Stephen Fearing and Geoff Kirbyson talk music
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So, you want to be a rock ’n’ roll star?

If you major in music, your minor better be in business

In the old days, musicians would play their encore, wave to the crowd and retire to their dressing rooms for a well-deserved drink.

Today, they hand their guitars to a roadie as the curtain comes down, towel off and sprint to the front of the house to help sell “merch.”

Welcome to a career in music 2022.

As the retailing of music has evolved from compact discs to streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music, artists and their managers have redoubled their efforts to get as many butts in as many chairs as possible at their shows. 

“Streaming pays 0.004 cents per stream,” Stephen Fearing, guitarist and vocalist with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings said after a show at the Burton Cummings Theatre in November.

“Do the math. If you want to sell a CD at a gig for $20, which is standard, that’s 5,000 streams. There’s no money (in selling the music). The only way to make a living is live.”

When the country was largely in lockdown, Fearing found work when people started hosting outdoor concerts in their backyards. There might be 50 people in one backyard but if they coordinated with a neighbour, there could be 100 people between the two properties.

“At $35 each, okay we’re making money now,” Fearing says, noting he’ll also host song writing workshops when he’s on the road.

Since the pandemic began, many of the costs of touring musicians have risen dramatically—rental cars, gas, hotels and flights.

“The last thing we want to do is charge more money for tickets because we’ve got an audience that is still kind of hesitant to go out and they’re faced with a glut of musicians (on the road). It’s a buyers’ market,” he says.

Brett Fitz, Toque

Brent Fitz, a Winnipeg-born “Swiss Army knife” of a musician who has travelled the world with several high-profile artists over the last 30 years, says he’s okay with fans downloading songs for free. Pretty much everything else, though, has a price tag.

“The music is the calling card,” he says.

“When I’m sitting at home on my couch relaxing with my family in Las Vegas, I’m not making money. I’m away from the money opportunities. I have to leave my house and travel. I don’t have a job in Vegas, my gig is global. When I’m on the road, It’s not a vacation. I’m there to work,” he says.

Fitz, who plays bass and keyboards in Canadian rock band Toque, says he has learned much about the music business from some of the giants he has played with—usually on the drums—including Gene Simmons of KISS, Slash from Guns N’ Roses, Vince Neil from Motley Crue and Alice Cooper. 

“They all have big successful careers and lots of money to show for it. As a Winnipegger, I kept my mouth shut and paid attention,” he says, noting Toque plays a mixture of their own music and classic Canadian songs by bands such as Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Rush, Streetheart and the Queen City Kids.

And while merchandise is an important element—Toque, naturally, sells toques, as well as hockey jerseys—a more recent money maker is meet-and-greets with the band.

“They’re for people who want that extra, personalized experienced, by getting to meet the band and get the photo. Some people don’t have to have that interaction with fans, but we do. We love people. It’s a good revenue stream, too,” he says.

The good news for artists out of Winnipeg is music fans have been quick to get off their wallets of late, filling the Canada Life Centre for many concerts recently, including The Offspring and Bryan Adams, while Blue Rodeo played a pair of sold-out shows at The Burt.

Toque’s manager, Lyle Chausse, says every extra revenue source flows from strong shows that are “entertaining as hell.” They’re always on the lookout for new and innovative ways to get their message out, too. For example, the band recently launched their own video podcast talk show called “Toque Talk Tuesday,” on which they’ve had artists ranging from Jann Arden to Loverboy to chat about their careers.

“It became another unintentional marketing piece. It helped people understand what the band was all about, and it created more demand for people to see them,” he says.

“Once you have something that people desire, they’ll spend money to have an exceptional product. If they’re a big enough fan and you’re a good enough artist, they’ll pretty much give you their whole wallet.”


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