This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Jack Ross, executive vice president, APA Canada.
After United Talent Agency announced last month that it was shuttering its Toronto office, APA came forth with the news that it had hired former UTA principals, Jack Ross and Ralph James, to helm a new Canadian office.
Also at APA Toronto are former UTA agents Stefanie Purificati, and Mike Graham.
Privately-held APA is a full-service agency with other offices in London, Atlanta, Beverly Hills, New York, and Nashville.
With its doors barely open, APA Canada’s roster includes Nickelback, 54-40, Billy Talent, Bruce Cockburn, Paul Brandt, Sam Roberts Band, the Arkells, Marianas Trench, Walk off the Earth, I Mother Earth, Danko Jones, the Trews, the Watchmen. Big Sugar, Lights, Alan Doyle, Jess Moskaluke, Virginia to Vegas, Prozzäk, Sacha, and others.
Ross and James launched the Toronto office of The Agency Group (TAG) in 1996, and over the next decade built it into one of Canada's leading music agencies.
In 2015, UTA acquired TAG representing over 2,000 clients, including nearly 100 agents working across 7 offices in London, New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, Toronto, Miami, and Malmö, and Sweden.
Have you rented office space for APA in Toronto as yet?
We have a temporary office space that we are using now, and we are in the process of finding a more permanent home. We worked out of my house in Riverdale for two days in between leaving the UTA office, and moving into our current temporary space at Yonge Street and Richmond Street (downtown).
What size staff are you working with?
We have four agents including myself, Ralph James, Stefanie Purificati and Mike Graham. Plus, we have three administrative staff, and another joining at the beginning of October. We are actively looking to hire more music agents. APA will be staffing a full -service agency in Toronto over the next few months.
A long-time running gag is that you act as Ralph James’ manager. in working together for 22 years, this would be obviously within a team framework.
I have a small list of clients that I look after that are, frankly, really successful, but I always look at that I also manage agents. I manage Ralph, and I’ve managed Colin Lewis, Omar Al Joulani, Rob Zifarelli, Zaed Maqbool, Adam Sylvester, Nick Meinema, and Adam Countryman. The guys that Ralph and I hired, and mentored over the years. Ralph and I developed our arrangement early on, and it continues to this day. It really has been my pleasure for 22 years to act as his manager, first and foremost with The Agency Group, then with UTA, and now with APA. What is really important is to give Ralph all the tools that he needs to succeed because he has an incredibly successful roster of talent that he represents. I make sure he has everything he needs for that talent roster to be successful
You and Ralph met in an elevator at a national Canadian Organization Of Campus Activities (COCA) conference two decades ago. He grabbed hold of your name tag and said he had wanted to meet you.
That’s a true story. I was working at The Trick Or Treat Agency at the time, and Ralph was working for the Hungry I Agency in Winnipeg. He had hung up his bass guitar from playing with his band Harlequin and picked up the telephone. He was such a garrulous person. I liked him as soon as I met him. We immediately started a relationship, and later on, we both got hired at The Agency (not to be confused with The Agency Group) a few months of each other. We really became fast friends from working there together.
What makes Ralph such a great agent?
He played in a very successful band (Harlequin) for years. He’s a huge music fan. He loves rock music. He has great ears. People forget that Ralph is a schooled musician. A true test of an agent, Larry, is walking into the band’s dressing room and making that band or artist believe that you are the guy who is going to look out for them, have their back, and take care of them. No one can do that better than Ralph James anywhere in the music business. He lived on the road. He lived in vans and buses. He flew around North America playing shows. He understands what’s going on in that dressing room, and he understands the dynamics of the artist.
I learned so much from Ralph about being an agent, and about that dynamic.
The other thing that makes Ralph a great agent is that he keeps his ego in check. He treats the guy at the Lloydminster Colonial Days Fair (in Alberta) the same as he treats the promoter at Live Nation. He treats everybody with respect, and the customers—the promoters, and the talent buyers—they love talking to Ralph. Our clients know Ralph understands what they are going through, and what their life is like. That he understands them musically. That’s what makes Ralph such a great agent.
Within any successful talent agency, there are agents fiercely building client lists, but there’s also a managerial side of the business you oversee that, in being less glamorous, is largely overlooked.
Oh, it is definitely the less glamorous part. When Ralph and I started in ’96, Larry, a pillar of the plan I had for The Agency Group was that I felt that there was room in the Canadian marketplace for a company that could work with everybody, and that could come up through the middle of the industry, and really help build the community.
Ralph and I used to host a lot of parties. We hosted an annual Christmas party for 7 or 8 years, and we hosted spring parties. We worked hard to bring the Canadian music community together. We realized from working at other agencies that those companies wouldn’t do that. That’s not the way they think, and we realized that there was an opportunity to help build the Canadian music community.
