The Legacy Of Gord Downie

Gord Downie, frontman for one of Canada’s most beloved acts, The Tragically Hip, died Oct. 17. His consistent output and touring, the strength of connection he fostered with his audience and the impact of his activism ensures his memory will long outlive his physical form.

Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip
Dan Harper /
– Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip
MTS Centre, Winnipeg, MB, Canada

“I think most of the people that are fans of his and the band over a long period of time, they already have an intimate relationship with him because it was that kind of music and people attach themselves to it,”  The Tragically Hip’s agent, Jeff Craib of The Feldman Agency, told Pollstar. “He sang about issues and different things in the country that people really connected to. It’s a little different than some bands where it’s something that’s just entertaining. This was entertaining to people but it also meant something, it was commentary about our country, so people became very passionate. 

“Most people already know Gord and The Hip. For anyone who doesn’t, they’ll probably discover something over a period of time just because of how deep the legacy is for Gord and for the band in this country. They stood for a lot of things and they used their platform and influence as change-makers for all kinds of different things. It’s really a lot more than a band for the country. I think over time the people that weren’t as tuned into this – although there aren’t many – will be, because I think the legacy will last for a long time.”

The announcement of Downie’s death came through The Tragically Hip’s website today, stating that the singer quietly passed away with his beloved children and family close by.

The group revealed in May 2016 that Downie had been diagnosed with brain cancer and that the band would be launching a Canadian tour, with many understanding that this could be their last chance to see the singer.

“People were in each others houses, in yards, in the arena. Almost every community broadcast that show. It’s hard to explain how deep this is to people that weren’t involved and aren’t fans, but it really affected everybody,” Craib said.

The tour was one of the defining cultural events in Canada in 2016 and one of the hottest tickets of the year. When the final show in Kingston, Ontario, was broadcast on national television 11.7 million tuned in according to the CBC. The population of Canada is estimated at 36.2 million, meaning just under one-third of the country was watching when the band played what would be its final show with Downie.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wept while speaking on Downie’s passing.

“Gord was my friend,” Trudeau said. “But he was everyone’s friend … our buddy Gord, who loved this country with everything he had. And not just with a nebulous ‘Oh, I love Canada’ way, he loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life.”

At The Hip’s last performance Downie acknowledged Trudeau, who was in the audience, and called on him to improve the lot of Canada’s aboriginal population in the North “that we were trained our entire lives to ignore.”

Here at Pollstar, we don’t encounter many bands as devoted to touring Canada as The Tragically Hip was. In addition to regularly playing large markets in the country, our records show plenty of shows in places like Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; Kelowna, British Columbia; and Red Deer, Alberta.

“They would decide ‘We want to play in Niagara On The Lake.’ And then collectively we would go down and find a concert site, and create it, and the people would come. They had the ability to do things that a lot of other artists will probably never be able to do because they have that connection with people nationally that they could go anywhere,” Craib said.

The Hip certainly did tour other regions, but the group’s bread and butter was Canada. From the 164 Canadian shows we have reports on, the band moved more than 1.4 million tickets and grossed more than $67 million. The group was averaging nearly 9,000 tickets in those reported shows.

 “There was always demand for them to play. We tried to balance that out carefully so when they did do things, they did it in a meaningful way. They went out on multiple types of tours, whether they packaged festivals or whether they were just doing arena tours, or whatever they ended up doing. …  If they decided to do something more intimate, they would do a 4-night stand in one city and never repeat a song. They would come in and if somebody decided to go to more than one show and they were able to get tickets, these guys are blowing through seventy songs. So they certainly never took the easy route and they were super considerate, Gord in particular, of how devoted their fans were. I think they gave it back to them in spades and that’s why they had such a loyal following for so many years.”

Ironically, The Tragically Hip’s final tour with Downey gave impetus to change in the music industry in an unintended way. So high was the demand for Hip tickets during the tour that prices on the secondary market skyrocketed. Despite efforts by the band – which added shows, held tickets back, and reserved them for fan clubs – the enormous demand shone a spotlight on just how much scalpers were able to make by grabbing their tickets first.

Now Ontario legislators are considering banning the use of “bots” to purchase tickets and capping resale prices at 50 percent above face value. The CBC’s “Marketplace” also looked into the intricacies of the secondary market in light of The Hip tour.  It wouldn’t be far-fetched to think that the negative press associated with such high-profile tours is what some refer to as the “direct-to-fan movement” in Europe, and efforts like Ticketmaster’s Verified Fan to contain the secondary market.

“Tens of thousands of fans across Ontario told us they are frustrated and want to see changes. It’s not fair to fans when tickets sell out in seconds and show up on resale sites at a massive markup. That’s why we are changing the rules to make sure fans come first and to give everyone a fair shot at getting the tickets they want,” Attorney General Yasir Naqvi, who unveiled The Ticket Sales Act in June, said.

The Tragically Hip released an eponymous EP debut in 1987 and has averaged a new album every 2-3 for the remainder of the group’s existence, totaling 13 studio albums. Downie also released numerous solo projects, including 2016’s Secret Path and the forthcoming Introduce Yerself, which was recorded over the past two years. The latter album will be released Oct. 27.

Beyond his work as a musician, performer and activist though, friends and family of Downie paint him as a tireless worker and as one sincerely devoted to those he loved.

Mark Mattson, founder of Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, which Downie supported for the entirety of its existence, wrote: “One afternoon we were hanging by the fire and someone asked Gord how he gets up every night to perform so powerfully and always connects with his audience. He got up and left without saying a word. He returned with logs in his arms. He placed two or three on the fire, shook up the pile and sat back to watch the sparks fly. We resumed drinking our wine. Enough said … you do the work and the spark, the magic will take care of itself.”