We were sitting in a smoke-filled local bar, and I was chatting with Canadian blues guitarist, Frank Cosentino, about trying to "make it" as an artist in Canada.
Frank knows all about this particular subject, he has been trying for the past 15 years.
So who is Frank Cosentino anyway, and why am I writing this piece?
Frank Cosentino is an incredibly gifted musician and song-writer, a really terrific teacher and an all-round nice person. He shares the same problems that many other talented artists have - he is getting nowhere in his native Canada. I'm writing this piece because of all of the above, and because I feel its a shame that we are letting Frank and his like slip through our fingers.
Some Background: For me it all started because of a few guitar lessons.
When I first met Frank Cosentino, he scared the living daylights out of me. Masses of flowing, curly, shoulder-length black hair, a powerful frame, a five-o'clock shadow, and a "don't-mess-with-me" look. I would sometimes see him headed up to the local bakery for a coffee, when I went on errands in the area. I heard that he was a local musician.
After years of overly simple chording on my guitar - Michael Row Your Boat, and other such memorable ditties - I took the plunge and decided to sign up for "real" guitar lessons at our local music store. (After I gave up on becoming a bus driver, my greatest ambition was to be a blues guy.)
I was told that my future teacher was one of the best guitar teachers in Etobicoke. One that would be able to help me develop my meager skills, and perhaps even bring out some - hitherto hidden - talent.
The day I arrived at the store for my first lesson, I found myself face to face with the man with the long black hair.
He was my new guitar teacher.
So here I was - Ovation in hand, trepidation in heart. I squeezed into the tiny lesson cubicle, filled to bursting with Franks' various guitars and amps. Frank was perched on a stool practicing scales on a gorgeous electric guitar. Luckily his playing drowned out my knocking knees.
A big, friendly smile greeted me, and I was invited to sit. Frank had a look at the vintage Ovation, gave it an appreciative pat and quick tune up, and asked me about my lesson goals. I explained that while I had taught myself basic chording, what I really wanted to do was to be able to actually play the blues, and do some of those really neat riffs some of the old, classic, "dirty" blues guys do.
Frank immediately said "no problem..." , and explained that he was going to give me some stuff to get that "left hand moving fast and sure", and "the right hand so it could figure out which strings to strum ...".
He played a few skillful and tantalizing riffs. When my jaw dropped, he explained that in order to achieve his speed and accuracy he practiced eight hours per day. He was in the Jazz course at Humber College under legendary teacher Peter Harris (since deceased), and even though Franks' favorite music was Texas blues, he relentlessly followed Harris' tough schedule and played scales and finger exercises every single day.
When I left my first lesson with Frank, he had loaded me down with enough "homework" to keep me busy for about six months.
As my lessons continued, I started to get to know Frank as a person. I found out that he had his own band and he and they were playing "gigs" every weekend, and some week-nights; that he taught every afternoon; went to school several times a week; practiced any time he could; AND was in the process of making an album. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I would get to the lesson in time to hear Frank playing something he'd written.
It's who you know ...
So, it's several years later, and we're here in this smoky bar, and I'm trying to understand why my guitar teacher is not number one on the charts.
Frank and his group, The Frank Cosentino Band (whose members change from time to time.... but at the time of writing was made up of Todd Reynolds on drums, and Gary Arbour on bass guitar) were about to start their first set. I was there both to listen to my favorite blues guitarist - Frank - and to get some background for this article.
So far, the discussion had given ME the idea that unless you have the right contacts, or can catch the eye (ear) of the right person, your best chance for success is to go across the border, or leave the country to get some attention.
Most of the people at the table were pretty much in agreement on THAT issue.
What about agents, or well-connected managers?
Just try to get them, was the reply. Sure, there are agents and wanna-be managers out there, a dime a dozen. What there are NOT, is very many really top-notch people who are WILLING to take on a so-called unknown artist.
