Ethan Bortnick Just Wants To Entertain
If you haven’t seen Bortnick live, perhaps you’ve caught him chatting with Jay Leno or seen his appearances on “Good Morning America” and “Oprah.” A prodigy who can play a piece of music after hearing it only once, his 2011 residency at the Las Vegas Hilton Theater made him the youngest performer ever to headline Vegas.
Or maybe you caught Bortnick on PBS. In 2010 the entertainer became the youngest musician to create and host his own award-winning, nationally televised concert special on the public television network. During that same year, Bortnick released his debut CD and DVD – Ethan Bortnick & His Musical Time Machine – on Razor & Tie.
Bortnick and his tour producer, PB&K’s Tony Manzo, talked with Pollstar about touring, his upcoming tour with Kidz Bop Kids, his movie currently in post production and why family audiences all over the world love the diminutive piano pounder.
What is a typical day like for you?
It depends on if I’m on tour or I’m at home. If I’m on tour, I’ll wake up, have some breakfast and then maybe see something in the city. Then [I’ll] go to soundcheck and have dinner. Then I’ll visit a hospital. … We’ll do some shows for them in the hospital. We help a lot with Children’s Miracle Network.
Then there’s the show, and then I’ll go to sleep. Actually, I’ll eat a lot, because for some reason I’m not hungry before a show. But after a show, man, I can eat the entire world. And then I go to sleep.
At home, I’m having a regular day.
What can you tell us about your upcoming tour?
It’s going to be a lot of fun. We’re doing 22 cities. Kidz Bop is opening. I’m going to do classical, jazz, rock ’n’ roll, Top 40, my own music. I’m going to do lots of surprises … people can ask me questions and I’ll answer them. We’ll do this ringtone segment where I hear a ringtone from someone’s cell phone, copy it and make it into a song. We’re going to film people during the shows and get kids to play with me on stage. Every show is going to be different.
Performing in front of audiences, seeing the world, appearing on television – Do you sometimes feel as if you’re living a dream come true?
My dad says it’s pretty cool. … I just have a lot of fun. I just love it. Everything that I do is fun.
What’s your favorite song to play on the piano?
I love all kinds. Classical, I love Mozart. Jazz, Bill Evans is cool. I just love every kind of music, rock ’n’ roll, pop. I like Elton John, Billy Joel, Adele … I love every single type of music. Almost every type. I don’t like heavy metal.
Not a lot of pianos in heavy metal.
Not because of that. Just because my ears are very sensitive and they hurt a lot when I hear it.
Which do you like better: Performing on stage or recording in the studio?
Performing. It’s like a playground. You meet people and you never know what’s going to happen. It’s a different feeling than recording in the studio. But If I had to choose [one], I guess I would choose shows. You travel, you hear new stories, meet new people, [and] eat new food. I love performing but it’s also fun to record in the studio.
You have a movie in post-production called “Anything Is Possible” where you play a boy named “Nathan.” How close is the role to your real life?
He does play piano. He’s in a military family, but my parents aren’t in the military. What’s really close to me and him is that he believes anything is possible, and so do I.
You’ve appeared on stage and worked with so many people. Who would you like to perform with?
Paul McCartney would be cool.
What’s school life like for you?
I love school. I like to learn. When I’m traveling, my teacher gives me homework. When it’s a long trip I do Skype with my teacher.
One of the videos on your website shows you at a charity telethon telling the audience that you’ll play at their homes for half an hour. How did that work out?
That was a long time ago. That was for a charity called One By One. It’s Matt Damon’s charity. We raised a lot of money. Josh Groban ran out of the audience and said he would open for me if they donated more money. So Josh and I did a concert and raised more than $600,000 that night.
You have a natural, very easy-going stage persona. Do you come up with your own between-song banter or does someone help you with that?
I don’t plan it. Whatever comes naturally comes naturally … whatever comes to mind.
What about your set list? Do you pick every song, or does someone help you with that?
Me and my dad come up with songs, but usually it’s two seconds before the show. My dad looks at the audience in the lobby. He brings pictures to me and we decide what kind of music they would like.
Have you always wanted to be a performer? Or do you have other goals such as becoming an astronaut, a ball player or an actor?
When I was really small, I wanted to be a zookeeper.
