This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Steve Kane, president, Warner Music Canada.
Any discussion with Steve Kane could afterward lead to the question: A businessman with the soul of a poet or vice versa?
President of Warner Music Canada since 2004, Kane can talk your ear off about a new artist he’s discovered in just about any musical genre you can name, and every weekend he can be spotted scurrying around Toronto record shops looking for new records. His record collection--between the singles, LP, CDs-- is “somewhere north of 15,000.”
A fierce supporter of Canadian music and artists, this Edinburgh-born emigrant has long been on the front line fighting on behalf of creators’ rights, addressing government and the industry itself on issues affecting Canada’s creative community and its music industry.
Kane has been an integral part of the Canadian Warner affiliate since he joined in 2001 as senior VP and managing dir.
Kane’s perspective on the record industry and music in general has been honed by working on several sides of the business, including publishing a music fanzine and hosting a campus radio show while attending Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, and being a clerk at the now defunct, but revered, Record On Wheels outlet on Toronto’s Yonge Street..
He joined Warner after a most impressive run at its competitors: Senior VP at Universal Music (1999 – 2001); senior VP at Polygram Music Canada (1998-99); VP/GM at Virgin Records Canada (1996-97); and dir. of marketing PolyGram Group of Canada (1994-1996). He also held a marketing position at I.R.S. Canada.
Under Kane’s direction, Warner Canada’s distribution, marketing, and A&R operations were substantially overhauled, and the company became the first major label in Canada to launch its own direct-to-consumer, short code mobile content solution.
As well, Kane deeply broadened distribution ties and partnerships with some of Canada’s leading independent music imprints including Six Shooter Records (which departed in 2015), Coalition Music Records, Sonic Records, Stomp Group, Union Label Group, Road Angel, Cameron House Records, and Pacific Music Group while maintaining distribution of the venerable Stony Plain imprint.
Along the way, Canada’s music industry learned that Kane had “ears,” a rare ability to spot special talent.
In his early days at Warner, Kane signed Billy Talent which has since become one of Canada’s biggest rock acts. He later signed Brett Kissel, now one of Canada’s leading country stars.
Also in Kane’s A&R portfolio have been such key signings as Buck 65, Ron Sexsmith, Scott Helman, Courage My Love, Meghan Patrick, Matthew Good, the Sheepdogs, Victoria Duffield, and Modern Space.
As well, Kane has assiduously worked to maintain and strengthen Warner Canada’s 30-year relationship with Canadian music legends, Blue Rodeo.
Kane was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2015.
At a recent press conference held in Toronto, Warner Music Canada, and its affiliated labels earned a total of 14 nominations for the 2017 Juno Awards. A good feeling?
Juno nomination day is always a terrific event and much better when you see artists you're involved with receive nominations for their work. As I watched the nominations roll out this year, I was struck by the growing diversity of Canadian music. The Warner Music Canada-related nominations are a wonderful illustration of that richness and included Billy Talent, DVSN, Tegan and Sara, and Party Next Door.
I was really glad that (guitarist) Ian D'Sa of Billy Talent received a producer of the year nod. Ian is an unbelievable talent. We signed Billy Talent 15 years ago. At that time, they were very much outsiders, and a lot of people told us there was no way we were getting a punk band onto mainstream radio in this country. They are now one of the biggest rock bands in this country and have a fantastic international career. So punk rock won out.
As in other international markets, Canada’s music industry has shrunk in recent years due to a drop in music sales, and label consolidations. At about half the size of its two major competitors, Universal Music and Sony Music, Warner Music Canada is practically a boutique-styled independent today.
Yeah. One of the real sources of pride that we take as a team is when we have an artist, a manager or a new server say, “You know what I like about Warner Canada? You’ve got the gravitas and weight of a major, but you move and think and execute like a really good indie.” I love that. I take that as a huge compliment. It’s part of WMG (Warner Music Group), and it’s not just here. Part of what WMG stands for is that this is a company--and we have an owner who understands--that the stronger we are locally, the more powerful and efficient we can be for our global superstars. The flipside is the more global superstars that we can help develop and create, the more leverage we have locally. It goes back to looking at that international roster that can have (emerging Canadian country singer) Meghan Patrick say, “I’m on the same label as Blake Shelton.” That’s powerful.
When you arrived at Warner Music Canada as senior VP and managing director in 2001, the company had 180 employees nationally?
Correct, including in distribution.
How many employees at Warner Music Canada today?
We have 86. I’ve actually hired three people in the past year.
A general criticism leveled at major labels today is that because they operate with less staff there’s less artist development than there once was.
Talking in general about the changes in record companies, and the size of them has been noted. When I got here, as I said, there were 180 people. To put that in context so many of those people were involved in distribution. We (Canadian majors) all did our own distribution. One of the first things I did here was to ask, “Why are we in the shipping business? Why are we so worried about how many cardboard boxes we have in the back? If we take that out of our operation. We take that out of our costs. We take it out of our day-to-day thinking, we can now concentrate on what we are supposed to be: Marketing, promotion, A&R, and artist development.” So the knock on record companies that they are smaller so they don’t have the same number of people to concentrate on artists and their careers is somewhat skewed.
