JAIMIE VERNON: DO THE FAN DANGLE-O

vernon_1997On Wednesday March 6th Canadian music legend Stompin’ Tom Connors passed away peacefully at the age of 77 from natural causes. Tom was a folk & country fixture around Canada for nearly six decades. He might very well be the last of the Canadian troubadours following in the footsteps of Wilf Carter (aka Montana Slim), Hank Snow, and the Canadian Sweethearts: Bob Regan and Lucille Starr. Connors walked amongst the rarified air of Canadian country Gods. He was a fixture at the legendary Horseshoe 886997_10151485021689344_255708114_oTavern during its inception where his rousing songs and foot stomping put a hole in the stage – which the venue wanted him to pay for. On subsequent visits he resorted to stomping on a piece of wood to save the stage further injury – and Tom Connors became Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Stompin Tom_JUNOHe was hard as nails – drinking Molson Export beer in stubbies and smoking cigarettes by the pack full – and didn’t suffer fools gladly. His love for Canada was reflected in his songs about the people (“Margo’s Cargo”, “Bud the Spud”), the places (“Sudbury Saturday Night”, “Tillsonburg”), the history (“Algoma Central 69”) and the pastimes (“The Hockey Song”). He was recognized early on as a pioneer and earned 6 JUNOTM Awards [Canada’s Grammy Award] for his unifying voice of Canadiana. But he felt the JUNOs betrayed Canada over time by awarding trophies to artists that had left here to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. To Connors, his JUNOTM Awards no longer had meaning – and he returned them to the governing body, CARAS, with a letter of protest. Connors then left the music business for 25 years vowing never to return.

MacMillan TomBut something happened in the middle of his self-exile. The fans remembered. And the fans wanted him back – specifically singer/songwriter/journalist Dave Bidini. With fellow Rheostatics band mate Tim Vesely in tow, the two tracked Connors down to a small town community centre and crashed the foot stomper’s  50th birthday party. Reluctantly, Connors agreed to do an interview. Following a newspaper article written by Bidini the public reaction was powerful enough to cause Connors to hang up his fishing cap, dust off his iconic black cowboy hat and record a new album. Having been the proverbial DIY independent artist on his own Boot Records for years, suddenly he was courted by Capitol-EMI (later EMI Music) to release his new material. Eventually Connors signed on with one proviso – the label had to re-issue ALL of his back catalog. Every album. Nearly three dozen! In a very bold move, label president Deane Cameron said yes. EMI’s David MacMillan would foster Connor’s ongoing output and like everyone that fell within the Connors circle of influence – became a fast friend.

Because that was Stompin’ Tom’s credo. It wasn’t just about music. It was about Canada. It was about Canadians. He loved Canadians. Tom did what he did because he loved them…every single one that he met – in bars and truck stops and coffee shops and fish markets. And it’s why he never left Canada to perform. Why should he go anywhere else when his fans were Grohlhere? Or so he always believed.

Turns out the world was filled with Stompin’ Tom fans. Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters) and Jack White (The White Stripes) among them. It seems incongruent that a man who sang about dairy farmers and streetcars and eating French fries made of homegrown potatoes would have a fan in two American alternative rockers. But that’s the thing about fans – they love what they love. And they are legion.

Stalker FansMake no mistake about it. Without music fans there would be no artists. No music scene – live or recorded – and there would be no record labels. The funniest part of this equation is that no one seems to comprehend this. The fans are considered manic, stalkerish and spoken down to if not downright reviled.

