Richard Mills signs off from The Feldman Agency this week after two-plus decades of travelling the world and doing what many peer agents might think the impossible, namely developing careers and generating income for a genre of artists that don’t often fit the mold of today's hits.
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Born in Trinidad, and raised in the prairies, Mills is a formidable figure in person. One might guess him as an IT executive, or perhaps a linebacker from a CFL team, when, in fact, he’s one of the original agents to have joined Feldman Agency when it first opened its Toronto office in 1993.
Before, he was the first agent to join Paquin Agency, when Gilles Paquin expanded his Winnipeg-based management firm and created Paquin Entertainment Agency.
His first charge was a young buck from the ‘Peg born Frederick Ralph Cornelius who smartly chose to change his name to Fred Penner.
The rest is history. Fred went on to become a kids’ TV star with his syndicated Fred Penner’s Place CBC TV show earning exposure on Nickelodeon in the US. Penner subsequently released a dozen albums that sold by the tonne and he continues to sell out concerts for impressionable kids and their adoring parents.
By accident or design, Fred set a template for Mills as he gathered momentum, contacts and a vision for a career roadmap that embraced an understanding of the theatre industry and how to attract audiences.
Actually, there’s a bit of history that precedes his joining Paquin.
Mills worked his way through the U of Manitoba as the student entertainment buyer for two years, producing over 400 shows—among them the first Winnipeg show for the Tragically Hip that he bought for all of $400.
Ironically, it was back then, booking campus shows, when he connected with Ralph James who was with the Hungry I Agency at the time. They became fast friends and have remained so, even as competitors, 30 years on.
Mills moved on to stage managing the Red River Exhibition in the city sometimes known as Winterpeg and, kindlier, the City of Rivers.
He recalls it “a great experience” and went on from there, learning the intricacies of booking and staging a series of shows at Winnipeg Stadium before joining West Sun, a production and lighting firm that taught him the technical side to show production.
“It was practical stuff that gave me a wealth of knowledge and expertise about the backbone to every show,” he recalls.
The graduation from student to professional also afforded him the opportunity to work first-hand with the likes of Kim Mitchell and Colin James, and a hand-shake relationship with Gladys Knight, Johnny Cash and a wealth of other stars headlining summer seasons at Red River and Winnipeg Stadium.
Up to this point, Canada’s agency business had been largely populated by rogues, renegades and rascals.
Agency putsches were commonplace, poaching agents and artist rosters common practice.
It was a business that at times rang reminiscent of Fagin’s den in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist.
But times were changing with more orthodoxy brought to the business by the likes of Sam Feldman and the aforementioned Paquin.
The business became less about grabbing fees and screwing the competition and more reasoned, with a view to building solid companies and developing careers.
Mills arrived at the gates of a new dawn in the history of booking agencies in Canada.
On the surface, Mills appears to be a top-down kind of guy.
The business is a magnet for larger-than-life doers. Predominantly a male enclave, braggadocio is a mask for these super-sales people who handle a file full of talent expecting varying amounts of baby-sitting services. The modern era, of which Mills was born into, required hard-nosed strategy sessions to help the acts sway away from the first available gig to selecting those that could actually move them from rowdy barrooms to stages where people paid to see them perform.
Mills doesn’t exude braggadocio. He’s a quiet man who understates his importance in painting the big picture; but behind the mask is a thinker, a strategist, a person who takes a real pride in what he does, and projects the kind of calmness one finds in business professionals who eschew the din and spot the advantage amid the clamour.
On how times have changed, Mills is all understatement.
“I think the role of ‘live’ has evolved tremendously.
“On the evolutionary scale, I think back then we (agents) were viewed as cockroaches because we were getting the 10 percent of the 10 percent the record companies couldn’t get their hands on.
“That’s the way I saw it, and that’s the way I felt.
“The paradigm has now shifted to where the ‘live’ experience is the driver of artist careers. It’s where the money is today.
“Live has become the revenue model for artists, and a lot of the A&R today is coming from the live side. It’s a fact now that there are a lot of artists we sign that don’t have record deals. Before it was the record companies that came to us with artists. The reverse is more commonly the case today,” he explains.
Further, he adds: “It’s a fact agents are doing a lot of the heavy lifting now. A lot of artists that are getting discovered now, and new artists that are growing and achieving, are coming to us from various places.
“Sometimes it is a manager who comes to us because they see the value in having an early relationship with an agent to expand into international territories.
“The advent of social media has changed the entire dynamic in developing cross-border fans.
“Before it was all about getting on the radio. Now it’s not solely about that. It’s all about being connected to the marketplace.”
He continues explaining the new paradigm, and the importance of social media in driving careers.
“I have one client (Richard likes to refer to his acts this way) that is not that well known in this country.
“(American a cappella quintet) Home Free has about 150 million YouTube views and that platform has given them a democratic push in places like Halifax and Sherbrooke and Burlington. We did very well in Calgary for the first time recently.
“People see them and they become fans. This is happening outside radio. Outside of television. The fact is, YouTube has put them in front of audiences with an immediacy that one can analyse and act on. They can now perform in Dublin, London, Austria and Denmark… “
In his inimitable style, he adds, “I have been fortunate to have been a contributing member to a big team.”
