in less than two decades.

Now there are 300-plus Native casinos booking a stylistic gazpacho of established acts, from dancehall reggae veteran Eek-A-Mouse and former Partridge Family heartthrob David Cassidy to rock ‘n roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis and electrifying blues combo Little Charlie And The Nightcats.

The venue is satisfied whether an act sells 2000 tickets or 20 tickets.

“We’re not so concerned that we make a profit off the act itself,” says 4 Bears’ Herslip. “We’re more concerned about making a profit off the gaming floor, making good money on the nights we actually have shows.”

An unexpected benefit, however, is casino circuit compensation for other music business downturns.

“Country acts used to rely heavily on the fair circuit, ” notes Al Schiltz, partner in Nashville-based management firm The Consortium and personal manager of country singers Billy Ray Cyrus and Tammy Cochran.

“But with country music sales suffering, we’ve lost about 20% in the number of venues as a hard ticket sales revenue source. Today fairs are bringing in the Christina Aguileras and older acts like the Three Dog Nights or the demolition derbies instead of country stars.”

Schiltz believes that the casino circuit has filled the void with a winning situation for performers regardless of genre.

“It’s exposure to a market the artist may not normally play to,” says Schiltz, “Usually it isn’t a hard ticket date and the casinos pay well, especially since they use free entertainment as an incentive to expose people to the casino.”

And the long-term benefits?

“The hope is that the people who wouldn’t have initially seen the artist are turned on enough to buy an album and buy a hard ticket to go see them in concert the next time they’re in the area,” Schiltz explains. “It helps build a fan base and there’s not a lot of risk involved.”

Then there’s the pampering. Although his band hasn’t had a blockbuster pop hit since 1978’s “Kiss You All Over” — and hasn’t topped the country charts since 1987’s “I Can’t Get Close Enough” — Exile co-founder J.P. Pennington recently sat in an opulent lounge at Rama, Ontario’s Casino Rama with a big smile on his face.

“The staff here are falling over themselves trying to please you,” said Pennington a few hours prior to the first of two Exile performances.

“Believe me, the accommodations for most gigs aren’t this nice. They actually gave me a suite, and I’m so ridiculously low maintenance.”

Pollstar’s Bongiovanni says the casino circuit provides the perfect forum for nostalgic memory lane bands like Exile.

“All of the acts that are out there touring – whether it’s a Paul Revere And The Raiders, acts like that that pretty well have established names, but no contemporary caché or heat about them, those are environments where they can be successful.”

“The casino circuit has opened up additional opportunities for those acts who are still viable to the consumer, still have a fan base that can draw 1000-1500 people to a venue, and may not have a record deal,” adds Al Schiltz. “It will continue to grow.”

Farewell Fan Fair

Fan Fair

Nick Krewen

GRAMMY.COM

 

Farewell Fan Fair.

When it wound down June 8 with a rare reunion of The Judds, the door closed on a 32-year tradition. Upon its return in 2004, the annual Nashville country music festival – which encourages fans to mingle with its stars – will be sporting a different name: the CMA (Country Music Association) Music Festival.

More troubling to hardcore country music fans, however, is the CMA’s new willingness decision to welcome non-country talent into the mix.

Although acts such as The Beach Boys and the soap opera casts of Days Of Our Lives and Passions have made Fan Fair appearances in the past, this official policy change – combined with few details regarding the transition – have put country fans on the defensive.

Worried that their premier country music festival is going to be distilled by an onslaught of non-country artists, distraught fans – and some industry professionals – have been flooding CMA offices with e-mails and phone calls expressing their concern.

Published comments by CMA executive director Ed Benson, describing the annual love-in as “an event any Nashvillian could come to and not feel like something was going to jump off on them and infect them” – inferring an unsophisticated stigma attached to the words “Fan Fair” – weren’t reassuring.

“They make us sound like a bunch of nose-picker, butt-scratcher country hicks,” complained Fan Fair attendee Annette Wood of Davenport, Iowa to The Tennessean.

But a yearly attendance drop, a decline in superstar attractions and continuing money losses have left the CMA grasping for solutions, clearly puzzled at its fizzling mandate to expand country music’s audience.

The first major step towards growth came in 2001, when the CMA relocated Fan Fair from the self-contained 24,000-seat Tennessee State Fairgrounds  — its home since 1982 and a place where fan booths and artists exhibits were mere steps away from the concert venue, a converted racetrack  — to downtown Nashville.

“When we made the move (downtown), it was a commitment by our board to say we’re going to build this event for the future,” Benson told The Tennessean.

Fan Fair was switched from a week to weekend festival, downsized from five to four days.  Record label showcases shifted to the 66,000-seat capacity Coliseum for the evenings, and the much smaller Riverfront Park stages for weekdays. And booths where fans wait for autographs were transferred several city blocks away to the air-conditioned Nashville Convention Center.

