In 2008, Matt Gibbons moved from his role in hospitality to run the Vogue Theater in Vancouver, British Columbia. Gibbons made a deal with the city to revitalize the 1,300-cap theater that at the time was doing eight shows a year.
“It was pretty beat up and no one was really using it,” Gibbons told Amplify. “I told the city that I would try running it as a theater for three years and if the city and the music fans of Vancouver supported the venue, then we would keep going.”
Eight years later, the Vogue still belongs to Gibbons and his sprawling entertainment company, MRG Group. The theater does a little shy of 200 shows a year and has won the Canadian Music Week award for best Performing Arts Center (Under 1,500) five years in a row.
“It has been nice that people are voting with their bums in seats, as we say,” Gibbons said. “We got very lucky. We’ve had some amazing team members there that really champion it.”
By 2012, Gibbons had expanded his reach in the industry by entering the Toronto market. The venue owner said he found it easier to work with agents and managers when he could group shows together in various markets. MRG began working in Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Regina.
“I learned the hard way that we needed to promote some shows ourselves to let people know that the room was a good room, that we had done all the repairs and everything,” Gibbons told Amplify. “And obviously, it is hard as a promoter to get any traction if you start at 1,300 seats as your first offer. So we had to start doing shows outside of our room with small developing acts.”
Gibbons added Shae Dahl, who is MRG’s current SVP, as a talent buyer. The company “grew organically” from there.
Amplify caught up with Gibbons to talk about what MRG is up to now and how the independent promoter is fairing in the Canadian music scene.
Yes. For sure. As far as the music side of things, I’ve had great mentors and peers around that are always willing to share stuff. But I would say that I am continuing to learn on the job. Every day I seem to find new things. We’ve really taken the approach that no more than I can suggest a set list for the artist, can I control anything really that they do on stage. That’s not my forum. My forum is from that front lip of the stage all the way to the front door. We’ve always tried to really encourage our team members to figure out how they can best serve that guest. We don’t know if it is somebody’s first-ever concert or if their loved one is sick and this is their one escape from the hospital. It could be their engagement or a try-to-save-my-marriage date. We don’t know what’s going on, so it is up to us to make sure that we do everything we can.
Every act that hits our stage doesn’t need to be the act that we love ourselves, but you have to respect the process. You have to understand that this might not be your thing, but we can’t rob these fans of what could be their first or last or the pivotal experience they are looking for. I think that is where we have had a lot of success. That’s why those team members really come through.
Who are your mentors?
There is Ralph James at UTA. I remember I walked up to him at a conference at Canadian Music Week after he was on a panel. I didn’t really know what I was doing. The person I was with said ‘you can’t just walk up to him, he’s going to tell you to beat it.’ I walked up to him and at the time he was the president of The Agency Group, so he was the biggest agent in the country and he said he knew the Vogue well and that he’d love to talk to me. From there he invited me into his office. He had all the time for me and we created a relationship. He had that experience that I didn’t have in the industry.
There have been other people along the way too, locally, from small clubs to arenas that have given me advice. For such a competitive industry, people are really willing to share how to make experiences better. Another guy that I have done work with is Jacob Smid who has a company called Fource. He has given me a lot of insight into the industry. He has worked with everybody from LiveStyle to Live Nation and has a real understanding of what it is to be a promoter and how to create those relationships that last a long time. I’d say those are two of the biggest mentors.
As an independent promoter, do you think it has gotten easier or harder in today’s market?
I don’t really see it as an independent versus major. Right now it is changing for everybody and it is hard for everybody. At the same time I think there is a lot of opportunity. The music market is maturing here in Canada, similar to the United States, where the festivals were making a huge push over here the last five or six years. Now things are settling and finding their natural level where everything comes together. I think there is an appetite still for touring acts and that’s where the venues come in. I think there is tons of opportunity, but it is going to be tough because we’re finding our new balancing point.
Speaking of festivals, do you think the Pemberton bankruptcy will have any kind of negative effect on the scene in Canada?
Any time you have a scenario where there are hardships on the end consumer it does create, as we say, trust and verify practices. I think you’re going to get a lot of people double-checking who actually owns things beofre putting money out there on the line. I think those are the right questions for anybody to ask. If you were going to buy a travel package, you’d want to know who was selling it to you. Whenever there is a festival that has the misfortune of what happened in Pemberton, it is nobody’s intention that that be the result. It’s hard on everybody and at the end of the day those are all people with jobs in our industry and it’s tough.
Since you have such a sprawling entertainment business, would you mind breaking down everything MRG Group does?
I ask myself that often. (Laughs.) How do we want to start this? Maybe from the hospitality side and then work our way to the more obscure?
From the hospitality side, in Toronto, we have a rooftop patio called The Porch. Where we like to host CMW (Canadian Music Week). We have a country bar underneath that called The Rocking Horse which is a lot of fun. Underneath that we have an Irish pub called Dublin Calling. It is a modern day Irish pub. Then we have the Adelaide Hall which is the 470-seat venue that we do a lot of shows out of in Toronto. In Vancouver, we have the Vogue Theatre, which is a 1,300-cap venue. We have our development room there which is called the Biltmore Cabaret. We also have the Yale Saloon and that is a country BBQ place.