The labels view them as nothing but gullible and sheeplike lemmings – purchasing whatever unthinkable piece of crap the promotions, marketing RoncoRecordVacuumand A & R departments can conceive. To an extent they are right. The industry of selling music to the masses is no different than selling widgets, shoes or big screen TV’s. It’s about the units. It’s about quantities. And amongst the bottom line and accounting spreadsheets is a musician or band slowly dying an artistic death – and the fans having to rationalize why the latest output by their favourite act was tantamount to anal leakage.

accountantOne long-standing hair metal act in Canada had signed a ten year deal with a major label in the early 1990’s – only minutes before grunge destroyed the ability for people to sing on key forever.  When hair metal went out of fashion (about a week after the band was signed) the label’s A & R and promo teams attempted to dump the band because they just weren’t perceived as being hip with the ‘kids’. The accounting department, however, pointed out that the band was consistently selling gold records and recouping their advances on each and every release.

Rubber-Aka-Harem-Scarem-Ultra-FeelThe label reps were livid. Their reputation as purveyors of ‘The Next Big Thing’ was in jeopardy. They needed the band off the label but they had two more years on their deal. They cozied up to the group about how hair metal was no longer in fashion and that maybe a style change might help them reach the next level in album sales. The group was game to reach a broader audience and obliged. They became a power pop act overnight even going so far as changing their name. The label gleefully rubbed their evil hands together, twirled their handlebar mustaches and petted a hairless cat in anticipation of the band’s demise. The fans, surely, would abandon them because the band had abandoned their patented music style. Alas, the band had its first and only Top10 hit single – bringing a new fanbase to the group and making the accountants very happy. The label reps were apoplectic – they wanted this band destroyed. With only one album left in their deal, the group turned in another stellar power pop effort. The label decided to end the relationship once and for all – and deleted the album on the day of its release – citing ‘budget cuts’ as its reason.

HaremScaremThe group didn’t care. They were out of their deal and returned to their hundred thousands strong fanbase in Europe and Japan doing what they’d always done – playing hair metal…the only thing that was different was the hair itself. They’ve since released another dozen albums – all independently, all selling in the tens of thousands. Not bad for a band playing an archaic style in a bad economy.

That band? Harem Scarem from Oshawa, Ontario.

The music industry has forever under-estimated the fanbase. Patting their heads. Treating fans like an unsightly rash. Musicians, the good ones who are Goddoself-aware, know that fans are their lifeblood. For three decades Goddo’s Greg Godovitz has taken time after every performance to go out and meet the fans, sign autographs and listen to the countless stories about people who had seen them when the were but high school seniors. How the band had risen through the clubs and eventually to headlining arenas. And those fans were there every alcohol fuelled, barroom brawl, blow jobs in the Green Room step of the way. In his book ‘Travels With My Amp’ Godovitz re-iterates that without the fans there could be no Goddo.

xKlaatuSimilarly, Canadian cult Prog-Pop act Klaatu – whose 15 minutes of fame came and went in the Spring of 1977 after being named The Beatles Reunited – managed four more albums. Despite being a studio act forced to perform live to promote their final release, the fans came. They filled the concert halls and the arenas. The band would then take on a club tour – and the fans still came. Though it all ended in 1982 – both the albums and the band – they continued to receive fan letters for years. People looking for another bite, a rare track, or even first contact. With a re-issue program in place starting in 2001, the band’s label (my own Bullseye Records) did the unthinkable for a record label. I personally sent letters to every single person that had ever sent them a fan letter. Several hundred in fact. Of that, I heard back from nearly 80% of the people [apparently, it’s true…in 30 years most people had not moved much further than their original hometown…with Moms & Dads still occupying those original mailing addresses].

Klaatu_tributeOn the internet front, Über-Fan David Bradley was running an official band website and an online mailing list. Together with a third fan, Mark Hershberger (he of Pop Detective Records), wrangled new interviews from the band members and peripheral people in their looming legend. Hundreds of otherwise unknown cult reservists signed up. It created a community unto itself which was dubbed KAAS (The Klaatu Audiophile Appreciation Society). We released a fan-based tribute album which the band members approved of and was later expanded as a commercial release after finding out that an entire American pop music community was filled with closet Klaatu fans amongst its existing bands.

klaatu 2Eventually, two of three band members experienced solo success as the fans embraced everything they released. A Klaatu boxed set was released along with a rarities filled vinyl LP. A fan convention, run by my lovely wife, was held at a Toronto hotel in 2005 and more than 100 fans flew in from Europe and the US to attend – where the band reunited for a six song set, signed autographs and posed for pictures. The band was finally able to repay the fans for their 30 years of loyalty and retired knowing they’d did it for the passion…not the money.

