Pic by Bill King
Pic by Bill King

A Conversation With .. Eric Alper

You’re standing in a hallway with musicians caught in three lanes of traffic – it’s an event, a seminar, an awards ceremony, a happening of note and there are promoters, music journalists, a couple of photographers, a few label chiefs and serious buzz in the room and then there’s publicist Eric Alper – coolly going about business.

“Do you have time for an interview, do you have the new recording – you know my artist is playing a showcase – do you need a pass?” This is the man calmly working the room for a client: Ringo Starr, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Barry Manilow, Bob Geldof, Pete Seeger, Jerry Garcia, Monty Python, Randy Bachman, Nickelback, Sinead O’Connor, Steve Miller, The Smashing Pumpkins, Little Big Town, Black Label Society, Natalie MacMaster, DJ Khaled, Carole King, Dr. John, Dwight Yoakam, Fred Eaglesmith, Ani DiFranco, Dan Zanes, Opeth, Cradle Of Filth, Jordan Knight, Chickenfoot, Bush, Duran Duran, Jeff Dunham, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Slash, Andy Kim, Robert Palmer, Rival Sons, Colin James, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Murray McLachlan, Steve Vai, John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, Snoop Dogg, Allman Brothers, Sesame Street, The Wiggles, Public Enemy, Ziggy Marley, Underworld, Frank Black, KRS-One, Steve Earle, Bruce Cockburn, Mick Fleetwood, Steven Van Zandt, King Crimson, Madness, The Cult, Christine McVie, RZA, The English Beat, and hundreds more can attest to his abilities.

Eric also has an encyclopedic memory concerning specific events and milestones associated with music. CTV, CBC, CITY-TV make Eric first call when human loss must be addressed or technology spins another direction. This Eric does with clarity and sensitivity of thought and deep-rooted passion. I thought, why not corner the busy man and collect a few impressions.

 Bill King: When did your interest in media begin?

Eric Alper: I had a subscription to Billboard magazine when I was twelve. That lifelong addiction to music was in me since birth, and Billboard fed me stories about people I could only dream of meeting - forget about working with. I’ve managed to meet most of them, and still so honoured for that.

B.K: Are your roots in Toronto?

E.A: Yes, my family started in the Kensington Market area, and then moved north. My grandfather couldn’t have been a better role model, opening Grossman’s Tavern in the 1940s, and telling me stories about the music industry and music bringing people together.

B.K: Where did you attend school and what was young Eric’s interests?

E.A: I went to W.L. Mackenzie and moved up north to Richmond Hill from the Keele/Sheppard area just before attending. I was one of those kids who used his grandmother’s address to go to the school to where my friends were. I think this is the first time I’ve ever mentioned this in print. I had nightmares of not finishing an exam back in the 90s’, this might overtake that dream now.

E.A: I think they were just giddy I didn’t get into as much trouble as I could have. They propelled me into supporting myself and offered support wherever they thougt it could help. I was humming along through University and started my record label, booking agency, and PR company the day after I graduated.

B.K: Did you attend many concerts – if so, which left a lasting impression?

E.A: My first concert was Abba in 1979, and then Genesis in 1981, and then The Who in 1982. My soul was satisfied, telling my brain “I thought you might like this a little bit.” Nirvana just before they launched Nevermind, My Bloody Valentine making the tinnitus that much worse, and U2’s Achtung Baby tour has to be in my top shows I’ve ever seen.

B.K: What was your first job and how long did you hang with it?

E.A: I was an usher and moved up to box office manager at Leah Posluns Theatre for a few years. That was when people lined up overnight to get concert tickets. It was an all-night party and scoring seats in the morning the victory.

B.K: Were you an avid record collector?

E.A: Not for collecting sake. I was never about that. The first record I ever bought was Jerry Lee Lewis’ Whole Lotta Shaking Goin’ On. My first full album was Saturday Night Fever. I love both with equal memories.

I got REALLY into CDs and got to take home a copy of most releases at KOCH and eOne for almost 20 years – overall, I had around 15,000-20,000 CDs. I donated pretty much 98% of them to Value Village this year. I hope they blow someone’s mind as much as it did for me.

B.K: When you got your first PR assignment who walked you through the process or mentored?

E.A: I can’t remember the first client, but I did PR for the Free Times Café, early on. I knew what all the other publicists were charging and just had three philosophies: Do it better, do it faster, and do it cheaper than anyone else. I’m not sure about the better part, it was a learn-on-the-job thing. But Judy from the FTC taught me a lot about life and doing what you love to do. The rest of the PR training came with making mistakes daily.

B.K: Who was your first paying client?

E.A: I don’t remember the first couple of years, it was all a blur - out every night meeting potential bands and artists as clients and working during the day - seven days a week, making little money but loving every single moment of it.

