The duo behind Victoria’s first music festival in almost 2 years

Morgan Brooker and Stephen Franke have been building up the local music scene for years—now as the pandemic lurches on, the pair is trying to kickstart it again

By Brishti Basu
September 3, 2021

The duo behind Victoria’s first music festival in almost 2 years

Morgan Brooker and Stephen Franke have been building up the local music scene for years—now as the pandemic lurches on, the pair is trying to kickstart it again

By Brishti Basu
Sep 3, 2021
Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

The duo behind Victoria’s first music festival in almost 2 years

Morgan Brooker and Stephen Franke have been building up the local music scene for years—now as the pandemic lurches on, the pair is trying to kickstart it again

By Brishti Basu
September 3, 2021
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The duo behind Victoria’s first music festival in almost 2 years
Brishti Basu / Capital Daily

Capital Daily business coverage is supported by Tiny but the stories and journalism are produced independently by Capital Daily. Per our policy, Tiny had no editorial input into this story.

Just days before the start of Greater Victoria’s first full-fledged music festival since pre-pandemic times, every surface in the Blue Heron Music office is covered with passes, documents, and other knick-knacks. Everything has its place. 

Walking into the downtown building, visitors get a sense of the organized chaos that dwells within. A mishmash of eclectic furniture and statement pieces are spread haphazardly throughout the well-lit space. Only one wall is carefully curated with an assortment of band posters, while boxes and boxes full of records and merchandise line another. 

Presiding over it all with an air of miraculous calm are Morgan Brooker and Stephen Franke, the duo behind this weekend’s upcoming All Ways Home Festival set in Langford’s 6,000-capacity Starlight Stadium. 

In a blow to the optimism that accompanied the announcement of music’s return, the Phillips Backyard Double Header, scheduled for Sept. 10 and 11, has been cancelled due to the uncertainty around COVID safety. But the pair is pushing ahead.

The current COVID-19 restrictions allow outdoor events with a maximum capacity of 5,000 people, but the festival will only sell 4,500 tickets out of an abundance of caution—a step Brooker and Franke decided was prudent, after successfully navigating their way through the pandemic by adhering to public health orders.

But the pair attributes a lot of their current success to a business model they were already following before March 2020 upended the live music industry.

“We were early into digital music and giving music away in 2008,” Franke said. “We were just giving music away to everybody, just to build audiences. That ended up being a fantastic idea.”

This guerrilla marketing campaign entailed hosting MP3 giveaways, blogging, building fan email rosters, and leaving cards in coffee shops. The result was that by the time music streaming took off, Blue Heron’s clients had already built up fan bases around the world. 

That early success led them to some of the biggest clients on their roster today—like Jesse Roper, Carmanah, Band of Rascals and Ocie Elliott—many of whom signed on around 2015.

“We're quite close [friends] with a lot of our bands,” Brooker said. “Some of our connections have just introduced us to other bands. We have word-of-mouth from the bands that they approve of the work that we do for them and [they] recommend us to other friends.”

That friend-based relationship extends to the duo themselves, who have been steering the ship at Blue Heron Music for over a dozen years. Brooker and Franke met while the former was working at a CD manufacturing company and the latter was a touring musician.

“When you're in your own's harder to see the road to success,” Franke said. “You can't see what you're supposed to do because you're in it, you know? You don't have the overview.”

Once he switched over to managing touring artists, it became easier to answer those backend questions: how to build audiences, create hype, market shows, when and where to tour, etc., he says.

Over the years, the pair has refined their strategy when it comes to managing artists and their careers—but their office space, littered with band merchandise and concert flyers, stands as a testament to the whirlwind of activity taking place on any given day.

Tickets in preparation for the concert. Photo: Brishti Basu / Capital Daily
Surviving COVID-19

A big chunk of revenue for Blue Heron Music came from live performances—something that was impacted heavily by pandemic-induced restrictions on audience sizes. But with a diversity of revenue streams and handling more of its business in-house, Brooker and Franke figured out how to stay afloat in an industry that was swamped.