It’s this devotion, this community of like-minded people that has driven similar conventions for The Beatles, The Bay City Rollers (nearly annually for the past 20 years) and has always driven jam bands such as The Grateful Dead, Phish and The Dave Matthews Band to sold out shows.

Beatle-FansIt’s only been in recent years that the labels have attempted to stake out a piece of this fan action – well, only via live performances – because they’re having a hard time convincing true fans that that greatest hits package with one NEW song on it is a necessary addition to a fan who probably owns every out-take and live bootleg the artist has floating around in the public domain. The fans desire more material – quality being of relative interest – and more access to the artists with less meddling and time-table shuffling from a biz that has yet to comprehend that a leaked release is better than no release. A new non-album single every 6 weeks until the next album is released (known previously as ‘The Beatles Success Plan’) is how you keep the fans happy.

BeiberOh, wait…the industry KILLED the single and, instead, introduced fans to the remix album. A shit-u-copia of useless stripped down, turned around, random blender iterations of music that has little if no recognizable relationship to the source material. Sadly, Justin Bieber has been pabulum feeding his Beliebers this crap for four years. He’s recorded three original albums in that time – and there are seven albums in his discography because of these pustules of aural prestidigitation. Now you hear it! Now you don’t!

But you can’t fool the fans for long. They are armed with social media. And they will destroy you in an effort to protect their musical loves. Just ask Lady children-of-the-damned-the-childrenGaga’s Little Monsters who, following LG’s media feud with Madonna, turned against the former Virgin Queen by declaring that she was personally responsible for spreading promiscuity – and by default – AIDS throughout the 1980s. That’s creepy in a ‘Children of The Damned’ kinda way. [TRIVIA TIME: MuchMusic VJ Kim Clarke-Champniss was the star of this flick as a child]BonJovijpg

Still, there are artists who do not treat their fans well at all. From corporately inflated ticket prices that include backstage access that allows you to dry hump Jon Bon Jovi’s microphone stand while never getting to actually meet him to The Who’s Pete Townshend telling a father to fuck off for bringing his 7 year-old daughter to a concert.

An artist should be sidling up to each and every smiling face that shows his/her appreciation for what you do. They are your first and last line of defense when your label, your manager, your promoter and your wife fucks lounge_singeryou over for everything you have. Y’see, the fans don’t want your money…they want you. The person. The artist. Maybe even your music if you’ve got a grain of talent. And when you’re playing that Holiday Inn lounge in your late ‘50s…they’ll be there, cheering you on. Buying you drinks and allowing you to cry on a shoulder wondering where it all went wrong.

Build that fan page. Tweet daily. Post new songs. Stay away from politics, religion and anything that will be divisive to those who love what you do. Play every God forsaken bar and lounge and community hall from sea-to-sea-to-sea and maybe one day you too shall be given a fond farewell like Stompin’ Tom. ‘Cause it isn’t what you take with you when you go. It’s what you leave behind. And Stompin’ Tom has left his fans with gold.

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.
Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 35 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 of those years. He is also the author of the Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ both of which are available at Amazon.com

4 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON: DO THE FAN DANGLE-O”

  1. Well done, Jamie! and so very true. Cheers!

  2. […] fun. And if you want a different perspective to this from Industry’s point of view… HERE’S a great article to read (skip down to about the middle of […]

  3. […] fun. And if you want a different perspective to this from Industry’s point of view… HERE’S a great article to read (skip down to about the middle of […]

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