Slaight Music
Slaight Music

A Conversation with... Gary Slaight

Standard Broadcasting sold its radio and TV assets to Astral Media in 2007. Since then, Gary Slaight has divided his time between being a white knight through the family trust, sitting on various not-for-profit boards, and developing Canadian talent incubator, Slaight Music. He sat with Bill King recently to discuss a range of topics. It's a conversation peppered with candor and insights, and it illuminates a complex man with a heart full of soul.

The Slaight Music team (left to right): Derrick Ross, Ali Slaight, singer Jillea, Gary Slaight, artists Theo, Jessica Mitchell and Tomi Swick, and Jim Campbell.

B.K: When the deal came down and Standard Broadcasting was sold, the day after, you called and invited me to your office. I had no idea what this was about. You said to me, “I don’t have to be here anymore.” Then you said, “We are creating a charitable foundation and putting a hundred million dollars in it.” I left there thinking most people would have thought they had just won the lottery and would have gone on a shopping spree, but it seems you already had a plan in mind.

Gary Slaight: It was basically — what are we going to do with all of this money that we have at this point in time? My dad wasn’t working anymore and I didn’t want to really go back and get into another business. The charity thing is something we had been talking about, and the music company [was] the other element. They were the two things we wanted to focus on aside from managing our money and making sure we did the right things with the banks and putting it into some funds. I have a guy who does that for us. Since the sell, the two main items have been the charity and the music.

B.K: On the charity side there is a good portion that is invested into the treatment of women worldwide. Is this a personal issue with the family?

G.S: I don’t think it’s the treatment of women per se, I think it’s the betterment of the human condition — male, female or kids. It happens that the things that are being done towards human beings, a good portion are done towards women. Our focus is trying to make the world a better place for as many people as possible.

B.K: You have invested in villages and situations in Africa — what are you leaving behind there that speaks to their needs?

G.S: We leave that up to the groups that we work with. There are so many projects. We said to the seven NGOs we made substantial donations too, you tell us what you need the money for, and — assuming it’s reasonable to us and [we] think it’s important — we will give you the go ahead. It’s then up to them to manage and make sure it’s done correctly.

B.K: You’ve made the trip with your daughters. What’s your impression of the work?

G.S: It’s obviously terrible to see. I first went over to Kenya with one of my daughters and with World Vision, and went to a village called Voi where half the people in the village had AIDS. Most of the kids had been taken care of by their grandmothers because most of their mothers had died from AIDS. The husbands would come back from mining camps where they picked up the disease. Once you see this once, it’s in your mind forever.

B.K: You have made sure your daughters have seen the world and part of this is making sure they see the other side.

G.S: Absolutely.

B.K: How have they responded?

G.S: They have big hearts and feel the human condition and are happy to try and do good things for others.

It’s been six years since we opened the foundation. We started working in different areas and healthcare has been one of the sections we have been involved in, largely because we have relationships with the hospitals through parental issues. After my stepmother, Emmanulle Gattuso, gave a large amount of money for cancer research to Princess Margaret, we decided there were other hospitals that have needs in this city and we live in this city and it’s important to this community. So we work with five hospitals [Toronto General and Western, St. Michael’s, Mount Sinai, Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, and Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)] and gave them each ten million dollars, and again for the things they needed. St. Michael’s’ big need was the emergency department. They get so much traffic there because there are so many condos in the area and they can’t handle it. Sunnybrook, it’s to do with brain research. Each hospital’s needs are different. My wife is involved with CAMH and worked with them on a project for kids sixteen to twenty-two.

B.K: You are specific in the work that you do. You think things through and don’t throw money out there. You investigate — research — you must have a filter in place with so many coming at you for help?

G.S: It takes us awhile before we decide to do something with someone. We do a lot of due diligence. I have a woman who does all of the research for us.

B.K: How about Berklee College of Music, one of the most esteemed contemporary music schools on the planet. Ali went there.

G.S: Made it through and got her degree.

B.K: And now an important component in the daily work at Slaight Music. How did your association with Berklee and CEO Roger Brown come about?

G.S: Because of Ali. We got involved with the school as we tend to do with things. They asked me to be on the board and I went on it for a couple years while Ali was there. There’s also a guy named Mirek Vana, the administration’s director, and when Ali got in, he helped us with the process because it’s kind of complicated and mentored her. Mirek and I worked on the scholarship program together and the connection with Roger happened through all of that.

B.K: What’s come of that is scholarships for Canadian students.

