It's going to be one of the biggest single paydays in Canadian music history. And it's all thanks to the SARS outbreak that's been preying on the minds and some of the bodies of Torontonians for the last three months.
It is the June 21 Concert for Toronto, sometimes called "Stars for SARS" after Ontario Premier Ernie Eves agreed to bankroll the event to the happy tune of more than $5-million as part of the province's two-year, $128-million SARS Assistance and Recovery Strategy. For that layout of tax dollars, 70,000-plus music lovers get to see 11 Canadian musical performers -- six at Toronto's SkyDome, five at the nearby Air Canada Centre -- appear simultaneously over a six-hour span.
Each venue is to be linked by closed-circuit television to permit non-stop entertainment (so that after an act ends its set at SkyDome, the crowd there can catch an act performing over at ACC, and vice-versa).
It's a pricey exercise in feel-good, not least because to entice top-drawer performers, maximize attendance and generate quick sales, the show's promoter, Clear Channel Entertainment, and Ontario's Ministry of Tourism and Recreation agreed the $5-million should be used to keep ticket prices low, at $29.50 and $19.50, instead of the $50 to $80 they might command.
Many of the 11 artists -- Avril Lavigne, the Tragically Hip, Barenaked Ladies and Sarah McLachlan, among them -- are at the peak of their popularity. In fact, according to industry insiders, several of them stand to gross between $500,000 and $600,000 each June 21 for individual performances that will last, at most, no more than 60 minutes.
No portion of the ticket price is earmarked for SARS relief, nor are the acts under any contractual obligation to donate part of their proceeds to SARS-affected agencies or institutions -- although it's anticipated some will do so voluntarily. All the Toronto 11, in fact -- from rising rappers Swollen Members, who will open the SkyDome performances with a 30-minute set at 3:30 p.m., to the Grammy-winning jazz chanteuse (and future Mrs. Elvis Costello) Diana Krall, appearing at ACC just before show-closer Sarah McLachlan -- are represented by just one booking agency, Vancouver-based S. L. Feldman and Associates.
In fact, Feldman's firm also manages Krall's career as well as that of fellow Concert for Toronto participants the Tragically Hip. With these two acts, the Feldman company scores a double payday June 21 since it will receive both the booking and the management slices of the artists' performance fees. It also will be a good day for another Vancouverite, Nettwerk Records founder Terry McBride, as he manages five members of the Toronto 11 (McLachlan, the Ladies, Lavigne, Swollen Members and Sum 41).
One shouldn't necessarily think there's any skulduggery in this. Shane Bourbonnais, senior vice-president of Clear Channel, said this week "it's just sheer coincidence" that all 11 performers are from just one source. S. L. Feldman is a multipurpose operation, the largest of its kind in Canada and one of the biggest in the world; any event like Concert for Toronto would be drawing on its talent pool for some, maybe even most of its acts, he said.
Not surprisingly, Feldman and Associates honcho Sam Feldman concurs. "We provided the expediency needed to pull this thing off," he said this week. "It kinda made the most sense." There really wasn't the time to say, " 'Well, let's be really Canadian and make sure that this thing gets spread out among various players.' With us, you get to fulfill the mandate, keep it simple, fast and uncomplicated."
Bourbonnais said Clear Channel did approach other booking agents in the frantic weeks leading up to the May 28 announcement of the Concert for Toronto roster. Jack Ross, one of the partners in The Agency Group, said Clear Channel queried his company on the availability of four or five acts, most notably hotter-than-hot Montrealer Sam Roberts and Grammy-nominated rockers Nickelback. However, Roberts was already signed to play Rochester, N.Y., on the 21st, while Nickelback had booked studio time that day to work on a new CD and is contracted to play a big event in London, Ont., on Aug. 16 that carried a "radius clause." (A radius clause stipulates that an act can't play another date within a certain time period and geographical radius of the contracted venue.)
In the meantime, Paquin Entertainment principal Julien Paquin says he's "not insulted" that Clear Channel didn't phone him about any of his acts. "I would have liked to have gotten a call," he remarked this week, in part because he thinks Paquin has "some very appropriate acts for an event like that," certainly acts equal in appeal to, say, Swollen Members and Jann Arden. "But the idea behind it seemed to be to get as many available high-profile Canadian acts as were known around the world for whatever cost."
Both Paquin and Ross, along with House of Blues president Rob Bennett, said Feldman and Associates needs to be careful about "the optics" of Concert for Toronto and the way it's positioned with respect to the SARS outbreak. "At first, it looks bad, the largest agency getting all the business," Ross observed. "But they're very political guys, very connected. They're well aware of the politics of this and how it might look to some. I have to believe they're not just going to make a cash grab, that before or after the concert" there's going to be some announcement about a contribution to SARS relief.
Bourbonnais and Feldman aren't so sure. "Some of the artists are doing their own thing about the SARS thing, certainly," said Bourbonnais. "[But]I don't think there'll be a big collective announcement."
"Support for a good cause -- that's a very individual thing," says Feldman. "Every one of these artists at various times . . . has donated time and money and efforts and spirit to worthwhile benefits. You can't believe how many requests we get -- and every one of them is valid." But clearly the artist has to pick and choose how to respond. "Sometimes you do it by donating your time, sometimes you donate your money, sometimes it's your talent."
Feldman noted that his acts are making "unseen sacrifices" for Concert for Toronto. For instance, they've agreed to appear in a commercial without charge and to donate songs, without a licencing fee, to a compilation CD that will be produced for commercial release after the concert. Moreover, none of the acts is selling any normal concert paraphernalia (T-shirts, posters, programs) at ACC and SkyDome -- a loss of "a powerful revenue stream," said Feldman. (The primary merchandiser at Concert for Toronto will be Roots Canada. It says a portion [unspecified]of the revenue from sales of its themed T-shirts and other clothing will go to assist frontline SARS health workers.)
Besides, Concert for Toronto isn't a benefit; it never was conceived as a way to directly combat SARS or aid SARS victims and families or support caregivers, Feldman added. The aim always was to "flood the downtown core with a lot of people" who will be visiting restaurants, staying in hotels, leaving tips for service workers, spending money in stores and at hot-dog stands, and taking taxis and buses.
Precisely, said Gordon Pisco, a spokesman with the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation. "We're paying the artists, that's it. Some have expressed an interest in doing something directly for SARS, but there's no stipulation in the contract. That's their own choice."