From becoming the first female major record label President in Canada to owning and operating one of the country’s premier rock clubs is a highly fascinating career transition. That is one of the topics we explored in our recent far-reaching interview with Lisa Zbitnew.
The enthusiasm and initiative that took her to the top of the label tree here (President of BMG Music Canada and then President and CEO of Sony BMG Music Canada) now stands Zbitnew in good stead in her two current roles. She terms being CEO of Bandwidth Music and Marketing “my day job,” while her night job is as owner/operator of renowned Toronto live music venue The Phoenix Concert Theatre.
Zbitnew and her partners took over The Phoenix in Sept. 2014, but this wasn’t her first foray into the live music arena, she tells us. “I was briefly part of the partnership that changed The Docks to the Sound Academy, making it more of a concert venue than a night club. I went into that shortly after I left Sony in 2007, and found it a really invigorating experience. The ability to be that engaged on a regular basis with the live music community was to me so much more fun, to be honest.
“Pretty much since I left the Sound Academy I was on the hunt with my partners to find a new music venue. We looked for years, putting in an offer for The Masonic Temple at one stage. Our agent became aware that the Phoenix was becoming available before it went on the market, so we moved very quickly.”
Zbitnew and her team have really rejuvenated The Phoenix, now in its 25th year (not to mention its earlier incarnation as the Diamond Club). She had long loved it as a music venue, and jokingly compares herself to that guy who loved the product so much he bought the company.
“This has always been my fave live room. It’s one of the few that was built to be a concert experience, rather than being a converted movie theatre, old warehouse, nightclub or a hockey arena. It’s always had great sightlines and we upgraded the PA.”
It’s a busy venue too, hosting 192 shows last year. “I’d say we book one-third of the shows internally,” says Zbitnew. “One of my amazing partners, Zeke Myers, drives the internal booking team and I definitely participate in that.”
In-house events feature hiphop, country, a video dance party series, and much more. “We have Randy Charlton on board, the original manager of The Diamond, and he brings acts like Saga and Goddo in,” says Zbitnew. “On Friday we have Rough Trade here, and they’ll perform Avoid Freud in its entirety, which will be so much fun. Cyndi Lauper is a client of mine so she came when we did an ‘80s style Pride event here, with Carole Pope performing.”
“We also work with our partners, the major promoters like Live Nation and Collective Concerts, plus other promoters bringing in reggae, soca and world music artists. Everyone is welcome. The live music we have here really does represent the diversity of the city we’re in.”
Zbitnew stresses that “we’ve worked really hard to bring the room back, keeping that legacy of this being one of the best live music experiences in the country.”
Her role there also constantly brings her into contact with new musical talent. “It’s still exciting to discover new music you’d never had opportunity to know about or hear otherwise, music that is driven by the fans, not the media.”
Zbitnew has one vivid memory of the space back when it was The Diamond and she was just starting out in in the record label world, at Alert Records. “We had a showcase here for [glam rockers] Sylum. Not the best attended show ever.” A fonder memory of The Diamond was her attendance at an industry-only show by David Bowie there back in March 1987.
She still has a ‘day job’ in the form of her Bandwidth Music and Marketing company. “It’s my music solutions and consutancy business, one I started while I was running War Child Canada,” she explains.
“I have a broad array of clients in broadcasting and technology, and some artists directly. I link artists with business opportunities, and vice versa, so I keep my days busy. I can sleep when I’m dead I guess! I hope I’m not rushing that process,” she notes with a laugh. One client she cites is a technology called General Harmonics, doing potentially revolutionary work via harmonic analytics.
Zbitnew's first foray in the music biz was as a musician, playing guitar in all-female rock band Jade. “I wouldn’t call myself a good one,” she modestly states. “I handled the business for the band and I realized that if you don’t understand the biz side as an artist – or have someone who does- you are going to get screwed along the way.”
