JAMES O'CONNOR/BRANDON SUN
Keystone Centre GM Neil Thomson.
"There’s no doubt, if we experience some sellouts and stuff like that, it then attracts more promoters and it obviously generates additional revenue for the facility. So it’s a win-win for everybody."
— Keystone Centre general manager Neil Thomson, April 2012
Neil Thomson knew concerts were part of the mix at the Keystone Centre when he took over the job in the summer of 2011.
He just didn’t quite know how big a role bringing bands to town — including some of the largest touring acts in the world — would play in getting the Keystone Centre out of the red and into the black.
There was an indication when, in April 2012, Thomson looked out over a sellout crowd of 5,900 fans freaking out to Johnny Reid, with show opener Carolyn Dawn Johnson. That show was a Dauphin Countryfest production. But it showed folks were ready to come to Westman Place and shell out some decent cash to see a concert.
Perhaps it’s the new oil money in the region. Perhaps it’s the freshening up the old barn received for the 2010 MasterCard Memorial Cup.
Maybe it’s a combination of that — plus an aging demographic that is eager to see some of the classic rock acts that have rolled through the Keystone.
And of course two of the largest acts the city has ever seen slated for this later this year — Mötley Crüe on May 6 and KISS on July 17.
The Keystone is working with an experienced West Coast agent, Jim Cressman.
"He’s trying to focus on small- and medium-sized markets. ... (we contacted him) and said ‘We’re interested in this business,’" Thomson said.
Cressman will work with the A-list promoter — such as Live Nation — and offer secondary markets to artists.
Both Mötley Crüe and KISS — the latter is easily the biggest act ever to perform in Brandon — are at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg the night after playing Brandon.
And it appears Cressman isn’t afraid to break a KISS concert experience into new markets.
Last summer, celebrityaccess.com reports Cressman did an eight-date KISS tour through northern Washington, British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, with the final date in Fort McMurray, Alta.
Cressman told the magazine KISS likely set a record for itself in merch sales in Fort McMurray — which also was hosting its largest concert ever.
Cressman has also done small market shows with the likes of Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Carrie Underwood and others.
But I digress.
Aren’t Winnipeg promoters — the MTS Centre, leading the pack — concerned about losing potential tickets sales to Brandon?
Thomson says he hasn’t heard of any concerns.
In fact, having Brandon in the mix could make a trip to Manitoba more attractive for some artists — and help the Keystone’s bottom line.
"(It’s) a matter of taking a look at the opportunities and then determining how well is it going to go," he said, noting this string of concerts came about after some strategic moves.
The Keystone board also wanted to "control the full experience" for the customer, which led to the buyout of catering services from the attached Canad Inns.
However, the impact of food services at concerts is limited, Thomson admits.
The bands are getting paid. But the Keystone is attempting to limit its risk.
"We’re assuming the promoter role, along with the facility role, so you’re not splitting that pie with another entity," explained Thomson, noting that the recent Heart concert was an exception to that rule, as it came with an outside promoter.
"For myself, it’s a learning experience in this business — trying to find out how these guys make money and where they’re making money and then making sure, as a facility, we’re doing what we can."
Thomson joined the Keystone from Westman Communications Group, where he had been director of marketing and sales. He’s a Vincent Massey High School grad and a long-serving director with the Provincial Exhibition, one of the Keystone Center’s key tenants.
Prior to this past year, the Keystone had all but given up on booking concerts for years. And when it did, results were dismal. George Canyon and Corb Lund played for 700 people at the 2010 Royal Manitoba Winter Fair kickoff party. Thomson was then president of the Provincial Ex board that brought that act to town and knows it failed largely due to poor promotion.
Over the years, my favourite Wheat City whiffle — ’70s shock-rocker Alice Cooper, a household name — played to mostly empty seats in May 2006. As a music fan and former entertainment writer, I was embarrassed for my town.
So in recent years, music fans had to travel to Regina or Winnipeg to see big-name acts. And we’ve all heard stories about folks missing shows due to closed highways in winter or being the victim of a crime in Winnipeg while visiting there for a show.
Thanks to Thomson and his willingness to take some calculated risks, music fans in Brandon and Westman have been able to enjoy The Tragically Hip, Kenny Rogers, and Heart since that sold-out Johnny Reid country show one year ago. And enjoy them in the comparatively cosy confines of Westman Place arena in the Keystone Centre.
And unbelievably — amazingly — Mötley Crüe and KISS are on their way.
Westman Pace is an intimate venue for a hockey game, horse show — and especially for a concert.
Thomson says the recent shows have made money, thanks to an ever-changing mix of revenue streams at each show. So while the tickets are generally pricier here, you’re going to have a chance to see a major act up-close-and-personal.
But are we getting the A-show? The biggest production? Are all the semis turning south or are some continuing on to the MTS Centre in Winnipeg or another venue in the west?
Thomson admits there are some limitations. Mötley Crüe drummer Tommy Lee’s full elevating and rotating kit won’t be here and they have yet to work out the full pyro details with KISS.
So what can the market absorb? How deep are our wallets?
"Mötley was a bit of a push and KISS was the biggest push. I do realize at that price point — we’re at $125 and $165 — that’s getting up here," Thomson said, referring to the KISS ticket-price range.
Is that it for this market?
"I’ll tell ya afterwards," Thomson says with a laugh. "Part of the problem with the Brandon market is there is always a lot of walk-up (sales)."
As of Thursday, Mötley Crüe remained about 80 per cent sold, with KISS just past the halfway point in seat sales.
The Brandon Sun has partnered with KX96 and the Keystone to co-present several of the shows.
As for announcing future shows, Thomson’s mum for now. But he is looking for a major country act.
He took a hard look at Carrie Underwood — umm, who wouldn’t — but she’s at the MTS Centre next month and then at Dauphin’s Countryfest in June.
And he didn’t have to be told that Brad Paisley’s on tour.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition April 13, 2013