Andy McLean has had a long and fascinatingly varied career in the Canadian music business, and he’s now very happily ensconced in the position of Executive Director of the East Coast Music Association (ECMA). As FYI learned in our recent in-depth interview, McLean was originally a social worker in London prior to crossing the Atlantic to Toronto in the early ‘80s.
“I have a psychology degree and was doing social work prior to studying for my Masters degree at the London School of Economics. I was playing in bands in pubs on the weekends too,” he recalls.
Fate then intervened in the form of a romantic connection that lured McLean to Toronto for a visit in 1981. Enter The Tenants, a local new-wave inflected band just starting out. McLean was asked to join the band, and he started a writing relationship with guitarist/singer Gary Brown.
“We started playing local clubs like Larry’s Hideaway and the Cabana room, quickly attracted attention, and got signed to CBS. I’m thinking ‘this is what happens when you come to the colonies. They give you a record deal and off you go!,’” laughs McLean.
Early single “Sheriff” became a real hit, and The Tenants began touring in earnest. “We went out supporting acts for like three months then things switched over as ‘Sheriff’ became a hit and we became a headliner. This was a great time. Highlights included playing with Simple Minds, opening for Rush, and touring with groups like Rough Trade, Tom Cochrane and Harlequin. Ralph James and I share some good stories! We got quite big in South America, and we had some memorable dates in Caracas.”
The Tenants’ self-titled debut album came out in early ’83, followed by a second album, Visions Of Our Future, in 1984. One source (The Canadian Pop Encyclopedia) claims that both albums had sales of around a quarter-million copies each worldwide, though those figures surprise McLean a bit. “I had no idea. Maybe I should go back to Sony about that,” he notes with a chuckle.
Management and legal hassles played a role in the band then calling it quits. “There were difficulties in the end but I think we’d rather run our course, as pop bands do. It wasn’t a difficult decision for me to move on,” McLean observes now.
His next move was to sign a publishing deal with Gerry Young, of Current Records. This led to a collaboration with vocalist Wendy Lands and a new project called Double Dare. They recorded a self-titled album that came out via PoyGram/Vertigo in 1986, with the single “Date With The Past” scoring some radio action. “Having time to write, put together a great band and getting to work at Sounds Interchange was a great experience,” says McLean.
From then on, his focus moved to the business side of music, with McLean taking on many other roles in the music biz in the three decades following. “After writing, recording and touring in bands, I’ve done artist management and booking, publishing, created and run festivals, and produced music for TV,” he explains.
“You don’t have to be a musician to be in the music biz, but I started off as a musician first and foremost. I still am a musician too,” McLean stresses. “I still play and I recorded three albums [2002's Betty's Room, 2005's No Language, and 2011's Snow Mountain River] with my wife Linda [a very accomplished folk/pop singer/songwriter], that also came out in Europe. We are still writing songs in our living room.”
“I feel I’m at a point now where I do have credibility. If a musician comes up to me on the street and has a rant about something going on in their lives, I can likely relate in some way. It might be about a bad monitor mix or a difficulty in getting funding. I’ve been through much of the process as an artist, a biz person, and a festival owner.”
Post Double Dare, McLean started working with the Intrepid Records label in Toronto. “it was one of the first boutique indie labels and an EMI offshoot,” he recalls. “I was approached to take over some of their Special Projects, one of the main ones being the CD compilation series IndieCan. That was a very forward looking concept and was financed by the Ontario provincial government. Those CDs went out to Canadian consulates around the world.”
Artists benefiting from this exposure included such rising star bands as Crash Test Dummies, Barenaked Ladies and Lowest Of The Low. Part of McLean’s mandate was to help such artists showcase internationally, and, he explains “that was the start of my foraging into the world of international industry. I started to go to the New Music Seminar in NYC, Berlin Independence Days, and South By Southwest, which had just started. My job was to put the CDs together then organize showcases at those events. I remember Barenaked Ladies signed to Sire through a NMS showcase.”
His early connections with SXSW would pay off big-time for McLean. He was hired by that fest to represent them in Canada, “back when few people knew about it. That turned out to be the beginning of the idea of creating the North by Northeast festival [NXNE]-, taking the best of what SXSW had and making it our own.”
Along with NOW magazine publisher Michael Hollett, Alice Klein (NOW), live music booker Yvonne Matsell, and (for the first year) Derek Andrews, McLean co-founded NXNE in late 1994 (the inaugural fest was in June ‘95). “I vividly remember a meeting we had at Ultrasound [Matsell’s club] bringing together all the live music venue owners in Toronto to tell them what we were planning to do,” says McLean. “I remember our first press conference there then too, and the enthusiasm for the idea.”
McLean then served as NXNE's Managing Director until early 2013, playing a crucial role in making the fest one of the most important annual events on the North American music calendar. He recalls that “back in 95 it was all about creating opportunities for bands to finds a stage and bring the industry into town. There were a lot more A and R guys back then, when it was still about getting the deal. It was all about the music. That was our theme and that’s still my guiding principle.”
One of his many initiatives there was to help found the NXNE “Put The Boot In” charity football game ( Musicians Vs Media) that ran for six years with proceeds going to Right To Play. That was a project dear to the heart of the soccer mad McLean. A diehard Manchester United fan, he also had a stint (alongside this scribe) on the Music Express football team back in the day.
He also expresses pride in supporting the White Ribbon shows at NXNE, star-studded concerts that helped raise awareness (and funds) in resisting violence against women.
Reflecting on 18 years at NXNE, McLean stresses “the core belief was putting the music first. We found great staff and couldn’t have done it without the thousands of great volunteers. I enjoyed every moment there and I did feel I was adding something to the Canadian music landscape there.”
After leaving NXNE in early 2013, he wasted no time in organizing another music festival. In tandem with wife Linda McLean, he started up the Muskoka Sound Festival in Huntsville, ON (Andy was executive director, Linda director). “Booking for the festival was a lot of fun, as it put me right back at that level, with the agents and the bands,” says McLean.
“I need to stress that family is the key, so to be able to work together in the beautiful part of the country where we lived was awesome. The fest was a huge success for a first year, but the climate quickly changed and competition like WayHome came in. We still have the brand and location, so we could do it again if conditions came back.”
The offer to take the helm of the East Coast Music Association followed, with McLean taking the ED job in April 2014. The genuine enthusiasm he has for the gig and his new home base of Halifax is easily audible in our interview.
“The East Coast lifestyle is pretty sweet, I have to tell you. I always liked Halifax back from when I was touring. It’s very exciting here as things ramp up to the ECMA Awards and week. I’m really enjoying bringing that brand back again into people’s minds more than it has been in a little while,” he stresses.
McLean states “I’m an east coast evangelist now. The amount of talent here is simply amazing. With every east coast band I’ve booked I’ve always been so impressed by their talent and how hard they work.”
Amongst his other industry experiences was four years spent on the board of Radio Starmaker, a stint he describes as "really enjoyable." McLean's current focus is now firmly upon the rapidly approaching East Coast Music Week, to be held in Sydney, Nova Scotia, from April 13-17.