Warner Music Canada President Steve Kane and crew are celebrating the company’s 50th anniversary this weekend with a couple of concerts at the Budweiser Stage, and a dinner cruise on Toronto's waterfront.
Friday night the team is out to see Green Day and the night following it is Blue Rodeo on stage—one of the company’s most successful and longest-standing homegrown signings.
But where did it all begin?
Warner Communications’ first international affiliate was launched when Ken Middleton opened Warner Bros. Music Canada in 1967.
The company began with a 1.5% market share and grew dramatically to take between 25%-28% of Canada’s $300 million net pre-recorded music business by the time he retired at the end of 1982.
His legendary no-frills operation routinely delivered a 33% margin, and his exaggerated frugality meant that the company operated with a headcount that was approximately one-third the size of competitors such as CBS and Capitol-EMI.
Middleton's interest in local A&R development was equally penny-pinched, even as the company had a massive hit act with Streetheart, in particular with the band’s debut album, Meanwhile Back in Paris. The group followed with a wave of hit singles, some covers, some originals. These included "Action", "Hollywood", "Teenage Rage", "One More Time", "Tin Soldier", "Here Comes the Night", "What Kind of Love is This", and "Under My Thumb".
The first person to be employed in A&R with the company was John Pozer whose notable signing was Michael Tarry who proved to be a one-hit wonder with “Rosalie."
The single, taken from a self-titled album, peaked on the Canadian charts at #8 in July 1973. The transplanted Brit retired as a professional singer five years later and became a radio announcer for CIGL Quinte Broadcasting. He died in April 2013.
Gary Muth took over the seat, later hiring Jim Campbell.
Signings in this period included the aforementioned Streetheart; Ray Materick, who recorded three remarkable (but long forgotten) albums released on the Asylum imprint (Neon Rain, Best Friend Overnight and Midnight Matinee), and True Myth—a combo that included recent Fanshawe College grads Tom Treumuth and Gary Furniss.
Notably, True Myth’s first album was recorded live in Toronto at Sound Stage Studios using the "Soundstream" digital recorder, imported for the sessions from Utah. The result was the second digitally-recorded album ever produced (Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop shortly preceded it) and the first in Canada.
Treumuth went on to become a successful record producer, and Furniss now runs Sony/ATV Publishing in Canada.
During this era, Warner Canada also signed Greg Quill, the result being the release of a series of hit singles Quill previously had in his native Australia. According to Muth, they could never agree on new material, so technically he was signed with the company but never released any recordings made in Canada for the enterprise.
Wireless was another act with Australian origins. The band's album Positively Human Relatively Sane earned warm reviews but failed to sell in any significant quantity. The band’s next album was produced by Geddy Lee and released on the Anthem imprint.
Middleton’s tenure was hallmarked by having Canada's first million-selling album with Rumours, which was certified Diamond by the Canadian Recording Industry Association in May of 1978. The album has sold several million copies since in the market.
Both Muth and Campbell moved on with their careers, and Bob Roper followed with a skill set in marketing, management, and concert promotion. His signings included Spirit of the West and Honeymoon Suite. He also brought Risque Disque to the company for distribution—a label set up by Blue Rodeo’s then manager John Caton who at the time worked out of a makeshift office at the Horseshoe Tavern.
Greg Torrington followed. Formerly a successful Music Director with CHEZ-FM Ottawa, his three-years in the seat notably included signing Harum Scarum, who went on to become big stars in Asia, and Lisa Lougheed whose album World Love was nominated for two Juno Awards — 'Best Dance Recording' (for "World Love" and "Love Vibe") and a Canadian Music Video Award (for "Love Vibe").
When Risque Disque ceased, the group signed directly with Warner’s in Canada. Four decades later, Blue Rodeo extended its relationship with the label, marking the longest and most successful artists/label relationships with a Canadian act ever.
Next in the seat came Kim Cooke who worked closely with Dave Tollington in A&R.