Ralph and I always knew that we would be successful based on the fact that we work harder than anybody else. It isn’t brain surgery what we do. A lot of it is hard work, and it’s treating everybody with respect.
At the time we started there were all these young people developing all over Canada’s music community; whether it was Susan de Cartier, and Judith Coombe, now at Starfish Entertainment (which handles management of Blue Rodeo, Jim Cuddy, the Sadies, Oh Susanna, the Skydiggers, and Belle Starr). I met Susan on her second day in Canada when she moved to Toronto from Rochester (New York). Judith was a Moxy Früvous fan who I hired to be my assistant, and then she went to work with Susan. There was Erik Hoffman now the president of Live Nation (Toronto) who was a teenage guitar tech when I met him. I knew that he was a hardworking entrepreneurial guy, and I invested time, and energy into him. I did that also with Nick Blasko who manages Tegan and Sara and runs Atomique Productions in Victoria (British Columbia).
There are now people all over Canada that Ralph and I identified as people who had the opportunity to be successful. We tried to give them our time and energy and work with them, and help show them, by working within the community they could better their own careers and their artists’ careers. It is something that we have worked really hard at.
When your life unexpectedly turns around, as it did with the closing of United Talent Agency (UTA) in Toronto last month, would it be fair to say that it was a time you found out who your friends are?
One thing I’ve learned over 30 plus years in the music biz is that business is business, and it is really separated from friendship. I do business with lots of friends, but only if the business makes sense. With the upheaval, and the closing of UTA, Toronto, I felt amazing support from my community of friends, and associates in the music industry. I was hurt to see my team of agents break up though. I hired and mentored the guys who are now our new competitors in the market. Frankly, I was happy to leave UTA, and putting the deal together with APA has been a true joy. It is all bittersweet, however, because I miss my daily interaction with a bunch of the young guys who are no longer on my team.
Were you surprised Paradigm Talent Agency hired Rob Zifarelli to open a Toronto office, and that he brought Adam Countryman and André Guérette with him? Meanwhile, Paquin Artists Agency hired former UTA agents Adam Kreeft, Rob Thornton, and Sarah Litt. And were you surprised by the response from your longtime competitor, The Feldman Agency....cricket sounds?
At the time, I didn’t give it a lot of consideration. They (The Feldman Agency) never reached to me. I never heard from them. I know that they were all over Ralph. Sam (Feldman), Bruce (Allen), Vinny (Cinquemani), and Jeff (Craib) were all calling Ralph. I was kind of surprised that after watching Ralph and I operate as a team for 22 years that they hadn’t figured out that we were a team. That we are a partnership. They run an agency, and they should be able to figure that out. After 22 years, I never heard from them. They never approached me.
I don’t know what agents they approached.
The group of (Canadian) agents that have come from The Agency Group, and then from UTA, understand that it’s important to work with a company with an international reach. None of us considers ourselves as Canadian only agents. Certainly, Ralph and I don’t, and I know that Rob and his team don’t either. It was really important that Ralph and I work with a company with an international footprint; an agency that will allow us to develop Canadian talent, and help us reach outside the small market that is Canada.
You and Ralph reuniting with Steve Martin (EVP/partner, and head of worldwide music at APA ) must be a sweet moment.
Steve is a close friend. He left The Agency Group before it was sold to UTA in 2015. We remained in contact, and have remained good friends. When it became apparent that UTA was going to be shutting down its Canadian operations...
When was it apparent to him?
Well, it was apparent when I reached out to him.
When was it apparent to you?
You know, the last 6 months at UTA were really tough. I had a number of discussions with Jeremy Zimmer, the (UTA) CEO, and it became very apparent that we had different views on how to build a music department.
UTA reportedly has, perhaps, overextended itself by doubling in size in the past 5 years as well as having to deal with the costs of recent acquisitions.
I found that out afterwards. I was told by Jeremy Zimmer, Andrew Thau, (COO & general counsel), Natalia Nastaskin (Head of U.S. Music Operations) and numerous people that they needed to become a lot smaller with their music department. My contract was up at the end of this calendar year, and that precipitated a number of conversations about what would happen in Toronto going forward. Jeremy Zimmer and I kept having the same conversation over and over again; really disagreeing on how you build a music department, and what’s really important to it. I guess that it was the beginning of June that it became clear that there was a very good chance that they were going to close Toronto.
What was your reaction?
Frankly, I was scared. I didn’t know how they would treat us, and I didn’t know how they would treat my staff.
At the time, UTA Toronto had a staff of 23?
Yeah. Steve Martin was in Toronto in June, and we got together. He was like, “What do you think the future is like?” I said, “I think that this is going to end quickly.” He said, “Let’s start talking about putting something together.”
