The Man Behind Rifflandia: Douglas Q+A with Nick Blasko

You wouldn’t know by looking at the most Zen guy in the room but the co-founder of Atomique Productions — the manager of rock stars, and the promoter who makes Victoria famous every summer with Rock The Shores and Rifflandia — has enough going on at any moment to muddle a mere mortal.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Nick Blasko is sitting back in his trademark uniform of basic black, a coffee in hand, appearing way too relaxed for a guy who just became a dad, manages a band you may have heard of called Tegan and Sara, runs the city’s top production company staging 150 concerts a year, is ready to raise the curtain on the eighth Rifflandia, is the go-to guy for anyone in the city interested in putting on, well, anything, and who carries around two cell phones.

His patience is legend. So is his good guy image.

“He doesn’t buy into most of the bullshit associated with being a good businessman,” says Joey MacDonald, who runs Thinklandia, the talky, cerebral sideshow of Rifflandia. “He’s a good person and that’s why he succeeds. Everyone wants him to succeed and that’s incredibly rare in this business. And he’s unwilling to respond to stress and that’s completely contagious.”

Blasko’s laid-back demeanor — perhaps a beard to disguise a no-nonsense approach to a guts and glory business, a roll-the-dice business, and, if you’re not careful, a riches-to-rags business — catches people off guard. Sometimes it bamboozles them.

I ask MacDonald, “Does he drive you nuts?”

“Yes, because he can. Because he’s good enough at what he does to drive me nuts. You let him because he’s going to accomplish something incredible.”

Blasko, 40, founded Atomique Productions in 2000 with his childhood pal, Dimitri Demers. The pair started out as teenagers booking punk shows because other people weren’t. They kept at it, stubbornness and tenacity filling in for business acumen.

“We’ve come from a place of not being complacent,” says Demers. “And it might sound cliché, but the most important thing has been remaining committed to do what you set out to do.”

And they do a lot.

How do you manage to do as much as you do?
The key is, I don’t do it. I do a lot and it’s been a challenge for me the past two years trying to work differently and put a ton of trust into the people we hired … and just stop doing as much.

It’s not all hanging out with rock stars in limos, is it?
[Laughs] There’s no glamour. It might look like that to some people, but it’s just a ton of hard work and nerves for this uncertain result [selling concerts and festivals]. On the management side, you expose yourself to that spotlight — and that’s not to say I don’t enjoy it because it’s a total privilege and it’s awesome — but once you’ve been to one of those [rock ‘n’ roll] events you’ve been to all of them.

So what advice do you give wannabe promoters?
Unless you want to get into it for your whole life, don’t. You want to dabble in it for a year or two? Don’t.

Working with your childhood friend, Dimitri Demers is that helpful in the biz?
I don’t think our business would’ve made it this far if we didn’t have that strong bond from the beginning. We both have our strengths that just come together. The trust is never questioned. That’s the key.

Between your two big festivals, Rock the Shores and Rifflandia, and the rest of your concert dates, you’re looking at 75,000 ticket buyers. That’s big business for a company with seven to 10 full-time staff.
Well, our staffing scales up and down with the festival season. In the beginning we made money incrementally doing many small to medium-sized concerts around town. But we wouldn’t be where we are right now if we didn’t get into the festival game. Now, we make our money selling tickets and booze at festivals. And those festivals are just as challenging and difficult as they’ve ever been. Every year it’s a frightening prospect because we are a small business.

You’ve been described as endlessly patient. That’s not how rock promoters and managers are played in the movies.
Patience is huge, especially in this business. You have to be a good listener before you’re a good talker. On the concert side of my life, it’s easy to deal with patience issues. It’s pretty well the same thing every time out. It’s funny, but when you manage an artist, impatience is actually what drives an artist’s growth. So you want that. An artist that worries about what’s happening today, that’s the energy that drives growth.

Victorians who grew up with Atomique and Rifflandia have pride and ownership in the brand. How important has branding been?
There is pride in the brand right now, more than we’ve ever seen. But we’ve had the same company logo since the day we started. The brand is meaningless if you remove the incredible talent we attach to the brand.

Has Victoria’s small size been help or hindrance to Atomique?
I think we face the same challenges as any sized city. It’s more expensive to operate here. I’m always having to explain to bands why their production costs more here, but at the end of the day you feel you’ve got kind of a moat around your market here, a captive audience.

Ever thought of moving to Vancouver?
No. Never. That wouldn’t make sense. So much of this business is generational. You find your audience and stay with them a long time. We understand how it works here and we’d be giving up the quality of life we have here.

What’s been your biggest challenge?
You have to accept that no one gets it right all the time. You miss the mark. You see the mark. No one has a crystal ball into the market to know how many tickets you’re going to sell at an event. That’s key to what we do. We’re always taking a chance.

How has the business community accepted a couple of rock and roll promoters?
I think people don’t understand our business. But they see the big amounts of people we can gather and what we can do. Most business people run the numbers themselves and know we’re selling thousands of tickets at hundreds of dollars a head. We’re adding to the quality of life here. People make the decision to move here based on these types of things. If we do our job right, we can contribute to the overall viability of the region.

In 2002, Atomique was one of the first Canadian promoters to sell tickets online. How much of your business is now done over the web?
Over 50 per cent of our tickets sell online and a huge section of that is mobile [devices].

How can Atomique compete against Live Nation and AEG who combine to own more than 70 per cent of the concert box office?
We don’t really compete head to head with them as much as people think we do. Our strategy has been to find parts of the market they’re not paying attention to, artists they’re not paying attention to. But we have to stand our ground with artists we’ve worked with for years when Live Nation tries to take them from us. [Artists] stick with us because we don’t screw it up.

What do concert-goers want these days?
A premium experience like the one we created this year for Rock The Shores. We went all out and got some of the biggest names in rock and offered this really manageable experience where you can see every band. That’s ultimately where the festival audience is going to go, to more smaller, manageable, curated events.

How much of your business is relationship building?
A ton of it — and these are not relationships that are built quickly, but over many, many years. It took us five years to book bands like The Flaming Lips and Death Cab for Cutie. It was about building up the trust. And there are not only relationships with all your bands, but all over town with all your suppliers.

The business of managing artists, which you’ve done since 2002 with partner Piers Henwood through Amelia Artists (Tegan and Sara, Buck 65) is a different kind of job, right?
It’s a personal relationship working with an artist. You think around their career, looking after literally everything in that career. It’s a lot of responsibility and a demanding relationship.

How much work do you, as a manager, put into the careers of stars like Tegan and Sara? In 13 years, they’ve moved from folkies to superstars.
Originally it was Piers and I managing every last detail. Now we have a full-time staff.

Artists don’t exist on record sales anymore. How has that changed the concert and promotions industry?
Touring is huge unless you’re one of the rare few that can exist on songwriting. Otherwise it’s all merchandise and touring. That’s why you see these artists out there year after year.

You have a new component to Rifflandia this year: BreakOut West and the Western Canadian Music Awards. Does that change the way the festival runs?
Not much. We’ve got more artists playing. We’re inheriting all of the BreakOut West artists; we’ll add five or six more venues …

How did you get BreakOut West and the WCMAs?
It grew out of the Juno [Awards] bid we put together [for Victoria] that didn’t go anywhere … We said we’ll set our sights on this. So now let’s get this set up and take a run at the Juno’s again.

What do you say to people who might not recognize the bands in the Rifflandia lineup, but still want to participate because it’s the coolest thing in town?
If you like music I guarantee there’ll be something you not only will like, but love. People have told me coming to our festivals changed the whole way they look at music.