Smoking Out the Locals Tobacco Funded Shows Outspend Home Grown Efforts

Smoking Out the Locals Tobacco Funded Shows Outspend Home Grown Efforts
Tobacco kills — so say doctors, and so say a growing number of artists, concert promoters and club owners across Canada. What most concerns the latter three groups is not cancer, but their own livelihood, which they maintain is threatened by the encroachment of Canadian tobacco companies into the realm of concert promotion.

To understand this phenomenon, we must first return to 1998, when Health Canada amended the Tobacco Act, rewriting the legislation in order to ban tobacco company sponsorship promotions of cultural and sporting events. Phased in over the five-year period, which ended in October 2003, the amendment endangered the survival of formerly tobacco-sponsored events across the country.

No longer able to promote their sponsorship of mass-market events like Montreal's Jazz Festival, Canada's largest tobacco players devised new ways of marketing their products. For its part, Rothmans, Benson & Hedges formulated an ingenious plan, developing the Goldclub Series, a concert promotion wing that allowed the company to associate its product with cultural events without running afoul of legislation.

Given a large excess of marketing funds formerly devoted to million-dollar events like Vancouver's Symphony of Fire, RBH soon became a major player in Canadian concert promotion, most notably with its "Big DJ, Small Club" events. According to RBH's Senior Marketing Manager Roger Nault (whom I interviewed in December 2001), the corporation worked closely with local show promoters and club owners, placing advertisements for the concerts, helping to pay artist appearance fees, redecorating venues in distinctive gold tones and making its product available for purchase on-site.

Because the Act does not prohibit tobacco companies from supporting cultural events — but simply bans the promotion of such sponsorship — Goldclub Series (and Du Maurier's competing Definiti alter ego) did not contravene legislation. Viewed favourably, the arrangement between the corporations and local players offered a host of benefits, especially for concertgoers, who were given the opportunity to see big-name international DJs for low ticket prices.

But according to several promoters I've interviewed over the last three years, these corporate-sponsored events have had dire consequences on independent concert promotion. Though comments varied from person to person (none of whom was willing to go on the record), two complaints emerged as integral: 1) artists playing tobacco-backed gigs were paid fees in excess of their market value, and 2) tickets for those shows were priced at less than market value.

Because the tobacco companies could write off the sponsorship of these shows as an advertising expense — thereby reducing their taxable income — their actions wreak havoc on market conditions, causing nightmares for independent players. For those local promoters who were offered a partnership deal by the tobacco companies, the situation proved a classic dilemma. Say yes to RBH and you'd be blamed for spoiling the market. Say no and you could soon find yourself out of business.

From a consumer's standpoint, tobacco-backed gigs seemed like a guilt-free godsend. But while it might be argued that the appearance of superstar DJs helped raise the popularity of dance music in Canada, there's a counterargument that suggests that these gigs helped kill local scenes. Indeed, if a clubber had gone to see Paul Van Dyk for $15 on Friday, would he have been willing to pay $12 to see a hometown DJ on Saturday? If not, the local scene undoubtedly suffered.

Over the last year, the tobacco companies have shifted their focus away from electronic music toward hip-hop; RBH, for one, has sponsored Vancouver appearances by Kelis, Busta Rhymes and Obie Trice in the last month alone. What sort of impact (if any) will this trend have on the West Coast's indigenous rap community? That remains to be seen.

Given the full implementation of legislation as of October 2003, RBH has discontinued its Goldclub Series, a brand name that had become irrevocably linked to its parent. So while clubs hosting tobacco-backed gigs are no longer decorated wall-to-wall in gold, the company's trademark tint still bathes the print ads for these shows in its amber glow. Fittingly, cigarettes are still available for purchase on-site at these gigs, invariably offered by women wearing skimpy gold foil outfits. This seems appropriate, for in their appeal to our basest desires, the tobacco companies render us complicit in the destruction of that which we hold dear: ourselves and our music.