For those who have waded through the print trenches – “may all of the angels in heaven bathe your feet with Dove soap for eternity.” It was and is brutal. The upside - the music, the bands, the venues, the photos, the written word – the excitement. The downside – selling ads. When David Farrell suggested I catch up with Music Express’s Keith Sharp - I winked through the receiver back at David – thinking, I remember The Record and still feel your pain! In fact, I can still visualize Stan Klees and Walt Grealis relaxing in their high back chairs at RPM – Walt talking music and Stan exhibiting pictures of celebrities he’s met. Then there was the time I was playing cocktail hour in the Midnight Lounge on a cruise ship circling the Caribbean in 1999 – Stan and Walt arrive for a two-week vacation. We dock into Havana harbour – I invite the two to join me for the sights. Walt says, – “we never get off the boat.” Ah – the life of a scribe.
Me and partner Greg Sutherland published the Jazz Report Magazine a good nineteen years. It wasn’t until the last five years Greg joined in on selling ads. I was losing my mind. Who needed the stress? You make a couple of cold calls – a couple of thumbs down and your day is fucked! You smoke a joint, look out the window, smoke another joint, spin some Keith Emerson, and then night arrives.
The big corporate swallow of hot indie labels spelt death for small print publications. We weren’t as ambitious as Jim Norris, who should get the Order of Canada, an order of fries, and a shrine somewhere along the Lakeshore – that’s one resilient bad ass!
I recently caught up with music man Keith Sharp and checked in on his daily adventures. The dream lives as does the passion. Enjoy!
What’s going on with Keith?
I’m working security for TIFF right now – overnights until eight in the morning the next two weeks. I’ll be working at Roy Thomson Hall, and my boss will be Deane Cameron. Funny world isn’t it!
We are keeping the magazine (Music Express) going on a daily basis. Artists are dropping dead, and so there's alway plenty to talk about. We are booking a lot of bands.
I’m working with Jean Marc Pisapia, lead singer of The Box, and Michel Pagliaro. Booked that big festival in Timmins, Stars and Thunder this summer; June 24 to July 1.
Looks like we’ll be doing it again. It was brilliant. We had over 100,000 people attend. We had acts like Keith Urban, Johnny Reid, Hedley, Simple Plan, a theme every day. We had a French day with Pagliaro, a classic rock day. The mayor of Timmins, Steven Black, put the money up; Ron Sakamoto, the event producer and legendary Lethbridge based promoter who booked Shania Twain's first Canadian tours, and is exclusive booker of Keith Urban, was with us.
You never know going into these things. We knew Pagliaro was going to be big; with David Wilcox, we weren’t sure. We had 18,000 for Tom Cochrane and 25,000 for Johnny Reid. The guy wants to do it again; another eight-day festival and we have to come up with another 28 bands. It’s going to be a challenge. We are still booking Pagliaro and The Box all over the place. I don’t think Feldman or Ralph James are going to lose any sleep over us.
What’s your agency called?
(W)orld (T)ravels (F)ast Consulting. Which is, What the Fuck?. We are planning on changing it to Music Express Consulting because we are dealing with corporate people who don’t quite like or get the humour in the name.
We brought The Box back. They were playing small bars about three years ago when we started Music Express anew as a digital magazine, and looking through Facebook, everyone was still there. Rush was touring, Trooper, April Wine. I thought, we have to start writing stories about these bands again and I stumbled on Jean Marc Pisapia, lead singer for The Box and asked what he was doing. Over the last three years, we’ve moved him from bars like the Brass Monkey to the CNE, Kitchener Blues Festival, Timmins etc. We are also working with Pagliaro doing a double bill with The Box and plan to take them through the Maritimes in the spring.
Music Express online – how’s that working out?
It’s going great. In 2010, I gave up the ghost of print. All of the record shops were closing and record companies, folding. It was a battle keeping going, so I took two years off to write my book about Music Express for Dundurn. During the time it took to write the book, I had to get a job and started doing security – I mean, it’s OK. It’s something to do while getting things going again.
