Chris Burke-Gaffney: The Quiet Impresario
Friday, 28 March 2008 09:44
Written by Kelly Parker
The rooms occupied by Burke-Gaffney’s CBG Artist Development are, in fact, delineated in just that way. Located on the fourth floor of an Exchange District bank building, the business space – comfortably laid out with the usual office accoutrements – is adjacent to, and deliberately separated by a wall from, the creative space, which contains the usual assortment of guitars, keyboards, computers and mixing boards, and a lounge area dominated by a large ping pong table.
It was at this table, during a break in recording, that the award-winning artist known as Little Hawk – a.k.a Troy Westwood – a man not unfamiliar with the challenges of living in two worlds – noticed that Burke Gaffney was limping from a rec-league hockey injury. Westwood recommended former Bomber trainer Jeff Fisher, who Burke-Gaffney now swears by.
“(Fisher’s) so good. But man, the workouts are a killer!” he says. And necessary if Burke-Gaffney wants to continue leaping around the stage during annual shows with his band: The Pumps. With members now in their 50s, the band (formerly Orphan) spawned several hits in the 1980s, including “Miracle,” a single still getting regular airplay on Canadian radio. Penned by Burke-Gaffney after the birth of one of his two now-grown sons, the song is partly about the responsibilities of family, which is one of the things that prompted him to stop “being a rock star,” as he puts it, in the early 90s.
“People say that if things are meant to be, they’ll happen,” he explains. “I wanted to be writing songs for other people and to be developing younger artists so that I could still be creative.” He continued playing in cover bands at local clubs, including the Rolling Stone Cabaret, which was owned by now-Mayor Sam Katz and Bruce Rathbone. It was at that club that he met a young singer/songwriter named Chantal Kreviazuk, a meeting which would have a profound affect on the rest of his career.
Burke-Gaffney and Kreviazuk began writing songs together and he began sending packages to record labels to gauge industry response. Within a week, four of the six labels had replied, all expressing interest. Even then, Burke-Gaffney wasn’t thinking about managing the young singer, thanks in part to his own experiences as an artist. “Like a lot of other people, I had this stereotypical image in my mind of managers being these sort of fat guys with lots of chains who just sort of ripped you off and were sleazebags,” he laughs.
Fate, however, had other plans. “Chantal said, ‘I want you to be my manager because you’ve taken me up to this point already,’” he explains. “I told her that I didn’t really think I was a manager, but I got to thinking that this might be fun. You know there are certain things about the way your father brings you up, and you say to yourself as a kid, ‘Boy, when I’m a dad, I’m not going to do that kind of stuff. I’m going to do this kind of stuff” that was kind of my approach to managing. I was just kind of plunged into a fire that I didn’t expect to be in, but I learned a whole lot.”
After steering Kreviazuk’s career through a three-year period that included landing her an unprecedented (for an untested artist) big-money deal with Sony, and co-writing much of the material on her double-platinum debut album Under These Rocks and Stones, Burke-Gaffney started to feel the pull of his creative roots, prompting him to leave his position of manager to concentrate on songwriting and producing.
By this time, he had built himself a reputation as a regular guy who was adept at working with young and developing artists in the studio. Largely by accident, he had also built the reputation as a great manager, someone who was the antithesis of the sleazy, cigar-chomping stereotype. Soon some very talented people were beating a path to his door.
Then fate intervened again, this time as the file-sharing revolution took off. “In retrospect, I didn’t know that the music industry was going to go to shit, (so getting into artist development) was a good move because the record companies don’t allow artists a few years to grow anymore,” he explains. “Because sales are dropping, those in the industry have to wear more hats and the fact that I was a songwriter, and a manager, and a producer, meant that I could do all of those things. I was kind of lucky that way.”
The challenges presented by the current state of the music business are testing everything Burke-Gaffney has learned over the years. The bulk of his management energies at the moment centre around Kyle Riabko, a Saskatoon soul/funk prodigy whom Burke-Gaffney has mentored since Riabko was 14, and has since secured a deal for with Columbia Records.
Burke-Gaffney manages all aspects of Riabko’s career, taking full advantage of the current multimedia options available, in order to break this artist of substance in the age of Britney Spears.
Burke-Gaffney knows that record companies are looking for artists who come with a ready-made profile. Success like that of Daughtry and Hedley can be linked to the fact that both the singers of those bands spent weeks competing on American Idol and Canadian Idol. Getting those same results through marketing would cost way more than any record label is willing to put up, so Burke-Gaffney’s strategy is to raise Riabko’s profile by crossing over into television.
It so happens that he writes for a Canadian-produced show called Instant Star, which airs on Nickelodeon in the U.S. Using this connection, he secured Riabko appearances in several episodes playing a rock star — the first performer to guest on the show playing his own live music. He’s now trying to parlay those appearances into bigger things.
In late 2007 Burke-Gaffney headed to New York to speak with Nickelodeon about releasing a three-song EP, then incorporating footage from the show and getting it all up online to cross-promote both. He also secured his client an acting agent at mega-agency CAA in L.A., where Riabko charmed his way to several film auditions, including one in the next Oliver Stone picture. “In this era in the music business, these are the kinds of things you have to do,” says Burke-Gaffney.
Combine that marketing savvy with a network of artists gathered during his years as a performer and producer, and you’ve got something unique. “Record companies know I can take an artist here who is super talented in one area but missing something in another and help them,” he says. “I have this network of people and I just plug everybody into each other so that when I bring the artist to the label, they’re ready, which gives them the upper hand over someone the label just sees in a club.”
Kyle Riabko – calling from Baltimore during a U.S. tour – emphasizes the one thing that might be Chris Burke-Gaffney’s greatest strength: his nature. “When I ask him a question, he will never start talking before he knows the answer,” says Riabko. “Everything he does is for a reason. He’s not just going through the motions. We’ve had so many deep conversations – probably more than I’ve had with any other person in my life – about life, career, business, even love, and in all of those conversations, he’s never said a single thing that he didn’t believe. I think that’s the sign of a good manager and a good person.”
You can take the manager out of the dad…
~Photos by Kelly Parker