vernon_19972Last weekend I made the rounds doing promotion for my book – The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia – to radio station CFRB and the cable TV show ‘On Da Grine TV’ during what was a particularly heavy media week in Toronto. The Toronto International Film Festival was in full swing promoting upcoming Hollywood fair and its glitterati. Had I been able to afford a publicist I’m sure they would have dissuaded me from trying to promote a music book during a movie festival. But I don’t have a publicist so I sallied forth and guess what? The festival had no effect on getting me media coverage.

Valentine and VerminIn fact, the festival was the reason why I ended up doing a one-hour piece on ‘On Da Grine TV’. They were in town from Vancouver and the show’s publicist, Debbie Walker at Translucent Publicity , thought it was a perfect opportunity to talk to more than just movie stars and directors while the show was in T.O. Astute and perceptive. It’s why she’s been in the game for a long time.

When I ran Bullseye Records I hired Lisa Millar to not only run my office administration but to juggle the publicity for a dozen musical acts – usually at the same time. She came with no previous experience in promoting music but I Lisa Moe New Yorkbrought her on board because she spent many years in the Prime Minister’s Office in Ottawa during Brian Mulroney’s tenure. Her methodical approach to scheduling and attention to media habits, as well as being personable with both the artists and the media gurus, put our acts in newspapers, magazines and on radio and television. The artists, some of whom had been out of the spotlight for up to 30 years, got a shot of instant recognition. The label’s brand skyrocketed. Suddenly we were competing with other major independent labels in the country and the artists were viable again. It was tireless work – and usually thankless. If I never said it before I’m saying it now. All our successes were hers. I might have been the face of the label and plotted the direction by juggling the projects and the money but Lisa was the engine. She ran Bullseye.

Every new CD and every live appearance was planned with military precision. Lisa’s itineraries for the artists looked like the war-room strategies for a Normandy Invasion. Occasionally she’d co-ordinate with the artists’ own publicist like Suzanne Little (ex-Lava Hay) who not only ran publicity for Randy Bachman but her husband Tom Hooper (Grapes of Wrath) – both of whom had product out on our label. It was tag-team Lisa_Dave_Gordiemedia blitzing. And in a country the size of Canada, it takes that extra special oomph and teamwork to get the word out. Lisa’s hard work and personable approach landed her a job managing Dave Rave (The Shakers, Teenage Head) following the campaign she executed on his album ‘Everyday Magic’. She still works his material and his promotions to this day.

The intriguing part to all this was that Lisa took a meat and potatoes approach to everything. Lots of personal interaction with the media and no bullshit stunting. The only time she failed to get traction with an Elvisartist was if there was scheduling conflicts or, in the case of radio promotion, the material didn’t excite the music directors. Otherwise, it was Old School networking and glad-handing to get our acts the attention we all felt they deserved. We never had to resort to strapping a lead singer into a Gold Lamė suit and having them parachute into a supermarket parking lot to get anyone to pay attention. Those days and people like Lisa are few and far between.

The stakes are so much higher in the social media obsessed world we currently occupy. A promotion and publicity campaign that we would Amanda Byneshave run for 6 months once upon a time now has a shelf-life of about 72 hours…if you’re really lucky. Grabbing both the media’s and public’s attention is getting harder and harder when millions of eyes are not necessarily focused on the same interests, internet sites or radio and television channels. The 24-hour news cycle has aided in keeping certain balloons floating (calling Amanda Bynes, are you still there?) – but are just as easily responsible for burying an artist’s best efforts in favour of some other bit of scandalous pulp.

Hannah MontanaThe makers of Miley Cyrus clearly know this all too well. She took everyone by surprise earlier in June with the advance single, “We Can’t Stop”  from her upcoming album Bangerz (due October 4). The video featured a shorn Cyrus in a tight body suit writhing around on a bed and dancing with friends among other superficial activities. The plot to kill her Disney alter-ego Hannah Montana was clearly in play. As a result the video has racked up 192 million views on Vevo/YouTube.

But releasing a single five months ahead of a fall album is a hell of a lot of empty lead up time. Anticipation, and interest, in Cyrus’ next move Bieberwaned within weeks as there was Justin Bieber’s own personal trainwreck to distract everyone: Urinating in buckets; disgracing the Anne Frank Museum; abandoning a pet monkey in Europe; naked selfies; reconciliation with girlfriend Selena Gomez; speeding through gated communities; spitting on fans in Toronto; border drug busts; and evictions from nightclubs and restaurants.

TwerkHow can a Miley compete with that? By dry humping chart topping white-rapper Robin Thicke at the VMA’s on live television. The performance was juvenile, it was badly off key and her awkward pole dancing introduced the word twerk (Check it Out) to our lexicon faster than you could tweet “skank”. The media and the public were divided. Miley smiled and waved. Hannah Montana was now mortally wounded.

The publicity stunt became the topic du jour and, as we found out this week, was a lead up to the master plan. A new video/single called “Wrecking Ball”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=My2FRPA3Gf8  In it Miley2Cyrus puts a gun to the head of Hannah Montana and destroys her once and for all by literally riding a wrecking ball – stark naked. The metaphor is obvious. Cyrus has left the Disney cocoon pod and emerged a nubile, tattooed Mothra. How this plays out through album sales will be the scorecard by which we’ll see how well all this stunting has worked. The impact on her brand will be determined once the dust clears. [Vogue magazine has already cancelled a cover feature that was planned for December].