After speaking with Bortnick, Pollstar spent a few minutes with his tour promoter, Tony Manzo of PB&K. Manzo and his company will do close to 75 shows with the young entertainer over the next two-plus years.
What was your first impression of Ethan?
Considering I have three kids. Two boys are pretty close in age, 12 and 14. You look at Ethan and you don’t compare your kids, but you say, “Wow!” Here’s a kid that, even as Oprah talks about him being humble, his heart is unbelievably huge. He has a way of understanding his talents and what they’re purpose is to be used for, to help other people.
That’s what sort of inspired PB&K and us to see that Ethan is bigger than life. His talents as a musician are one thing but his talents as a human being far exceed his age.
Considering how talented and outgoing Nathan is, do adults feel somewhat overwhelmed when meeting him?
We initially came on the scene with Nathan because of a film he was doing called “Anything Is Possible.” Ethan wrote the title track … His traditional crowd has been that PBS crowd. So older audiences can appreciate his musical talent. They are in awe of him from that perspective.
But when you see him being an entertainer and getting up in front of 5,000 people, 10,000 people, you do kind of get overwhelmed. The one thing that is amazing for me about Ethan is … he’s engaged with his fans. He’s engaged with the kids audiences. I’m excited to see how the kids react to his diversity of play. Not just the pop music but they have an ear for classical stuff they don’t even recognize in the typical pop culture. That’s what’s going to be exciting on this tour, how they’re receptive [to Ethan], not only as an entertainer but his diversity of play. How much he can play from memorization, without sheet music, that’s equally impressive.
Considering the rigors of touring, how do you keep Ethan fresh?
I think it’s a balance. I think most of that is done by Gene himself (Ethan’s father, Gene Bortnick). We’ve relied on Gene to know Ethan and Kidz Bop and what keeps them excited. When they’re performing, this is what they love to do. It’s getting there that’s probably part of the boredom, but when they’re on stage, they’re in another world. This is what they dreamed of and this is what they love doing.
For Ethan, he doesn’t get nervous anymore, which is amazing. He’s ready to go, he’s ready to play.
These kids … obviously, they need their rest. They need to eat healthy and do all those things in between but be able to perform at their best possible nature. Ethan likes getting online and blogging with his fans. He likes [saying] “Thanks” to them for coming to the show immediately afterwards on his Facebook site or his fan page. That’s part of his outlet.
Do you think there is an advantage to Ethan beginning his career while still a pre-teen than if he was discovered during his teen years, resulting in being mobbed by girl fans, having to race away from paparazzi and the like?
Gene and I talked about that over the last three months … what his brain is going to be in three years. He’s raised more than $30 million dollars and his goal is to add three more zeroes to that. I don’t think he gets caught up in wanting to have that limelight. I don’t see him being attracted to that because his heart has always [known] that this is about helping other people.
Even in two years, five years, ten years, I don’t think he’s going to be playing concerts to fulfill his ego and be in the spotlight, the L.A. scene and night clubs. I think he’s going to be in his own element. I see him on stage doing a duet with Harry Connick to John Legend to Elton John. … that’s the kind of repertoire I see him being dedicated to, to help raise awareness of social causes.
Is college in Ethan’s future?
I haven’t talked to Gene about that, but he’s an extraordinarily smart kid. He’s doing eighth or ninth grade math in fifth grade. From an academic standpoint, he probably could be in college next year. That’s a question I’d have to defer [to his parents], but whatever is in his heart and whatever he wants to do, he’ll do it.
Aside from his age, what other differences to you notice about him compared to working with adult artists?
I would say, it’s overused, but he’s really grounded. Especially at a young age like this, to be grounded is such a huge attribute. I think that’s probably No. 1. He’s very courteous. He gives time to people.
No big demands on his concert riders?
No. Here’s the thing that’s different. Every artist has their own rider and requirements, but he’s very conscious about what he puts into his body, even at this age. He got that from his parents, but he also got that from himself. Even brands that he wants to affiliate himself with have to be healthy in nature. He eats a lot of organic food. He doesn’t drink or eat anything that’s going to be a detriment to his body.
When considering offers, are there situations that Ethan wants to avoid, say, maybe showtimes that are too late in the evening for him, or other situations that don’t necessarily appeal to him?
He’s done over a hundred private concerts and he sold out five shows in South Africa. He’s very cognizant of when’s the best time for kids and families to attend.
