SPARC Interviews…Mark Oliver, Tamworth Erinsville Community Development Committee Concert Series

Earlier this year, Mark Oliver posted some information in the SPARC Members’ Facebook group about the Tamworth Erinsville Community Development Committee Concert Series. SPARC staff wanted to learn more (and share more!) about this initiative, so Rebecca connected with Mark and they chatted about the roots of the concert series, how it operates today, some of the organizational challenges associated with the series and the positive impact it has had on the community.

You mentioned that you do not have a background in the arts. How did you become engaged with the arts community in Tamworth?

I’ve always been interested in music – through high-school and University, and I’ve owned a restaurant and a bar that hosted musicians – I’ve always dabbled around in that kind of stuff. I began running the concert series because of my involvement with the Tamworth Erinsville Community Development Committee (TECDC).

Back around 2005, like many small towns, our community was feeling the impact of big box stores, so a group of active volunteers started the TECDC. We received a RED (Rural Economic Development) grant through OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs), and to publicly announce that we had received this grant, we decided to hold a concert in the community. We brought in The Good Brothers, and the concert was received very positively in the community. The RED grant was focused on things like physical improvements – parks and gardens – which we needed in our community, but we also started to realize that the arts were as important to community vitality as any of those other things. So, we revisited our mission statement and we included a clause that said we were going to do what we could to support the performing arts.

I’ve been the chair of that community volunteer group since its inception in 2007, so I guess my role would be ‘local arts community supporter’!

Other than the success of that initial concert to announce the grant, were there other reasons why your committee felt a concert series would be a good fit for the community?

We seemed to go with the concert series for a few main reasons:

  1. It was something that I could do- that I had the skills to orchestrate. We have a small group of volunteers, so the project needed to be manageable.
  2. It was something we could accommodate. We use the Legion hall, which seats 120 people. It doesn’t have facilities that lend themselves to full theatrical productions – it’s really ideal for this sort of thing.

The concert series itself, how has it evolved over the years?

We’ve definitely learned some things.

One is that we’re a really small community – we might have 500 people living here if you count all the dogs and cats – so we can’t ‘go to the well’ too often. I think there was a year when we had a few extra events (before it was a clearly defined series we were just producing events as opportunities arose) and we saw that impact our numbers. Now we consistently schedule 6 shows every year; that seems to be the number that doesn’t let the shine wear off the nickel. We stay away from the summer because it’s hard to keep the hall cool, and it’s busy – it’s festival season.

We’ve also created a subscription option – people can buy season tickets if they want to. And that’s been really interesting. Our strategy has been that if you purchase season tickets, you receive a public thank you and a saved seat. There’s no discount; there’s no space in the ticket price we charge to discount. Ticket prices are based on selling out 120 seats to a show, and the proceeds cover the artists’ fees, the venue cost, advertising costs, and hospitality costs – there’s no profit.

It looks like there are also a lot of sponsors within the community.

I think there are about 20 or 21 right now. They pay $50 to be a sponsor, and they’re required to buy two seasons’ passes. For the extra $50 they get their logo on our poster, in our print ads, and in a PowerPoint presentation that I run prior to every concert.

We’re not very flashy and we try to be transparent about where all the money is going, and I think that helps.

Do you do outreach to secure sponsors, or are they primarily subscribers who own businesses and come to you wanting to support the series? 

It’s both right now. I send out an information package to the existing sponsors and the existing season ticket holders about ten days before the next season goes public. They have those ten days to tell me if they are interested in securing their place for next season or not. If not, I’ve got room for additional sponsors and can sell to incoming people. If I can’t fill the vacancies it’s not the end of the world, but it sure is nice to have over 50% of the house sold for every show!

Your RED grant ended around 2011. Do you receive any other funding for the series now?

Yes, we receive CAPF (Canadian Arts Presentation Fund) funding now through Canadian Heritage. I first approached them around 5 years ago, and David Barnard was so supportive. He was so interested in helping us out because of our rural location. It’s absolutely a joy to continue working with him.

And what is that funding used for?

We’ve received around $5000 a year for a few years now, and that just goes into the talent pool to help us pay artists’ fees. We’ve also received a grant from the SOCAN Foundation, which is also for artists’ fees.

Who organizes the concerts?

My wife and I do. We pick the artists, we pick the dates based on what we think would work well with the calendar, I write all the grant applications, we do the printing of the tickets and posters, we arrange everything – and we’re both volunteers at the legion now, so we’re often the ones there cleaning up before and after. I provide the PA and the lights. It’s a pretty small operation!

Small maybe, but a lot of work and big outcomes! Do you have a consistent team of volunteers?  

We have a core group of 6 people between the legion volunteers and our TECDC. And that’s all we need. We can run the show with 6 volunteers.

What have been some of the challenges of organizing the series ?

 There are definitely a few. One has to do with the urban centric focus of the music business. Some agents would rather have young artists play two nights a week in Toronto for free beer than to risk sending them out to a place like Tamworth. That’s how it seems to me sometimes.

Along with that, there are issues with communication sometimes. When I make an offer to an agent or an artist I send along a four-page document that spells out everything that we can do for them. It includes what we do for meals, what we have for PA, what we have for accommodations – I put the financial details on there – and I would bet that quite often the artists or managers never get a chance to look at that. So suddenly, a month before the show, I get calls asking for things I can’t provide.

So communication within the industry has been a big issue. Making sure the artists understand why we can only provide what we offer in the contract; that we aren’t making a profit – everything is calculated to the last dollar.

I think it’s way better to get all that stuff worked out before you have a signed contract, instead of having an artist showing up and getting something they weren’t anticipating or not getting something they were anticipating. This year I’ve been trying my best to contact performers directly to try to help improve this communication piece.

Other than that, just convincing artists to come out to our community can be a challenge sometimes. For the 8 years we’ve been doing this we have the artists back to our place to eat, and we understand that they’re working and we’ll give them quiet space. But that’s something that I think some artists are uncomfortable with or just aren’t used to doing.

What about positive outcomes? How has the concert series positively impacted the community?

It’s hard to quantify, but it’s interesting when you get into larger, neighbouring communities and you bump into people and they say: “Oh there’s interesting stuff going on back in little Tamworth!” We’ve had people come from quite a long way away to take in shows –  from London, New Jersey – and I know they’re often coming here to visit people as well, but it’s making the community members think ‘Hey, there’s something special going on’. Seeing the number of community members who are bringing friends out is great. Any kind of traffic you can get coming to and through a small community, I think, is good.

One of my other observations about things like this is that they always seem to need to be started by a group of people that have some sort of burning desire to make something happen. And then, hopefully, somebody will pick it up and run with it after they burn out. That’s the struggle here. There are islands of energy where groups of people will come together and really make something sparkle for a while; the tricky thing is to get somebody to come in and not be intimidated by what came before but to put their own spin on it and keep it going. That will definitely be the case with the concert series.

Do you have any tips for people who want to start a similar initiative in their community?

Don’t plan on it being a fundraiser. If you make money at it, bonus. But I think that’s the magic. When we started, my wife and I put our own money on the line. After 8 years I bet we are plus or minus $400. And that sucks if you’re trying to make an income off of that. But if you’re not, it doesn’t matter. It’s just about developing the performing arts community, or your own residential community, and it’s okay to do it that way.

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