All multinationals in Canada stopped shipping to retail directly, shifting it to Cinram International instead.
Yes. We were the first company in Canada to do that. What it really did was refocus us. There’s no doubt that our sales force has shrunk along with the changing consumer landscape and retail etc. What hasn’t shrunk is our marketing and promotion. We have a few fewer promotion people, but we are still out there in the field. Getting out of the shipping business--handing over the distribution to people operating with it as their core business--has really allowed us to concentrate on what we are really supposed to be doing, and that is creating opportunities for our artists both domestic and internationally.
While you are originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, you grew up in Oshawa, Ontario, a hard-scrabble city 65 km. east of Toronto centered on its GM Canada facility. As long as Mexico continues to be the go-to place for all auto manufacturers to build new plants due to its low wages, Canada, in particular, Oshawa, will never see another plant built. Given the record industry’s chaotic past decade do you have any sense of déjà vu?
Well, at times I do. At times, I look at the changing landscape and think about being able to adapt. The auto industry--being to adapt for them--was a completely different challenge. That was a moment in history. That was a result of a change in the whole manufacturing base. I think it is different than ours but there are times over the past few years that I worried that we were going the way of heavy industry.
Since the arrival of Napster 17 years ago, the recording industry has been in continual flux. Initially, many industry executives looked at Napster and thought it was a cool service, but that it had to be harnessed.
Napster appeared, and everything just went sideways. We could have retreated or we could have gotten reinvigorated, and tried to figure it out. Hindsight is 20/20. People say they saw it coming. Bullshit. Anybody who says, they are lying.
That transformation must have really hit home with the recent announcement of the upcoming closures of HMV Canada.
Yeah, I will come to that. Where the parallel ends (with the auto industry) was that the realization that we had an opportunity to make some changes that could recognize the value that brings to the new economy. The charge for copyright reform was not entirely an artistic or cultural call-to-arms. Yes, it’s about respecting culture. It’s about respecting creators and respecting their work.
That artists as creators should be able to earn a living.
Yes. What was really the key, and continues to be the key, is to drive toward fair compensation for creators and their investors. That’s the drive behind (Canadian) copyright reform and the reason for being ever vigilant about it. This is the new economy. Those manufacturing jobs, despite what we hear from south of the border how they are going to bring manufacturing back onshore, that’s a pipedream. What our new economy is, it’s an economy of ideas. It’s an economy of content and creation. That’s what has to be protected because we want people to continue to see it (music) as a viable way to make a living. That it’s viable to be an artist, to be a creator, and that it’s viable for companies like Warner Music Canada and Warner Music Group to continue to invest in those creators.
Music Canada has shifted its focus in recent years from being a reactive multinational-dominated lobbying group to being a formidable advocacy group in identifying new sources of government financial support while advocating the redistribution of wealth for creators through varied government economic policies. In effect, arguing that music is a critical segment of the economy as much as it is a form of cultural expression.
Yes. It is part of the evolution of this business where we do need a strong voice in Ottawa or Washington or Brussels, wherever those (copyright and trade) decisions are being made to be able to say, “This matters to your economy, to your cultural health, and to your brand as a country.”
Over the years you have spoken of cutting staff and not being able to sign artists because of bottom line issues. But can you understand why some people were riled up at $2.4 million (Canadian) taxpayer dollars being handed over to Warner, Sony and Universal in the second round of Ontario government funding from the Ontario Music Fund for 2014-15? Why should these Canadian-based multinational affiliates be in line for provincial funding? Can you understand at least peoples’ confusion over the issue?
I can understand their confusion. If I can go beyond looking at that in isolation. For decades, Ontario has given attractive tax breaks to international film companies to film on the streets of Toronto or film the beauty of Muskoka. They have included tax incentives for them to be able to do that. Why? It provides employment. It puts money into the economy, and it has a trickling down effect with the hiring of local crews. They are hiring local technology. Then you go to traditional industry. When GM opened, a new factory in Oshawa, they were getting tax breaks.
It about supporting the economy. It’s about supporting the infrastructure.
If we are living in an economy of ideas and creation, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be looking at the creation of music and masters based in Ontario. Giving Ontario studios business. Giving artists a reason to stay home and record. A reason to get on the road, and hire a road crew, and take them around the world with a support system. The idea that the major labels are not involved in artist development and signing Canadian artists; that the people who work for a Canadian major label are somehow slightly less Canadian than an independent; that is really insulting to what some of us have devoted our lives to. When I can look at our roster over the last 5 or 6 years and read in a paper or in an industry publication that major labels don’t do artist development or don’t support Canadian artists, it angers me.
HMV Canada has gone into receivership in Canada owing around $56 million (Canadian). Can’t say we didn’t see this coming.