It was July 24th that UTA announced to Rob Zifarelli, Ralph James and I that they were going to close the Toronto office. Well, what really happened was that on July 24th during a phone meeting with Jeremy Zimmer, and Andrew Thau that they said they would like to make Toronto a lot smaller, and just have the senior agents remain, and a couple of assistants. They wanted us to fire all of our (support) staff. We all said immediately, “No thanks. Not interested in that.” Then they said, “Well we are going to shut down the Toronto office.” Then a couple days after that, I reached out to Steve Martin.
That had to be one hell of a conference call.
It was a hell of a phone call. We didn’t know how they were going to treat us, and our staff. In the end, Larry, it’s important for me, and it’s important that people know that UTA dealt with us all in a respectful manner. They paid out all of the agents’ contracts and paid proper severance to all of the staff. To my knowledge, they paid everybody more than they had to, and they treated everybody really well. Once we got over that (closure) hump, I was already in deep conversation with Jim Gosnell, president and CEO of APA, and Steve Martin. They flew into Toronto the first week of August. Jim flew in from L.A. on the redeye, and Steve came up from New York. We spent a couple of days talking about APA Canada, and immediately put it in play.
Were you surprised by Rob Zifarelli connecting with Paradigm during the same period?
I never thought that Rob was going to be part of it (APA). Rob had been very clear with me in the Spring about that. Rob was leading our office in Toronto within UTA. I was still running the operations of the office, and Rob and I had really worked closely together. As we speculated on what was going to happen, and were wondering on how this was going to shake down--of course, we were talking about what’s next, and Plan B--Rob made it very clear that he did not want to shop the whole team. That he was just going to shop himself around. He knew about my conversations with APA, and he was pretty clear about the conversations that he was having with Paradigm and others. So I wasn’t surprised with Rob. I was surprised that he ended up taking more of the team. I was working on a situation with APA where the whole team would join us, except for Rob. In the end, Rob reached out to André Guérette, and Adam Countryman, and they are now over at Paradigm. They are each talented agents. Really hard working guys. I think that they will do well.
In the face of the touring business contracting, and consolidating even before these additional expansions of two booking agencies, Canada was already a competitive talent market. Is there room for everyone here?
Mmmm, I guess we will find out.
It will be quite competitive.
Yeah. It’s been very competitive, I think, since Ralph and I started The Agency Group in ’96. S.L. Feldman & Associates (since renamed The Feldman Agency) almost had a monopoly at that point. They bought The Agency from Blue (David Bluestein) and (Michael) Cohl. It was almost monolithic at that time. It has been competitive ever since.
S.L. Feldman & Associates had opened an office in Toronto in 1993, and it bought The Agency in 1996, and then the Paquin Artists Agency in Winnipeg expanded to Toronto in 1999, and more recently opened an office in Vancouver.
Further competition now arrives as many Canadian clubs have either closed or face restrictions due to local civic governments or rising talent fees.
The club business is definitely very hard, but any loss is balanced by a real surge in community events where music plays a really big part. The reason why Ralph and I went looking for an international partner in 1996, and we found Neil Warnock (then chairman of UK-based The Agency Group) was because Canada is a small market and we knew that it was really important for the development of our clients, but also for personal development, that we start working internationally, and develop the foundation to build our roster, and be able to present our clients globally or in multiple territories. And that’s worked out really well for us.
Certainly with the latest development that is why we went with APA as opposed to setting up our own shop or joining one of the existing Canadian agencies. We don’t see ourselves as Canadian agents. We are talent agents that specialize in music, and we work all over the world.
Neil had an affinity with Canadian talent from having represented Rush, Max Webster, Lee Aaron, and Triumph over the years. As well, at The Agency Group’s New York office were Steve Martin, Steve Schenck, and the late Dave Kirby who supported opening an office in Toronto.
Yeah, Dave Kirby was a big part of putting Ralph and me together with Neil. And so was Steve Martin. Ralph and I were really close friends with Dave Kirby. We had worked together at The Agency, and we had a lot of mutual respect for each other. And I had known Steve Martin since the early ‘80s from when I was a young promoter. I remember taking a trip down to New York in 1984 and knocking on the doors of agencies, and Steve was the first U.S. agent who gave me as a young promoter the time of day.
We flew over to London to meet with Neil. We met him at the Groucho club in Soho. We had dinner and just sold ourselves non-stop to him. I think Neil really believed in us immediately. He also understood because of all of the success that he had with Canadian acts that the marketplace here was rich with talent. He met these new guys that had a very similar work ethic to him.
Neil may have been hesitant about a Toronto office, but he was cautiously seeking to expand at the time.
Yes. He had only been opened in America a year at that point. He will tell you that he didn’t have any interest opening in Toronto, but Ralph and I were pretty relentless. I remember faxing Neil twice a day, every day, for about two weeks to convince him to get into business with us. I would write out these letters and fax them over. Finally, after we went over and met with him he chose to seize the day and get into business with us.