B.K: What informed you this was a field of work that suited you?

E.A: I can’t do anything else, and I would make a terrible third baseman for the Blue Jays.

B.K: There were several established PR persons who themselves had become celebrities of note. Were you able to reach out to any of them and ask for advice?

E.A: I was always afraid to, to be honest. I just followed what I thought I should be doing, and just did that. The other PR pros in Toronto and Canada paved the road not just for me but helped hundreds and thousands of artists in this country. It’s no understatement for me to say I am entirely in their debt and wouldn’t be here without them.

B.K: How did you learn to navigate the often-prickly nature of artists uncomfortable with fame and promotional demands?

E.A: Same as before and still do. I’ve read enough stories and talked to plenty of artists who have gone through the peaks and valleys, and I try to let them know what they’re going through might not be as different as others, and here’s how they handled it. This is a business of serious competition, mostly from people we don’t deal with at all, but they set the tone, and we navigate through as best we can.

B.K: Have you been able to build long term relationships with clients whose star has dimmed as time rolls on?

E.A: Those are my favourite clients. The ones who are in it, keep occupied by doing whatever they do, and I have fun pitching the media on anniversaries of songs and albums. Those artists are much calmer, with less at stake, but are no less honourable or powerful or passionate about their current works.

B.K: You’ve adapted well to social media – when others shoot blanks. What was it you understood others didn’t get?

E.A: I’m on social media purely for my enjoyment and what I can give to others. I get to share releases, facts, news, photos, and videos that I find fascinating. And I don’t talk about politics or get involved at all with every argument I’m invited to, and I’m never negative on any topic.

B.K: How much work time is necessary to spread the word across the numerous social media platforms?

E.A: Roughly an hour and a half, and usually before anyone else wakes up in the house.

B.K: What works best?

E.A: Hootsuite is the best 3rd-party app for social media, and I use it more than the actual platforms.

B.K: There was a time musicians nearly poisoned Facebook, Instagram and others with endless gig postings and the constant barrage of self-promotion. Do you see artists now taking a more nuanced approach?

E.A: I think musicians are still promoting themselves, and that’s a good thing. What changed was they forgot that if the product is free, they’re the ones being sold. Relying too much on any platform to do the promoting for you at no cost is tough to fathom. When FB changed the algorithm and forced brands to either boost or post or buy an ad, that’s when the bands had to make the change. Now, if you’re a fan of a band, you’ll be lucky to even see a post or two a month, without going to their page. It’s now a more nuanced approach, but a cost-prohibitive one many have had to take.

B.K: What advice would you give them?

E.A: Stop worrying about data, I’m not sure anyone knows how to best use it except for their small piece of the industry. Create the best music you can, and always think long-term. Don’t worry about getting paid in the beginning; worry about being ignored.

B.K: When something of seismic importance erupts around contemporary music, you seemingly get the first or second call along with Alan Cross. Are you continually devouring the music landscape and storing that information back of the mind?

E.A: For sure, and I’m genuinely honoured even to be mentioned with Alan. We’re both fans of not only the music itself, but the people who make it, and how things happen within and outside of the industry.

B.K: You and daughter Hannah have this great bond and patrons of social justice causes. Both are adept with social media and excellent communicators. How did this develop between the two of you?

E.A: Listening to her and her needs are a big part of it, too. Early on my wife and I took her to as many shows as possible, and that lead to talking about being a global citizen, why things happen the way they do, teaching them about empathy, love, support, and an all-too-realistic view that people might not like what you’re doing, anyway. She found her spark on her own, and she was never afraid to be on stage or take on the opportunity of writing a book. All of it filled her with excitement, and of course, so are we.

B.K: What are discussions around the Alper dinner table like?

E.A: Mostly now school and her social activities. Current events, and what to watch this weekend.

B.K: What do you see as your most notable success stories – the one’s where music, the artist, the label and media successfully worked in tandem to break a band or recording?

E.A: I love when the producers, program directors, hosts, writers, photographer, editors and other people who work in the media tell me their stories about seeing this artist or that band as a teenager, and they’re quietly overly-excited about them coming into the studio or talking to them for a feature. It's my favourite part of continuing to work in the industry, and a powerful statement of hard work and following your dreams to get to do what you want in life.

B.K: What has been your greatest disappointment?

E.A: Oh, I have disappointments quietly daily. I’m just selfishly trying to make it through the day like everyone else is. The biggest regret I can think of wasn’t even that, they did me a favour.

B.K: With 25 years in the industry, on reflection, would you have chosen another career?

E.A: Never. I’ve never had a moment to wonder where do I go from here. This is it. I’ve found my island and everyone is invited.

B.K: What’s for dinner?

E.A: Whatever you want. I’m buying.

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