However, these transitions came with a price to Fan Fair visitors. Camping, which kept costs economical for many tourists and added a social element to the outing, was banned. Admission prices were also jacked up: A $95 ticket that allotted you four nights and five days of country music, a free meal and – until it was scuttled in 1997 by Gaylord Entertainment – admission to their Opryland U.S.A. theme park, gave way to $115 tickets with no additional incentives.

Today, the top ticket for gold circle admission into the Coliseum for four days and nights of country music is $250 – a 211% increase from 2000 prices.  If you’re 18 and under, you can pay as little as $86 to attend the festivities, although you’re denied gold circle access even if you have the money.

Other implemented changes have made artist accessibility more restrictive. Stages once within handshake reach of fans are now heightened and inaccessibly barricaded. Photo lines that formerly allow shutterbugs to watch shows while they waited to snap their cameras are now re-directed through Coliseum corridors.

And the lack of superstar talent hasn’t helped. Whether the switch to weekends, normally the most lucrative booking time for recording acts, has had an impact is questionable, but both the 2002 and 2003 lineups were woefully short on marquee headliners.

Although Garth Brooks is in semi-retirement and annual no-shows include superstars Shania Twain and George Strait, other regular visitors decided to skip this year’s event altogether. Among the missing: chart-toppers Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Toby Keith and The Dixie Chicks, Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood and LeAnn Rimes, although Rimes did cancel a main-stage cameo duet with Vince Gill due to illness.

However, mid-level and up-and-coming artists such as Rascal Flatts, Tracy Byrd, Lee Ann Womack and Carolyn Dawn Johnson were also absent.

Alan Jackson, Kenny Chesney, Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride, Patty Loveless and Darryl Worley were among the headline acts played for free, accepting a reported $100,000 contribution to the charity of their choice in lieu of payment.

But even the majority of those acts skipped the opportunity to greet fans and sign autographs at the Nashville Convention Center. After Jo Dee Messina and Montgomery Gentry, familiar names were rare.

Others chose just to keep it private, appear at their own fan club parties which are scheduled to run concurrent with the festival.

As a result, Fan Fair attendance dropped 1.7% — from an announced “aggregate” headcount of 126,500 in 2002 to 124,300 in 2003 – with CMA officially laying blame on a faltering economy and post-Iraq war fallout.

In a separate Tennessean article, however, Benson revealed that Fan Fair, produced at a cost of $3 million, has been losing financial ground for years, with out-of-town attendance topping out at 21,000 visitors. In the same article, CMA associate director Tammy Genovese acknowledged that tourists rather than locals accounted for the majority of ticket sales.

Whether the CMA can stage a reversal of Fan Fair fortune under its new CMA Music Festival guise remains to be seen, but Benson clarified that its country music core will not be supplanted by other genres.

“Any celebrities or musical guests we invite to Fan Fair will have a tangible connection to country music and this lifestyle,” Benson explained.

”Our primary mission is always to grow country music. We don’t want to limit it.”

By excising the word “fan” from the equation, however, the CMA may have bitten off more than it can chew, alienating the very loyalists that have kept Fan Fair alive for more than three decades.

The Sweet Smell of Success

The Sweet Smell Of Success
October 22, 2009

Recording artists bottle their success

GRAMMY.com
Nick Krewen

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill have not only experienced the sweet smell of success, they’ve bottled it.

Country music’s first couple has a couple of new scents on the market — Faith Hill Parfums is her first and Southern Blend is his second — and they are just two of the music celebrities that have been tapped by Coty Inc., the world’s largest fragrance manufacturer with annual net sales of approximately $4 billion.

The list of artists sporting one or more of their own perfume or cologne brands run from the obvious (Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Britney Spears, and Gwen Stefani) to the enterprising (Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, Jay-Z and Usher) to the unexpected (rapper Daddy Yankee, guitar shaman Carlos Santana and cosmetic rockers KISS).

The fragrance industry also seems to be impartial to genre, with American soprano Renée Fleming, pop/punk princess Avril Lavigne, hip-hop icon Queen Latifah and influential innovator Prince all offering aromatic toiletries for public consumption.

Why are stars so keen to extend their aural appeal to the nasal? Well, there’s the obvious answer: money. Fashion newspaper Women’s Wear Daily speculates that Beyoncé‘s upcoming Coty fragrance will be one of 2010’s most-anticipated spring debuts and could earn her $20 million over three years.

Karen Grant, vice president and global beauty industry analyst for the NPD Group, says helping to create a representative scent can be another expressive outlet.

“Sometimes celebrities say, ‘We’re not just about making another record,’ so being associated with a fragrance is a statement saying, ‘We’re an artist. We’re looking at this as an expression of our artistic talent.’