The timing for a new agency in Canada was dead perfect. The successes of Barenaked Ladies, Sloan, Moxy Früvous and others earlier had galvanized Canada's growing indie grassroots community. The changeover was underscored by the lessening visibility of many veteran artist highfliers—most of which were being handled by S.L. Feldman & Associates. Many of newer acts afterward, including Nickelback, Three Days Grace, and Billy Talent, came to booked by The Agency Group,
Yeah, it was and it a good time for Ralph and I. We both had a lot of experience at that point. Certainly a lot of experience in Canada. We knew everybody from coast to coast. We did really realize that the world was getting smaller, that the technology was going to change.
Ralph had earlier been fired from S. L. Feldman & Associates.
Correct. The day he got fired he didn’t want to go home and tell his wife he had been fired. He went to (manager) Jake Gold’s office and grabbed a desk and a phone at Jake’s office. Jake called me, and said, “Ralph got fired by Feldman. I think it would be a great idea if you two started an agency.” I said, “Yeah, maybe we should.” Ralph came over to my office a day later and never moved out. We started an agency in my management office and began looking for an international partner.
You didn’t quite get fired at The Agency in 1993. You were told, “Quit and we will let you stay in the business.”
Yep, that’s what happened.
Your departure from The Agency took place amidst planning a 70 Canadian cities Barenaked Ladies tour being booked by Elliot Lefko and Jay Marciano then working at MCA Concerts. Who was the bearer of the bad news to you?
It was a meeting with Arthur Fogel (then president of the concert division of Concert Productions International which then was handling more than 250 concerts per year in North America). Arthur called me in. I had never really dealt or spoken with him. CPI’s ownership of The Agency was pretty hands off. I was the youngest agent in the company, and I had gotten involved with the Barenaked Ladies. The band couldn’t be hotter and were just an absolute national sensation. I had just finished putting the deal together with Elliot, and Jay for this huge Canadian tour. It hadn’t been announced yet, and I got a call from Arthur asking me to come over to CPI. I went into Arthur’s office, and he asked me, “What are we going to do with the Barenaked Ladies?” I was like, “What are WE going to do? I have been working with Elliot Lefko on this band. He’s done a bunch of shows so I’ve confirmed a national tour with MCA Concerts.” Arthur looked at me, and said, “Are you a fucking idiot?”
Indicating, “Don’t you know who owns The Agency?”
Yep. “Don’t you know who you work for?” I took a minute, and said, “Well, you know I see this business as that I work for the artist. They are my client. They are the ones paying me. I’ve done what I think is best for the artist.” There was a long pause, and Arthur said, “You are a fucking idiot. Get the out of here.” I go back to The Agency’s office on Britain Street, and a couple of hours later Lawrence Schurman who was the senior VP there, and really in charge of running the day-to-day operations of The Agency, came into my office--Lawrence and I are close. It was Lawrence that hired me, Ralph, and Jake Gold. He said, “Oh, you stepped in it this time. I have been told to get you out of here. I’m to let you quit, and we’ll let you work in the business or I’m to fire you, and tell you that we will never let you work in the business again.”
After you left The Agency, did the Barenaked Ladies' national tour go to CPI instead of MCA Concerts?
The Barenaked Ladies' tour was already booked with MCA Concerts with Elliott and Jay. They produced and promoted that huge first big tour for Barenaked Ladies.
The Barenaked Ladies were part of the Queen Street West scene in Toronto that came to include Moxy Früvous, the Waltons, the Skydiggers, the Pursuit of Happiness, the Cowboy Junkies, Parachute Club, the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, Rheostatics, the Leslie Spit Treoo, and Jane Siberry that really galvanized the Canadian music industry at the time.
It was an incredibly heady and exciting time. There was then such an appetite for Canadian music. MuchMusic and (affiliated) CITY-TV, setting up on Queen Street, had a lot to do with that, and we had (such clubs as) The BamBoo, The Rivoli, The Horseshoe, The Cameron, the Beverley Tavern, and Ultrasound which opened above (the restaurant) X-Rays. I remember nights in 1991 when I had four bands booked into four different clubs on Queen Street, and I felt like the prince of the city walking along Queen Street going into clubs to check on the shows, and see how my bands were doing.
The BamBoo, co-owned by Richard O’Brien and Patti Habib, had a great run from 1977 to 2002 and did much to change the racial diversity of Toronto music.
I still see Patti, she’s a neighbor of mine.
The BamBoo was a great venue if only because it had a mandate of world music and world food.
It sure was. The amazing reggae scene that Toronto had at the time was so exciting. I still love reggae music. and loved that scene at the time with the Sattalites, Leroy Sibbles, and even Parachute Club which started out basically as a reggae band. It was really The BamBoo that was the center of it, and it was The BamBoo largely, I think, that really changed Queen Street. Then, when CITY-TV and MuchMusic moved in, it really lit things up.