BarnumBut Miley Cyrus didn’t invent controversy – despite what the current generation might think. P.T. Barnum made a career out of it…by exploiting the unfortunate people he put on display in his travelling sideshow circus and the sheeple who paid him money to see them. The music business has been running this scam for nearly 70 years – usually on the backs of greedy managers and unscrupulous promoters and publicists. Miley is merely the latest to give publicity a new face and a name every 15 minutes:

JERRY LEE LEWIS – The Child Bride
Great Balls Of Fire‘The Killer’ was the celebrated Rock and Roll piano player from the deep south who had us dancing to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless”.  He also married his first wife at age 14, his second wife when he was 17 and at the age of 22 decided to get married a third time to Myra Gale Brown. Problem was…Lewis was still married to wife #2. To make matter worse, Myra was 13. And to up the “ewww” factor she was also his 1st cousin, once removed. The truth of this alliance was unveiled during a press conference for Lewis’ first tour of the UK in 1958. The news hit British newspapers the next morning. Lewis’ debut that night found him playing to a half-full venue with most of the audience in attendance showing up to cat-call and boo him. British parliament quickly made an issue of Lewis’ status as cradle robber and bigamist. Adding fuel to the fire was Lewis’ assertion that he was not a bigamist because he was still married to wife #1 when he married wife #2 – making the second marriage null and void – and with his first marriage officially, legally over, his marriage to Myra was good. Lewis clearly wasn’t the brightest bulb from Mississippi. With the London police visiting his hotel room to question the bride and groom, the hotel had no choice but to evict the Lewis’ to avoid a rush from the press on the hotel’s lobby. The tour was cancelled after only three dates. Lewis returned to the U.S. disgraced with American DJs vowing to ban all his records on radio.

The $10,000-per-night rock star was soon playing dingy clubs for $100 a night and his career never fully recovered. Myra divorced him in 1970, wrote the book ‘Great Balls of Fire’ which was turned it into a box office hit in 1989 starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder. [Lewis married four more times after Myra]

JOHN LENNON – “More Popular Than Jesus”
Jesus and JohnIn what would become a lifetime of outspoken controversy for Lennon, the first of many media firestorms surrounding the Beatle began innocently enough with his comment about his disappointment in the decline of Christianity noting that Jesus was no longer on the minds of the world and that The Beatles – a secular, disposable entity, as an example – had now become more popular http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lCBROPT_HSM. Lennon had given an interview with reporter Maureen Cleave in March 1966. The London Evening Standard first published this interview alongside profiles of the other three Beatles with zero reaction in the UK. But, when the quote was reprinted in Datebook five months later – during the band’s American tour that summer, all hell broke loose. Beatle fans cared less and continued to attend most of their concerts (with the exception of the first of two shows in Memphis which was only half full). But the Christian right boycotted shows and organized official “Beatle Record Burnings”. Radio stations began taking the group’s music off the air. Ironically, sales of the newest double A-sided single, “Eleanor Rigby”/”Yellow Submarine”, skyrocketed and ended up selling a million copies in only a few weeks. The pressure from the media scrums and Lennon’s defense of the quote – plus his bashing US Foreign Policy in relation to Viet Nam – dogged them until their final show at Candlestick Park on August 29, 1966 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FCsb3pR6tbw. The band never played live again until their impromptu 5-song rooftop performance for the film ‘Let It Be’ in January 1969.

THE SEX PISTOLS – Anarchy In the UK
Filth And FuryFetish leather shop owner Malcolm McLaren fancied himself an auteur. When the members of punk band the Sex Pistols began circling the orbit of his fashionistas he knew it was time to capitalize on the growing subculture of civil disobedience and fashion. Add punk music to the mix and he had a recipe for turning the British media into his personal slaves. Part media circus, part musical deconstruction, part spit-take, the Sex Pistols were a short-lived train wreck on every front. They offended the ears. They offended British sensibility. They offended their record label. Soon it became a game of “what will the Pistols do to piss off the world today”. British TV host Bill Grundy decided to call the Pistols’ bluff on a December 1976 airing of Thames Television’s ‘Today’ show where he taunted the band into saying something outrageous after singer Johnny Rotten mumbled the word “shit” under his breath. The full response from guitarist Steve Jones – who observed Grundy hitting on Pistols entourage guest Siouxsie Sioux – was “You dirty bastard. You dirty fucker.”

Grundy was suspended for two weeks and the show cancelled all together a few months later. The Pistols, of course, would go on to be banned by BBC radio for songs like “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy In the UK” eventually imploding during a tour of the southern USA where their music and attire was met with understandable disdain.

MADONNA – Sex & Crucifixation
madonna crossRight out of the gate Madonna hit the ground running as the naughty 20-something who was yet to emasculate the music industry with Woman Power. It started as a tease with “Like a Virgin” – the hit single, video and album – and culminated in her wearing a lingerie-cut wedding dress gyrating on top of a giant wedding cake at the 1985 MTV Music Awards [take THAT, Miley Cyrus]. Her fourth album, Like A Prayer, introduced a more overt mix of sex and religion – including a video of her singing in lingerie while crosses burned behind her. Not satisfied with just pissing off Christians, Madonna decided to tackle sex and sexual empowerment directly with a table top book called ‘Sex’ – which was nearly banned by many mainstream book stores for Madonna’s portfolio of simulated sex acts with Naomi Campbell, Big Daddy Kane and Vanilla Ice. Madonna continues to court controversy and in recent years has taken heat for showing images of French political leader Marine Le Pen with a swastika stuck to her forehead, a full-sized crucifix (with Madonna nailed to it) and brandishing guns on stage during a performance in Scotland. Add to that her faux lesbian kisses with both Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on yet another MTV awards show in 2003 [take that AGAIN, Miley!] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MAy-NtCQCB8 and the Material Girl/Mom stands alone as the Queen of pop diva deviance.


Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “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 17 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 or http://www.bullseyecanada.com

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