When I was doing security at the CNE there were all these stages near the midway and the bandshell and Trooper was playing. There I am doing security for Trooper and Ra McGuire is looking down and asks, “What the fuck are you doing?" Later, when I’m at the merchandising tent to guard and handle the crowd, Brian Smith (from the band) walks up to me and says, “What the fuck are you doing here? Get that bloody magazine going again; we need it.”
On the train home, I’m thinking, well all right, I can relaunch this digitally. I put the crew together, and about three weeks later we put out the first digital edition. I love it.
Here we were two days ago and Steely Dan’s Walter Becker dies. The guy from Molly Hatchet the same day. We ran articles and video clips. If you screw up, you can change it.
Obviously, there’s no money in it at all. It’s something for me to do to keep it going. I enjoy the bands, talking to them and of course, I know them all. There are not proper print outlets for people to do interviews anymore. We don’t have to worry about writing a story and how much space you’ve got. When I first started again, I was just catching up with everybody – the Larry Gowans – now it’s Arkells, Strumbellas, - new bands, Ascot Royals, now we are doing them all. It’s a small good group of people who work together on this.
Did you begin as a sports writer?
Yes, and graduated from that to music – got a job at the Calgary Herald when I was eighteen. Then I realized there weren’t any truly great music magazines besides NME, Melody Maker so in Calgary I was pushed to start one. It began as a hobby, Alberta Music Express – the timing was perfect, 1976, the GRT label was coming in, all of these bands were popping up. We were in Calgary for four years then we came here to Toronto.
You also had Bryan Adams, Rush, Celine Dion making significant gains around the world. Now you had front page music news.
When we were doing it, we weren’t thinking about what was happening. It was a hobby. I’m working as a sports writer and getting paid very, very well. I’m getting all of these free records, going to all of these amazing concerts with (the late) David Horodezky from Brimstone Productions in Calgary and Ron Sakamoto in Lethbridge. My timing couldn't have been better.
The Toronto-based companies wanted us to stay in Calgary, but after a while, we knew we couldn’t stay there. We moved to Toronto in 1980 and arrived the day New Music Magazine folded. We were moving to Vancouver and came to Toronto to tell everyone about the move, and a couple of record guys said “no, no, no – you have to get over here. You’re it!”
There was only RPM then. I flew back to Calgary and told my partner Conny Kunz. We made the move, did a distribution deal, met with the record companies and really, we had no competition. Then the whole thing with Musicland happened in the States.
We became the in-store magazine for Musicland, Sam Goody, that put us in 1,115 stores across America. We did a pre-run of 1.3 million copies. We were also on newsstands in England and Australia, which was perfect for the three years it lasted. Certainly, all of the Americans wanted the cover of the magazine.
Unfortunately, Musicland ran into problems and couldn’t continue anymore, but it lasted until 1992. Overnight you go from 1.3 million to?
Allan Gregg got involved and messed up Music Express, and then we started Access Magazine in 1995. That lasted about twelve years, but it was never the same. It’s always been fun working with the bands.
2008, with all of the upheaval, Maxell – the car companies dying the death, we just ran out of advertisers. The magazine was no problem, but the thing you can appreciate is, you have a print bill at the end of the month. Advertising pays for the print bill, and it would be like, we’ll pay you in sixty days. It was ninety days with Capitol. After a while, the magazines were going out faster than the revenue came in. The printers will always allow you credit for a little while, but when you get two magazines behind it’s time to pull the plug on you. It got to a point where it wasn’t fun anymore. I was having a good time writing the book but not having any fun writing the magazine.
I still work security to get a paycheck every two weeks. The booking thing, I wish it came on a regular basis, other than a chunk of money in July and another chunk in November.
The music industry now?
Everyone is super relaxed. Everyone’s doing things when they want to do it. There’s plenty of “weekend warrior” bands like The Box. They all have outside jobs; you book a few festivals. There are no big pressures on anybody. I was talking to Larry Gowan the other day, and he said it took Styx fourteen years to do a new album. They’ve always been touring and rehashing old stuff. No pressure. They record a track, and if they don’t like it, they don’t put it out. If it’s great, then you can put it out. Bands are cool about this stuff; there’s no pressure anymore!