If you want a Carmanah shirt, that order will be processed by Blue Heron staff, not a warehouse somewhere as is the industry norm. According to Franke, Blue Heron fills up to 150 merchandise orders each month—double that amount around the winter holidays—which is one source of revenue for the company and for the artists they represent. 

Government music grants and placing songs in popular TV shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Catwoman also help bring in money for the company regardless of the restrictions on live shows. 

“I would say that there's certain bands [for whom] the majority of their revenue comes [from] live touring performances, which obviously they haven't had that from the past year,” said Brooker. “But with every [dollar] you're bringing in from your live show, you're also spending a lot to make them all happen… so it hasn't really affected the company as a whole.”

They also refocused on earning radio royalties and streaming income. “As soon as the pandemic hit, we started different marketing campaigns, so all of our bands grew in streaming, probably by 30 to 40 percent,” Franke said. 

But the bottom line only goes so far when there are human beings involved—doubly so when most of the bands are personal friends of the managers. One of the other priorities for Brooker and Franke during the pandemic was making sure their artists’ mental health did not suffer for lack of performances.

“Some of our bands would be on the road for at least half the year [pre-pandemic], so it's been interesting for them to be in their house the whole year,” Brooker said. “We were doing a bunch of live streams and they were fun, but it was just not the connection that we were looking for.”

So the live shows didn’t stop entirely over the past year and a half. 

Blue Heron was one of the few management companies in Canada still putting on smaller live events for their artists. They hosted 43 shows at the Breakwater Cafe in summer 2020, with audience members seated up to six at each table, in compliance with COVID-19 regulations. 

“It was a win-win for both our bands and the Breakwater [Cafe] because we were able to pack their restaurants at a time when people were a little bit uneasy about going to restaurants,” Brooker said. 

The ability to throw these events and others—like livestream concerts—with a tight ship of around four people running the show also helped keep the company afloat. 

When they’re not doing everything themselves, Blue Heron contracts the job to local media production expert, Darcy Beck, who then provides a crew to set up the sound system, live streams and multi-camera editing on the fly. 

Victoria band Carmanah (Submitted)
All Ways Home

The All Ways Home Festival this weekend is a much larger affair and the first event of its kind in the Greater Victoria area since before the start of the pandemic. 

While attendants won’t be required to show proof of vaccinations—the BC Vaccine Card order won’t take effect until Sept. 13—they will need to wear masks while going inside. 

“Our whole band is definitely double-vaxxed and has taken COVID really seriously,” said Laura Mitic, lead singer of Carmanah. “We have the privilege to be up on the stage and removed from the crowds. I’m hopeful that people coming to this festival are putting the safety of their neighbours at high regard, and are vaccinated.”

The stadium itself has room in the stands for 6,000 people but the festival is only selling up to 4,500 tickets, ensuring enough room for attendants to spread out. As of Wednesday morning, they were on target to pre-sell about 3,500 weekend passes to the event. 

“This is the first major festival on Vancouver Island in a year and a half and we're really excited for it,” Brooker said. “It's been a tumultuous year and in mid-early July, everyone thought we're going to be back to business come September. We're now in this state where nobody really knows what's going to happen.”

Blue Heron’s clients are among many artists who hope to be able to perform at indoor venues this fall, when the weather turns too cold and wet for outdoor events.

Brooker and Franke hope that by Oct. 24, when the BC Vaccine Card system will require residents to have had both shots in order to attend indoor events, the shows can resume. 

“We see a lot of different comments from the public,” Franke said. “You have people that are just like, ‘everybody should be vaccinated,’ and then we get long tirades from people who are very against vaccines, and who are telling us that we should not have any of these regulations.”

The decision for Blue Heron was easy: they will be following all orders and mandates set by the government to curb the spread of the virus, while still making sure that the show goes on.

“It’ll feel a bit like a reunion this weekend,” Mitic said. 

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