It was a really exciting time. Bands came into Toronto from across the country Pursuit of Happiness, I remember when they arrived from Edmonton and getting to meet Moe (Berg).
If I ever write a book, it will talk about Blue Rodeo being the first band that came out of that Queen Street scene that had real commercial success. They emboldened everybody else. They made everybody else feel that they could do it as well. They really taught the rest of the scene how to behave in a lot of ways The scene before that, when Honeymoon Suite, Glass Tiger, and bands of that ilk were happening, I was working at The Diamond Club, and I saw that scene too. The bands were largely trying to imitate what was going on in America or what was going on in the UK. I really feel that Blue Rodeo was the first band that had a really different, and really Canadian sound.
You had arrived at The Agency after working as a junior agent at The Trick Or Treat Agency, operated by Michael and Kay White, which represented Blue Rodeo.
Yes, I did. I watched the start of their relationship with Blue Rodeo that continues (with Kay White) to this day. What the band has done in Canada is so special. Being part of their beginnings, as both a promoter and then as a young agent were times, and memories that I cherish. I got a “Thank You” on their second record, “Diamond Mine” (1989). That was the first major album that I ever got a thank you in. It was and continues to be, something that I am really proud of.
Very cool for the time.
Sure was. I am still really good friends with those guys.
The Trick Or Treat Agency was then booking some 75 acts.
Michael was the agent, and Kay was the bookkeeper. Kay certainly has done very well as an agent in the past 25 years but, at that time, she was keeping the books, and Michael was an agent. I was there almost two years, learning and working with Michael. He was a great teacher, and I really enjoyed working with him. I also knew that the company was limited in how far it could go.
Trick Or Treat represented a number of international acts in Canada like the World Party from the UK
And Katrina and the Waves. There were also some great Australian bands that we did at the time. One of my favorite all-time bands that I booked was Weddings, Parties, Anything. An amazing group.
In terms of Toronto alternative bands driving a change in the city, I’d add in the Cowboy Junkies, and Crash Vegas, formed by Michelle McAdorey and Greg Keelor of Blue Rodeo in 1988.
Well, I watched that band play their first gigs. I watched Greg run rehearsals to replace himself in the band. They ended up with Colin Cripps. But it was really Greg and Michelle’s, it was their writing project. The Junkies had (their second album) “The Trinity Session” (1988). It’s an amazing record, but they were not exciting live. I remember seeing them at Clinton’s and at Lee’s Palace, but I also remember almost falling asleep during their shows. I passed on (booking) them at the time. They certainly went on to a lot of success, but they didn’t ignite the scene the same way as Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip that followed them and the Barenaked Ladies that followed them that had really big commercial success that was largely Canadian.
Blue Rodeo can be characterized by the members’ ability to reach out and embrace Canada’s creative community; whereas the Cowboy Junkies seemed more insular and remote.
It was insular. I know those people a little bit. and they are shy.
Blue Rodeo, The Tragically Hip, and, Barenaked Ladies were bigger than life in Canada, largely due to their videos being on high rotation at MuchMusic.
MuchMusic was alive, and they were taking chances and they were taking chances on Canadian artists and when they got behind them it really made a huge difference.
MuchMusic launched on August 31, 1984, three years after MTV and in its early days was often compared to MTV which wasn’t true. I recall Miles Davis’ videos on MuchMusic. The video channel certainly championed Moxy Früvous, the Pursuit of Happiness, the Cowboy Junkies, Parachute Club, and Jane Siberry. The first Canadian indie band to explode on the network was the Barenaked Ladies.
It was pretty great what happened with them. It was a real series of unforeseen circumstances. They had a very talented first manager Nigel (Best). He was working at Warner’s (Warner Music Canada) in publicity. He was a very savvy guy.
And he scored a deal for Barenaked Ladies with Sire Records.
Yeah. That came awhile afterward.
Sire’s signing of Barenaked Ladies took place in suburban Scarborough at its city hall. Sire co-founder Seymour Stein attended the event which was pretty funny given the obscure location.
Almost any story involving Seymour Stein is funny. I have a lot of them over the years.
You managed Moxy Früvous, but you didn’t get the band signed to Sire.
No, they were with Atlantic. Seymour passed on them. He certainly signed the Rheostatics, k.d. lang, and Great Big Sea a little bit later. Seymour fell in love with Great Big Sea. I remember in 1997 that we were doing a series of shows in Atlantic Canada with four bands for the Great Big Picnic. One in Halifax, one in Prince Edward Island, and one outside St. John’s (Newfoundland). Seymour came in and joined the troupe that was traveling around doing these shows for the weekend. It became my job to look after Seymour that weekend. I had so much fun with him. He’s such a great character.
Let me give a quote you once gave, “These guys sing better than Kiss.”