We then have MRG Events, which we are kicking off. We are doing the Budweiser Country Fair that is an American-inspired, small town country fair feel with all the games and developing acts. We’re doing some great work with Universal on a bunch of their developing country acts. We’re trying to create an experience where we can introduce country artists to people who like the country lifestyle. It is more of a lifestyle brand than a straight music festival. We do a series called Apres Ski which is a 90s-themed ski party. I was a bit of a sucker for it growing up in Whistler.
Then we have MRG Concerts which does stuff from Vancouver to Toronto. We do concerts on the touring side as well as a festival on the west side called Westward. It is a venue festival in Vancouver. We’re adding bands all the time, but right now we have Vince Staples and A Tribe Called Red on the lineup.
Yeah. It’s a venue festival where you can go see a bunch of different shows in Vancouver with one outdoor space. That’s the first year we’ve done it and it has been really well received. Our whole thing with Westward is that we really wanted to create a festival with Vancouver instead of for Vancouver. That’s why we wanted to use a lot of venues, especially ones we don’t own. We really wanted to work together and say, ‘How do we take the amazing music that is in Vancouver and showcase it along with the amazing venues we have in Vancouver?’ We want it to be international and Vancouver acts, but we want it to be Vancouver doing this alongside us, not us for them.
And MRG does even more than that, right?
We have a music blog called Hillydilly. It just celebrated its 10th anniversary. It is run by Chad Hilliard. We became involved in it about three years ago. Through that we created our independent music label called 20xx. We have released a few artists to date. Our first was Courtship, as well as Alayna, Semi-Attractive Boy, Isaac Lee. It is a single label right now that is growing and we’ve had a lot of success with it. Both Alayna and Courtship have gotten over a million plays on Spotify, so we’re starting to get there.
You’ve mentioned a lot of country. Does that do genre do particularly well in Canada?
I think it is all big. We have a lot of connects with country, but I think it probably skews the same as most major markets in the U.S. There is definitely a passionate country audience, but I wouldn’t say that Canada is a predominantly country market. It is the playlist era, where people’s playlists could have anything. People like that diversity.
Is there anyone artist you’re interested in right now?
I am really excited for the new HAIM album to come out. I was lucky to be at those shows in LA (at the Teragram Ballroom). The energy is just so amazing. They were great and I think that tour is going to be fantastic. Some of the stuff coming out on 20xx I’m very excited about. Vince’s (Staples) new album is going to be amazing.
Is there anything about the music industry that should be changed?
I’m a big believer in organic change. It will change the way that it should. Good processes will be followed. The stuff that creates good music and good art and good experiences, people will double down and copy that and get better experiences. It will be a competition between everybody to provide those amazing experiences. That’s what dictates the music industry. There is enough technology and streaming that from the recording side are starting to see funds come back in. I know they are no where near where they were, but there is some light in that tunnel. At the end of the day, I don’t think the music fan says ‘I’m a live supporter or I’m a recorded supporter.’ They say “I like Vince Staples’ or ‘I Like HAIM’ and they are going to want to experience them in whatever way suits their mood at that time. If they are really busy and can’t go to a show they are going to want to listen to it. It’s a pendulum. It was all recorded and no one really toured much. Then it was all live and I think it will all come back to the middle.
Do you foresee any challenges in the next few years for the industry?
I think the challenge will be that it will continue to evolve and when you find something that works today, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work next cycle or in 18 months. That is going to be the one constant, is change.
Are there any business leaders outside of the music industry that you look up to?
There’s a ton of them. Richard Branson and his ability to give back and give those experiences. He’s a pretty incredible guy. He is somebody that I take a lot of inspiration from. The biggest inspiration on the business side would have to be my father. He taught me the importance of strong relationships and doing what you say and saying what you do. That goes a long way in the music and hospitality industry when so much of our industry is built on relationships.
You actually started out working for your father’s hospitality company, right?
For sure. I am by no means self-made. I am definitely a product of my environment.
In those days, when you were younger, what was your involvement in the music scene?
It was really diverse. I played junior hockey, so it was always, whoever the older guys in the changing room were, their music is what we listened to. It was everything from Gun ‘n’ Roses to Biggie. You were told what to listen to and sometimes that is good. You get to learn more stuff. You don’t get stuck in a rut.
Is there anyone you would want to have play one of your venues?
There was one artist I remember as a kid and, to this day, I tell our guys my passion play is Jimmie Dale Gilmore. If you guys can book Jimmie Dale Gilmore, I don’t care if it breaks or not. My uncle used to drive me to hockey practice and he’d have that playing every time.
I think Charlie Rose would be amazing too. I feel like Charlie Rose is just a conduit to amazing experiences. It would be like asking a genie on your first wish for 99 wishes.
If that genie allowed you to travel time, who would you want to go see?
I’d go back to one of those Rat Pack evenings in Vegas. It would have been interesting to see them in their heyday and the combination of hospitality and performance. Some of the first Farm Aid stuff would have been really cool to go to. I’m a big fan of organic things coming together.
Do you have any pieces from the past, music memorabilia?
My working pass from when we did Prince at the Vogue. It was such a unique experience that it’s what holds the most value to me.
When did Prince play the Vogue?
It was April 15, 2013. It was the start of his tour with 3rd Eye Girl. He did four shows in two nights. Obviously, any time working with Prince you get nervous and he was just such a pleasure to work with and incredibly kind. When he did sound check I was just sitting there in the seats by myself watching him play all the hits. He really was a genius.