Young Lions Music Club wants you to have the best time ever
Bobby Kimberley of Young Lions Music Club isn't afraid of anything. The unassuming one man operation behind Toronto's epic Songs, dance parties, Trinity Bellwoods Park's Live in Bellwoods festival, and countless other one-of-a-kind events isn't afraid to speak his mind, accept corporate tie-ins, or dare his attendees to let go of their inhibitions and have, in his own words, "the best time ever."
Kimberley's relaxed and fun loving attitude comes through in each project he puts his hands to, and the overwhelming response from Toronto's indie music lovers attests to the success of his unique ideas — such as club cards for local concertgoers.Yet he's also looking to push himself out of his comfort zone: this Friday marks the last Songs party, as Kimberly moves on to pursue fresh ideas and keep the city on its toes.
Young Lions, aside from sending Toronto music fans real, actual snail mail, boasts a "unique and memorable branded music experience," which enticed me to sit down with Kimberly to find out what that means, how Young Lions Music Club came to be, and what he has in store for the future.
Are you from Toronto originally?
Bobby Kimberley: I went to school for Communications in Ottawa, but I grew up in Lindsay, Ontario. Then I moved here in 2007.
How did Young Lions Music Club (YLMC) begin?
I had quit my job at a music PR firm in spring 2011 with the intention of freelancing. Ultimately I wanted to do more events, get sponsorships — that sort of thing.
Through taking contracts as a freelancer, people were asking "what are you called?" So I built the Young Lions brand as an umbrella for the stuff I was already doing, and launched last NXNE, June 2011. We just had our first birthday, which is pretty cool!
Are you an artist yourself?
Not in the traditional sense. I'm a very creative person, but never developed any skills or output apart from writing. Mostly I got involved in the business side of it so I could flex my creativity without having to learn how to play guitar. I don't have the patience.
What was your involvement in the Toronto music scene before YLMC?
I moved to Toronto to get involved with the music scene, so that was always objective number one. I got a job at Sony Music doing lifestyle marketing--trying to push artists on cool kids. We did some cool stuff: the first MGMT record, Ting Tings, Kings of Leon before they got really brutal, and a few fun projects, but then it was also Usher; how do you promote Usher to "the cool kids"?
Then I got an opportunity to work for a small PR and Marketing agency called the MuseBox, and for two years I was the director of marketing at their Toronto office which doesn't exist anymore. I quit because I was like, "you guys don't get it."
To have Young Lions develop some sort of success helped me reaffirm my decision to quit. When you feel something isn't proper and you think you've got a better idea and it works out, it's the most rewarding thing ever.
Was there anything specific that drew you to the Toronto music scene?
I was an event programmer for the University of Ottawa, and my friend who I did it with got a job at a booking agency here right out of school, and with that in I was like: I gotta be there.
For the first while it was just trying to network. As far as Canada as a whole, Toronto is the only place to be. I just got back from Vancouver and Edmonton, and I hate to be a snob, but the fun things run out pretty quickly in these other cities.
What is a "unique and memorable branded music experience"?
We try to make sure that whatever we do is memorable, in that it doesn't happen all the time. Very rarely will you see Young Lions Music Club present four bands at the Silver Dollar, for example — we don't do that because it's already happening all the time. So instead we've done the Live in Bellwoods NXNE picnic three years in a row. I started that at Musebox, and when I left I was like, "you guys aren't going to do this; I'm just going to keep it going."
We also have these monthly dance party series called Songs, where your favorite band is DJ-ing for the night. We've had Broken Social Scene, Tokyo Police Club, Holy Fuck, things like that. I would like to think that each one is different because the influences of the artists are different, so that is unique and memorable.
As for the word 'branded': our business model is to develop a community and then to offer brands that make sense access to that community in ways that benefit the consumer and the audience. For example, we did a Dwayne Gretzky show where Rolling Rock came and gave a free beer to everyone who showed their Young Lions Music Club club card.
We don't try to hide the fact that we are looking to partner with brands. The series that took me out to Vancouver and Edmonton is a CocaCola tour. We've done stuff with Scion and Redbull. A lot of what we can offer to a brand client is that "branded experience."
What are the pros and cons of partnering with huge brands like this?
It isn't easy. You can't just say "we have this or that going on, so now we're going to tell everyone." The process involves running everything through say six different agencies. Things get slowed down and passed on and what starts out as a really strong concept can sometimes get diluted because there are too many hands in the pot.
The pros are obviously that they're putting money toward the event so the audience is getting an experience — whether it's a concert or something else — for way less than it costs to put on. For example we did Hollerado in Vancouver, we're doing Tokyo Police Club here: these are free shows. They cost a bunch of money to put on, yet they're free to the consumer. As long as the consumer feels that they're seeing the value of a brand partnership, then I don't mind doing it.
Do YLMC have a certain sound or ethos, and what makes your shows special?
I think that we obviously fall under the indie rock umbrella if you want to generalize, but I think that what people are surprised to see when they come out to a Young Lions event is the total lack of pretension from the crowd and from the bands: it's not like this club is exclusive, and you've got to be super hip to get in. We're just saying, "let's have the best time ever."
Do you know Dwayne Gretsky, the cover band? It's a super group of the dudes from Sweet Thing and a rotating cast of other musicians: sometimes Arkells' Dan Griffin, and Dan Kanter who plays guitar for Justin Bieber. This is a band that is just the best time you can imagine. It sounds stupid, but they play for three hours, they're all talented and charismatic musicians, and they rip everything from "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen to "Love Fool" by the Cardigans.
