Today, Jim Jj Johnston Salutes Steve Kane
Welcome to JJ-365 Salutes. Over 2018 we pay tribute daily to one of “The Good Ones.” Today we are shining the light on Steve Kane.
I've seen Steve pretty much from day one in this business and couldn't be happier for him. He came out of the rough and tumble days when it was not uncommon for some radio and records people to yell and scream at each other. Both sides had mandates, and sometimes they didn't match. I did my share too in these conversations but finally got to the point of choosing not to participate that way. If someone got excited, I'd lay the phone down, go do other things and come back once the noise on the phone stopped. ('Are you done yet?'). Steve is NOT one of those people. He was determined to get his part of the job done, was very persuasive and buttoned down, but always acted with decorum. He has always been a gentleman, a pleasure to chat with and is great for our industries.
Two weeks ago, Steve found himself in Northern Alberta on Brett Kissel’s family ranch, land they’ve ranched for 100 years. Here he was getting to feel Brett’s family's connection to where they are from and what they are all about.
The journey to get there involved the final show of Brett’s 112 date tour of Canada, stops at small towns in Alberta to see the statue of a giant kielbasa in Mundari, the famous UFO landing pad in Saint Paul that was Brett’s hometown’s Centennial Project and then Glendon's statue of a giant pierogi, and he kept thinking to himself “I’m at work… how lucky am I”
Here’s a story Steve likes telling people: “I was driving with my daughter, she was in grade 10 at the time, and I asked her, ‘so Mathilda, what do you think you’re going to do in the future?’
She said ‘Well, it’s going to be in theatre but not on stage. I’m a good actor but not a great one, and there’s no point stepping on stage unless you’re great’.
Steve ‘Ok, so what are you thinking?’
Mathilda ‘I love lighting. I want to make the stage and the performers look great… It’s like you, I guess’.
Steve asked her to elaborate …‘Well, you don’t have any talent … but I love the way that you talk about helping artists be the best they can be, or that your job is to make sure their songs get heard by as many people as possible’.
Steve, ’Did you just tell me I’m untalented?'
Mathilda laughed and said ‘Sorry, I guess it’s a different kind of talent.’
She is now in her second year of Theatre Production at Ryerson.
Steve Kane has been an integral part of the Canadian Warner affiliate since he joined in 2001 as senior VP and managing director and became President of Warner Music Canada in 2004. Said Larry Leblanc in a Celebrity Access interview, he can and will talk your ear off about a new artist he’s discovered in just about any musical genre you can name, and every weekend he can be spotted scurrying around Toronto record shops looking for new records, His record collection--between the singles, LP, CDs-- is ‘somewhere north of 15,000’. He walks the walk and sings the sing: "Yes. It’s a personal thing. It’s an aesthetic. It’s the feel and the smell. It’s a very tactile experience. I still spend every Saturday afternoon at record stores. To me they are still gathering places."
He’s always been a fierce supporter of Canadian music and artists, an Edinburgh Scotland born emigrant who grew up in the ‘Shwa’ (Oshawa). Steve told Larry the story of when he was in Edinburgh his dad used to quite frequently go to a little record shop called ‘Bands and Son’. It was a music instrument store with records. He used to go there to get new bagpipe reeds and to have his pipes maintained. Says Steve: “I think the first record I asked him to buy might have been a Johnny Cash 7-inch EP. The only reason I pointed at it was Johnny dressed up like a cowboy on the cover. My dad’s second youngest sister, who was 16 or 17, had everything. She had the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks. She had a boyfriend who would turn up at our house on a scooter. She was a mod. My dad had all of these rockabilly records.”
Since then Steve has come a long way to be the President of a major record company, be on the front line fighting on behalf of creators’ rights, addressing government and the industry itself on issues affecting Canada’s creative community and its music industry.
He’s been around a number of sides of the record industry. He published a music fanzine, hosting campus radio shows while attending Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, to being a clerk at the Record On Wheels working for Don, Vito and Rosie Ierullo in their 621 Yonge Street flagship store outlet on Toronto’s Yonge Street. Those experiences have honed his perspective.
One of Steve's fave stories about working at the record store, as told to Larry: “Rosie hired me. My favourite Don story—I think he fired me three times—is that one time he looked at our PO (purchase order) and the first Sinéad O'Connor record (‘The Lion and the Cobra’) had just come out. We probably ordered a couple hundred. He blew up saying, ‘What are you doing? You are wasting my money. This record, how could you buy it? It’s a piece of shit. What are you doing?’
Fast forward a week and a half and the record was starting to break. We knew it because we brought in all of the singles and 12-inches on import. So, we knew there was a story here. So, Don phoned me and said, ‘How much of that Sinéad record do you still have?’ I said, ‘I probably have about 50 here. It will get us through the weekend’. He says, ‘I want you to send half of those up to the warehouse, right now’. I said, ‘Don, I need them for the weekend’. He answered, ‘You send those records right now’. I say, ‘No.’ So he fired me. I phoned Rosie his sister and told her that Donnie had fired me over a record that was selling, and he wanted them for the warehouse. She said, ‘Tell him to f**k off’.”
Before Warner, Steve was Senior VP at Universal Music (1999 – 2001); senior VP at Polygram Music Canada (1998-99); VP/GM at Virgin Records Canada (1996-97); and Dir. of Marketing PolyGram Group of Canada (1994-1996), and marketing at I.R.S. Canada. This lad has pretty much seen it all.