Better than Kiss?
Do you know who you said that about?
I don’t know why I would have used Kiss. Maybe, I was trying to be funny.
After leaving The Agency you operated Jack’s Artist Management from 1993 to 1996 with Moxy Früvous, hHead, and Furnaceface. What life lessons did you from learn from management?
I really learned how much I enjoyed the live music business. The immediacy of it. There’s a little bit of honor among thieves in the live music business. I didn’t really understand the thieving that went on in the record companies. I loved being an agent, but I got pushed out of doing that, and there really wasn’t another place to go. So I started a management company. Moxy Früvous was an Agency client. I knew that there was something to build something immediately having been a part of what the Barenaked Ladies had done. Moxy Früvous had an independent cassette, and I just started selling, and marketing it.
How far back do you go with Moxy Früvous?
From when they were busking on the street. I was walking between Clinton’s and Lee’s Palace on a Friday night, checking out shows as a young agent would, and I saw young people gathering in front of the Bloor Cinema. I went over to see what was going on, and I watched as Moxy Früvous played three songs, busking on the street. I remember leaving a $2 bill, and my business card in the guitar case that they were collecting change in. I got a call the next day from Jian Ghomeshi, the band’s leader, and our relationship started almost immediately. I became their agent. I tried really hard to find them a manager. I spent about a year working as their agent at The Agency. The day I was told to resign, I decided I would start a management company. I started managing Moxy Früvous immediately. Shortly afterward, Len Glickman, a prominent Toronto entertainment attorney introduced me to hHead and Brendan Canning who now leads Broken Social Scene. He’s one of my great friends to this day.
Moxy Früvous’ first major label recording, “Bargainville,” released on WEA in Canada, and Atlantic Records in America, followed the indie cassette release.
Their debut release followed a similar model I had watched and participated in with the Barenaked Ladies which had sold about 50,000 (indie) cassettes at that time. I do have a gold cassette award on my wall. I ran the distribution for the Moxy Früvous indie cassette. I sold all of those records out of my office, out of my car, and at gigs. It was a great way for that band to get started. We created a real business. Then all of the (Canadian) labels were chasing the band. We ended up signing with Warner Music Canada because they would guarantee a U.S. release. All the record deals then were worldwide, but you were only guaranteed a release in most cases in your home territory. Warners put us together with Val Azzoli, an (Italian-born) Canadian who was running Atlantic Records at the time. I remember flying down to New York with Jian and (Warner Canada A&R executive) Kim Cooke. We met with Val and signed there with Atlantic.
That was where we started.
We had an amazing relationship with (Warner Music Canada executives) Dave Tollington, Stan Kulin, and Kim Cooke. They taught me so much as a young manager, and as a young professional in the business. They really were so gracious, and so generous. They did that with all of their bands. (Warner Music Canada president) Stan Kulin spent an enormous amount of time with us. He really liked the guys. He liked how smart, and witty they were. He and (his wife) Marie used to like to take us for dinner, but it felt as they were giving almost business lessons at the same time. I really did learn so much. They were such gentlemen. There were so many executives in the Canadian record industry at that time that were a real inspiration to me. (EMI Music Canada president) Deane Cameron very much so, and (A&M Records of Canada president) Joe Summers as well. They were all real gentlemen, and great guys to work with. They loved music, and they built a large foundation of my thinking of the how the music business should work.
Off of “Bargainville came such Canadian hits as “King of Spain” and “My Baby Loves A Bunch of Authors.” I also remember “Spiderman” being used for the Spiderman TV show.
The Moxy Früvous guys were so creative and smart and interesting. They were such a talented foursome. Creatively they were so fearless. We did all kinds of stuff.
Moxy Früvous broke up in 2000 following three further studio albums, a live LP, and a pair of odds-and-sods album releases . Why didn’t the band break through to a greater extent in the U.S.?
I think that they were too niché to ever to break through. When they emerged the big acts on the charts were grunge rock bands and they were sort of the complete opposite of it.
Like Blue Rodeo and The Tragically Hip, perhaps, they were considered too Canadian.
I never viewed them as too Canadian. Moxy Früvous developed a great fan base in the U.S. They were fanatical. They built a really strong live business, but the band really burnt out really dramatically; became an afterthought, and scorned by a lot of the media that helped build them up, and they were being viewed as just a novelty act.
Barenaked Ladies had the same misfortune in the U.S. until the tide turned with the release of it live record “Rock Spectacle” (1996), followed by its album “Stunt” (1998)
Yeah. At the same time, Moxy Früvous enjoyed a great career in America and worked very, very hard. When it was all said and done and over for the band, it really was about the guys being tired being in a band, and working to that degree. But it had been 10 years, and a number of records, and record deals, and publishing deals—we all did really well. When it ended, we all owned houses.
