Jamie Vernon has been archiving, revisiting and introducing music the past thirty years through various enterprises such as Bullseye Records.
Outsiders have certain advantages over industry birthed representatives. They can follow their passion, trust intuition and basically do as they please. The paychecks are less forthcoming but the freedom to push the envelope and go out on the ledge for a band or artist is when the “trill is on.”
As current pop artists burn out it’s the one’s off-centre that leave a lasting impression. You must hunt; you must go out of the way to find. It’s discovery! The fun part of being a music fan. Everybody has the current sounds – in fact you can’t escape. It’s those gems that require effort that pay big dividends.
Jamie dropped by my Thursday morning show at CIUT 89.5 and we chatted for most of an hour. Here’s but a short portion of that exchange.
Bill King: The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia began online?
Jamie Vernon: Yes. John Sakamoto was working for the Toronto Sun at the time and in the late '80s launched their website and had an existing website they licenced from Rick Jackson out of Kingston, Ontario. Jackson had been a disc jockey and before that had been working in promotion I think for Warner Brothers Records. He put together a nice encyclopedia –but incomplete. I ran into John at a record show and said 'man, I’ve been doing my book on the side, and have been looking for a place to put it and I can do a better job than the one that’s up there'. He said they’d like to expand on what Rick had written and I said I could make it twice as big. He gave me about a year to put it together; that was late 1997 and I had it to him Canada Day 1998.
It went online and musicians began reading it. Back then it wasn’t a Google search. I would get emails telling me that I got a fact wrong, oh (but) it’s so great to see my name recognized. It got built from there; meanwhile, I was running my own record label and didn’t have much time to update it after that. As it turns out I was virtually unemployed by 2010 and thought (to myself that) I should get this thing out. That’s when I began to put it together as a hard cover book, which became two hard cover books after I started writing. If you go to bullseyecanada.com or check the book section out on Amazon; even Long &McQuade’s did a nice little deal with me. We took the two books and stuffed them together like two giant phone books, 700 hundred something pages, and they carried in their stores. I think that’s sold out now.
B.K: I find it quite beneficial when people fact check. I never get emotional about this.
J.V: That even someone would care. I love it when people come back to me and say that’s not quite right, you missed this little piece right here. Nobody’s life is linear. I put the highlights in the book but then people will say, 'there was this period when I worked with so and so' and that turns out to be a great piece of information and expands the whole thing. Music history, any history is a living document. I’ve been revising since I put it out in 2012. I’ve given it five years and perhaps next year I’ll put out an updated and revised edition.
B.K: How does an artist qualify for entry in book?
J.V: It’s funny, it kind of got complicated when the Internet hit and people starting releasing music online. The digital era has turned this upside down. The initial focus of the book was people who have released commercial product that could be bought at retail. As we know now, there are very few retail outlets so that's a big disqualifier. My take on your qualification – you’ve been at it for awhile. People come to me with a three-song EP and ask to be in my encyclopedia. I say 'contact me in six months if you are still together'. The bonus is the public reads the book and decides they want to check this act out, but then in six months they aren’t around anymore and their website is gone and leaving people chasing their tails. If you’ve been at it for awhile, put out five demos and an LP; that looks like you are serious about this stuff.
B.K: I recently read a piece quoting Roger Daltrey of the Who where he says there is no reason for them to record again. There’s no reason to spend any money on a recording and there is no money to be made.
J.V: That’s interesting. Terry Draper from Klaatu has just released a new album and has two he’s working on; one is thematic, about all the songs he’s written about travel and is still writing new tunes for that. He’s putting it together as an anthology, and he has some 1980s demos he’s revised and wants to get these songs out too. He said, 'I don’t know what I’m going to do'. He can’t spend the money again to manufacture if nobody’s going to buy it. It looks like a digital situation. He came up with an interesting idea of selling it on USB; he can put file photos, and demos. It’s brilliant. Then the fan gets more. Terry gets his music out there and people can carry around and plug into a computer. The other option is putting out a stream of singles and compiling it.
B.K: That’s my philosophy. That’s how this whole thing started. One song at a time – make sure it’s a fine recording, get people focused on that and each release thereafter. The complaint about albums now is the material is only two songs deep in quality.
J.V: In the early days you’d get a company like Columbia in Canada prepared to commit to six sides and out of that (came) three singles. If that connected and sold you’d go in and record four more sides and have an album. Without fail. The industry being so young back then no one ever made it past the third single because they’d stop promoting by the time you got to that third single. It was always the third single that flopped and then they’d hand you the documents and say why should we put out an album? It was the early days for albums – the Beatles and Stones were doing it, a lot of the British bands. An album was a luxury unless you were in jazz or blues and for those artists that was the format.
I get it all the time running a record label. 'We’ve been together four months and want to put out a CD.' Why? 'Why, have you even recorded songs yet, you should be out on the road testing these songs and finding out if you have an audience who likes them. That CD is going to sit in your closet until you build an audience and you’ll be tired of your own songs by then.' It should be more as a document than a promotional tool. I tell an artist who says 'I have ten great songs' to come back when he (or she) has a hundred (and) then we can pick the ten best songs together. It’s about writing....just keep writing.
B.K: I get these recordings in the mail by an instrumentalist with a singer as a sideshow and the worst imaginable lyrics. I lose it! If you don’t spend time coming up with a storyline, even a straight forward cohesive thought you are spitting gibberish and ensure the effort is pointless.
J.V: You’ve got to string some words together that are thoughtful and provocative. There are fine songwriters out there but unfortunately it’s simplistic stuff that’s out front. People try to compare the nonsense Rihanna throws out there to Led Zeppelin and I go 'hold on there – every generation has fluff'. Put Led Zeppelin beside "Nah Nah Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" by Steam and you'll see not everybody was a poet in the '60s. You must look at a lot of the new music as manufactured product much like a toaster, refrigerator or automobile. It’s a bunch of guys in a factory that happens to be a recording studio, assembling songs.
B.K: These kinds of recordings go through layers and layers of testing much like new products readied for the assembly line. Songs are crafted for the quick jolt and short attention span.
J.V: Research and development. I know it sounds clinical to listeners' ears. Nobody becomes an overnight sensation. It’s a decade of testing material night after night. The Monkees, Carole King, Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Boyce and Hart are just a few of the best writers behind artists in the early pop days. Once you put all those songs and recordings together you had a greatest hits package. None of this was by accident.
B.K: Not long ago I interviewed a couple of wonderful songwriters, one was Melody Gardot – words and music intertwined and scripted in such a way it makes you think about the events within the song and appreciate how the story unravels.
I was also thinking about what top tier artists like Drake, Swift, Rihanna and newcomer Shawn Mendes have today –a legion of followers who have signed on to mailing lists, have Twitter followers, Facebook updates... Instagram, Shapchat. Those are time consuming tools but very effective in harnessing an audience ready for any announcement. Top-end labels get this and hire staff to lay the foundation underneath and swell the ranks. That doesn’t work for most – it’s near impossible when most great music is eclectic. It’s a fulltime occupation and few can afford a staff as such.
J.V: They’ve broken all rules. They release when most opportune and don’t have to tell anybody. The old-school guys needed structure, marketing build up. These people can just record and drop it on their fans and it blows up. Their fans are locked in.