How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

ken-lavigne-carnegieUmmm… you rent it. And that is precisely what Canadian tenor Ken Lavigne did on 22nd January. Lavigne is from Vancouver Island on the West Coast of Canada. Victoria, the island’s largest city, has metropolitan population of roughly 330,000 people and is the hub of musical life on the island.

Although he is not fan of the label (who is, these days), it is not unfair to describe Lavigne’s music as classical crossover a la Josh Groban or Andrea Bocelli.

It’s rather futile to try and assess a voice after hearing only short bits selected by the singer, but it is fair to say that while a bit rough round the edges, Lavigne is in possession of a clear, strong instrument well suited to the type of music he sings.

According to Lavigne he has been classically trained although where and for how long or, for that matter, any other biographical information is curiously absent from his website.

The bill for his NYC debut was roughly $200,000, 80% of which came from donations and proceeds of fundraising concerts on the Island. Remarkably, considering that he was a virtual unknown in the City, he managed to attract about 1200 people to the 2804-seat Stern Auditorium.

All press to date has been gushing, so Miss Mussel is going take one for the team here and present a rather contrary reading of the event. Up until 30 minutes ago, Miss Mussel had never heard of Mr Lavigne (not an unusual circumstance, granted) it’s just that the “small town boy risks everything to make it in the big city” narrative is terribly overused and, in this case, doesn’t actually seem to be true.

To this bivalve’s eye, the whole undertaking appears to be an elaborately planned PR stunt meant to launch Levigne’s international career. Which is fine. There is not even an iota of anything wrong with that.

It just doesn’t fit the myth is all.

Neither does the presenter who’s only client appears to be Mr Lavigne or the trip to New York sold by a local travel company designed to give his fans a chance to witness his debut and talk with him after the concert. According to an article in the Victoria Times Colonist, over 80 people made the journey. Unfortunately none of New York critics turned up.

Mr Lavigne is adept at marketing and promoting his music and knows how to play to his audience but after reading all there is to read on this subject, the whole affair seems rather sad. It’s the same feeling you get when the kid that never gets invited to the cool kids’ birthday parties has one of her own at the Chuckie Cheese, invites everyone and none of the cool kids show up.

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Just in case you’re planning to rent the hall yourself, here is a list of Mr Lavigne’s expenses:

$17,000 for hall rental
$60,000 for 51 musicians
$41,000 in rehearsal time, labour and security
$85,000 in advertising.

Ballpark earnings estimate: $50000-$80000

13 comments

  1. philip

    According to his website, Lavigne studied at UVic and the Victoria Conservatory. Another Grobanesque tenor singing Danny Boy and Grenada I do not wish to hear, but with regard to this enterprise, I must say a word in his defence.

    Is this an “elaborately planned PR stunt”? Well, yes, whoever said it wasn’t? Characterized in those words, it sounds decidedly dodgy, akin to something Paris Hilton might get up to. But as it did take a lot of planning, and as its purpose was to gain the attention of critics and the public, yes, that’s what it was. So too is a slot in the sort of performers’ showcases organized by provincial touring councils, for that matter. He took a risk. He is a small-town boy, money was raised locally to help him meet the costs, he’s had a largely local career with good reviews, proceeds from the concert go to the BC Paraplegic Association and the Christopher Reeve Foundation…I’m not sure what is mythical in all this.

    I am puzzled by the reference in the post to “the presenter whose only client appears to be Mr. Lavigne…”. There is no presenter, other than Lavigne himself. As Anthony Tommasini said in his comment on the enterprise, that Lavigne is presenting himself is the difficulty. He did have a small management agency to promote the concert, Micocci Productions, which has nine clients, but that is not at all the same thing. Micocci received money, presenters shell it out.

    I agree with Richard Margison that Lavigne has a very good voice — perhaps very good indeed for the sort of G and S role David Foster offered him but he, not yet experienced enough to know how to get out of an existing contract, turned down. Now, that was a mistake. It is the uses he puts it to that I lack sympathy for, but he took a big gamble, an honest risk, and I have to wish him well in his chosen corner of the field.

  2. Dearest Mussel:

    In my experience, the myth you speak of is indeed myth. Artists all come from somewhere, and get started somehow… However, what is unique about this situation is that his management sought financial support from the public, and did not have an international promoter pay for it.

    This is all speculation, but maybe you feel a bit fluffy because you feel that he did not pay his dues to get there? You might feel that because accolades did not bring him to NYC, he is some kind of a fraud. A faux singer who is attempting to buy his way to fame. Or maybe it;s the fact that because the NYC classical music community did not “Okay” him first – (people from Victoria did), you dismiss his right to organize a concert there.

    I think your reaction is a honest one, and in many ways very Canadian. Canadian’s always insist on “eating their own babies”!

    I don’t think there is any reason to doubt his integrity… His talent is what will ultimately get him a career, not his promoters.