Hey wait a minute, let me make sure I understood this correctly! So, you can't get well known without a good agent or manager, but in order to get well known, you need a good agent or manager. To me, this sounds like a classic case of "Catch 22".
It appears that talent and ability have a very slight role in this "attracting-the-right-person" thing. You only have to listen to some of the groups that have managed to hit the charts over the last few years. It seems as though if the real live reincarnation of Jimi Hendrix could walk in, if he didn't have the right contacts, he'd be playing zilch! Everyone nods gloomily.
Another friend joined us - Mary Armstrong - a talented commercial photographer, whose clients include many rock and roll musicians. She agrees that it's all in the contacts. Its marketing hype; its keeping after the "right" people and bugging them; sending out promotional packages; following up; talking to people. And then there it is again, she says: "what you really need is a really good manager...". So we were right back where we started.
What got Frank Started.
Frank was just an ordinary sixteen year old kid, doing okay at high school, that just loved to play guitar.
Then his whole life changed after his uncle took him to a Jimi Hendrix movie.
Suddenly, it wasn't just the usual sixteen-year old fixation on playing the rock guitar. Now Frank was interested in finding out all about this guy, Hendrix. He wanted to know what was behind it all. He checked into other musicians such as: Almar James, Robert Johnson, BB King, Buddy Guy and Stevie Rae Vaughan. He began reading all about them - how they got into their particular style of music, and what made them tick.
He studied everything that was available on these musicians, and tried his best to understand and emulate their styles. He enrolled in the Humber College Jazz program, and mainly he played his heart out.
Like many kids who could play a musical instrument, Frank was involved with assorted bands from high school and up. He did all the old circuits, at places like the Gasworks and Yonge Station. He played all the music of the day, whatever it happened to be.
But all the time, Frank was working steadily toward his goal, which was to be a blues guy - his way.
As I said at the beginning, Frank has been trying for fifteen years. The first seven years were tough, but when Frank decided that he was not going to play main-stream rock anymore, but would stick to straight blues, the going got a lot tougher.
It seems that club owners (for the most part)want the top 40's. This is what their crowd likes, and is the music that brings the buying crowd in; keeps them at the bar, and keeps the beer flowing.
Obviously, this is not good news for artists like Frank. Having decided that he wanted to be a Texas-style blues purist, Franks feels rather strongly against compromising, or returning to playing the "hits of the day" type of thing. It's not that he can't play the stuff - Frank can play anything from Classical music to pop rock - but he's "been there, done that", and wants to move on.
The trouble is, that the venues for his kind of music are extremely limited, and there is stiff competition for the few remaining choices.
The guys in the band share some thoughts about the current state of music affairs: Bass player Gary Arbour says that the music biz was a lot more open back in the '70s and '80s. There was much more interest in signing on musicians. Now, he says "Getting backers is a really tough go these days...everyone's really tight with their investment money...". Todd Reynolds, drummer, agrees: "You need money. You need LOTS of money for promotions. And that money's REALLY hard to get."
I get the feeling that there's not much investment in music happening in our fair Canada at the present time! They all agree that right now, in the '90's the going is REALLY tough.
So what can someone like Frank Cosentino possibly do to break into the "inner circle"?
The bottom line? Keep after the contacts; market like crazy; send out promotional packages; follow-up every lead, and finally, keep on believing that there IS a way to make it in Canada. Even though it seems as though for a Canadian artist, the chances for success are slim without off-shore money - you can do what Frank and the boys are doing: Keep on trying.
Certainly, if talent, determination, perseverance and honesty have anything to do with succeeding, then Frank is going to make it.
My wish and hope is that we can change the picture for Canadian talent - instead of chasing them across the border - make them successful right here in Canada.
Authors Note: Over the past several years - although I have continued to be Frank's pupil - sadly, I have realized that it is not in the stars for me to be a "blues guy", but at least I can live it vicariously through Franks amazing playing.
by Louise Peacock