Billie Jo Aasen talks The Breakthrough Music Conference and more
Before talking about The Breakthrough Music Conference, can you start by letting people know about some of your history?
I started years and years ago as a country singer. I was signed to a management team that owned a large festival. Through that, I started getting my feet wet in the festival business. That was about 10 years ago. From there, I ended up starting my first music festival in Bellingham, Washington. While I was building the first festival, I was also helping a management team and working at Rogers Arena. I got to learn a lot about hard ticket sales. I was able to work with management, agents and talent buying companies.
About two and a half years ago, I left there to start my own company: 542 Entertainment. We are a boutique, hands-on talent buying and festival production company. In our first year, we started with two shows, and now, in year two and a half we’re up to 10 festivals (possibly 12 within the next couple weeks.)
What’s the story behind the Breakthrough Music Conference?
It has become more and more apparent with a lot of the shows that we do – there’s not a lot of education on the business side with the young artists who don’t have managers or agents yet. It’s no fault of their own, there’s not a lot of places they can go to learn that stuff. I came up with the concept for the Breakthrough Music Conference a couple of years ago but 542 Entertainment got very busy so we didn’t have the time to do it.
I was approached by Granville Entertainment, they were doing a contest that focused on country music. We came up with the Breakthrough Country Contest and then decided to add the Breakthrough Music Conference at the end of it to turn it in to a full weekend thing.
From there we brought on Nimbus, the media school in Vancouver. The three of us: Mike Schroeder, myself, and Christian Aldred from Granville Entertainment have been bringing it all together. We want to give artists a step-by-step on how they should build their careers.
You can see the day’s schedule and more info here: http://www.breakthroughmusicconference.com/
What’s your earliest memory of music?
When I was little, me and my best friend would colour pictures out of our colouring books. We would walk through my grandma’s trailer park and we would sell them for $0.25. That would be your admission in to my concert where I would do every rendition of Shania Twain possible.
My biggest learning lesson in the music industry was when I was about 13 or 14 years old. I was invited to sing on something the guy called the Indie Canadian Talent CD and it ended up costing around $3,000. That gave me my song and he said that it guaranteed it would go on the radio and become this big thing.
I had 2 jobs, I worked at Subway and I was a waitress at our local cafe. I took a bus in and out of Kelowna every Saturday to write, record, and come home. I did that for about 8 weeks. It was an hour and a half there and an hour and a half back, all day recording. On the final day, my aunt came and picked me up because we were so excited. We got there and the guy had shut down his studio and took off with everybody’s money. That was my first introduction to what a real shark in the music industry was like. That made me upset, I decided I was never going to sing again.
From the recording sessions I had a demo tape that my sister had sent to Merritt Mountain Music Fest without telling me. At the time, it was one of the biggest festivals in the country. I ended up getting a phone call from them and they invited me to open up for Loretta Lynn. I didn’t believe it was them at first but the long and short of it is I ended up going out and opening up for Loretta Lynn. That kicked off my entire career. I ended up working with them and learning a lot of the to-dos and a lot of the don’ts of the music industry. I guess the bad thing kind of kicked off the good.
I went through the 542 web site and found the blog post “There is no ‘I’ in team.” I was wondering if you could describe the team at 542 and how it relates to that blog post?
No matter what you do you need a strong team, especially with music festivals. You have a million moving parts at once. I’ve paid less because they were cheaper and I could afford them. When you do things like that, you pay the overall price. You need to bring on the right team and sometimes it will cost more money but at the end of the day they will stand by your company and help you strategically grow. Being able to trust a strong team is priceless at the end of the day.
So you split your time between Vancouver and Nashville, how would you describe the Nashville music scene to outsiders?
Inspirational and shocking at the same time. Nashville has this amazing ability to make everybody a believer in everything music but it’s always a great reality check for a lot of artists. I tell artists who say they’re ready to record, “Go down to Nashville, spend a couple of days on Broadway and go check out their bar singers. That’s all I want you to do. If you think you can compete with them, then we’ll sit down and make a plan.”
There was a girl last time we were there and she could literally outsing Adele. She was a kindergarten teacher who sang in bars on the weekends. It’s humbling to be down there. The majority of people that go down to Nashville whether it’s on the business side or the artist side come home ready to kick some ass. It’s a very magical city to me.
In contrast, how would you describe the Vancouver music scene to outsiders?
To be honest, the Vancouver music scene is pretty weak and I don’t think that’s much of a secret. It’s sad to see live music venues start to go under. The Electric Owl was doing a lot and now they’re gone. You see a lot of people, instead of putting a live band in their club, they’re turning around and putting in a DJ. A live band costs more because there are more mouths to feed.
Change is happening, the $15 million influx that we’re getting is going to be huge. Vancouver has the ability to grow, we’re such a large centre but to this point we haven’t been very music focused.
You’ll see artists that get a certain level of success within their own community. To be able to move out of that and grow that from province to province and eventually in to the states – it’s a really tough thing to do. I don’t know if it’s people getting stuck in the BC scene. That being said, we’ve had a lot of great artists and we have a lot of heavy hitters that live right here in Vancouver. It would be nice to see more opportunities for those artists to be able to be found.
