10 years in Canadian music as an independent record label and management company qualifies as a significant milestone. Country music firm MDM Recordings is celebrating that anniversary this year, and company founder Mike Denney has reason for pride in its accomplishments.
These include being honoured two times as Record Company of the Year (2015/2016), at the Canadian Country Music Association Awards (CCMA Awards), and twice as the No. 1 Independent Record Company in Canada (2015/2016). Denney was first named Record Company Person of the Year at the CCMAs in 2014, repeating in 2015 and 2017.
MDM is active in its 10th year, marking the occasion with new releases from 2017 Juno Award winner and 3-time CCMA Award winner for Female Artist of the Year, Jess Moskaluke, CCMA Award winners Bobby Wills and The Lovelocks, and CCMA Award nominee David James, in addition to a brand new collaboration from Charlie Major and the unveiling of musical collective Black Mountain Whiskey Rebellion.
MDM has close to 41 million LTD streams of their Canadian catalogue releases by artists like Wills, Chad Brownlee, Major, James, Moskaluke, Leaving Thomas, The Lovelocks, Tim Chaisson and more. MDM currently boasts forty Top 30 hits, sixteen Top 10 songs and close to a million spins at country radio in Canada.
In a recent interview with FYI, the affable Denney notes "what a ride it has been. When I started MDM at the height of the recession in 2008, the only long-term plan I had was to try and find my next gig. I never considered myself to be an entrepreneur, but it is amazing what you can accomplish when failure is not an option. As for a written forecast, I can’t say there was one, I just followed my gut instinct, worked hard, took as many meetings as I could and leveraged my network of contacts to help me get MDM off the ground."
He acknowledges his success has exceeded any initial expectations. "When I started, it was me orchestrating production and distribution deals. Now 15 people are working as part of a direct support crew for the roster, and that doesn’t include band members, agents and tech crews. I’ve tried to surround myself with the best people in the business who are experts in their area of work. These people have worked extremely hard to get us to where we are now."
Asked to single out key factors in this success, Denney explains "I am not sure if it’s just one thing. Our approach is slow and steady wins the race. You need an exceptional group of artists to understand that philosophy. It’s a 3 to 5-year plan and continued effort on artist development.
"From an A & R point of view, each act we have or have had on the roster is very different from any of the others, and this has helped us break through as we aren’t tripping over ourselves. It still gets tricky with release cycles and such, but we try as hard as we can to give each artist, each song released and new album or EP a lane to help maximize potential. That and a lot of good old fashioned hard work, travel, being seen, being present, keeping our partners at radio and media up to date with everything we do and trying to come up with new twists in marketing and strategy play into this as well."
Over the course of his career, Denney has traced the ups and downs of country music in Canada. "For the longest time the majors never really cared about country as a genre," he observes. "Right now everyone wants to be in the country music business, including major investment from the majors in new direct signings. When I started MDM, I would say there was a niche I fit into that allowed us to get traction at radio and get careers off the ground.
"We are distributed by Universal Music Canada. We have a good working relationship with them, but their huge investment in the genre has now slightly changed our relationship from distribution partner to competitor, which makes it really tough when trying to make sure your priorities are looked after properly in the marketplace. Being totally honest I kind of liked it when the major labels weren't so invested in the genre."
Denney is bullish about the talent pool of Cancountry. "The quality and quantity right now is the best it has ever been. Finding that right act, though, is really tough. It’s a huge investment to get a career off the ground. In the early days we took more chances on acts that were good, but now to even consider those acts – they must be outstanding. We are really fortunate in that we get solicited on a regular basis with new talent looking to get signed."
Reflecting on highlights from this 10 year run, Denney focuses on two. "Jess’s first win as CCMA Female Artist of the Year still gives me goose bumps when I think about it. Yes, she has a Juno win and nominations and gold and platinum singles and two more CCMA Female Artist of the Year wins, but that first win was magical.
"The second biggest highlight for me, was our first win as CCMA Record Company of the Year in 2014. I try not to let awards dictate success, but that award meant that we were doing something right and were on the right track. On top of that, to have the entire artist roster and all of our support people come up on stage with me to receive the award was huge validation towards how hard all of these people worked to get us there.
