Let's rewind to 2007 when Jonathan Asher, a twenty-something musician, finds himself “broke and couch surfing” in Toronto. His band has split up and a promised position with a music TV channel has fallen through.
"I had no other industry contacts and applied to job after job just to be told I wasn't qualified enough," said Asher. "It was brutal. I didn't want to be another unemployment statistic."
In the depths of gloom, Asher, as he’s called, experienced an "ah ha moment,” which opened the way to a successful career as a publicist in the tough music industry.
"I had an epiphany in Toronto," he said. "I realized that I had a ready-made network of fellow musicians back in Montreal who knew and trusted me."
Asher also realized he had gained many skills from his days with the band. "I get bored easily and was the guy who did everything. I learned how to book shows, set up the website, deal with promoters and network with musicians."
Sadder but savvier, he returned home and decided to set up Asher Media Relations in his mother's basement. "Originally, I wanted to be a rock star and like everyone else thought it would happen overnight," he said.
"It doesn't work that way. I love music, but it's really hard to earn a buck as an artist. So, I keep playing music as something I do for myself and make a living out of helping other people get the attention they deserve."
Starting up, Asher set himself a gruelling schedule of up to 100 daily phone calls to establish his presence. “I also wanted to learn more about public relations, marketing and media, so I went back to school and enrolled in the Certificate in Public Relations and Communication Management at the McGill School of Continuing Studies.”
At the same time, he provided his services for free or at low-cost and worked as a pharmacy clerk on weekends to pay his living costs. “At first I approached unknown artists that I thought had a future,” said Asher. “I had early success getting publicity for all styles of popular music, from hip hop and soul to folk and rockabilly to heavy metal, which has become my niche market.”
The volume of Asher’s life is now set at 11. His clients have expanded to metal festivals across Canada, where he coordinates their media coverage and marketing. "I'm no longer couch surfing and homeless, but not really into making a fortune,” he said. “I'm in the business to promote talented artists that deserve attention. If I can make a living and help others, I'm happy, because this is a job I truly love.”
It’s also a job that has taken him around the world to meet his childhood heroes and where he has crossed paths with members of bands like Annihilator, Testament, Fear Factory, Pantera, Black Sabbath, DIO, Wu-Tang Clan and OutKast.
However, Asher points out that life on the road is not always as glamorous (or dissolute) as portrayed on the screen.
“I recently went on a Canadian tour with the Juno-nominated band, Striker. The trip was mainly a matter of set-up, sound-check, play, sleep, drive on and start again. There wasn’t much room for anything else.”
Nevertheless, he’s still asked occasionally why a nice boy from the Montreal suburbs hangs out with people perceived by some as tattooed devil worshippers obsessed with death, plagues and medieval instruments of torture.
Asher believes there are many misconceptions surrounding heavy metal and its outlying sub-genres of death metal and black Metal.
“Not all metalheads look like pierced and tattooed extras from a Mad Max movie,” he said. “Some wear suits and could be sitting in the cubicle next to you. They just like the music.”
According to Asher, the gothic icons and demonic references are just part of the show and a way for Average Joes to identify with an underground movement. He also points out that many lyrics have a contemporary social or political message.
“Whether it’s classical, jazz, rap or metal, all genres of music have an image that does not necessarily represent the real lives of the fans or musicians.”
“Not all opera buffs stab their lovers outside a bullfight,” he said, referencing Bizet’s Carmen, which shocked and scandalized 19th century audiences.
“Black Sabbath gained notoriety for biting the head off a live bat onstage, but that was an exception. I went to lunch with the drummer from Cannibal Corpse and he’s a vegan.”
Asher’s various employees over time reflect such lifestyle diversity. They’ve included an international tattoo guru and a part time researcher, named Max, who drove hearses for a funeral company.
“He was also a McGill psychology student,” said Asher. “I used to tease him that he commuted from death to Death Metal for a living.”
In fact, research, psychology (and tattoos) play a vital role in Asher’s strategies for the timing, use and choice of social, print and electronic media to generate interest in his artists.
“Publicity stunts are also important,” he said. “For online purposes they need to be short and simple with a ‘wow’ moment.”
One memorable stunt was possibly a world first. It involved guitarist Zeke Galt, who jumped from a plane to have the logo of Surefire Machine tattooed on his arm by another free-falling skydiver. They plummeted thousands of metres at 200 kph before opening their parachutes and landing safely. The stunt astounded their skydiving instructor, who had to fortify himself afterwards with a few drinks.
“The video worked well,” said Asher. “The band’s name and music were widely promoted online and by TV stations as far away as Sweden.”
More dangerous, it seems, are activities by over-excited fans at some Heavy Metal concerts.
“Some mosh pits turn out badly,” said Asher. “I’ve seen kids jump from two floors up and break their legs. We’ve also had some problems with stalkers who get out of hand and harass artists.”
Despite such incidents, Asher finds the metal scene highly communal. “The musicians are very supportive of one another,” he says. “One of my greatest pleasures is attending a performance by a deserving artist I’ve helped promote and watching fans ask for autographs.”
“It’s also great, of course, when a band tells me I helped them get a recording deal with a major label.”
Asher has seen many changes in the music industry since he started. “It’s all streaming now – Spotify and YouTube,” he said. “When you ride the metro everyone’s on their phone, wearing earbuds. Talk to an 18-year-old and they’ve never gone into a music store (if there are any left) and experienced the excitement of finding a CD.”
“However, they still come to the shows and that’s why ticket prices have gone up for concerts.”
The digital age has also affected the outlets Asher uses for publicity. “Younger bands are not so excited by print media exposure these days. They’re more interested in engaging fans directly via social media.”
"The market is saturated with musicians. That means there's a greater demand for publicity services like mine to promote tours, individual performances and sale items such as t-shirts."
And the key to success?
"Don't take anybody for granted, and develop your relationships," he said. "You have to be decisive and to learn from your decision if it's wrong. But most important of all was my family. I couldn't have done it without their support."
For more information on the Certificate Public Relations and Communication Management at the McGill School of Continuing Studies, visit mcgill.ca/scs-pr