After the band’s breakup, Jian Ghomeshi began working on a solo album. Was it ever released?
No, it was sort of self-released. I have a copy here somewhere.
Jian’s career crashed after he was fired from CBC-Radio in 2014. At the time, the Canadian public broadcaster said it saw "graphic evidence" he had caused physical injury to a woman. Multiple allegations followed, culminating in a controversial 8-day court trial in 2016 that revealed embarrassing details of his life. We know what happened with Jian at the trial. Leading up to the trial, during it, and what followed must have been a devastating period for you and your family.
Yeah, it sure was. I would debate you a bit that we know what happened. I think there are only a few of us that know what happened.
I was talking about what happened with the Canadian media frenzy surrounding the trial.
Yeah, it became a media sensation. The truth really got lost in what the story was. I loved working with Jian. He was doing amazing work at the CBC with his work there (including hosting the “Q” radio show launched in 2007), and he was elevating the entire cultural scene of Canada. It was incredibly exciting to be working with him on that. It was very much a hand-in-hand relationship. I did speak to him every day. It was about work. I knew he was a bon vivant. I knew that he was running around and dating a lot. I did not know that he was hurting...
Allegedly hurting given that he wasn’t convicted.
You know there’s no question in my mind that he—let me say it this way—that he was treating women badly. I never believed that he was a rapist. I never believed that he was a violent person. I do believe that he was incredibly disrespectful and that he treated people very badly. When the breadth of what he was doing in his personal life came out, I was devastated. I was ashamed of my closeness, and affiliation with him. I dealt with a lot of emotions that I had never dealt with in my life before, of guilt, and...I spent some time in therapy that helped me deal with it. I knew as the revelations came out what was true, and what wasn’t true, but I realized also that he was abusing our relationship, and he was abusing me in the process. That he was systematically lying to me.
[Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted in March 2016 of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking involving three complainants. In May 2016, he apologized to a fourth complainant and signed a peace bond that saw a final count of sexual assault withdrawn. Since his trial, Ghomeshi has kept largely out of the public eye though he unsuccessfully attempted to launch a podcast entitled, "Exiles."]
You severed your relationship Jian Ghomeshi. Have you picked it up since?
No. I have not heard from Jian since about 10 days after it all blew up. At that point, he was asking me to help him with some stuff, and I said I would, but that he needed to seek help for himself. I really believed he’s a narcissist who has a narcissistic personality disorder. Very similar to the President of the United States right now.
Well, look at the definition. It’s a medical disorder called narcissistic personality disorder that 5% of our population has to a degree. And they never are cured. It does go to various levels.
Steve Herman played a pivotal role in building The Agency Group as president of the Canadian operations, and later as the CEO of North America. Between 2003 to 2009, he was based in Toronto, but he also worked out of the L.A., New York, and London offices. So he worked in Toronto in a very different way?
In a very different way. Neil Warnock and Steve Martin called Ralph and me one day and said, “We’re talking to Steve Herman. We are thinking about bringing him in. He would become vice president in charge of all of North America, and he’d be in Toronto. We think he’d be a great addition.” Ralph and I didn’t hesitate. We had worked with Steve for years back in the late ‘80s. We had all worked as agents together. We had worked with Steve as a promoter at MCA Concerts, Universal Concerts, and Core Audience Entertainment. We knew that Steve was incredibly talented and hard working. He and Michael Rapino (as Core Audience Entertainment) were the first to give Nickelback a shot in Toronto. We got them on with Creed and Oleander (at The Docks in 1999). When Steve joined The Agency Group, we had a great team with Colin, Omar, and Paul Gorely. We had a lot of great people.
You were behind moving several agents from the Toronto office over the years. Nick Meinema to UTA Nashville, and Darcy Gregoire doing PACs for UTA from L.A.
Well, I did that. My first interview with Nick Meinema, he was working he was at this small local agency LiveTourArtists with Doug Kirby and Darcy Gregoire. and I really liked the kid. We hired him, and a month later Darcy knocked on our door. Later, Nick said, “I want to move to Nashville.” I said, “I will help you get to Nashville.”
We did the same with Omar Al Joulani, who is a senior vice president at Live Nation now, and with Colin Lewis who is at Live Nation. Colin was employee number two with us. He’s my former intern. He was like my little brother. He worked with us for years. He came to Ralph and me, and said, “I want to move to L.A. We went, “We’ll help you do that.”
Colin Lewis brought Paul Gourlie to The Agency Group as an agent in 1999. His death at 37 in 2013 due to cystic fibrosis shocked Canada’s live music world.
Ralph and I hired and mentored him. We really grew to love Paul. We know we are better and stronger people from having worked with Paul. He was an inspiration to everybody he worked with. He was told he would be dead by the time that he was 20, but he didn’t let anything stop him. He was just a joy to work with every day. He had a wonderful understanding of life because it was all so very real to him how long it might last.