It’s a tough one. I do applaud their management team. They tried. They kept it going for a longer period of time than most people thought there were going to be able to. It is definitely about a shift in how people consume music. It is also a shift on what retail needs to look like in 2017. Hypothetically, could they have survived longer as a 50 store chain? Was that the way that they were going to wind things down. That’s all speculative.
[The Canadian HMV company operates 102 stores in Canada, all of which are set to close by April 30, 2017.]
Decades ago Canada was awash with such iconic music store chains as Sam The Record Man, A&As, Records On Wheels, Music World, A&B Sound, and Tower Records. All gone. Now, it’s going to be even harder to find a full-service record store in Canada.
The good news is that there is still a very strong body of independent stores across this country that are focused more than ever on understanding their clientele in their city, and in their neighborhood. The really good ones have also realized that it’s a global marketplace. It is also a national marketplace even if they have only one locale or 100. The demise of HMV is a seismic shift, but I think that anybody who wasn’t preparing themselves, both financially and mentally for that change, I’d be crying crocodile tears. It was a reality that was facing us and has been a reality for the past couple of years. We knew that....well, we were hoping for an adjustment.
Knowing the existing problems did you limit Warner stock to HMV?
We had our trading terms with HMV. We were able to work with them to make sure that our artists were represented. Our catalog was represented in the stores and was available. We worked with them right up to the day that they had to pull the plug.
Losses here to Canadian labels?
I certainly hope that people managed their exposure.
While Warner Music Canada has its own impressive domestic roster, the company is also responsible in Canada for distribution of Canadian artists signed to other Warner Music Group affiliates. This includes Michael Bublé, Neil Young, k.d. lang, Simple Plan, and Tegan and Sara. A nice support list.
It is. We are very fortunate because of the ex-pat roster, though so many of them live here because we have such a wealth of Canadian artists that Atlantic and Warner Bros have also signed. That’s Tegan and Sara, Simple Plan, Neil Young.....
Having such Canadian high-fliers likely puts some stress on your company to really come to the table on each release.
And we would be crazy not to. One of the greatest compliments that my team gets paid is when Tegan and Sara turns to us and says, “This feels like home. This feels like we are important to you. It feels like you are our record company. You are just not the distributor of our records.”
The international success of these Canadian also shines on your company as well.
First of all, from a business point of view, the fact is that we get the halo effect of the success of so many of these amazing Canadian artists who have signed in America. It helps our case when signing artists domestically because they see themselves as label mates to Tegan and Sara and Neil Young. To be able to say that “I’m a label mate of these acts” that really helps. So we do get a great business effect from that, but we also take a lot of pride in the Canadian artists who have signed internationally and we are their representatives here. We are their record company. We are not just their distributors. We take a very hands-on approach to it (representing them) They are domestic artists to us. We don’t make that distinction.
In recent years Warner Music Canada ramped up its distribution of Canadian independent imprints. Joining long-time partners Stony Plain has been Coalition Music Records, Sonic Records, Stomp Group, Union Label Group, Road Angel, Cameron House Records, and the Pacific Music Group. This distribution of domestic indie labels has likely been a boon to your bottom line. Plus this source can provide a feed into Warner’s international business as well.
It can be. It can be an A&R source. A feeder system for international. Warner Music Group’s commitment to the independent sector...globally we have (distributor) ADA. Just recently, I added another body in our third party distribution arm. People used to come to us as independent labels to put records in stores. It was a pretty simple model. That’s not why they come to us anymore.
Why would an indie come to you for distribution if they can do digital distribution and social media on their own? Majors, unquestionably, provide an opportunity for international access.
Well, it’s international access, and it’s also areas of expertise. We have a very smart group of people who are developing our playlist strategies for streaming. We have a fantastic relationship with the Apples of the world to be able to slot their priorities into key playlists and we understand how to track, monitor and provide opportunities there. We also have a crack promo team who have deep relationships with programmers in radio, which is still such a driving force for any act. We have marketing expertise so we can help them (labels) build campaigns. There are independent labels, and some of them are international independent that we say to them, “If this was our record here is what we would spend and here is where we would spend it.”
We do that with our new distribution association with BMG. We make those recommendations. We made it for (the artist) LP (for the release of “Lost On You” issued in Canada by Vagrant Records on Dec. 9, 2016). We are able to sit with them, help develop a marketing plan, and say, “We can now facilitate that for you.” With Road Angel, we are able to go to them with some records and say, “Alright, I think we can help you out at radio.” So It becomes a sliding scale of services. That is what they are coming to us for now.
Given your music tastes were you saddened by Six Shooter Records departing for Universal Music Canada in 2015?