  3. Miss Mussel
    Author

    Philip – I checked the website again just now and still couldn’t find any biographical information.

    The Carnegie Hall listing said the concert was presented by Goodnight Gracie Entertainment. If that company has any other clients, the internet certainly doesn’t know about.

    I agree, he took a risk, one that I would like to applaud but there is something that just doesn’t add up. Where is his agent? Why isn’t he doing concerts outside of the island, in other parts of the country or the States? And, as you say, there is no way he couldn’t have gotten out of that contract.

    The myth I was talking about is usually a press or marketing construct. No one can resist a little guy story, even if it’s not, strictly speaking, true. Perhaps it was unfair of me to imply that its creation was all his doing but he certainly wouldn’t be the first artist to do so.

    There was another part of my post that I removed because I couldn’t explain my point clearly enough. It has to do with using the language and symbols of another class or genre to legitimize your own style. In this case it is opera/NYC/full-on classical music. I’ll try to expand on this more later in the week.

    Michael — Many people buy their way to fame. When you get to the very highest levels, everyone has more or less the same amount of talent. Those that achieve A-level success are those that have the money to finance all those years of waiting for the big gigs or making records or putting on the big concerts.

    My question is not whether he has a right to organize a concert where he pleases (of course he does) it’s more that, from where I sit, it doesn’t seem to be the best use of $200,000.

    We do tend to eat our own babies, especially opera singers but I would have the same questions if he was from Kansas or Lancashire as well.

    Like I said in my response to Philip, I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something doesn’t add up here.

  4. philip

    The ‘Carnegie Hall’ page on Lavigne’s website mentions his studies at UVic and the Victoria Conservatory. Also on the website, you’ll see at the bottom of the home page and some others ‘Ken Lavigne a Goodnight Gracie Entertainment Company’. That is Ken’s company and the company, as it were, is Ken. Goodnight Gracie Entertainment is also attached to his self-produced recordings. Standard procedure and a wise move.

    I said that he’s had a largely local career, but I’ve read passim that he’s performed elsewhere in Canada and in the States, but I’m not at all sure what significance there is in all that. As for the agent question, it is notoriously true in the literary sphere that you can’t get published without an agent and you can’t get an agent unless you’re published. It is not so different in the performing arts and the entertainment world. He drew around 1000 to Carnegie Hall, which rather surprised me, and he got two excellent New York reviews — Cabaret Exchange New York and Talk Entertainment New York, not major league, but better than nowt, as they say — so maybe agents are mulling his potential now, especially as passing the Carnegie Hall audition is a huge recommendation in itself — awfully tough to get them to rent it to you.

    But I’m having a hard time reading something sinister into the fact that he doesn’t have an agent. I must revise what I said about that contract, because a second account of that leads me to think the first one got it backwards. He was on a three-month contract doing the Mikado in Oklahoma when Foster asked him to do a fundraiser. That makes considerably more sense — I couldn’t quite see Foster producing G and S. Breaking that sort of contract for that reason is a decidedly iffier sort of thing, especially as doing fundraisers, ‘fronting’ and so on, even at the invitation of, or perhaps especially at the invitation of, musical powerbrokers often leads to nothing, as also may a broken contract. And, of course, it is one of the jobs of an agent to advise on these things, so he does need one.

    I really don’t follow what in all this suggests that he is not really a little guy. Do you think he has a secret agent? That Goodnight Gracie is not just Ken, but a big production company that pretends to have only one client? That there is a fine Italian hand behind all this, not just Ken, the owner of that pub, and bunch of local loyalists?

    Whether or no this was the best use of $200 000 is another discussion entirely. But, my word, in going for this indictment I really do think you are stretching.

  5. Miss Mussel
    Author

    The problem is, I’ve seen this kind of con run before in other places were a musician who well knows they wouldn’t make it in a larger market works a small town, keeps in touch with all the rich old ladies, invites them personally to all the concerts and created a fake charity to raise funds for a new piano. Needless to say the money poured in.

    Let me be clear: I am in no way saying that’s what Ken is doing, it’s just when I started reading about it, all sorts of red flags went up. Perhaps I am just naturally skeptical, having seen this kind of thing in action before.

    The little guy/not little guy idea I think we’ll have to leave as a difference of opinion. To be honest, I keep changing my mind about that one.

    In terms of a conspiracy theory, a fine Italian hand would certainly add a fascinating dimension to this story but I fear even I can’t stretch that far.

    You’re right, New York agents may be mulling things over as we type. I hope so. For his market, Ken’s got a good voice. That was never the issue.

    Despite the many logical explanations and fair points you’ve brought up, I can’t shake that nagging feeling that something is off about this. I wish I could articulate it better but at the moment I can’t.

  6. It’s true: Ken has no agent. Gracie Entertainment is Ken and his wife Alice. Gracie is their daughter. For the record, she’s very cute and not at all sinister.