“It’s a great way to earn huge recognition across the country. And fans, who may not have the new album, can have a little piece of that celebrity as well.”

In many cases, it’s an affordable piece of celebrity. A 1.7-ounce bottle of McGraw’s Southern Blend — described as “a vibrant burst of grapefruit, star anise, and bergamot” that also incorporate touches of lavender, violet leaves, whiskey accord, vetiver, fresh amber, and tobacco to “create the ideal fragrance for the true Southern gentleman” — can be purchased in department stores or online for a suggested retail price of $30.

As Grant notes, this can be very appealing to fans. “If you’re a huge Britney follower, you’d want the scent as well as the albums,” she says.

It was Spears — along with Lopez and her fragrance Glow — who accelerated the trend of companies recruiting contemporary music stars to invent and introduce new fragrances when she entered the market in 2004 with the Elizabeth Arden brand Curious, which earned $100 million in sales within weeks of its release.

“Those two were such huge hits, really, that they helped to ignite this whole trend of associating the musician with these fragrances,” Grant explains. “So I think that’s when both the musicians as well as the manufacturers began to look and say, ‘This seems like it could be a winning lineup.'”

And it’s certainly been victorious for Spears. Women’s Wear Daily reports that more than 10 million bottles of Curious, Fantasy and In Control have been sold since 2005, and Spears has expanded her franchise this year with the additions of Circus Fantasy and Hidden Fantasy.

Since then, approximately 40 artists from Shania Twain to Hilary Duff have taken the plunge, with hit fragrances — like music — tracked weekly by Nielsen SoundScan.

So how do pop and rock stars come to release fragrances?

Steve Mormoris, senior vice president of global marketing at Coty Beauty (whose musical clients besides Hill and McGraw include Celine Dion, Lopez, Kylie Minogue, Stefani, and Twain), says his company approaches artists based on a number of criteria, including role model potential, someone who “holds high values” and how much they embody the essence of femininity or masculinity.

In all cases, he says Coty is looking for a long-term relationship and an artist “who wants to become involved with the fragrance” from development through execution.

With estimated launch costs of “not less than $2 million,” on the line, Mormoris says extensive market research is conducted before a brand is launched. “We don’t put out a fragrance until we’re absolutely certain it’s going to be a success,” he explains, adding that celebrities are usually paid on a royalty basis as opposed to a flat fee as an incentive, “ensuring that artists are involved for the life of the product.”

Mormoris says hits are determined by sales-generated value and market share percentage, rather than number of units sold, and that the average celebrity scent has a shelf life of five to 10 years.

“The exceptions are Stetson and Elizabeth Taylor‘s White Diamonds, which has been the no. 1 fragrance for the past 20 years,” notes Mormoris. “They’re exceptions to the rule.”

While celebrity popularity can drive fragrance sales, packaging also plays a crucial role.

“As new celebrity fragrances come out and they encompass novelty in design and fun, they still do well,” says Grant. “For example, Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Lovers collection was among the best sellers in 2008.

“We do see that younger consumers do tend to resonate with packaging more as well. Since these celebrity fragrances do tend to be more popular with the younger consumer, it’s usually a pretty winning formula.”

Still, there are signs that the celebrity fragrance market may be waning. NPD Group recently reported a 10 percent drop in prestige fragrance retail sales for the first half of 2009.

If sales are flagging, Mormoris hasn’t noticed.

“I keep hearing about it,” laughs Mormoris, who names the Dion and Minogue fragrance lines as two of Coty’s best performers. “But I haven’t seen it.”

(Nick Krewen is a Toronto-based journalist who has written for The Toronto Star, TV Guide, Billboard, Country Music and was a consultant for the National Film Board’s music industry documentary Dream Machine.)

Taylor Swift delivers flawless performance in Toronto

 

During 1989 tour stop at Rogers Centre Swift gives shout out to the Jays, sings with guest Keith Urban.

 

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Sat Oct 03 2015

When it comes to giving stellar performances, Taylor Swift is in a league of her own.

The 25-year-old singer and songwriter delivered another flawless gem of a concert at Rogers Centre Friday for the first of two sold-out nights, a little more than two years after she gave a flawless gem of a concert at the same venue.

Since 2013, only her musical direction has changed: back then, with the Red tour, Swift was still considered a country music emissary.

For her current 1989 tour, as the opening strains of “Welcome To New York” filled the stadium, Swift declared her new symbolic transformation into pop ingenue by stylishly emerging from the stage in a sparkling jacket, black bustier, short red skirt, a pair of shades and with a dozen male dancers.

For the next two hours, the leggy, willowy blond, who struts down the long catwalk leading to a small stage midway through the stadium like a high-paid model, focused mainly on glittery production numbers from her electronic-driven, multi-million-selling pop album 1989.