Yeah. It’s a label that I really admire run by people who are such passionate music lovers, really forward-thinking music people. Yeah, I was sad to lose them. But I couldn’t be happier for their success. Would I still love to have them under our umbrella as the Strumbellas broke, absolutely? Do I watch what Luke (Doucet) and Melissa (McClelland) do with Whitehorse? I sit with a big smile on my face. I would love to still be involved with them but things change. Business is business. I can still sit down for a beer with Shauna (Six Shooter founder Shauna de Cartier) at any time and just smile at their success. That’s I way I try to conduct business. I don’t think that anybody’s success ever diminishes our own.
Streaming of music remained underdeveloped in Canada until Spotify arrived in Sept. 2014. Its presence proved transformational to the Canadian market as did Apple Music’s global launch on June 30, 2015. Any growing pains with the services?
At the time it seemed really troublesome and really challenging that Spotify and other services were launching in territories around the world, and Canada seemed to have been left behind. If I flip that on its head, one of the things that did for us was that it gave us some breathing room. It gave us time to look at best practices. It gave us an opportunity to learn. Even though Spotify wasn’t here when I talked to my colleagues around the world, whether it was in France, Germany or the Nordic countries, we were able to start gleaning best practices. So, when they were here we had a bit of a head start. We were able to understand how the consumer behaved with these services.
What information did you pick up?
What we saw were changing consumer habits. We were never in doubt that Canadians would adopt services like Spotify or Apple Music quickly. This country is perfect for these kinds of services. First of all, what we have experienced with subscriptions in cable. Canada was the frontier of cable television. We understood what it was. When you have this vast expanse of country, and you look at how wired Canada was (with cable), this is a perfect market for these kinds of services. So it was harnessing that. It was about getting the message to the people.
Anyone in a rural area in Canada a decade ago couldn’t get access to diverse music. Now, they have access through the Internet.
One of the biggest challenges was with any content owner as they are established and growing subscriptions is how do we get people moving from the freemium (provided free of charge model) to the subscription (premium) version. I would hope that those new partners in those new businesses are looking and see value in their subscription model, and they begin to work with us to get those conversion numbers up.
By 2016 year-end, Warner Music Group had become a proud member of the $1 billion streaming club. Surely a sense of optimism.
I will tell you my sense of optimism. Again as we wrap our heads around and move forward understanding that we are moving from a world that is no longer purchase driven but access driven. That’s a really exciting notion to me. What has given me buoyancy over the past few years is that there is a group of young executives in our building who I watch very closely. What has been fascinating to me is they don’t look back. They don’t want to hear that they missed the glory days. They don’t want to hear that they missed the fun part of this business. They consume music, and they understand marketing and promotion in the same way that their peers did, and the kids just a couple of years younger than them do. They think like them. So they are never looking over their shoulders and saying, “Gosh, I wish things hadn’t changed.”
A few years ago P.J. Bloom, one of Hollywood’s most prominent music supervisors, asked me, “If you could access every song you wanted on your computer would you still want to have a record collection?” I answered, Of course....er....well, no.” How about you?
Yes. It’s a personal thing. It’s an aesthetic. It’s the feel and the smell. It’s a very tactile experience. I still spend every Saturday afternoon at record stores. They are still to me gathering places.
C’mon really? Where?
I go to Soundscapes, Sonic Boom, Rotate This, and I go to Discover Discs out on Queen Street East. It still keeps me in touch with why I got into this in the first place.
To address staff downsizing at labels leading artist management companies globally moved to create their own marketing and promotion departments.
Right and that is one of the interesting developments as we go along with management companies who are much more in tune with our business and what our role is. We are now working with them much more in a partnership role because they have developed their own marketing skills. They have developed in some cases their own promo team.
At one time management asked labels for the marketing plan. Now they might say, “Here’s our marketing plan. How does it work with your marketing plan?” The two if merged might work well.
When it really works well, you are sitting with a management team asking, “What does your live business look like for the next 18 months? Where are you tentpole events? Let’s now look at our traditional record marketing plan with the addition of social tentpole events, single releases as tentpole events. Let’s make sure that they are all lining up in a way that they are supporting each other.”
The early days for me in this business that live business, and that (tie to the) record business, you didn’t really talk about it. You looked at the tour as an opportunity to shift more records. Maybe have a new single in the market. But that’s really all you thought about when you came to the live business. There wasn’t that connection that this is such a key part of the artists, and we are going to change our marketing plan with any of those subsequent tours because the lights are going to shine different on the artists
The other prime difference from a few years ago was everybody—the manager, booking agent and so on—waited on the label to announce release dates in order to tour. No longer. The tour now takes precedence, particularly for major or heritage acts.
I would say in many cases, yes. The concert tour dictates the release schedule and when you are going to hit certain marketing levers. Now that may be more true for established acts, but what has become really interesting, and again it’s that evolution in the business and that partnership mentality. It’s the 360 business. It’s the fact that we are no longer investing the kind of money that we had to invest in—making a record and developing an act and supporting an act through their early dates. We are no longer just concerned with the record income. Because we are partners with other aspects of their business, we are so fully invested in artists’ careers in a way that we never were in the past.
