FYI Industry Profile: Matt Gibbons Of MRG Group

As President and Founder of the MRG Group, Matt Gibbons is at the helm of a company that owns and operates such well known Canadian concert venues as The Vogue Theatre and The Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver and Adelaide Hall in Toronto. MRG Group’s music promotion arm, MRG Concerts, is expanding its activities across the country, and MRG also owns bars and restaurants.

As we learned in our recent interview for this FYI Industry Profile, Gibbons has a background in both the hospitality and live music industries. “I grew up more on the hospitality side of things,” he explains. “My father has been in that business my entire life and most of his, going back 50 years now. There were restaurants and bars in which there were live acts, like the old Piccadilly Hotel and the Abbotsford Hotel in Vancouver, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”

"I was fortunate to spend a lot of time with my father and I still do.  I got to learn from the horse’s mouth as they say. He tried to keep us out of the business somewhat. I’d work for him during the summers and play hockey in the winters.”

Matt’s father still heads The Gibbons Hospitality Group, focused in Whistler, and Matt recalls that “I worked up through his company a little bit and that was fantastic.”

The son learned a valuable lesson that has become his mandate. “For me there is no disconnect between the hospitality and entertainment businesses. The two depend on each other. Whether it is a younger developing act who cannot sell hard tickets and you need to subsidise how they can play, up to the largest shows around. They’re not as much fun if you’re not treated properly on the hospitality side on the way in. Our business is entertainment and hospitality, which we see as one.”

Gibbons went to the University of Western Ontario, in London. “I’m an economics and finance major, a cross-disciplinary degree. That may have been my degree but I think my specialty was entertainment and hospitality, if you know what I mean!”

This is also where he took a big step in his career. "I got the chance in my fourth year at Western to open up a bar near the campus. The London Tap Room is where it began. It turns 10 this year, so it has been a nice run. It is pretty much a bar and restaurant, and live music is not the focus.

“I worked that with my brother, but we then realized it likely better to stay brothers and friends than business partners, and we went our own ways.”

The next move was a big one that took him to Vancouver. “I got fortunate enough to arrange a deal with my dad to buy The Vogue Theatre off him. That was the first venue of my own and that started what is now MRG Group.”

That purchase, in the fall of 2008, necessitated major sweat equity. “The year we took it over it had done eight shows, so I definitely bought at the bottom. We put a fair amount of money into it and literally started chipping away from the basement up, literally. I remember doing the drywalling of the change rooms downstairs-painting the floors and walls, putting a sump pump in, redoing the carpeting. There were some infamous stories from before our tenure. I think Metric had to play with snow suits on then ‘cos it was minus 1 in the room!”

The MRG Group has now turned the Vogue into an important 1300 capacity club, as shown by its winning multiple CMW Awards for best venue of that size. “I probably book 30-40% of the shows in-house, and we’re very open to other promoters,” says Gibbons.

“We’ve had a huge cross-section of acts, from [alt-folkie] Joanna Newsom to Motorhead, in the same week, to Prince and Mumford and Sons. I’m definitely involved but I don’t talent buy myself. We have a great team of people here doing that . We consult a lot on what we’re pitched and what we’ll go after.”

The one act Gibbons personally booked was a notable one. “Back in 2012 I booked Prince for four nights at the Vogue. He was known as a germaphobe and scared to shake hands, but he went crowdsurfing while playing his guitar. His manager couldn’t believe it! She said she'd never seen that. Prince was nothing but kind to me, very polite and genuinely interested.”

Gibbons and MRG also operate The Biltmore Cabaret in Vancouver, and, since mid 2013, Adelaide Hall in Toronto.

“I split my time between Vancouver and Toronto,” he explains. “I think we have some great venues here in Vancouver but I don’t think the city bylaws are as friendly to the music industry as in Toronto, which has done a better job of supporting the arts in all aspects. In Vancouver they talk a big game but do very little to support it.”

After a recent renovation, Adelaide Hall “is ramping up,” says Gibbons. “An amazing fall is being lined up.”

MRG own the building, one that also houses an Irish pub (Dublin Calling), a country-themed bar, Rock ’n' Horse, and another rooftop bar, The Porch.

MRG Group now operates a music promotion arm, MRG Concerts, one expanding its activities across the country. “We book shows from Victoria through to Montreal, with a bunch of venues across Ontario. We have an office in Calgary too. The promoting company has really grown in the last six months.”

To Gibbons, “working multiple markets gives us an opportunity to work with acts to understand what environments they thrive best in and what marketing is the most effective for them, through to what they like in their changing rooms.”

“It is about building a relationship right? You fight to provide the most amazing experience possible with everyone involved, from the artist screaming lead vocals to the young fan coming to their first show to the ticket-taker, bartender and manager. We work in such an amazing environment. People don’t have to come to us, they choose to come to us.”

A major development for MRG Group came when it announced a strategic partnership with concert production company Fource Entertainment earlier this year. Led by Jacob Smid, Fource will be booking the large WayHome and Boots 'n Heartsfestivals for 2017.

“That really ramped things up,” says Gibbons. “I think there’ll be a lot more festival opportunities too and we’re looking across the country. Jacob is somebody I’ve known quite a while and have admired his ability to keep a cool head in a very turbulent world that he’s in.

“He understands the music biz as well as anyone in this country. I get to learn from him every day as he has a much larger music background than myself. Hopefully I can bring in a bit of my hospitality background and that is where we can thrive.”

Another MRG Group venture a few years back was the establishment of a ticketing agency. Gibbons explains that “we saw a real hole in the Vancouver market as Ticketmaster closed up its shops there and our customers weren’t getting proper service. We created Northern Tickets and did the Vancouver Jazz festival and a bunch of other things.”

That situation changed when Gibbons met the principals at Ticketfly. “I felt they could do ticketing better than we could and it was a better end service for our customers, so we joined up with them. Technically it was a merger but that’s like a raindrop merging with the ocean,” he says, referring to the different scale of the two operations.

“Ticketing is a business where it is really hard to be liked, like credit card companies, but Ticketfly’s technology is second to none and their customer service is amazing.”

Gibbons is optimistic not just about MRG’s future but Canadian artists in general. “I’m so pro our Canadian artists. We don’t need a leg up, we have amazing artists here. I think we’re at the precipice of the next wave of Canadian talent, with groups like Arkells, July Talk, Japandroids and Dan Mangan. Great music that is not just pop and will stand the test of time.”




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