After studying Business Admininstration and Marketing at Humber College, her first biz job was at Dallcorte Records, run by Bernie Solomon and affiliated with RCA. “We had bands like The Drivers and Kilowatt. When Tom Berry left Anthem I connected with him and started with Alert. I had a great run there, working with artists like Holly Cole and Kim Mitchell.”
“When my daughter was a year old, I realized a steady income was a good idea so I had my first tour of duty with Sony Canada, in 1992, when Paul Burger had taken over .”
Zbitnew worked as Marketing Director there for a few years, then worked briefly with CPI on The Tragically Hip’s Another Roadside Attraction tours. “I then got called by Deane Cameron at EMI Music Canada to go there and run artist marketing,” she recalls.
The next step up the label ladder was soon to be a momentous one, for she was tapped by Paul Alofs to take a senior role at BMG Music Canada, beginning in 1996. Alofs left within a year, and Zbitnew took over as President of the label.
She didn’t spend much time reflecting on the fact she’d just become the first-ever major label head in Canada. “Frankly, I was too busy to think about much of anything beyond focusing on running a business and having to learn a lot very quickly.”
“I’ve been very fortunate as I didn’t feel the adversity of being a woman in a man’s business. Maybe a little bit about being as young as I was and running a company. It may have taken a little time for people to take me seriously.”
The results spoke for themselves as BMG had an amazing run and we did a lot of great things. It was definitely a team effort. I’ve prided myself in finding great people to work with me and collaboratively managing a business.”
When Sony and BMG Canada merged in Sept. 2004, Zbitnew took over as President and CEO of Sony BMG Music Canada, occupying that post until January 2007. Zbitnew acknowledges that “these were the best of times and the worst of times.”
It was extremely high pressure days. I still had a young daughter at the time so that was a big balancing act- especially during the merger when we were still operating with two offices and two staffs.
“Probably one of the worst days of my career was when we had to make the decision to merge and go from a combined 435 people to 280. That meant a lot of great people didn’t get to move forward with the new organization, including a lot of people I knew really well.”
This period was, of course, during the severe downward spiral of the record industry, something Zbitnew traces back to 1999. “It became about celebrating the small victories, as we went from a biz seeing double digit growth and huge margins to a biz that was shrinking.”
After leaving the label, Zbitnew took up the position of Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian arm of the global children's charity War Child. She’d long been supportive of the charity, noting that “while I was at BMG I first met Eric Hoskins and Samantha Nutt when they were doing outreach upon starting War Child in Canada. We started working with them on initiatives here and abroad, such as a MuchMusic special Denise Donlon created with artists travelling to war affected countries. At that point I realized the true global power of music.”
She recalls her time at War Child as “a fantastic opportunity and a high point in my career. I got to visit places like Sierra Leone, Ethopia, Haiti, and Uganda. I always knew I’d come back to music it but was a great opportunity to see the world and recognize that what we do can make a difference.”
Zbitnew has retained an altruistic component in her work at the Phoenix. “We have run over a dozen fundraising events there, including The Andy Kim Christmas Party, the first Unison Jam and a MusiCounts fundraiser. We make the room available cost effectively for charities putting events together and we actively participate in those events.”
Reminiscing about her label days, Zbitnew cites working closely with Leonard Cohen as a real highlight. “I started as a huge fan. Just prior to starting at Sony I went to the Junos in Vancouver when Leonard was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I had a first edition copy of one of his early collections of poetry that he signed for me. At Sony I worked with him on The Future album that was so successful, and I later helped work with him on the project with Anjani, touring with them both in Europe.
Of course checking into a hotel with Leonard, he is more eloquent booking a room at the front desk than I’ve ever been in my life,” she recalls with a chuckle.
Zbitnew explains that "someone once distilled my job as being to inspire creativity. I thought ‘that is pretty lofty. I never inspired Leonard Cohen’s creativity.’
But to be able to be around creativity and apply the fuel to make sure people are experiencing that creativity, that is a pretty fortunate role to call that your day job for your entire career.”
That’s something Lisa Zbitnew continues to do in both her day and night jobs now.