Smoking and the arts
Artists speak out on the controversy surrounding tobacco sponsorship and one ad in particular
By Paul Andrew
WHO: The Tea Party, Big Sugar, with Kokoro Dancers, painter Thomas Anfield, Coco Love Alcorn, Armadillo String Quartet, The Lowdown Babylon Horns, DJ Whitey Don
WHERE: Whistler Conference Centre
WHEN: March 25
Whistler has a been chosen as the location for the first of four unique du Maurier Concert Stage shows across Canada. The concert itself will be an eye opener even for long time fans of Toronto’s Big Sugar and Montreal’s Tea Party, which both promise to put on a concert unlike anything they’ve done previously. But it’s the packaging and promotion of the first concert that has drawn the most interest.
Cigarette manufacturer du Maurier first announced the Whistler concert through a contest. Ten winners from across the country will be flown to Vancouver, transported to Whistler for the weekend and given tickets to the concert. Each prize package is reportedly worth $10,000. The controversial part was that the first ads for the contest stipulated you had to be a smoker to enter. That requirement was deleted from subsequent ads.
The controversy has taken the spotlight away from the unique nature of the concert. Regular ticket sales were limited to 800 — in a room that could easily hold 1,600 — and tickets were priced at only $25. The show sold out weeks ago. Is this adding up yet? Jeff Martin from The Tea Party explains.
"We couldn’t do what we’re doing in Whistler at a 5,000 seat stadium, we would lose our shirts."
Gordie Johnson from Big Sugar adds: "They said ‘if you had a wish list for a concert, if you could do anything you wanted to do what would it be?’ I gave them my wish list and they filled it out completely." The integration of a strings ensemble for The Tea Party’s set and a reggae horn section for Big Sugar’s Jamaican dub remix of their last two albums, including Coco Love Alcorn, one of Vancouver’s most promising young female singers, should make this concert a once in a lifetime experience.
Johnson added it would cost more than $100 to see Big Sugar in this form at any other venue, if the show was not sponsored by du Maurier.
The Vancouver Province newspaper featured Big Sugar’s lead singer on the cover of its Feb. 11 issue with headlines blaring: ‘You gotta smoke to win!’ Accompanying the cover-photo was a short story filled mostly with comments from anti smoking advocates denouncing du Maurier’s advertising tactics as immoral and unethical.
"They didn’t even call me," Johnson said during an interview with Pique. "We heard about it and we had a little trouble with the one sentence," Johnson said. "It’s not like it was a big problem, but we asked them to take it off the ad and they did. That was the end of it as far as we’re concerned," said Big Sugar’s singer/guitar player.
Michele Descoteaux, a spokesman for Imperial Tobacco, makers of du Maurier cigarettes, said the contest is not designed to go after people who do not smoke.
"We think some people who smoke our competitor’s cigarettes might want to try du Maurier as an alternative. We asked (contestants) to complete a form that asked what brand they smoked, and if they are 19, because you have to be 19 to get into the show. We can’t prove they are smokers, whether they say they are or not. We can prove if they are 19 though."
If you believe in the theory that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the controversy surrounding du Maurier’s first ads for the Whistler concert didn’t hurt the company. A cynic might even suggest that it was planned, especially when you consider tobacco companies are facing tighter and tighter restrictions on advertising.
Descoteaux said legislation is in place that will ban tobacco sponsorship of any kind for any cultural event in Canada by October, 2003. du Maurier has been sponsoring sports and the performing arts in Canada for 25 years, including the du Maurier Jazz Festival in Vancouver, women’s professional tennis, Formula 1 Grand Prix auto racing and now the concert in Whistler. So what will happen after 2003, when concerts such as the one in Whistler are in jeopardy of not happening?
"We make every effort to find other, high profile sponsors. The Tennis has a new sponsor now, and so does the LPGA. We, du Maurier, may have to stop sponsorship. We have to follow the law."
There was also a question from anti-smoking advocates about the novelty of Whistler as a destination. "Why Whistler?" Descoteaux said. "Well, it is a famous ski resort. No. 1 in North America and a very exciting place from what I understand."
Descoteaux said despite attempts to ban tobacco sponsorship, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled it was unconstitutional to say tobacco companies could not support the arts through sponsorship. At the moment, du Maurier is challenging 1998 legislation that will, in the future, ban all forms of tobacco advertising.
"If you speak to local arts groups, they are getting desperate," Descoteaux said. "Government funding is being reduced or is hard to get, and the Canadian government says: ‘You have to get private funding.’ Then they ban tobacco sponsorship. So a large part of the private sector funding which the government says to go to will not be there.
"You asked me who will benefit locally from this concert in Whistler. Well the hotels, where our contestants are staying for three nights, the facility we rented, and local sound technicians are a few. But the artists who will take part in the concert also receive exposure they wouldn’t normally get. du Maurier has always had a sweet spot for newer acts and the performing arts. The reason we have such a wide variety of performers at one show is to show Canadians not just the high-profile musicians who are already successful, but also those who will one day be successful. And to put together performers from as many different communities as possible. To give a complete package."
The combination of pop bands, professional dancers, a DJ and a painter results in more than just another concert, it is a fusion of artistic forms and — true to du Maurier’s stated goals — provides exposure for some under-exposed artists.