Merchandising and artists services.
Merchandising and artists services as well as being part of their touring business. Being part of their merch business. Being part of their fan club business. We have to take a much more holistic approach to an artist’s career. If a first single flops do you say, “We need to regroup?” We need to then look holistically at how this artist’s career is developing and, maybe, it’s not radio driven from day one.
With a newly signed act that you are building up and educating what do you need from them?
What I need from them is continued growth. We need to see that they are taking on each experience. That they are taking each step and reprocessing it and putting it back into their live act. You run through the process. “Okay you have two principal writers, and you have a principal writer in the band, let them go and do their things. For the first time you sat in a room with another writer how did that feel, and how did they collaborate?” More and more what we are looking for in the first 18 months of development is watching them being open to new experiences. Open to experimentation. Being one to say, “Let’s sit down at the very beginning and asking what are your strengths, and what are your weaknesses?” A year later, “What are your strengths, what are your weaknesses? What do we have to backfill? What do we have to do to support you? They have to be willing to take that journey with us, and not be closed off saying, “Well, this is the way that I do it, and it’s the only way I’m going to do it.”
What I am finding more and more with artists is that they are willing to take that first step. They are willing to sit down and examine. “Okay, what are my strengths? I put on a great live show. What’s my strength as a writer? I’m great coming up with the riff but I need help with the lyrics. My melodies are slightly off so how do I continue to building on that?” I think as they become more open, and after they realize it’s harder and harder to spring from the head of the Zeus, that they do have to do that development stage. You are lucky when every once in awhile someone walks into your office who is almost fully-formed.
Give an example of that happening.
(Canadian country star) Brett Kissel. There’s an artist who knew who he was, had a career plan piloted out. There was a goal plotted out. These were the goals that he wanted to achieve. His attitude was, “What opportunities can you guys put in front of me as a label, and as a partner to help me achieve these goals?”
Today, hits can come from anywhere, and translate everywhere. Danish rock band Luke Graham typifies the new global opportunities available for artists brought about by streaming and social media to slingshot outside traditional marketplaces.
[Launching its debut album in 2012 on Copenhagen Records, Lukas Graham’ track “Drunk in the Morning” reached #53 on the Global Spotify chart when only available on the Nordic indie label. That success translated to the rest of Europe and caught the attention of Warner Brother Records which co-signed the band in 2013, but nearly four years later they broke open in North America and picked up three Grammy nominations.
Lukas Graham were recently presented with gold and platinum award plaques in Toronto.
Yeah, the album is platinum here and the first single “7 Years Old” is nearly 7 times platinum. It’s an incredible story. A really inspirational story. You look at a market like Denmark on an independent being able to sling shot that around the world. That is to me is one the bright spots of that whole streaming revolution and that whole access revolution. We can now for our domestic artists we can make it [their recordings] available globally and we can then start to drill down and look for those [interest] sparks.
When Scott Helman toured both America and Europe with Walk Off The Earth we didn’t have traditional releases in America or any of the European territories. But he was available on Spotify, and Apple etc. So we were able to in real time see the effect in streaming of an artist who didn’t have a traditional release. We had somewhere to point people. We had the people that he would point too and then there were the people that who just discovered him from the Walk Off The Earth tour. Shortly after the French portion of Scott’s opening slot for Walk Off The Earth, Paris became for three or four weeks his #2 streaming market.
What we have recently seen is that we have quietly released, what really is a “thank you” to the fans from Scott, a song “21 Days” that is going to be on his record in May. That he’s been playing live for about a year and a half. He just did a beautiful version for his upcoming record. We shot a quick lovely little video. We put it out without any fanfare. The residual effect was the first few days of that song being available on video outlets and streaming out, Paris was his #3 streaming market.
So there was a residual effect.
So if we can continue to build that. If we continue to be able to go back and find these sparks, that makes it much easier now for international affiliates to say, “Well, there’s already some groundwork done here what we need now, because it’s available to us, is develop a marketing and a promotion plan for this artist being provided to us from our Canadian affiliates to say, “Well, there’s already some groundwork done here what we need now because it’s available what we now need to do is develop a marketing and a promotion plan for this artist being provided to us from our Canadian affiliate.
That contrasts with the traditional way to secure international releases which was to solicit affiliates overseas and then pester the American company after first building a local story.
But what’s the story is, that’s still vital. They will look for that. So Scott Helman’s “21 Days” we have made available. So that hits the core. That hits the people who are already somewhat familiar. Again, we see that residual effect. We see it in one of his top streaming markets in Manhattan, and another is Paris. So we see that residual effect. But if we don’t act now. If we don’t start to goose it. If we don’t start to put a little marketing behind that it’s not going to grow beyond that. This is where the idea, and I think it’s an idea that got sold to people in the golden age, a panacea of the new model is that all you had to do was to make it available. Well, this shows us that this is not the case. If you start to look at all these viral sensations and you peel back a few layers, you actually do find some very sophisticated marketing, and very sophisticated search engine optimizations etc.