G.S: There’s one a year, but we did two one year. It’s for Canadian music students who get into Berklee, so they have to go through the process and don’t have the financial resources to take the next step to go there. It’s not cheap. So what happens is: a lot of people apply to get in, so we select one Canadian student a year, pay for their tuition, and room and board for the full four years. We are on our sixth or seventh [scholarship] now.

B.K: Roger Brown is a great guy and fine musician. When you think of any institution, you never think of the top guy being as accessible. When he comes here, he relates easily to people.

G.S: He’s a great man.

B.K: The Slaight family and the arts. Soulpepper?

G.S: My mum was the one who got into Soulpepper as a supporter to begin with. She was involved for the past ten years supporting young actors and actresses. Through the process I got to know Albert Shultz and Mike Ross. It’s part and parcel of all the things we are doing — how do we make music and things more important like the process they go through at Soulpepper. That’s teaching, training, and mentoring — incorporating music into the programming.

B.K: The Canadian Film Institute?

G.S: The same thing. They were trying to get us to give them some money, and I had lunch with Norman Jewison and talking about things then got on to the area of music and how do we get Canadian songwriters and composers music into Canadian television shows and films. That was the original idea. They set up a great program there.

B.K: As I said before — you see where there is a need and create possibilities.

G.S: Right. I don’t want to just write checks or pay for buildings or pay for administration costs — I want to make sure the money goes directly to something where it can make a difference.

B.K: You are there for the Junos, Canadian Music Week, Walk of Fame — a number of front line arts organizations. Thoughts on this?

G.S: I was part of the founding group of Walk of Fame with my friend Peter Soumalias, and it’s grown into a great night. It’s great to see Canadians pound their chests and great to see people get tearful that night when they hear some of the stories.

B.K: And you get tearful, too.

G.S: Absolutely!

B.K: Each one of these steps sort of brings us now to Slaight Music. You’ve taken your time and even built a studio. I think there’s a method to it.

G.S: There isn’t in this case. Normally there is a method but in the case of a music company, I knew I wanted to give some of our good fortune back to Canadian music. When I started Slaight Music and hired Derrick Ross we didn’t have a plan. It was like — there’s an office over there — there’s some money now let’s start figuring how to give it away. Initially, we thought about setting up a fund, like a FACTOR Fund and let people come and apply, but we decided to deal directly with the artists who need the money and help find a way to help further their careers in an industry that’s pretty tough these days.

Derrick started, then Ali began working with us, then we brought Jim Campbell in and have a great Internet guy in Barnaby Marshall, and had Bob Ezrin help us build the studio.

B.K: Going back a decade and an artist could sell twenty-thirty million CDs — now three million is huge. This is always a gamble — even more so now.

G.S: I like to gauge it by success rather than how much money we make. To me, success is seeing really talented artists evolve and have the opportunity to see them pursue what they love and that’s music.

If we make some money — God forbid, Derrick — then that’s kind of a bonus to me. In most of the deals we take part of the publishing — most are songwriters.

B.K: I was thinking about an artist like Stacey Kay whom I brought to you four years ago and has made it to the current run of Americas Got Talent and you’ve invested in her future. What do you look for in an artist?

G.S: It’s a bunch of things. The voice always, it has to be there. It has to be unique, brilliant, special or something, and then the person. In terms of the artist we work with here, we also have to like them. They have to be good people and have a work ethic and have to want to succeed. We are happy to help them but they have to be prepared to do the work that is necessary to evolve.

B.K: Jessica Mitchell came through Ali?

G.S: Yes, she entered our contest ‘It’s Your Shot’ of which we are doing our fifth one this year. I think she entered the second one and came in the top ten. She was a rock singer and we heard something in her and Ali met her. I still remember the meeting where we all just said, “Try country. You’re perfect.” She went and wrote a song the next week and sent it in to Ali and she came in and played it, and it was like “Oh, my God.” She’s written like a hundred songs now.

B.K: When you look at Jessica and Stacey their personalities are large and as big as the room they are in.

G.S: It’s good but sometimes not so good. It can possibly rub some the wrong way depending on who they are with or the situation.

We also have Theo Tams who has kind of been there with the Canadian Idol thing. He’s reinventing himself and we are working with him and his music. Tomi Swick.

B.K: A great singer.