It’s also an opportunity to see two successful Canadian bands, led by two talented musicians/music producers who both knew each other growing up in Windsor, Ontario, try something new. The pairing of these two bands couldn’t have been better planned, considering Big Sugar’s recorded work has a traditional rock sound spiced with reggae beats and horns, where as The Tea Party have succeeded with a more orchestral, Eastern Indian hard rock. Since The Tea Party released their fifth Album, TRIPtych, it has gone triple platinum in Canada and will be released in the U.S. this spring. Big Sugar’s sixth CD, Heated, has spawned three Canadian singles and has achieved some 86,000 in units sold so far. 100,000 units in Canada is
platinum, 50,000 is gold.
Big Sugar is no stranger to Whistler. Johnson admitted he had to be dragged "kicking and screaming" to AlpenRock Aug. 30-31, when Big Sugar played two sold out shows to some 1,000 rock fans. That was because the band had played here in 1994 during the men’s World Cup downhill and Johnson said they were worked to the bone.
"It was cold playing outside, and then we had to play at night. I swore I’d never go back," he laughed. "But that last time it was great. I was really surprised. What a great sounding room," he said of AlpenRock House. "All that wood. And all that fresh air in the mountains. I went running the next day. And I slept like a baby at night. So when du Maurier approached us for this show, and said what would be on your wish list, I said yeah... I’d love to do it."
This concert gives Big Sugar the opportunity to appear as their alter ego, called Alkaline. A Jamaican dance hall dub-remix version of songs from Heated and Hemivision, with numerous additional musicians, including the Low Down Babylon horn section and Trinidad born guitar payer Mojah. The album that accompanies this show, called Extra Long Life, will be available April 25.
"I gotta’ tell ya’, it’s really good," Johnson said. "It’s dub music, really. We’ve been doing this stuff, recording it whenever we had a chance during some of our studio time. And then we would play it at our shows over the club speakers. So we would get people asking who it was, or what it was. And when Universal (Records) asked us about it they said: ‘Is there something we should know about?’ It was funny because they didn’t know about this stuff. But they liked it.
"This concert is a dream come true for us," Johnson continued. "Especially because we’re playing with The Tea Party. We know those guys. Me and Jeff (Martin) grew up in Windsor. Kelly and I both know them."
As far as the early controversy in B.C. about du Maurier sponsoring the show, Johnson said he didn’t know the advertisement said you had to be a smoker to enter until after the story appeared in the Vancouver Province. But after everything du Maurier had done for Big Sugar, Johnson said he knew it would only take a phone call to find out if that one sentence was necessary.
"I kinda’ took issue with it, you know, everybody was pointing fingers because of the wording. We all had a little trouble with it. Maybe they went a little far. I asked them to take it out. And after all the money they spent, they took it out. They addressed it immediately.
"A lot of our cultural events are sponsored by beer or tobacco companies," Johnson added. "We all benefit from it. I’ve been benefiting from it. Anyway, I’ve got to hand it to du Maurier and Universal. It would probably cost more than $100 to see us do this kind of show in any other setting."
The Tea Party will also be doing some unusual music in Whistler. TRIPtych, the group’s fifth CD, was released last year with the single Heaven Coming Down the most played single on Canadian rock radio stations. The album is not your traditional compilation of singles thoughtfully arranged for continuity’s sake. Rather, singer, songwriter and producer Martin says it’s almost like orchestral arrangements. Martin says the toughest thing about The Tea Party’s music is not writing it, but producing it. With Eastern and Arabic sounding instruments dominating the recording, and many layers of sound obvious, it must be a monumental task to successfully mix all the instruments to produce a unified sound.
"I think Jeff Burrow’s drums are the hardest to mix, but I think I’ve got it sounding really good now," Martin said. "In the studio, I’ve been learning a lot about recording this band. Criticism dogged my band in the early days. Back then, around Edges of Twilight (in 1995), people said: ‘Oh, they’re trying to sound like Led Zeppelin.’ I think it’s great we’re now compared to Middle Eastern sound. With TRIPtych, I want people to experience this as a whole sound — not just one song or two songs. I’m very much an ‘open your heart out’ to people. I think it comes across on the album."
Dozens of instruments are used for The Tea Party’s albums, so it’s fitting the Armadillo String Quartet will accompany the band in Whistler. In addition to playing guitar, Martin will play Indian string instruments called the tabla and the sarod.
"It’s going to be one of the most musical concerts we’ve ever done, or will ever do for a long time," Martin added. "And we couldn’t do it without du Maurier’s money. For this type of production, we couldn’t pull it off in a hall that would fit 5,000 people. We’re also bringing in the Katkalli dancers, one of the sacred dance forms of Hindu religion. And excerpts from Kenneth Anger films will be on a screen behind us for the whole concert. The Kokoru dancers come on stage with us for The Messenger (a song from TRYPtych).
Martin preferred not to talk much about anti-tobacco advocates’ stance on the "smoke to win" issue. But he said du Maurier’s sponsorship of the performing arts in Canada is one of its last public forums.
"Do people want to see us? Or are people going to go into the concert and say: "I’m having such a good time I’m gonna’ light a smoke?" Martin said. "I don’t smoke cigarettes, I prefer to smoke something else. I mean, this is du Maurier’s last bastion. Are we going to scale the arts back to nothing?"