"I think it’s fair to say that Jess has done some pretty amazing things and has a stack of accolades sky high, but Chad Brownlee needs to be mentioned in this as well. He really put us on the map and although we are no longer working with him, the success we achieved with him paved the way for the rest of the artists we’ve signed."
Denney acknowledges that breaking into the US market has been difficult. "We frequently visit Nashville on a regular basis and for the most part have no problem getting A &R meetings to pitch and talk about our artist roster. That being said, Nashville is somewhat of an old boys club and to break in is really, really hard. You need to live there, eat, sleep and breathe it to be effective. I stopped over extending my energy a while back on trying to crack those walls, instead choosingto concentrate on meeting and developing relationships down there with talented people outside the major label walls that could help us on the international side of the MDM Recordings business.
"John Marks, who was at SiriusXM Nashville when I first met him and now is Head of Global Country for Spotify, has been a huge supporter of our roster in both job capacities, Stacey Cato at CMT US is another connection that has supported us immensely. Not to mention all of the publishing contacts we have made who keep giving us great songs. It’s much easier now to walk into a Nashville A & R meeting, because of the support these people have given us, but it’s still really tough to get a deal done.
"On the international front, we are putting a lot of resources into it, as we are truly in a global music market now. We recently signed a brand new deal with ABC music in Australia. that market is a mirror image of the Canadian scene and we are hoping to start getting our roster down there in 2019 for festival and live dates.
"We are also now actively seeking licence opportunities in Europe, specifically, the UK and Germany, Holland, where the country scene is growing. We also recently signed a new DSP deal with FUGA out of Amsterdam to handle all of the our digital needs rest of world outside of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. We have also invested in having a body on the ground in Nashville, Adria DeLaune. She is our eyes and ears there and helps to keep MDM as front and centre as we can down there."
Other MDM releases coming in 2018 include a new EP from The Lovelocks and one more single from David James' current EP. Denney notes that "We are excited to be releasing a Jess Moskaluke Christmas album this year, perfect timing for her and where she is in her career. She will also drop the next single from her Juno-nominated EP Past The Past in early June.
"Bobby Wills is busy working on brand new music and the leadoff single will drop in the fall. Also in the studio right now is Canadian country legend, Charlie Major. We will release part two of his greatest hits package July 27th and as part of the release we are re-recording one of his biggest singles “It Can’t Happen To Me,” with some big Canadian stars lending their voices to the track."
"We also just released a leadoff single from the Black Mountain Whisky Rebellion, a track called “Holy Smoke”. We aren’t sure when the debut album will release yet, but this band is killer and doing something that no other Canadian country band is doing."
The management side of MDM is also crucial, Denney reports. "The only way you can really make a go of it in Canada in the country genre, is to be both record label and artist management. The numbers dictate that. With the current roster we have we manage all of them with the exception of Charlie Major. I love certain parts of management, the planning strategy part is always exciting, but day to day stuff can get a little challenging and it’s really hard some times to keep a balance of work and professional life. That being said I think we do a really good job at being both record company and label - dealing with issues and managing the same artists to make sure we are moving forward on all levels."
Another industry venture Denney is involved with is the recently relaunched Acronym Records label. "I'm partners in that with Tony Tarleton," Denney explains. "Acronym was an imprint label created when MDM became branded as a country label. We relaunched the label around this time last year. Currently signed to the roster is Regina native Megan Nash and East Coast artist Christina Martin, with Tony working hard to bring more non-country artists to the label.
"Tony's background in distribution is also a very important factor in our international growth, as he is extremely involved with MDM on the international sales, marketing and securing licensing and distribution side of our business."
Asked to look ahead to the next decade for MDM, Denney stresses "I am not one for predictions. All I really want to do is continue to help support and foster growth of the artists that we work with and be the best person I can be. I want to help them achieve their goals, while achieving mine. Thinking down the line, in ten years, I will be 66 years old, I am not sure I still want to be going this hard at that age, but who knows!"