Stu Bergen, CEO, international and global commercial services for Warner Music Group was one of the first music executives to predict global opportunities for artists brought about by streaming.
We did go through a couple of ownership changes. We have gone through managements. As the marketplace evolved, as to the distribution, it goes back to what we were talking about that a hit can come from anywhere because you can now at least make it available. At least now you can see that spark come from somewhere. The cost of entry is still pretty high. You still have to have a quality record, and invest in an artist’s career. You still have to spend the marketing dollars.
Everybody in our business drum beats social media and streaming. But it’s what is being added to the mixture afterward that is as crucial.
Exactly. You still have to go into that traditional marketing mode of building an artist’s story, helping to bring the character of the artist out. You have to tour support. I still have to be willing to work with my (affiliate) friends in Germany when say, “We can get on this Steve. We know that we can build this.” I still have to get them here. I still have to make that commitment. You still have to make that commitment.
You also pay for the artist or the band to get them to those international markets.
But that’s always been the case. Again, this is one of the fallacies that gets perpetuated that we no longer make the investment. The way it works is that it’s my job to get them there. It’s our affiliates’ job, it’s our colleagues’ job in these other territories, to spend the marketing dollars. They are the ones that spend the promotional dollars. Things like tour support we pay. When anyone of our acts, when Courage My Love went to England and Europe last year, there was a tour deficit. I pay. Not the receiving territory.
Since 2014, there has been increased interest in America with acts from elsewhere that might fit the U.S. touring, and radio landscape. Canadian acts, being closest, have had a leg up because there’s already so much back-and-forth traffic between the two countries in the touring, management, recording, and booking sectors. Obviously, there’s been the commercial breakthroughs of Canadians Drake and the Weeknd. But the American marketplace remains elusive for so many Canadian acts.
Yes. I think again one of the really positive aspects of the new streaming model and being able to make these songs and records available globally is that, in particular for Canada I think, it’s a reawakening of the reality that this is a very big world. We are in a unique spot, geographically and culturally, where the golden ring—and it is still the golden ring—is a 45-minute drive away. It’s a couple of hours away. You cross that border and the golden ring is within reach. For all of the years that I’ve been doing this, nearly 30 years of doing this, I’ve watched people get to the border of America, beat their head against the door, and walk away with nothing but a bloody forehead. Now right or wrong, or however that happens, it’s one of the realities that we deal with.
What the new models and what the new methods allow or remind us is that it is a very big world out there. So just like Lukas Graham, Scott Helman can go to Germany, England, France and, maybe, it comes back that way to America. Or, maybe, someone in America agrees with us that this is a talent and a writer that needs to be heard. There’s no cookie cutter way of doing this.
Look at Michael Bublé. His big markets out of the gate were South Africa and Canada. America was slow to warm to him.
It took awhile. It was a build, but there was something unique there.
The UK remains one of Michael’s top markets.
Also Australia, England, and Canada.
What was the first record your purchased growing up in Edinburgh?
My dad used to quite frequently go to a little record shop called Bands and Son. It was a music instrument store with records. He used to go there to get new bagpipe reeds and to have his pipes maintained. I think the first record I asked him to buy might have been a Johnny Cash 7-inch EP. The only reason I pointed at it was Johnny was sort of dressed up like a cowboy on the cover. My dad’s second youngest sister, who was 16 or 17, had everything. She had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks. She had a boyfriend who would turn up at our house on a scooter. She was a mod. My dad had all of these rockabilly records.
Your family moved to Oshawa, Ontario when you were 6. The quintessential music retailer Star Records was just down from where your mother worked.
Yeah, my mum worked in a bank. She worked for the Federal Business Bank, and it was 4 or 5 doors down from Star Record. I’d go there after school sometimes and just hung out. Made lifetime friends. The late Mike Star, the founder, and Rob Sweeney (guitarist with Durango 95), these were people that pointed me in different musical directions. This is why I still have such an affinity for hanging out in record stores. They really are gathering places. It is still where you hear something for the first time. Yep, every Friday the new releases come up on the (streaming) services. I load them up, and they are playing in my office. But it will never equal the thrill of being in a record store, and turning something on and you ask, “What’s that?”
You landed a job at Record On Wheels, working for Don, Vito and Rosie Ierullo in their 621 Yonge Street flagship store.
I was hired by Rosie. My favorite Don story—I think he fired me three times—is that one time he looked at our PO (purchase order) and the first Sinéad O'Connor record (“The Lion and the Cobra”) had just come out. We probably ordered a couple hundred. He blew up saying, “What are you doing? You are wasting my money. This record, how could you buy it? It’s a piece of shit. What are you doing?”