These two passionate music aficionados came from different backgrounds (Dave was very good at licensing and business affairs), but they had complementary ears. Signings during this era included Great Big Sea, Odds, Natalie McMaster, Colin James, Big Wreck (co-signed with Steve Jordan, then at the company and who went on to create the Polaris Music Prize), Sarah Slean, Weeping Tile featuring Sarah Harmer, Ron Sexsmith, Paul Brandt, and Wide Mouth Mason.
Through Tollington, the company also reached an arrangement with Loreena McKennitt to release her records worldwide—a union that proved profitable to both parties and gave McKennitt a greater profile on the world stage. And then there is Paul Brandt who is perhaps the biggest selling Canadian country artist this side of Shania Twain and Gordon Lightfoot.
And for a time there was Steve Blair who first brought in Wave who had a #1 and gold single with "California ". Jennifer Hirst, working with Steve at the time, brought Billy Talent to the label.
There were, of course, many other Canadian acts affiliated with the company. Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson, Alanis Morissette, and kd lang immediately spring to mind, and Gordon Lightfoot who was officially signed to the label (for tax reasons) but was really under the wing of US Warner Music President and producer Lenny Waronker.
For a time, again for tax reasons, Black Sabbath, Rod Stewart, Peter Gabriel and the Rolling Stones were technically administered by Warner Music Canada. The company was also active in Quebec, with the helping ears of (the late, great and sorely missed) Roger Desjardins, and Jacques Chenier.
It would be unfair having mentioned Middleton not to mention his successors.
Stan Kulin and Gary Newman followed, Kulin between 1983 and 1998, and Newman through until 2004 when the company’s current president Steve Kane took the reins.
Kulin had run United Artists, went on to become Sr. VP at CBS before joining Warner and was, by any measure, an extraordinary individual.
After Middleton, he was a velvet glove, with a background in sales, as was his successor, Newman.
Kulin engendered strong support from his team at the company, but even greater support from his accounts and he was famous for not only knowing the names of every music store owner and manager across Canada, but also the names of their wives and children.
Newman was the son of superstar promotion man Ron Newman who started out with Phonodisc in Canada and was quickly hired by Motown Detroit. Newman Sr. returned to Canada to run Motown’s operations here before a national retailer made a point of not paying his bills and putting the company out of business.
Gary was a chip off the old block, but significantly more understated.
In a flashback, Gary recounted his early youth with his father.
“He had a farm in Stouffville [Ontario], and I can tell you one time at Christmas, he had The Temptations performing in the basement. Lionel Richie was there with The Commodores. Lionel signed my dad’s piano. My father used to say, ‘You can bring ten friends’, so first I would pick all guys, and then [as I got older], it was five guys and five girls. They’d all say, ‘Who’s going to be singing’ and when I’d tell them, they all went crazy.”
It was a history that was hard to beat, and one that he never tried to emulate.
Newman Jr. was known to be a tough businessman, but he was also known for exceptonal acts of kindness that he did quietly and with a refined touch.
It would be inexcusable not to include Gary Slaight in this story as well.
In the ‘70s, during Middleton’s tenure, Slaight worked under National Promotion Director Larry Green.
At that time, I was taking a journalism course at Centennial College and writing for The Asylum student newspaper. I can’t remember exactly how we connected, but I wrote editorials, news copy and reviewed records and somehow Gary came across my radar screen and struck a friendship with me.
I suppose I reviewed some of Warner Music’s albums as he routinely up-dated me on the company’s new releases, and I recall bending my principles one time by asking if it was possible to acquire the Jethro Tull catalogue. I’m not sure if the band was coming to town, but I was a big fan and, at some point, I wended my way to his apartment in the Yonge and Eglinton district to pick up an oversized box of the band’s LPs.
To this day I have never forgotten this kindness and our lives have criss-crossed forever since it would seem.
Since then I have done him favours, and he has always outdone me.