    For the past year or so, my wife and I have been helping Ken find his way to Carnegie Hall. We run a small communications company in a little town just outside of Victoria – although not as small as the town where Ken lives. We believed in Ken’s dream enough to want to help others to believe, but what got Ken Lavigne to Carnegie Hall was Ken Lavigne.

    He’s the genuine article: a guy who lives in a small town on the far edge of the continent who, rather than continue to wait for his lucky break decided to see how far he could go on his own steam, along with some help from his friends and fans – and yes, I now count myself among both camps.

    I can’t articulate my feelings about this project any more precisely than the editorial that appeared in the local Victoria newspaper a couple of days after his concert, so here it is, in part:

    “Ken Lavigne has achieved his dream, and odds are, this concert will come to be seen as a crucial step in his career, the evening when his career started its ascent.

    And if the idea fails? Lavigne will still have his memories of performing in front of the New York Pops, as well as the knowledge that he did everything he could to reach the top.

    Lavigne’s choice of material for his Carnegie debut followed a theme of pursuing one’s dreams — and in both his actions and his words, Lavigne has a message for us all. We can be content to stay out of the spotlight, letting others make the decisions on our behalf. We can simply play out the clock, letting the days and months and years slip away until we can collect our pensions. We can stand on the side of the field, hoping that others will pick us for their teams. And in the end, we can talk about how we could have been contenders, if only we had been given a chance.

    There is another way, the path followed by the likes of Ken Lavigne. We could take charge of our destinies. We could set high goals, and then go after them. We could realize that putting others in control of our lives is not a smart way to achieve our dreams. Lavigne is hardly the first person to rent Carnegie Hall for a performance; among other notables, cellist Yo-Yo Ma made his first appearance on the stage there when a group of parents rented the hall for performances by their children. In the 1950s, the folk group the Weavers hired the hall and produced a live recording that gave their careers a tremendous boost.

    It’s too early to say what’s next for Lavigne, but we’re confident that if anyone can make the big time, he can. He has the talent and he has the ambition — and most important of all, he has the drive to stand up for himself and the confidence to chase his dream. We could all learn from Lavigne’s inspiring example.”

  7. philip

    Given the nature of your doubts, I don’t suppose the comment from Ken’s Victoria Publicist is going to assuage them, but I’m amused to learn who Gracie is. Nice touch. Now we shall see how all this pans out.

    Given my deep aversion to Grenada, Danny Boy, Lloyd Webber and the whole ‘tenor’ industry, I had no intention of keeping track of Lavigne post-Carnegie Hall, but you’ve made me feel so sorry for the poor chap that I shall to check up on him now and again.

    I should say, as someone who long ago made a successful transition from youthful idealism to barking cynicism, that scepticism in the face of goings-on in the entertainment world, which this is, is healthy indeed.

    There are con games galore. If Ken had gone on one of those ‘Idol’ programmes, he would have been complicit in one of the biggest con games of the lot. And, shifting to the classical sphere which we more naturally inhabit, we have only recently had the matter of poor Joyce Hatto and her wretched husband. That no one seemed sceptical of that astonished me, because I sure as hell was and for good reason.

    In this case, however, the coverage of the enterprise has been extensive, it much involves the communities where Ken grew up, Victoria, and where he now lives, Chemainus, renting Carnegie Hall is hardly akin to bilking people out of a piano, and nowhere in that coverage did a red flag pop up for me.

    I don’t have to listen to the stuff, so I hope all this works for him.

  8. Dear Miss Mussel

    I am struggling to follow your sentiment… I just don’t see anything strange about what Ken has done, and I think he has some real gumption!

    As per your comments,

    “…a musician who well knows they wouldn’t make it in a larger market works a small town, keeps in touch with all the rich old ladies, invites them personally to all the concerts and created a fake charity to raise funds for a new piano.”

    I am curious to find out who this was!

    As the news editor for a substantial Canadian classical music periodical, I am naturally very interested in juicy classical music scandals. Over the many years of doing this job, I have noted many, but don’t recall that one…

  9. Miss Mussel
    Author

    Michael: I have thought about this carefully over recent days and while it appears that Ken is, from all accounts, as stand up guy, the “not quite right” alarm in my head is still ringing.

    That being said, it seems futile discuss it further as it would only result in what ifs and other speculative uselessness.

    Re: the juicy gossip. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen in Canada. I can’t reveal my sources, but more of the story is here.

  10. Miss Mussel
    Author

    Philip – Oh dear, it seems I have forced you to become a fan against your will. Maybe I am a plant by Ken’s publicist to gain even more admirers.

    Conspiracies everywhere!

    I will also be checking in from time to time to see what comes of this, so I guess now Ken’s got two new fans.

  11. Independent motion pictureproducers are proving that the huge companies do not will be the sole judges of what the general public really want. As you add to that distribution on the internet media websites online, from rumor to complete videos. This is a brand new environment. A lot of it very good, some not.

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