Fast forward a week and a half and the record was just starting to break. We knew it because we brought in all of the singles and 12-nches on import. So we knew there was a story here. So Don phoned me and said, “How much of that Sinéad record do you still have?” I said, “I probably have about 50 here. It will get us through the weekend.” He says, “I want you to send half of those up to the warehouse, right now.” I said, Don, I need them for the weekend.” “He answered, “You send those records right now.” I say, “No.” So he fired me. I phoned Rosie his sister and told her that Donnie had fired me over a record that was selling, and he wanted them for the warehouse. She said, “Tell him to fuck off.”
In 1989, you landed at IR.S. Records of Canada, an affiliate of I.R.S. Records co-founded in 1979 by Miles Copeland, with a roster that would include R.E.M, Fine Young Cannibals, Concrete Blonde, Wall Of Voodoo, the Go-Go’s, and the domestic act Candi & The Backbeat.
By this time, this would be the late ‘80s, I had decided, “I think this is what I want to. I want to be involved in this business.” I was working in a record store and doing a couple of other things biding my time so I went back to university.
What did you study at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario?
Political science and English Lit. I didn’t graduate. I think I’m one credit short. I will get around to finishing it one day. My plan was to go back to school and do my post grad. I was actually thinking of law school. I set my sights on that. I applied for every gig that came up at a record company. But because of Record On Wheels being so strong for the music that I.R.S. specialized in, (I.R.S. Canada president) Paul Orescan and I talked a lot. We developed a rapport. When he got the go ahead to expand the I.R.S. office in Canada and establish a standing office he asked would I think of doing this.
I.R.S. Canada was then being distributed by MCA Records. Paul reported to Jay Boberg (pres.) in the U.S.
Jay came up and the three of us sat and talked and they offered me the gig. The reason they offered me the gig was that (because of working at Record On Wheels) I knew where these people lived. I lived where these consumers lived. I came in as the national marketing manager. The title was longer than the zeros on my paycheck.
Paul was an amazing teacher and because there were only three of us in the office it was a great training. There was a publicist, Paul was doing promo and running the show, and I was doing marketing and consumer outreach and inventory control, which came in handy many years later. Because it was three of us, if one of us were out of the office or on vacation, you were now the promo guy or the publicist or the marketing person. You started to get your hands on every aspect of the business.
Then EMI bought Virgin.
That’s how I ended up at Virgin. They had bought Virgin and Chrysalis just within a few months of each other. Virgin Canada was unique.
Virgin Music Canada had a formidable executive team of Doug Chappell (pres./A&R) and Laura Bartlett (VP promotion & marketing) and Doug Caldwell (Ontario region promotion).
Incredible teachers all of them. I was able to watch Doug (Chappell) in his approach to A&R and his approach to dealing with artists. The magic touch that he had there. Watching Laura Bartlett, who is still one of the great promotion people to ever work in this country. She had a marketing mind that was always three steps ahead. To learn from people like that, I was very fortunate.
At Virgin Canada, you were able to work with both establishing such new domestic acts as Rita MacNeil, the Northern Pikes, and Colin James from the ground up to working such international heavyweight as Janet Jackson and Lenny Kravitz.
That was a great training group again because one day you are working on a new signing where you are gathering the information, and plotting your marketing plan for a couple of hours in the morning. In the afternoon, you are talking about how you are going to launch the Janet Jackson record. That was a great opportunity to see how to deal with a budget to launch a Janet Jackson record and how to launch newly-minted domestic signing. Using that leverage, and understanding and applying some of the street marketing for Janet or Lenny Kravitz.
You left Virgin work at PolyGram Music of Canada.
I got a wonderful opportunity from Joe Summers and Bill Ott to come in and revamp the marketing department at A&M. Again what a great opportunity to be sitting in the same office as Joe Summers, Randy Wells, and Bill Ott. Then, of course, there’s Gerry Lacoursiere (then Chairman, PolyGram Group Canada). I do that for a few years and then I get a call from Laura Bartlett (now president Virgin Music Canada) saying, there was an opportunity there because she needed a new VP of marketing. So I head back to Virgin as their VP of marketing. Shortly after that, Laura announced that she was leaving and going to HMV. (EMI Music Canada president) Deane Cameron asked me to run Virgin, which was pretty cool. Now I have Deane Cameron teaching me further about A&R, which was the next step for me. Just the respect that he treated artists with, the way he listened to their concerns and the way he built teams.
How did you end up at Universal Music Canada?
So I’m running Virgin Music Canada for a couple of years. It was during the time that EMI was constantly for sale. It became debilitating. I wasn’t having any fun anymore. A time when Warner and EMI were going to merge. (A&R head) Geoff Kulawick and I, we had signed some great acts. Then I get a call from the newly appointed chairman of PolyGram Canada, my friend John Reid who I had worked for six months at A&M. We had become very close, and there was a mutual respect. He called me to come and run one of the label clusters. So I was given responsibility for Universal/Island/Def Jam (as senior VP). John Reid, as a negotiator, as an executive and team builder, was a remarkable teacher.
Did having Def Jam as part of your portfolio broaden your marketing experience in urban music?