As we discussed, Neil Warnock was initially was hesitant in opening an office in Toronto in 1996. And yet, a signal of Canada’s effectiveness in developing new acts since have been the successes of Céline Dion, Michael Bublé, Nickelback, Arcade Fire, Metric, Broken Social Scene, Diana Krall, Tegan and Sara, and Leslie Feist, and the more recent emergence of Drake, the Weeknd, Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Leslie Feist, deadmau5, MSTRKRFT, Sean Mendes, and the Strumbellas.
Yeah, Canada has had a number of unbelievable runs. Remember in the late ‘90s when Canadian women, Shania, Alanis, Céline and Sarah McLachlan were dominating the charts? That was exciting. Then there was in the early 2000s with Nickelback and a number of rock bands. Certainly, the real indie rock scene and Pitchfork scene Feist was a major leader, and Broken Social Scene set a standard followed by Metric, Arcade Fire, and a bunch of great bands that came out of that indie rock scene. And, frankly, there are still more coming
I think Vancouver’s Marianas Trench could be next.
We do too. They are a really important client to us. So talented. You can never go wrong when you are working with a band that can sing and play at that level. It gets overlooked in all of the talk of business and producers and so on. But they can flat out sing and play.
Canadian country seems overlooked by the major Canadian talent agencies. Certainly, signings have been hit-and-miss.
I disagree with you, Larry. I was lucky to sign Paul Brandt. He had been living in Nashville. He had Nashville-based management and Nashville-based booking agent. He moved back to Canada and I was lucky to get involved with him. He’s still a client today. He went into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame this week and will be inducted into the Western Canadian Hall of Fame in September.
Being involved with Paul over the past decade allowed me to bring Nick Meinema into The Agency Group, and getting him to work in Nashville. We built a country department almost overnight. I worked very closely with Nick, mentoring and teaching him how to be a concert agent as opposed to being a club agent. I taught him how to be a professional, and be an executive. It was my idea to move Nick to Nashville. It took me about a year to talk Neil Warnock into believing that this kid, who was so full of it and was such a hustler, could make it work in Nashville, and today he’s killing it.
Now that you don’t have access to Nick because he remains at UTA are you seeking to sign more country acts at APA?
Yes. We have a number of country acts including Paul Brandt, Jess Moskaluch, Leaving Thomas. Stephanie Purificati is representing Jess and a number of Canadian country artists. One of my goals is to work with Steve Lassiter (partner and senior vice president of concerts) in our APA office in Nashville. They have a great company and a great roster of talent. We are going to work with them to help bring their roster of talent to Canada. We will find some shows in the nooks-and-crannies of Canada they didn’t know about. While we are doing that, we are going to build Canadian country artists. We have an exciting woman we just signed Sacha (Warkworth Ontario) who I think is a first round draft pick. Yeah, I think that country is going to be a focus here for APA. Stephanie is going to lead, and I’m going to help her.
[Stephanie Purificati's roster at APA Toronto includes Jess Moskaluke, Virginia to Vegas, and Prozzak, among many others.]
You sure could do with a Dallas Smith whom Nick retains at UTA.
Dallas is amazing. I worked with Dallas’ tour with Nick, I’m really proud of his success. One of the things that I've learned in this business and one of the things I teach the young people I work with is that you don’t burn bridges, and you don’t close doors. Agents don’t do that. Real agents always keep every door open. Who knows we may all be working together? Maybe, we will get the band (of former UTA agents) together again in the future. You never know. Neil Warnock is still a very close friend, and it’s a relationship I will always cherish. Neil is an amazing agent, an incredible executive, and was a mentor to us. Neil never acted like a boss to us. He acted as our partner. He gave Ralph and I a lot of confidence by doing that.
Retaining close relations with artists or their managers isn’t as easy because they tend to move on and break your heart.
Not necessarily, and the managers don’t always stay in place either. I’ve seen lots of acts leave the fold over the years, and come back. Relationships are fluid. I have been the Arkells’ agent through four managers. As an agent, it is important to have great relationships working hand-in-hand with the manager of an artist, but it is also important to build a great relationship with the artist so they understand who is doing the work.
As you said, we can both cite dozens of examples of acts that have fired their agent and returned to that agent later.
People move around in this business. You are going to get fired as an agent. It’s a fact of life. You better develop a thick skin. It’s almost like a coach being fired in hockey. If the team is in trouble, the general manager is going to point at the coach and say, “We need a new coach.” The coach might be pointing at the general manager saying, “The coach is fine, we need a new general manager.” It really is just a fact of life in this business. It’s hard. It’s a very personal business. I think to do it well, you need to be passionate about your clients. But yes it’s really heartbreaking sometimes when you get fired by an artist that you feel very emotionally invested in.
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 1970-80. 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 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.
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