Usually when you go to a show, unless it's your favorite band, the odds of knowing the words to even one song are pretty low, and you get a bunch of people just kind of standing around. We try to take the insecurities out of the music experience. Everyone's here to have a good time, so let's get sweaty.
Can you tell us about the Club Card?
The Club Card is a total throwback idea. Record labels had record clubs in the '80s and '90s: Sub Pop had a record club, and they'd put a bunch of stuff in the mail for you, at a loss to them--they're sending all this stuff to you and it doesn't cost you much or anything to sign up, but it makes people feel like they're part of it.
We launched the club card in November. It's free to sign up online, you get your own physical card and we write a handwritten note, and it has the Young Lions black seal on it. People are so stoked to get something in the mail these days: it's ridiculous! We found the social media buzz just from us writing people letters has been one of the biggest unexpected wins for Young Lions as a whole.
We try to offer as much value through that program as possible. We'll do no cover and $3 beer to Young Lions members at our Songs dance parties. You end up with a whole bunch of jealous friends — you get in for free, you get a cheap beer, and your friend is like, "what the hell was that!" That's what we're trying to create.
Now we've got almost 600 members, so as the numbers increase our ability to add partners to it also increases. Now it's not just free cover at a show, it's 15% off at Poutini's or Fresh, we just hooked up a deal at 69 Vintage, too. So it's almost turning into the SPC card for hipster kids or something.
We chose partners that we believe will be of interest. We have everyone's demographic info from when they sign up — birthday and mailing address — so we try to partner with local businesses and neighbourhoods to create an experience that has real value.
How do you find the artists you book?
Through going to shows. I made the mistake once of letting a band open one of our shows that I'd never seen before and they were just brutal. So now it's strict: I'm not booking any act unless I've seen them.
The artists that we work with are definitely on the pop side of the indie rock world. I think any of the acts we work with could potentially see real success. We're not opposed to working with bands who are writing hooky pop songs, as opposed to acts that are just being obscure for the sake of being obscure.
What is the best thing about booking DIY shows in Toronto, and what would you like to see change?
The best part is there is so much talent in this city. You can go out seven nights a week and see something great every night, and still not see it all.
The one thing that kinda sucks with the city is there's a serious lack of options in terms of non-traditional venues. We did a big party at the Burroughes — it's awesome, but at these places, you have to jump through every hoop in the world. They want you to have big beefcake security (and that costs money) and they want damage deposits, rentals and insurance.
The city's regulations, and the country's as a whole, really stifle that creativity. I was in Berlin in the fall and it's a whole other world; by comparison Toronto almost feels like house arrest. Obviously the insurance thing is for safety purposes but these venues price themselves out of making it worthwhile. There's a really nice gallery in Parkdale that I looked into renting, and it was $2500, plus you need to pay to get the art removed for the night ($600), plus a damage deposit. The Burroughes charged me $600 just to mop the floor the next day.
Some people are paying these amounts of money, so it's tough for a DIY start-up to compete.
What's been your favorite YLMC moment so far?
The Live in Bellwoods. We branded it the Great Heart Festival this year. Everybody who's there is so thankful that it's happening, and the artists are so thrilled to be able to connect with fans in that unique environment. The whole thing just feels like a big, warm group hug--from an organizer's perspective, I just get to lay in the grass and nurse a hangover.
We also did a NYE party with Sheezer, the all-girl Weezer cover band. There were a thousand other events competing with us and it was really stressful. Two weeks before the show we had sold 40 tickets, and I was like "I'm a goner, nobody's coming to my party." Then it sold out: people just wait 'til the last second.
You've been booking parties, gigs and huge showcases like the Live in Bellwoods Festival. Do you have any plans to branch out, like starting a venue or a label?
We actually got asked by a bigger label if we wanted to start a label. Basically, they liked the idea of Young Lions as a label so they could promote some of their developing acts, but we turned them down. That's not in the plan.
We were looking at getting an office space that doubled as an underground venue, but again, the city is so tough on that stuff that the fear was we'd sign a long term lease and within four months we'd have our hands tied and be unable to do anything.
I would say our goals are this: we're looking to go national. I was out in Vancouver and had meetings about doing some Young Lions stuff out there. Also I think, probably in 2013, we're gonna start a festival. Here's hoping. The tagline we're using is "four days of city, culture, music, and friendship." It's about harvesting this community we've created.
Ultimately, we want Young Lions events to be such a welcoming environment that if you don't know people, we are going to facilitate interactions. We might have a barbecue and softball day, and then we'll have a show, and then we'll have a dance party. And then we'll have a Live in Bellwoods day where you sit cross-legged in the grass and drink wine out of water bottles.
What's the best way for artists and fans to reach you?
For fans--the Facebook page. You can sign up for the Club Card there as well. For bands or brands--drop us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite brunch spot? Rustic Cosmo Cafe
East or west side? West side
Favourite Toronto band/performer? To stay away from "Young Lions" bands: Teenage Kicks
Favourite record store? Soundscapes
Favourite local album from this year so far? The Elwins - And I Thank You
You can catch the last Songs (read about it here) featuring DJ Teenage Kicks this Friday, July 27th at Sneaky Dee's. Then on Sunday, August 12th, catch Tokyo Police Club, Hollerado, Justin Dubé, Shawn Desman, and Danyka Nadeau (for free!) in the parking lot behind Queen & Soho at 1pm.
Photos of Bobby Kimberley by Denise McMullin, first two live photos by Michelle Cortese, last one by Julie Lavelle.