The music business has changed. Once a towering behemoth built of executives, lawyers, and piles of cash, today’s music industry is a more diffused. There was a time when a band’s top priority was to become signed to a major label, become famous, and proceed to roll in wealth. But if that was a golden age, it is no more. Now, artists make their livings through leg work –- playing shows whenever possible to make money. The book is being completely rewritten from the ground up, and the way artists approach music as a business is often as individual as the artists themselves.
So when Mack Johnson of Partick Artists says he works in the “music business,” I have to ask him to clarify. Ottawa-based Partick Artists is part booking agency, part artist collective. Their purpose is to help local artists with the now-essential business management side of their careers. They take care of the booking and promoting, the stuff that most artists would rather not deal with. They have a small roster of nine acts including Colleen Brown, Craig Cardiff, Karla Aldophe, and Go Long. They’re small, and that’s where they find their strength, says Johnson.
“It’s exciting to have [a big promoter],” he says. “But in the long term, if you don’t absolutely explode, you’re on your own.” Johnson explains that artists that fail to generate the kind of figures that larger booking agencies are looking for often get under-promoted. In an organization with a lot of largescale artists, smaller artists have to fight to get their needs met.
Partick Artists differentiates itself by ensuring that, whatever happens, they’ll always be focused on the artist first. “We want to grow, like any business,” he says, “but is has to be calculated so there isn’t a large disconnect between our clients and the people that serve them.” Johnson spends his days personally handling the needs of the nine artists he works for, and he feels that that personal touch is something very crucial in the music business.
Johnson is very candid about his process. He sees no reason to safeguard the stockpile of tricks he’s built up. For him, it’s much more about reputation and good customer service than it is about knowing one’s way around the system. But not everyone is as open minded. “There’s kind of an economy of secrecy in music,” he says. “Agents don’t want to tell other agents about strategies that
worked well for them.”
He explains that the internet has done so much to strip down the walls between artist and fan that putting up more barriers doesn’t make a lot of sense. “We’re all working toward the same thing,” he says. “We’re all trying to create a sustainable music ecosystem.”
In Ottawa, that means working with a plentiful, but rather limited set of music venues. “We don’t have a midsized room in Ottawa,” Johnson points out. There are plenty of smaller venues –- Raw Sugar, Café Dekcuf and Zaphod’s –- but nothing, according to Johnson, to service the 300-500 person market. That’s something he’d like to see change.