These were not mere retreads of the records: “I Knew You Were Trouble” started off slow and sensual, eventually building into a steamy, synth-laden number that bore little resemblance to the uptempo 1989 rendition. On “Blank Space,” she created a vocal loop with the words “Blue Jays” and sang the bridge over it.

There were a few nods to the past — a simply guitar-only accompaniment of “You Belong To Me;” a synth-driven rendition of “Love Story” — both from 2008’s Fearless, and a pair from 2012’s Red, including the catchy “We Are Never, Ever Getting Back Together.”

Otherwise, it was all 1989 and the bells and whistles you’d expect at a Taylor Swift show: the giant whirling catwalk, surreal Freudian film clips, colourful dance routines, fireworks — and this show’s special guest, Keith Urban, performing his hits “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” and “Somebody Like You,” with the hostess chiming in occasionally on vocal.

But what separates Swift from every other performer is her ability to connect with her audience outside the music. She doesn’t talk at her fans, she talks with them, and the lengthy observations about emotions she’s experienced seem to stem from sincerity, bringing people into the Pennsylvania native’s world on a level far more personal than most entertainers manage.

It’s a trait that spills into her music and it may just be Taylor Swift’s greatest talent: the world’s most relatable pop superstar.

If opening act Shawn Mendes was even the slightest bit daunted about playing in front of 45,000 people with his acoustic guitar as his only crutch, the Pickering resident didn’t show it.

Going the Ed Sheeran route seems to agree with him, as the Vine-discovered star quickly cajoled the predominantly female crowd to sing along with him on “Life Of The Party,” “Something Big” and his current radio hit, “Stitches.”

Handling himself with great poise, confidence and humility, Mendes has a long, healthy career in front of him.

 

Taylor Swift delivers flawless performance in Toronto | Toronto Star

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review

The alt-country darling had to read her lyrics from a binder, but her top-notch backing band more than filled in any gaps in her memory.

Nick Krewen

Music, Published on Fri Nov 21 2014

Lucinda Williams
3.5 stars
At Massey Hall, Nov. 20.

What on earth is going on with Lucinda Williams?

That’s the first question the good denizens of a half-filled Massey Hall were probably asking themselves on Thursday moments before the Lake Charles, La., native took to the stage, as they spotted the separate music stand with an open binder placed next to her microphone.

At first, there might have been cause for worry: the 61-year-old, three-time Grammy-winning alt-country darling ventured on stage unaccompanied with an acoustic guitar strapped around her shoulder and proceeded to strum through “Blessed,” the title track of her 2011 album, reading the lyrics to the entire song, as her three backing band members joined her one by one.

As her nearly two-hour concert continued, first with Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’s “Can’t Let Go,” and then one of her earlier numbers, “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad,” Williams continued to leaf through the binder for the lyrics to the song she was about to sing. It was a prop that might have been better tolerated if it had been solely relegated to assisting her with material from her recent 20-song effort Down Where the Spirit Meets the Bone instead of her entire 11-album catalog.

But life is a series of balances, and luckily for Williams, she had a secret weapon that pretty much nullified the distraction of the binder reliance: her band.

They were damned spectacular. In fact, if Williams continues touring with the same unit — Wallflowers guitarist Stuart Mathis and her long-time rhythm section David Sutton on bass and Butch Norton on drums — she should bill them as The Damned Spectacular, because they were nothing short of mesmerizing, elevating the Massey show to a level beyond reprieve.

Sutton and Norton are a tightly disciplined, in-the-pocket tandem that fill in so many holes with just the right notes that it makes Williams look like a certified genius for hiring them.

This was particularly noticeable on “Unsuffer Me,” where Norton slowed the song and maintained it at a restrained yet powerful enough pace — with Sutton adding intermittent notes that gave the arrangement room to breathe — to allow Mathis to cut through the air with laser-like riffs on his electric guitar.

And Mathis was no slouch either when it came to applying his own sonic paintbrush in terms of enlivening Williams’ tunes: he added great grit to “Essence,” strong pathos to “Changed the Locks” and shone with pretty much every note he played.

As for Williams, her charming Southern drawl sounded less ragged and vulnerable than on record. Her full-throated warbling on her emotionally honest, heart-wrenching songs “Changed the Locks” and “Compassion” — the song adapted from one of her father Miller Williams’ poems — was full of powerful gravitas, the icing on the cake of what ended up being a buoyant, jubilant evening of the passionate roots music jambalaya for which Williams is renowned. But the reason she was so good was unquestionably due to her blisteringly amazing band.

Also kudos to the soundman: the mix was perfect, and nicely captured the dynamic range of the music throughout the evening.

Just a final note to the headliner: Hey Lucinda, it wouldn’t kill you to spring for a TelePrompter.

Lucinda Williams gets stellar assistance at Massey Hall: review | Toronto Star