Ears open

Elling Lien chats with this year’s winner of MusicNL’s Industry Professional of the Year, Tony Murray.

What’s your job title? What do you even call what you do?

I have a seven-year-old son and he doesn’t know either.

If I had business cards, I’d have three: one would be Manager of The Ship Pub. The other on would be Manager of The Rock House and in both of those roles my primary responsibility is to put good live entertainment on the stages. As you’d understand, you need different kinds of live entertainment for George Street and The Ship. The third business card would say Tony Murray—Show Producer, for when MusicNL or CBC Television hire me to do things. That stuff is similar, but on a much larger and complicated scale. My little boy, he knows I work at The Ship and he knows I work at The Rock House and he knows I’m a producer because sometimes he tags along to the Arts & Culture Centre or Mile One with me. But the poor kid has got to be confused.

So the Industry Professional of the Year—is this your first award like this?

Yes. The short answer is yes. You know, I’ve gotten a lot of nice letters and things like that over the years, but no, I was never nominated or had won an award before.

It’s very nice, but it’s a little odd because you choose the kind of line of work I’m in. It’s the kind of work where you enjoy being the person who nobody sees. You enjoy being out of the spotlight. So it’s a little uncomfortable to be in it.

Really—and I can’t speak for other people who produce shows—but really, I never wanted to be on stage. I’m not a frustrated singer/songwriter/guitar player.

You’re not?

I play a little guitar, but really badly. I played for my wife one time and I said “what do you think?” I tried to play three different songs and she said, “I don’t know what any of those are.”

I’m a huge fan of live music, a huge fan of original music, and of musicians. I got exposed to it years ago and I’ve worked in different areas of it, but there is a certain creative part of putting a show together that I find enjoyable. That’s my little creative side, I guess.

What’s creative about it?

It depends on the type of show.

I’ve done some pretty wacky things—from motocross and BMX, to Irish dancing shows, to full-on rock shows. For things like the Music NL Awards, or the Janeway Telethon, you try to put yourself in the audience’s shoes. As if you’re sitting there. Try to open the show with something strong, and obviously try to finish strongly. Try to have dynamics, different changes of pace where there are lovely sweet moments and awesome wide-eyed moments. Something that takes people on a journey.

I get a kick out of putting things together like that then watching it. It usually works, I find.

I know what makes people happy. You wouldn’t put three bands playing love songs back-to back-to back, because as beautiful as it might be, everyone is going to go to sleep.

You have to think of the old show business saying: “I laughed, I cried, I peed my pants.”

Organizing things like that is my creative outlet. Even with band shows, just trying to figure out what band people would enjoy after another band. Sometimes you take a band that’s similar to the headlining band, and other times you go all wacky-crazy and say “wow, wouldn’t it be fun if these people got exposed to these people?”

Sometimes it works out and sometimes it’s a little dangerous.

How did you get started?

I got started in the mid-to-late 80s. Like most things in my life I fell ass backwards into it. I ended up doing some really shitty jobs for a guy named Donald K. Donald. Donald K. Donald and CPI were the big promoters across Canada. Every show that happened at the old stadium, they brought it in. I was working as everything from a cook’s assistant to putting stuff in the dressing room for Tina Turner to going to get beer for Supertramp to running around handing out tickets so that the roadies got laid and everybody was happy.

I did keep my ears open, and I did learn a little bit about it. Then some years after, on a smaller level, I just started doing my own shows. It built from there.

There were times when I was probably more of a promoter but it’s not the life I enjoy the most. It depends on the band. I like the stuff around Atlantic Canada. Good friends like Matt Mays, or The Trews or Sam Roberts who are nice to work with and come here to do good shows.

I’ve done the Mile One thing a few times, and some of the bigger stadiums, and it’s a pretty risky business. You want to be pretty well-heeled, as my dad used to say, to be at that. But I do enjoy working with musicians to put the shows together.

Where do you think the music industry is headed in Newfoundland?

It seems like we’re in better shape every year. Our diversity is amazing these days. You just have to look back to the MusicNL weekend: strong players and groups and artists in traditional sectors and in the rock and roll sectors and in country… Strong female singers, songwriters, and rockers… And bands like The Kremlin, taking it from another area again, being an alternative.

I think our artists are becoming more educated on how to be professionals. I think they’re learning through groups like MusicNL and the East Coast Music Association how to export themselves and their product. In other words, “I want to live here, but I want to succeed, so I need to know how to get my music to other areas and how to tour to other areas but still base my talent out of here.”

It seems like some of these people are quite young but they’ve learned how to educate themselves. The training has been out there and I guess things like the internet make it easier as well.

These artists are also looking at how to survive in an age when record sales are really down—it’s no secret that since the sharing of music over the internet, traditional record companies and record stores don’t enjoy the same level of sales they did before. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad scene out there for artists. Artists are using that same tool to promote themselves and get their music out there.

I think we’re as healthy as we’ve ever been. I can also say from someone who books a bar like The Ship, where a lot of young bands get their first start, I get sixty or seventy e-mails a week. Everyone is out there starting a band—and that’s good. That means we’re going to be fine.

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