As a postscript, I eventually had a chance to meet Tull’s frontman Ian Anderson and thought him a pompous jackass, but continue to view the band as visionary for their time and those early albums exhilarating if somewhat dull sounding from a production standpoint.
Which leads us to Warner Music Canada’s reigning president, Steve Kane. Like Kulin, he towers over a crowd like the CN Tower over Toronto’s skyline.
He is also the most visible and approachable president of a major label, and unique in his approach in communicating with an audience, particularly on Facebook where one quite never knows what he might say about society and headline newsmakers, and where he freely shares his enthusiastic appreciation for and about music.
He’s an inveterate collector of records, which in and of itself makes him a curio in a world that has largely bunged ownership in favour of cheap and ephemeral subscription streaming services.
Kane bristles with enthusiasm about obscure artists, long-lost and often times forgotten record labels, and artists he’s met that have in some way large or small touched him.
He’s a teenager in love with music, musicians, the history and the folklore.
He is also a 'what you see is what you get' kind of person, which is reassuring in a world where many posture, knowingly or not.
He’s a fast read of situations, straight-forward in his approach, and behind all of this one senses a person who cares about people.
When Kane took over the company, in 2004, there was little change in the lineup at the label. He’s one of those individuals who can inspire leadership in his team, and he’s been through a lot, starting by landing the top job at the same time Edgar Bronfman took over ownership of the company.
Few have survived the topsy-turvy gyrations that the company's buy-outs and changeovers brought about.
Which is not to say he is Superman; or even God Almighty.
What he is is a pragmatist with vision.
Kane understands he is the underdog of the Big Three, ever watchful of UMG’s over-arching power in the marketplace, aware of Sony Music’s ambitions; and with his background in marketing and promotion there is a calculating focus on where to find growth, solidify strength and take cautious adventures.
Laugh at the notion, but in some respects, Warner Music is the indie inside the Big Three.
Under Kane’s direction, Warner Music Canada signed Billy Talent, who has since become one of Canada’s biggest rock acts winning multiple Junos, MuchMusic awards and enjoying top of the chart success in Europe and at home. Kane was also instrumental in signing the internationally acclaimed Buck 65, Ron Sexsmith and, of course, Scott Helman.
He was inducted at an early age into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in May 2015, which has to tell you something about the guy!
Footnotes: There were many other acts including George Fox and a contingent of Quebecois’ acts such as Lynda Lemay (who became a massive star in Quebec and sold a million-plus records in France), Les Hardis Moussaillons that signed to the label over the years, so the above itemizations are by no means intended to be definitive. I should also note that the above history is inexact, pieced together from my memory, conversations with others with long if imprecise memories and a few Google searches. Where I have erred, I apologize and wish to be corrected; for those overlooked, I apologise and expect the same. Help came from Steve Waxman, Kim Cooke, Gary Muth and several other unnamed sources, along with a story I had published in Billboard eons back.
The timelines, specifics and full nine-yards are soon to be published in essay form by Kim Cooke who has been assigned the unenviable task of piecing the 50-year jigsaw puzzle together and getting it all right.
Mike Pozer is now deceased, Gary Muth went on to have an extraordinary career as an entrepreneur in the music business and is now retired. Jim Campbell went on to become VP Int. for RCA Records US and is now Artist Consultant at Slaight Music.
Bob Roper can be found teaching at Harris Institute, Dave Tollington is retired but continues to stay connected to the music scenes in Windsor (where he started in the music biz, on radio) and Detroit, Greg Torrington is now a Content Manager at Stingray Digital, and Kim Cooke remains active as co-owner of Revolution Recordings in Toronto and running boutique roots imprint Pheromone Records (in partnership with MapleCore Ltd.).
Ken Middleton died in Newmarket in 2014; Stan Kulin retired in 1988 and is living in Bow River, AB, where he loves to fish; and Gary Newman, who retired in 2004, has since been travelling the world with his wife and can very occasionally be seen at music industry functions.