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FYI Industry Profile: Joanne Smale

Kerry Doole's picture

The decision by a young American university graduate from Miami Beach to start a new adventure as a booking agent in London, Ontario, back in 1973, proved to be a highly fortuitous one for the arts in Canada. That student, Joanne Smale (then Joanne Muroff), has gone on to become a major figure in showbiz here, in such varied roles as agent, concert promoter, publicist, tour manager, film and event producer.

Getting Smale to consent to a rare interview wasn’t easy. “I’d much rather talk about other people,” she noted over coffee on a Little Italy patio on the weekend. That she has always done exceptionally well, going to bat for her clients in a dedicated and enthusiastic fashion.

She warms to our assigned task, however, reflecting on a highly varied and fascinating four decades plus career. Her love affair with Canada began when she took a year off before starting her Masters studies to hitch-hike across North America.

“Each city had wonderful lessons, as in drag lining for scallops off PEI. In Toronto I ended up in a studio listening to a band named Thundermug recording their song “Orbit" with producer Greg Hambleton. I headed west to experience more, through the Rockies, BC and Washington.’

"When I arrived back in Florida I was offered a job as a booking agent for Brian Courtis/BBR Booking Agency in London. I packed up my Volvo with Florida plates and arrived as a landed immigrant to Canada not knowing a soul.”

“At BBR, they gave me high schools to book, from Sarnia to Petrolia to Tillsonburg. I learned about Canadian bands then. We booked into colleges and universities then, like Western, Fanshawe and in Windsor.”

“It was hilarious in the winter-time. After the gigs I usually ended up on the side of the road due to not knowing how to drive in snow. Most of the tow trucks in the whole area knew me… ‘The Yankee gal from Florida needs help again.’"

A fast learner, Smale quickly familiarized herself with the industry here. A turning point came when she checked out Smales Pace in London, a coffeehouse-style live music venue that was an important club on the circuit.

“I was there to sell bands to Smales Pace, then [club owner] John Smale and I fell in love,” she recalls. “For the record I had nothing to do with starting Smales Pace. I am hoping people will remember me for other things in my life I have done.”

The club did open Smale’s ears to the richness of Canada’s singer/songwriter scene. “My jaw would drop at how good the artists were there: David Essig, Colleen Peterson, David Wiffen, Brent Titcomb. I could go on.”

One industry veteran whose relationship with Smale goes back to this period is Harvey Glatt. “Some of the artists I managed back then, like David Wiffen and Bruce Cockburn, were booked in there. Joanne was always relentless and very dedicated.”

The two remain in contact, Glatt explains. “She is amazing in the way she has developed a network and keeps in touch with people. I still get an e-birthday card every year.”

During her Listening House days

Joanne and then husband John Smale helped start up Hamilton’s Festival of Friends, and Joanne then started her own booking agency, Listening House.

“That would have been around 1976. I figured ‘why am I trying to take on rock n roll? I can’t take on the big guys in Toronto.’ So what I did was to create tours of singer/songwriters, from coast to coast to coast. I put different musicians together and sold it as a package, like David Essig and Willie P. Bennett [whom she would later manage], or David Wiffen and Colleen Peterson. I loved doing that. We sold country music, blues, and folk – roots music.”

At the first COCA convention she attended, Smale met and became lifelong friends with Pegi Cecconi, one of the few other female agents in the industry. “I don't think Pegi remembered me but the respect and admiration that I have of her knowing this crazy business of music started then.”

Relocation to Toronto from Ancaster was the next step. “I fell in love with the city and moved the agency there,” she says.

After tiring a little of the agency grind, Smale sold her agency to a musician, Bob Stone. “Then it was ‘what do I want to be when I grow up? Let’s try promoting,’ so I became a promoter.” She recalls Pure Prairie League as one US act she brought in.

Meeting up with local industry man about town Stuart Ravenhill led to a business relationship, and a company called Mais Oui Productions.

Smale then set about mastering the art of music publicity. “I knew nothing about publicity,” she admits. “There were no books or music institutes with courses on it.” Going out on the road with Lisa Dalbello then was part of her educational crash course.

Early clients included local promoters the Garys, The Horseshoe, and The El Mocambo. “We were doing press for record labels too. Stuart then got a deal he couldn’t refuse, as Bruce Cockburn’s tour manager, so he left me.”

Smale soldiered on, recalling that ”I kept going with a natural intake of clients, very music-oriented." One of those clients was top independent label True North Records, and company head Bernie Finkelstein remembers first crossing paths with Smale back in her London days.

“In the ‘80s I had her on retainer at one point to be the publicist for True North, both for management and the label. I don’t recall how long that went on for, as we kept using her after that."

"Rough Trade was the real challenge there," she recalls. "I learned how to be part of a team to break artists. It is always team playing in this business.”

Smale also worked closely with Murray McLauchlan. "That was as a 'bridge-manager' between Murray parting ways with Bernie Finkelstein and eventually signing with the Jim Halsey Agency in Nashville. What an honour that was.  Murray will always have a place in my heart!"