Hip hop wasn’t in my core but I was fascinated by the answer that people always gave to me that a hip hop record could only carry 3% of the American market. We were always behind. I thought that the answer was nonsense. That we don’t have an urban population or a radio network.
I don’t think the Canadian music industry then had a handle on urban music.
They didn’t drill down deep enough. I felt that if we took the approach to hip hop that we took to underground music in which we took a very punk rock attitude, and market and position these records as you would punk rock, we are going to win. Whether it’s the disaffected skater kid in Edmonton or the sons and daughters of Jamaican immigrants at Jane and Finch (in Toronto), there is an audience here.
What’s the common thread between punk and urban?
What that (urban) audience has in common is that sense of discovery, that sense of ownership that, “This is mine.” and “It’s us against the world.” It’s no different than how punk started. “Let’s go back to street marketing. Let’s go back to where these people live and not ask them to come to us.” We were able to make a dent. All of a sudden. we were holding a 7% share against the U.S. share of 8%. We had really smart marketing people on our team like Livia Tortella and Ivar Hamilton who were up for the challenge. “Yea, this is how we carve out this piece of the market.”
Next thing you know PolyGram is sold to Seagram.
Yeah, I had left EMI and gotten away from that constant threat of a sale. I’m standing in line at the airport ready to go on a vacation with my wife Debbie Rix, then head of publicity at Universal Music Canada. So were standing in line to go to the Turks and Caicos Islands, my phone rings. It’s John Reid. He said, “So have you seen the papers this morning?” I said, “No what’s up?” He says, “We’ve been sold.” I answer, “PolyGram has been sold? To who?” A pause, “Put the wife on the phone.”
John goes off to New York as co-president of Island Def Jam.
So he goes off to New York. I survive the merger. I find myself heading up much the same group with a few additions. I am now working for Universal Music with Ross Reynolds as chairman and Randy Lennox as president and general manager. We got to build something. We got to take two cultures that were quite different and put them together.
How did you come to move to Warner Music Canada as senior VP and managing director in 2001?
I got a great call from a friend, Jay Durgan (then senior VP of marketing at Warner Music International). It was a combination of a lot of people looking at what I was doing there at Warners. This opportunity came to come to Warners, and 15 years later I’m still here. I’ve run out of companies to go to. So they let me stick around a little longer.
Your wife Debbie now operates a Toronto café corner store The Lucky Penny, and published her debut novel “External Forces.” Plus she’s been an activist for S'Cool House Rocks which has raised money for the Al Mokdad Family Education Fund.
I am so fortunate to have such a tremendous life partner who is multi-talented. An entrepreneur with her own store that has become a community hub. Three years ago it was an opportunity to have a local store where kids come in and buy milk and settle up at the end of the week.
Like many of us, Debbie and you were horrified by the death of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background whose image made global headlines after he drowned on September 2nd, 2015 in the Mediterranean Sea. He and his family were Syrian refugees trying to reach Europe.
We were so profoundly affected like so many people by the picture of Alan Kurdi lying on the beach that we said, “We have to do something.” The Globe and Mail was sitting on the counter of the store, and that photo was on the front page, and people would come in, and Debbie saw so many people turn the paper over. They just did not want to look at it. At some point, it clicked with Debbie, and she said, “Don’t look away.” That’s when we decided we have to do something and that was the genesis of bringing together 30 to 40 Canadians (under the sponsorship collective known as Project Toronto Welcomes), mostly Torontonians from all walks of life which resulted in us being able to privately sponsor a wonderful Syrian family to come and start a new life in Canada.
With a fundraiser involved.
At the fundraiser, people were so kind when they said, “Steve, you delivered Jim Cuddy (Blue Rodeo), Scott Helman, and the Heartbroken.” That was three phone calls and each phone call took less a minutes. The person who said yes the quickest was Jim Cuddy saying, “We will be there. This is what we are supposed to do as artists and people.”
Blue Rodeo has been with Warner Music Canada for three decades.
Blue Rodeo is, and will continue to be, the jewel in the crown for us. A 30-year relationship that has seen the band evolve, contract, and always be relevant. Always have a new approach to making every record. It’s not as if they have ever rested on laurels. One of my favorite stories about Blue Rodeo and our relationship is that we have redone and tweaked the Blue Rodeo contract three times in the period I’ve been here, but I have never met their lawyer.
Most impressive has been the slew of reissues from Blue Rodeo’s extensive catalogue with some released greatly modified.
You have to remember some of those records came out at the dawn of the CD period. They sounded horrible on CD. The inserts were the album, the track listing and a description of what a CD was. We allowed that to be the representation of Blue Rodeo’s first record (“Outskirts”) for 20 years in the market. Being able to work with, and see the passion and the pride that (Blue Rodeo co-founder) Greg Keelor, in particular, took in bringing those records really back to life; the re-mastering job in the case of the first record and the remix Greg did, was just amazing.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.
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