He’s very excited about this feature film … I think he’s probably turned down things where maybe the brand … from Gene’s standpoint, he gave me one or two examples where the branding fit wasn’t there. It’s not like he’s going to go out and represent Hollister right now and have it be his clothing line.
Everything that Gene does for him, from a parents’ standpoint really is amazing, Gene lets him make a lot of decisions, believe it or not, whether a performance is a good thing, and he [Ethan] has the ultimate decision. … He’s pretty aware of what things will play well.
It sounds as if Ethan will take over more of his business as he gets older.
I think he’ll be one of those kids who has a strong direction of what’s right and what’s wrong. A great intuition and instinct as to what’s marketable and sellable.
My job from marketing, and I hope we have a long-term relationship, I’d like to develop his brand as something that’s different from the pop culture but at the same time affects a lot of fans and a lot of people struggling with “Can I be successful?” Ethan is a great motivator for people.
To be a Justin Bieber is at this whole level over here. To be able to play the piano and get out and raise money and give back to people, to not be in the spotlight all the time, is over here.
Would he be that pop star? I don’t know if that’s in his makeup. I think his special interest story is a much better story for him right now. And he’ll direct that course. His musical talent, who knows what it will be in five years. He has the capability to make it whatever he wants.
When it comes to marketing Ethan, what do you see as some of your biggest challenges?
Where is the best place to put Ethan in concerts? Is it better to [play] a 3,000 seat auditorium versus a 10,000 seat arena? I mentioned a little earlier about doing some of these duets, and I think that is probably where his single performances can build more of that viral awareness of where Ethan is and who he is. And then have his standalone concerts in markets that are really demanding it.
I think internationally, we’re going to be exploiting the international scene quite naturally. Piano in China, and Asia overall, is something that’s a big interest. Western Europe, Eastern Europe, even his success in South Africa and going to Australia and Europe are all part, I think, is the marketing plan to get him globally accessible as opposed to just domestically.
What do you take into consideration when setting ticket prices?
We’ve done a couple of things I think are special with groups we are affiliated with. We’ll get a good pulse on how this first leg goes. His concerts in the past have ranged from $35 to $55 tickets and he’s done really well in that price range.
But this is a different audience. It’s family budgets and we’ll probably have to package some things differently. We have places as low as $18 in some markets and I think our top market is $59. It’s a huge range and I don’t have that answer for you. I think it’s definitely a balance. As you well know, venue costs are all over the place. Ethan’s making a living out of this, he’s giving back at the same time and we’ve got to balance all of the above.
PB&K set out, from that standpoint, to give independent artists a market. Call it “safe-based,” call it “family-based,” what have you, there’s a strong need and a desire, that we’ve found, for good wholesome, clean entertainment. And Ethan fits that makeup. There are families out there looking for safe entertainment for their kids. And Ethan is one of those kids that provides that content to those families. The mom-blogs that are out there, and the readers out there are looking for good clean entertainment for their kids. That’s what Ethan represents and stands for.
It is a different marketing approach. The Pearl Jams of the world are great. There’s nothing wrong with huge acts filling those seats. We may have to dip into Groupon or some other marketing tool to be able to make sure we sell as many seats as we can.
Ethan is a very open person. Can you tell us anything about him that might not be all that apparent? For example, does he like to play sports; does he have a hobby or a favorite TV show?
One of the interesting things … he likes kicking the soccer ball and playing basketball just like any other kid, but he’s cognizant of his hands. He’s very cautious about hurting his hands. Those are his tools. We were shooting basketball and he was tenderly grabbing [the ball] and shooting it … and the kids were laughing because they didn’t realize those [his hands] are his gems. Those are the things we have to protect. That was enlightening.
Ethan Bortnick’s tour with Kidz Bop Kids begins in Homestead, Pa., at Carnegie Library Music Hall July 27. Other dates include Columbus, Ohio, at Capitol Theatre July 28; Dearborn, Mich., at Ford Community & Performing Arts Center July 29; Skokie, Ill., at North Shore Ctr. For The Performing Arts Aug. 1; Burnsville, Minn., at the Burnsville Performing Arts Center Aug. 3 and Boulder, Colo., at the Boulder Theater Aug. 5. For more information, please visit EthanBortnick.com.