She later worked with Finkelstein client Bruce Cockburn as a tour manager. "She did a big tour for us, in either 1987 or 88, playing large theatres in Canada and the US," says Finkelstein. "She was really good at it."

He also fondly remembers "the great parties she used to throw. She lived right at College and Spadina, right next door to the El Mocambo. She was such a great host. Everybody would be there and we’d all have a lot of fun."

The pair worked together again a few years back, when Smale acted as publicist for Finkelstein's autobiography. "Joanne is one of my oldest and dearest friends, he notes.

In 1984 she started Joanne Smale Productions, doing both publicity and events production. “I always liked doing production, and this was an important time for the Toronto community,” she says. “We worked with the Hispanic, Italian, and African-Canadian communities, starting and producing events.”

Kindred spirits and collaborators at the time included Lorraine Segato, Rhonda Ross and Molly Johnson, and they were all involved in benefit events for such causes as literacy, AIDS, and the anti-apartheid movement. “I have always been an activist,” Smale stresses.

Her mantra: “We believe love is the answer and that arts and culture is the vehicle that will get us there.” Smale adds that "I hold the indigenous philosophy of life very close to me."

Always seeking fresh challenges, Smale then ventured into another field. “So the ‘80s are going by and I’m doing booking and promoting and producing events. What else can I do? I decided to try film and TV production.’

Holding an Oscar during an NFB event in 2002

She produced two documentaries, Mondo Moscow and The Un-Canadians, an exploration of those blacklisted during the Cold War era in Canada.

Smale did not pursue more film production after that, but has remained very active in the Canadian film world. She has sat on the boards of such organizations as The Academy of Canadian Film and Television, and Toronto Women in Film and Television (later Canadian Women In Film and Television), and the Canadian Independent Film Caucus.

On the music side, she has paid her dues sitting on the boards of FACTOR/Starmaker, CIRPA and VideoFact, amongsat many.

Joanne Smale Productions morphed into Planet3 Communications in 2000. The name references the third planet from the sun, plus Smale’s vision of a company with three components. “That was to be publicity, special events, and plans I had for a boutique hotel in Toronto.”

The latter facet didn’t work out, but Smale was in real demand in those other sectors. She teamed with Jane Harbury on music publicity for a couple of years, until, as Smale recalls, “Jane wanted to do her own thing. She returned to Jane Harbury Publicity and never looked back. She’s great. I also worked with Lorraine Segato and Rhonda Ross. We had a special events company, That's A Wrap!, and did a lot of film parties.”

As thousands of those in the Toronto arts scene can testify, Smale knows how to throw a good party. A natural and gregarious host, she says “I’m very proud of events when you can connect different people. Introduce visual artists to writers to musicians to actors. All our parties have been that way as we work in so many different areas. Don’t ghettoize the arts. We’re in a new paradigm.”

The client list for Smale’s companies is too lengthy to reproduce in full. It includes the Juno Awards, Canadian Music Week, NXNE, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and the Hot Docs, imagineNATIVE, ReelWorld, Rendezvous with Madness and Spinning Wheel festivals.

On the social activism and charity side, Planet 3 has worked with and on Workman Arts: The Maze, the Canadian Landmine Foundation, Eco Lodge (Moose Factory), Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, Ecofest, Rally Against Apartheid/Nelson Mandela, WOMAD, Tears Are Not Enough, Concert for Casey House (an AIDS hospice program), many national literacy campaigns, and more.

Smale is not ready to hang up the work phone any time soon. “Have I reached my potential? I don’t think so. When does one say that?”

She relocated to Niagara Falls, Ontario, from her Toronto base nearly three years ago, and is a passionate believer in the opportunities presented there. “It is a biosphere region, and it’s beautiful. I’d like to create an art colony based there, one all are welcome to work in and join.

“We're reaching to live a quality of life in sharing with the global community and walking the rhythms of the arts muses. Here's a shout out to Mitchell Cohen - here's to Another Life.”

“I’d like to create a second generation boutique hotel, one that deals in arts and culture. It’ll cater to the traveler, not the tourist.”

For this project, Smale explains “I’m looking for a suit, if anyone is out there. I understand what is needed. Let’s put a team, a gang, together. I’m ready. I’m the soldier, I’m excited!”

Planet 3 Communications is still very active in the Toronto scene though, with Smale regularly commuting up the QEW. “I work with film, dance, television, all the arts these days, and on a national basis,” she says. She’s currently in Toronto spearheading the Caribbean Tales Film Festival, as well as catching a few movies at TIFF, a festival she has worked with from the beginning.

Earlier this year, Smale also had to stay in Toronto for cancer treatment. Her serious health scare certainly caused alarm amongst her very large circle of friends here, but we’re pleased to report her recent news: “I’m clean and clear and jumping up and down! I had so much love in the healing process too.”

Looking back on a life that continues to be very well-lived, Joanne Smale declares “I could never have envisioned what I’ve seen and what I’ve done.”