Artist development is a term bandied about in the trade like confetti at a wedding party. Mills isn’t one to explain much in this area, although he is a masterful conjurer with a keen eye for off-beat and adult oriented entertainers.
Call him smart that way, but he’s been on the ground floor with enough acts, Penner included, that many others would politely have applauded… and passed on.
Among them, a young Maritimer brimming in joie de vivre that was unmistakable, but also as prickly to handle as a sea urchin.
My words, not Richard’s.
If you haven’t guessed, his name is Ashley MacIsaac.
A more unlikely pairing one would be hard pressed to find.
Reminiscing, “I was early in my career,” Mills remembers. “I signed Ashley when he was 16, before he had a record deal.
“I saw him perform at the East Coast Music Awards in St. John’s and I was taken by his command of the audience and what he was doing was innovative. I sparked up immediately.
“I didn’t know exactly what it was that had my attention, but I knew he was someone that I wanted to work with. I connected him with Sheri Jones (who became his manager) and she agreed that I would be his agent and we worked together through the rise of an artist who was redefining what music was all about in this country at the time.
“It was an exciting and challenging journey. Ashley had his own challenges. He was a virtuosic fiddler (embarking) on a meandering journey.
“It was a very special time watching him traverse from a traditional artist to pop star.”
It should be added that Mills’ hunch that MacIsaac was extraordinary was extraordinary in itself given a geography that has spawned a reel of accomplished fiddlers, very few who have figured out the steps to bridge the gap from barn dances and local hoedowns to the world stage.
Another chapter was in working with the Canadian Tenors.
Understand that after the Three Tenors hit, a chorus of tenors emerged; however, finding an audience for seemingly endless dramatic remakes of well-known arias by Puccini and Rogers & Hammerstein was about as easy as selling newspaper subscriptions.
Mills’ introduction to Canada’s tenors was hearing the three of then four “perform in someone’s living room” and then working with them in developing a strategy that resulted in a Decca Records contract, and a successful US tour that had the backing support of PBS.
Mills was a big part of the equation that led the quartet to the Under One Sky tour that culminated with headlining Air Canada Centre in 2015, after which he and the singers went their separate ways.
It's worth noting that The Tenors' careers before and since have included performing for the pontiff, in Vatican City, the Queen—and, most famously, singing “O Canada” at Petco Park in San Diego.
He may not say it, but his pride and joy is his longstanding relationship with nuevo flamenco guitarist Jesse Cook.
It started out with attending a festival in Quebec City where someone gave him a CD of Cook’s first album, Tempest.
It landed Cook a deal with (then independent) US new-age imprint Narada.
“I was in my room the next day (following the festival) at one of those boutique hotels that had CD players. I put Jesse’s album on while I was doing some work,” he recalls.
The album then was independently distributed, but the buzz was so hot that it was quickly signed by Narada, leading to distribution with Universal in Canada. With Narada on board in the US, Cook and company were able to get billing on the 1995 Catalina Jazz Festival in California.
It was a turning point in Cook’s career.
Booked to perform during the twenty-minute intermissions in a little bar downstairs from the main stage, his performance was well appreciated that he was invited to give a performance on the main stage, where he received a ten-minute standing ovation before the audience would allow him to play, according to one report.
Shortly after, Tempest entered the American Billboard chart and quickly went on to become a certified Gold-selling album in Canada.
“We’ve been working together ever since,” Mills says with a ring of a father talking about the graduation of his first-born son. “It’s been a privilege working with Jesse all these years. He’s had a number of managers and I’ve been proud to have been his agent over all that time.
“He’s gone from that first record to sell somewhere in the region of 1.6 million around the world, and they continue to sell. He has a new one coming out (Beyond Borders) in August.”
At the outset, we stated that Richard Mills is signing off this week from The Feldman Agency. He tells me he plans to continue in showbiz, but he isn’t saying when or what it is his next adventure will be.
“I plant to continue in the live industry. Yes!
“It’s one of these things where, for me, I love the relationships, the business and I’ve gone from one opportunity to the next and they’ve all been connected so far.
“And in this one (at Feldman), I’ve been afforded some very unique experiences. You know, I really enjoy the opportunity to take people’s dreams and turn them into realities. That’s the part of the job I really enjoy.”
He tells me that he’s taking some time out.
“I’m going to take a break and come back from a different direction… where I can choose the people I want to work with and add value in another way.”
One thing he wants to be made clear is that he’s not leaving to work for another agency.
“I’m completing my chapter as an agent. I’ve been part of a great company and I look forward to building projects and working with my former colleagues on future projects of mutual interest.”
Over the course of his career, Mills has been a familiar face at airports around the world. It seemed like a good idea to ask what he takes for him to ease life on the run.
“I have two cell phones. Always!
“Trying to replace one on the road is always difficult. Each (of the two phones) mirror’s the others info. I always carry two phone chargers, as it easy to lose one on the road. I pack them in separate places in my bag. I also have a journal book to write down notes and observations.
“I carry a pair of Oakley sunglasses, and Sony noise reduction headphones—and I always have a soft carry-on bag with a light change of clothing in case my luggage gets lost, as invariably it may do.
“This way I can hit the ground running with a fresh set of clothes and not be delayed. I can always buy whatever is needed on the road.”
And with that, Richard Mills is hitting the road, but for the next indeterminate period of time, we can assume he is taking it easy, and not running... to the next carousel.