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A savvy promoter’s pipeline leads to the main stage

‘The first time I work with a promoter, it’s a shared risk on both our parts. But if that first show goes well, I know there’s potential there to go back and build it,” says singer Jill Barber, who has graduated to performing in larger venues.

Candace Meyer

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Take the subway line. How do you get to Massey Hall? Take the pipeline.

In 2011, retro chanteuse Jill Barber gave two sold-out performances at Toronto's Glenn Gould Studio (capacity: 341 seats). This spring, on May 3, she is to play the Winter Garden Theatre (992 seats). And if all goes to plan, things will eventually escalate to Massey Hall (2,753 seats).

The rise of the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter is the result of a partnership with the Corporation of Massey Hall and Roy Thomson Hall, a business that concerns itself not only with concert promotion and a pair of world-class venues, but artist development as well.

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Jesse Kumagai, director of programming at Massey and Roy Thomson, is in the business of sussing out which new artists have the promise to graduate to his venues.

He's a fixture at local clubs and festival showcases, and is in contact with agents, managers and record labels about which emerging acts are generating buzz.

Barber, who transformed herself from a folk songstress to a more sophisticated pop singer, was such an artist. "We sat down with Jill a long time ago," Kumagai says.

"We recognized that she was doing something special musically, but we asked her where she wanted to go with it, and we tried to devise the steps necessary to help her reach her aspirations," he says.

Barber wanted to headline Massey Hall. Her progression began with an opening spot on a bill with the stylish boogie-woogie pianist Michael Kaeshammer at Koerner Hall in 2009. Given her sophisticated style of pop, Kumagai determined that Barber would appeal to the same CBC-friendly audiences charmed by Kaeshammer, who himself was in the pipeline.

So, when Kaeshammer took the stage at Massey in 2010, Barber opened for him, thus exposing herself to a fan base that would likely be inclined to appreciate her particular style.

The subsequent headlining concerts by Barber at Glenn Gould Studio and the coming Winter Garden show – not to mention the placement of her distinctive warble in a ubiquitous car commercial – have the performer on her way through the big red doors on Shuter Street.

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Music presenters throughout North America, including Collective Concerts in Toronto, the Banff Centre in Alberta and Live Nation Canada nationally, have an audience-development system in place similar to Massey-Roy Thomson. Where Massey-Roy Thomson separates itself is in the hands-on involvement with the artists' careers. For example, with Barber, the plan involved the filming of one of the Glenn Gould shows. Not only was the footage used to promote the next Toronto concert in the progression, it was also shown to promoters in international markets. Kumagai and his team are interested in raising the profile of the performers they work with, beyond their own local concerns.

"The best presenters are the ones who don't look at the shows individually, but who look at a long-term trajectory," says Barber, whose latest album Chansons is a chic collection of postwar French cover songs. "The first time I work with a promoter, it's a shared risk on both our parts. But if that first show goes well, I know there's potential there to go back and build it."

Another example of the grooming system is the roots-rock duo Whitehorse. Early on, the band, its label and Massey-Roy Thomson collaborated on a set of laid-back videos, taped at the house of Whitehorse's Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. "It gave audiences a much better appreciation of what they are getting into," Kumagai says.

Later, in advance of its headlining concert at Massey earlier this year, Kumagai helped with a series of videos involving the band covering tunes by artists associated with the venue, such as Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young. The video series was titled The Road to Massey. The Whitehorse concert itself was recorded, with an MP3 file of one of the songs sent to those who bought tickets to the show, as a keepsake. "People got on board early and followed them through the progressively larger venues," Kumagai says. "By the time they got to Massey, everybody in the room felt personally invested."

With record labels downsizing, promoters are more involved in the growth of artists. It's not altruistic for Massey to give lesser-known artists equal space as established international artists in their glossy seasonal programs – it's in their best interests. "If we're not going to invest in seeing that development happen," Kumagai says, "then we'll have no right to complain about it if we've run out of artists or happy fans."

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