10 Jun U.S. debut of a musical entrepreneur in Chicago: Bernard Lachance
CHICAGO – One week ago, I knew nothing about Bernard Lachance (literally “Lucky Bernie” in French) when I received an invitation from a friend to attend his concert at the Chicago Theatre. Though I thought it might be a yawner, I also thought I’d see it through.
What I didn’t realize was that I’d witness the greatest piece of musical entrepreneurism and viral marketing I have ever seen by a single individual. Take one virtually unknown French-Canadian, bring him to a major Chicago theatre – the Chicago Theatre – and without any advertising have him fill it using viral marketing via YouTube and person-to-person contact.
So, you ask, who is Mr. Lucky? According to his Web site, Bernard was born some 34 years ago in 1974 in a suburb of Quebec in Canada. He grew up in a musical household as his father taught music at a local school. His sister trained as a classical pianist. While Lachance initially attended the Quebec Conservatory of Music to study trumpet, he also dabbled in piano and singing.
In 1992 at the age of 18, he left for Montreal to follow his dream of breaking into show business, according to his Web site. He took vocal lessons and attended various local TV shows as a member of the audience to get a feel of what it would be like to be in front of camera and gain insights on showmanship.
After two years of crafting his musical business plan, Lachance returned to his hometown of Montmagny to try out the formula: mailing a copy of a demo tape to every citizen in the town, which was some 11,000 citizens. On Sept. 17, 1994 at the age of 20, he performed his first solo concert there to a sold-out audience.
Within the next 7 years, Lachance produced and sold two albums on his own. The first was “Seul” (1998) and the second was “ad tibitum” (2001). Without a record deal, he was able to sell 10,000 albums of the second album by himself.
Lachance soon decided to set up his own concerts in Quebec at the Capitole Theatre and the Bell Centre in Montreal. He sold his own tickets with a unique style. He creates a floor plan of each theatre on a white T-shirt and roams the streets near each theatre with a pair of headphones and tickets in hand. Lachance – with his friendly and quirky yet inviting style – stops passersby to let them hear his music and cajoles them into buying a ticket.
To symbolize the purchase, Lachance then marks off on his T-shirt floor plan the seat that is being sold in front of the purchaser. Both concert halls were sold out! But it doesn’t stop there as Lachance choreographs the show, hires the hall himself, hires musicians and even large choirs without a manager, an agent or a publicist. The Bell Centre is no small theatre and Lachance sold some 5,000 tickets there.
In 2006, he produced and sold his third album “While I Remember You”. While this may be interesting, what kind of music does he sing and how good a voice does he have?
Lachance sings in English, French and Italian. His repertoire ranges from Broadway musicals (“The Impossible Dream”) to French and Italian folk and popular songs. An example I heard was a French medley including both Edith Piaf songs and Gilbert Becaud’s “Et Maintenant”. He also has some smatterings of opera. While he’s no Luciano Paverotti or Placido Domingo, Lachance has a pleasant voice with some vocal limits.
Lachance does have amazing stage presence and showmanship. He builds quick rapport with his audience with zestful, boyish energy and an impish grin filled with humor. The French-Canadian accent helps, too.
After Montreal, Lachance struck out for cosmopolitan Toronto, which is a city very much like Chicago. Using this same formula of booking the theatre with his own money and selling his own tickets one by one, he sold out the Massey Centre in Sept. 2007.
He employed a musical choir of 150 amateur singers who all wanted to join him on stage, according to Buzz Canuck, which is a Canadian musical blog. He apparently did some something similar in Montreal with a 700-person choir. Lachance asked each member of the choir to sell one ticket each to eight close friends, which is a gutsy move.
Lachance had even bigger dreams: to come to the U.S. and make his U.S. debut in Chicago at the Chicago Theatre. He came on Nov. 4, 2008, which is the day Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency, and met with the management of the theatre. For $18,000 (his last savings), he was able to book his one and only show for June 6, 2009. The Chicago Theatre has some 3,500 seats, which is no easy feat to fill.
Lachance came to Chicago in April 2009. Using his now-characteristic and one-on-one approach in the streets of Chicago along with his unique theatre floor plan T-shirt (and without an agent or manager), he began selling tickets. Sales were slow. Lachance noted the success of YouTube in the U.S. and created his own video directed to Chicago celebrity Oprah Winfrey. He posted that on YouTube.
In the video, he offers Oprah and her business partner and friend Gayle King two free tickets to his concert.
He got no response until one day in late April when Gayle King pulls up in a black SUV, and while filming him, tells the stunned and emotional Lachance the bad news that Oprah will be out of the country during the time of his concert. Though crestfallen, Lachance is relayed the news that he’s invited to sing on Oprah’s show on May 6, 2009 in front of 6.3 million viewers. He sings “The Impossible Dream” from Man of La Mancha. Ticket sales begin to take off.
But Lachance doesn’t wait for fate alone.
He places an ad in the local Chicago papers asking for singers interested in singing in a choir at the Chicago Theatre. He receives more than 1,000 contacts and finally screens and selects more than 200 choirists for the show. Lachance asks each of them to sell four tickets to their friends as the price for participating in the choir. It wasn’t clear, but I don’t think any of the choir got paid for their efforts. This would guarantee at least 800 tickets at $40 a pop or some $32,000.
Lachance hired a 20-person orchestra to accompany him on June 6, 2009. I understood that at least 2,500 tickets were sold (the downstairs level was packed) and there was amazing buzz in the air before, during and after the show.
Lachance also got Brooks Brothers, MasterCard and the Four Seasons Hotel as sponsors to his concert. He appeared in a black tuxedo (Brooks Brothers, of course) and charmed the audience with his exuberance and humor. He appeared amazingly adept as an old professional. In the middle of the first set, he invited on stage another Quebec singer friend named Sabrina Ferland. With her operatic voice, she sang a duet with Lachance.
During the first set, Lachance – ever the viral marketer – has the orchestra leader film him in a monologue to address fellow French-Canadian international singer star Celine Dion with an invitation to sing with him while telling her that Lachance is performing live in Chicago. This has already been posted on YouTube. While this video clip isn’t high quality, it captures the live ambience of the concert and the zestful fun of Lachance.
The second set was under way when in the middle of the first song the curtain behind the orchestra rises to reveal the 200-person choir, which is one huge choir. The voices are tremendous. How Lachance screened, hired, rehearsed and matched them in time all by himself (with only two very limited rehearsals) is a mystery. The choir stays for the entire second act with intermittent support to his many songs.
At least 80 percent of the choir members were women of all ages with the remainder men. Sabrina Ferland comes back again to accompany him on some more duets. Lachance does two encores to standing ovation. Walking out of the Chicago Theatre and later doing research on Lachance, I was shocked at how this relative novice had through sheer audacity, tenaciousness and sheer chutzpah created a knockout show in Chicago with incredibly limited resources.
Where Lachance goes next is not clear. That said, he has definitively made an impact on Chicago. I’m sure the combination of Oprah, YouTube and the concert will take him to another more visible level quickly. Whether his singing talent can sustain him is left to be seen.
The man possesses a bit of the old Barnum & Bailey and a shrewd mind for guerilla marketing that I haven’t seen in show business. He certainly caught Oprah’s eye. At a time when it’s very difficult to raise money for new ventures and businesses, Bernard “Mr. Lucky” Lachance has shown verve, audacity and shrewdness in launching his musical career into the U.S. on a shoestring budget.
This article previously appeared in MidwestBusiness.com, and was reprinted with its permission. The article is not meant to be a stock recommendation.
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