Tales from the (not so) dark side

Jon Asher, CertPRMgmt’07, says the death metal bands he helps promote are often misunderstood. Opera can be pretty violent too, you know.

by Richard Andrews

Jon Asher (left) with Gene Hoglan, a prominent heavy metal drummer who has played for several bands including Death, Testament and Fear Factory (Photo courtesy of Jon Asher)

Why is a nice boy from the Montreal suburbs hanging out with tattooed devil worshippers obsessed with medieval death and torture?

As a picture of youthful innocence in cargo shorts, Jon Asher, CertPRMgmt’07, smiles when asked variations of that question.

Since graduating from the public relations management program in McGill’s School for Continuing Studies, Asher has emerged as a go-to publicist for Canadian musicians ranging from hip hop and soul to folk and punk theatre. But he has developed a particular expertise in assisting the careers of independent heavy metal groups.

“Originally I wanted a career in corporate PR,” he says. "But I had no industry contacts or experience and couldn’t find a job. One day I realized I had a ready-made network of musicians from my days in a Montreal band and started Asher Media five years ago in my mother’s basement.”

The young entrepreneur found that his experience in music, combined with his newly-acquired PR skills, helped him to choose and promote groups with potential.

“At first I approached unknown artists that I thought had a future,” he says. “I had early success getting publicity for some heavy metal groups and they became a niche market.”

Asher believes many misconceptions surround heavy metal and its outlying sub-genres of death metal and black metal.

“Not all metalheads look like pierced and tattooed extras from a Mad Max movie,” he says. “Some wear suits and could be sitting in the cubicle next to you. They just like the music.”

According to Asher, the gothic icons and demonic references are just part of the show and a way for “Average Joes” to identify with an underground movement. He also points out that many lyrics have a contemporary social or political message.

“Whether it’s classical, jazz, rap or metal, all genres of music have an image that does not necessarily represent the real lives of the fans or musicians,” he argues. “Not all opera buffs stab their lovers outside a bullfight.”

“Black Sabbath gained notoriety for biting the head off a live bat onstage, but that was an exception. I went to lunch with the drummer from Cannibal Corpse and he’s a vegan.”

Asher’s choice of employees reflects such lifestyle diversity. Barbara, his on-site “media genius” is a pentalingual communications graduate and an international tattoo guru.

The team’s part-time researcher is a hearse driver named Max. “He’s also a McGill psychology student, but I kid him that he commutes from death to death metal for a living.”

In fact, research and psychology play a vital role in Asher’s strategies for the timing, use and choice of social, print and electronic media to generate interest in his artists.

“Publicity stunts are also important,” he says. “For online purposes they need to be short and simple with a wow moment.”

Surefire Machine guitarist Zeke Galt receives a tattoo under very unusual circumstances (Photo courtesy of Jon Asher)

One memorable stunt involved Surefire Machine guitarist Zeke Galt, who jumped from a plane to have the band’s logo tattooed on his arm by another freefalling skydiver as they plummeted at 200 kph before opening their parachutes.

“The band’s name, music and character were widely promoted online and by national TV. The video was even broadcast in Sweden,” says Asher proudly.

More dangerous, it seems, are activities by over-excited fans at heavy metal concerts.

“Some mosh pits turn out badly,” says Asher. “I’ve seen kids jump from two floors up and break their legs. We’ve also had some problems with stalkers who got out of hand and harassed artists.

“But overall, I find the metal scene very communal. The musicians are very supportive of one another and this is a job I truly love. One of my greatest pleasures is attending a performance by a deserving artist I’ve helped promote and watching fans ask for autographs.”

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