G.S: Yes, and he’s redefining himself. We’ve got a lot of exciting things in the pipe right now. There’s this girl, Jillea, who won the contest in 2013. Her music is about to come out on Universal in the next couple weeks. A band called the Ascot Royals who were in the top five of our contest a couple years ago. We always meet with those in the top five who don’t win to see if there is something we can work on there. With the Ascots we saw something and Gavin Brown just produced a bunch of songs with them and SONY/BMG is our partner in that and it’s coming to market soon.

B.K: Lindi Ortega?

C.T: That was a partnership with Chris Taylor and Last Gang. We helped out and she’s doing great.

B.K: Gary, it’s really a techno mystery now in how to break an artist. Have you found a way to do it?

G.S: No, we haven’t. We haven’t had any huge success yet, but we realize it takes time. We make sure the artist evolves, gets better until they are ready to go to the marketplace with something really special. I still believe even with all of the technology involved [that] the quickest way to make your mark as an artist is getting played on radio.

B.K: You can’t sell anything on Facebook because it’s about the long conversation, you can’t sell anything on YouTube because it’s all free, so it’s still about traditional means and that’s radio and print, even though print has been weakened.

G.S: The odd artist comes out of nowhere through new media. They just show up and suddenly they are getting a million views on YouTube. That’s what happened to Walk Off The Earth.

B.K: I’m thinking what you are doing with Slaight Music is what was done by the major labels dating back to the fifties, sixties, seventies and forward, and that’s artist development. It took Aretha a few misfires before she landed with Atlantic and found her voice and way.

G.S: I think so. It’s kind of what we are doing. One of the benefits of being with us is our connections. We like to give the artists as many opportunities through all the things we are involved in. They are always playing our charity shows and out there in front of people as much as possible.

B.K: Like Jessica Mitchell’s impromptu moment singing for David Foster.

G.S: Yes.

B.K: It still comes down to if the artist embraces these opportunities or flat lines in the process.

G.S: We’ve had a few just disappear on us.

B.K: You also subsidize New Canadian Music. Where do you see this going?

G.S: It’s a great site and does a lot of great things for Canadian artists. I wish we’d get more support from the industry for it. The majors have come in for some financial support for us, but it’s expensive to run that site, but I think it’s worth it.

B.K: One of the shrewdest business moves was the partnering of Standard Broadcasting and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and U.S. Sirius Satellite Radio System in 2004 when you filed with the CRTC to introduce Sirius in Canada. How did the parties come together – were you surprised when the application was approved June of 2005 and the fact it is still paying dividends to this day?

G.S: I still remember the day that Michel Tremblay from the CBC called me to see if we’d be interested in getting involved. The CBC felt they needed a partner from the private sector to move this along both from a business angle and a CRTC perspective. We met the Sirius US team shortly after and were able to put a deal together fairly quickly with the three partners - Standard, CBC and Sirius US.

The approval process was a long and onerous journey as there were many regulatory issues as well there were two applicants - ourselves and the John Bitove group who applied to bring XM to Canada. End of day we were both approved. After competing with each other for many years, and following the path of the US companies, we were able to merge the two companies with the four new partners: Sirius/XM US, Slaight, Bitove and the CBC {which was strange as John Bitove was our partner in bringing the Toronto Raptors to Toronto}. Today the company is thriving with over 2.5 million subscribers and a market cap of $83-million today. I am most proud of this as Canadian artists have a huge window in to the US via our various Canadian channels.

B.L: What about FYI Music News?

G.S: I’ve been supporting David through the years — through whatever project he’s had going. We support this because we think the industry needs it. There’s no voice for the industry other than FYI. But again, I wish we’d get more support for it — we kind of carry it on our own.

B.K: I know through having a magazine for nineteen years, it’s about sustaining a presence in the market. Just being consistent and being around.

G.S: The question still remains; will they pay for this? That’s what we have to access at some point in time. Right now it’s free for everybody.

B.K: What’s ahead?

G.S: Keep giving money away, but I don’t want to be involved in a business again on a day-to-day basis. We’ve done that. I like my two o’clock nap and squash game at four.

B.K: Where did you get the name Lou?

G.S: That was Scruff Connors who gave me that name.

B.K: Why?

G.S: Because of Lou Grant on the Mary Tyler Moore Show.

B.K: Philanthropy is about giving back and one’s legacy. There will always be detractors and loyal supporters. How do you hope this plays out in the long term?   

G.S: I would say the legacy of our family up until now would be largely based on my father’s brilliant career in business as well his support of the arts and charity work - I am still working on mine.


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