The success of music festivals has exploded in the last five years, why do you think that is?
That’s tough to say. The success has exploded but so has the failure. People will look at a festival and read the statistics: 45,000 people attended. They don’t see how much it takes to put that on and how much it costs to get sales of that size. It usually takes three years to break even. You can do it in two but your logistics and your brand have to be really great.
The other thing with music festivals blowing up is for some of them you can go for the same price as you pay for a concert ticket and you get to see 15-20 acts. There’s the community feel of a festival, people coming together. Before you would see three or four campsites beside each other. Now you’ll see 25-30 and they have this festival family that all come together on that one festival weekend. At one point, they don’t even care who the headliners are. They’re going for the experience.
I’m sure it’s even harder now for Canadian festivals with the dollar being how it is.
A lot of the festivals that have been around for a long time have budgeted to break even or even lose a little bit of money. When you’re paying a $1 million headliner, that’s now $1.35 million. You’re still selling tickets in Canadian currency and it’s not like you can up your ticket prices to offset the costs. The ones that will survive are the ones that have a great following of very loyal fans.
One of the main sections on the Breakthrough Music Conference website talks about how music comes first but it has to be supported by a good plan. Have you noticed any commonalities between successful recording artists?
If you’re an artist in the music business, you can have the best plan in the world and all the capital behind you but if you don’t have a hit song, you don’t have anything. You can have somebody who doesn’t have as strong vocals but they have a hit song and they’re going to go a lot further. The music is the number one thing, it’s got to be great.
You need a really strong team that understands you, your brand, your marketplace and how to get you out there in the best way possible. It’s going to be different for EDM or Indie or Rock or Country. Regardless of the genre, that plan has to be together and it has to be tight – especially on the financials. You can lose a lot of money if you’re not careful with what you’re doing.
You have to understand your industry. That’s the number one thing about this conference: artists have to understand that it’s a business.
How do you think music discovery has changed in your life time? Specifically how people find new music.
Before it used to be radio and with country music, it used to be CMT. If you were on CMT you were huge. Now CMT isn’t even doing music videos; they’ve moved to a totally show based platform. Radio is still super important even though some people argue that radio is dead.
It’s so interesting now to see people getting discovered on Youtube and Spotify and all these different things. There’s so many different avenues for artists to be able to tap in to to really build that fanbase. Everything is moving so quickly now and everything is changing.
The music business is not a 9-5 thing, it’s literally a 24/7 job. It’s not a career, it’s a lifestyle. Your passion is your hobby; your hobby is your passion. Both happen to be your career and the way that you feed yourself.On working in the music industry
Again, it goes back to the artist understanding that they’re in a business. Some of them might be here to do it for fun but the ones that want to make a career out of it need to go through and understand how everything works. It’s a very interesting time in the music industry to watch all of these new things pop up – new revenue streams and new ways of reaching fans that weren’t possible before.
Can you recall a time when you thought to yourself “this is why I love what I do”?
So many times. My favourite moment is being backstage when our headliners hit the stage and you see thousands and thousands of people screaming and having the time of their life. That’s a pretty magical moment that not a lot of people get to see. It makes all the stress worth it. It’s a very hard industry but its very rewarding.
Like you, I originally wanted to be an artist but now I’m really focused on the business side of things. In comparing the two sides of the industry, what are some similarities and differences?
At the end of the day, there’s a ton of similarities. You’re all in business whether you’re an artist or you’re a producer and whether you’re a radio tracker or whether you’re a talent buyer. Agents, managers and all of those other things come with their own struggles. One of the great things about being able to switch over is that it’s all in the same industry, its all in the same family.
The difference is that now you’re in it to help build somebody else’s career while you’re building your own career at the same time. You get to see the things that, for me personally, I didn’t understand or I didn’t know when I was an artist. It’s the same industry but there are different challenges with each part of it.
Without giving too much away, what else can people expect at the conference?
People can expect to be very pleasantly surprised on how much education they get. There’s a wealth of knowledge that will be in one room at one time. I want people to come and put their guard down and really be open to learn and open to ask tough questions that they don’t have the opportunity to ask in any other environment. That’s what we’re trying to create with it. I hope that they come and build a camaraderie with some of the industry people and some of the fellow artists.
Where can people find you online? Do you have anything you’d like people to know? Or anything else you’d like to promote?
I’m on Instagram and Linkedin. That’s where I post all of my blog stuff. I try to dive in to a lot of topics that not a lot of other people know about or that not a lot of other people want to write about. This year is going to be a really interesting year with the development program and the conference. If you’re following 542 Entertainment on Twitter or Facebook we’re always posting about all the festivals that we’re doing.
If there’s a festival in your area I’d love for people to come out and have a good time. We’re in the middle of building the ultimate redneck festival, it’s called the Extreme Mudfest. We’re doing a redneck cat walk, a baseball tournament and a mud race to the stage. It’s going to be be really fun.
You can buy your ticket to the Breakthrough Music Conference for this Saturday, March 19th at Tom Lee Music. By entering the promo code ‘nimbus’ you can save $100 bringing the total to $25. I encourage you to attend, I know I’ll be there.
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