From the same interview with Larry, under Steve’s leadership, through tumultuous times, Warner Canada’s distribution, marketing, and A&R operations were substantially overhauled, and the company became the first major label in Canada to launch its own direct-to-consumer, shortcode mobile content solution. As well, they broadened distribution ties and partnerships with some of Canada’s leading independent music imprints including Six Shooter Records (which departed in 2015), Coalition Music Records, Sonic Records, Stomp Group, Union Label Group, Road Angel, Cameron House Records, and Pacific Music Group while maintaining distribution of the venerable Stony Plain imprint.
Along the way, Canada’s music industry learned that Steve had ‘ears’, a rare ability to spot special talent.
Steve has also signed so many talented ones to the label. Included are Buck 65, Ron Sexsmith, Scott Helman, Courage My Love, Meghan Patrick, Matthew Good, the Sheepdogs, Victoria Duffield, Modern Space and Brett Kissel, now at the very top of the country game. Another important thing he did was stay close to Warner Canada’s 30-year relationship with Canadian music legends, Blue Rodeo. Says Steve: “Blue Rodeo is, and will continue to be, the jewel in the crown for us."
Let’s not forget Billy Talent, signed in his early days with the company and a group that has since become one of Canada’s biggest rock acts with a fantastic international career. A lot of people told him there was no way a punk band like Billy Talent would be played on mainstream radio.
I was leading CORUS Toronto at that time, and we were all so excited by this Billy Talent. Ben Kowalewicz of the band was working with us at The Edge, where he was a producer for the daily interview and new music show. He told us early that he and his band might have a deal with Warner and, voila! it happened, and you know the rest.
I remember being invited by Warner to a retreat at Deerhurst Resort in Muskoka to speak about radio and records and see the Billy Talent showcase. All was amazing. 365’er Steve Coady reminded me of how I came into the conference that day. I was running late, it was hugely hot and humid, I was in a suit sweating my brains out and desperately needed to change, but there was no time. I thought, ‘this is the music industry, and they have seen everything’ so I decided to, and did change in the middle of my speech from monkey suit to shorts and golf shirt in front of the crowd without missing a beat. That got people laughing and talking for sure. Coady told Gary Slaight that story, and he said, ‘why didn’t he take it all off?’ Coady said, ‘He’s crazy, but not that crazy!’
It was almost twenty years ago that Napster changed everything in the music industry. Steve’s take as told to Larry Leblanc: “Napster appeared, and everything just went sideways. We could have retreated, or we could have gotten reinvigorated, and tried to figure it out. Hindsight is 20/20. People say they saw it coming. Bullshit. Anybody who says, they are lying.”
We don't get to our lofts without a team of friends, colleagues and family behind us. Steve credits Paul Orescan of I.R.S fame as being very influential in his career. Steve was quoted as saying:
“Paul was an amazing teacher and, because there were only three of us in the office, it was a great training ground. There was a publicist, Paul was doing promo and running the show, and I was doing marketing and consumer outreach and inventory control, which came in handy many years later. Because it was three of us, if one of us were out of the office or on vacation, you were now the promo guy or the publicist or the marketing person. You started to get your hands on every aspect of the business.”
Virgin Music Canada’s Doug Chappell (pres./A&R) and Laura Bartlett (VP promotion & marketing) and Doug Douglas G Caldwell (Ontario region promotion) were huge in his learning curve too. Steve has publicly stated this a few times: “Incredible teachers all of them. I was able to watch Doug (Chappell) in his approach to A&R and his approach to dealing with artists. The magic touch that he had there. Watching Laura Bartlett, who is still one of the great promotion people to ever work in this country. She had a marketing mind that was always three steps ahead. To learn from people like that, I was very fortunate.”
Steve is a very busy person but still finds the time to be active in the community giving back by sitting on a variety of boards including Music Canada, CARAS (Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences), CCMA (Canadian Country Music Association), and the NMC (National Music Centre).
Steve’s family is also all about the music. His wife Debbie Rix came out of a strong music industry career; they had their family, and these days she has a Toronto café corner store called The Lucky Penny and has jumped into the novel writing world, having published her first book called 'External Forces' recently. As told to Larry Leblanc, "Plus she’s been an activist for S'Cool House Rocks which has raised money for the Al Mokdad Family Education Fund. I am so fortunate to have such a tremendous life partner who is multi-talented. An entrepreneur with her own store that has become a community hub. Three years ago, it was an opportunity to have a local store where kids come in and buy milk and settle up at the end of the week.”
Steve sums up: "I’m pretty blown away that I’ve been able to make my living for 30 years in the record business (35 if I throw in retail) … over the years I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some incredible artist and to help develop careers … but also to work with people who’ve become dear friends like 365’er Steve Coady, Doug Douglas G Caldwell, David Macmillan, Doug Raaflaub, Carole MacDonald, Chris Moncada or the guys from Blue Rodeo.
I remember turning to my wife Debbie, a great music industry vet in her own right, the night before I started at Warner and saying … 'Wow, I get to work with one of my all-time favourite bands), or Billy Talent (whose drummer Aaron Solowoniuk has taught me more bravery in the face of adversity than anyone I’ve ever met … his work on behalf of people living with MS is staggering), Michael Bublé, Brett Kissel, Meghan Patrick, or Scott Helman to name a few.
To have benefited from mentors like Deane Cameron, Paul Orescan (the first), Joe Summers, et al., I was able to go through this business and to be bizarrely chosen for induction to The Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2015. Hopefully, I’ve been able to pay some of that kindness and wisdom back, and there’s a couple of young folks out there that think fondly on the time we spent together … The honour of leading Warner Music Canada for the last 15 years through such upheaval has mostly been a blast and I wouldn’t trade a minute of the experience… And in large part because of the incredible team."
Says Steve Coady: "Steve and I have been together at Warner for 17 years. And we worked together at PolyGram for a few years back in the ’90s. I have the greatest respect for him as my boss and friend. His knowledge of - and collections of - music and whiskey are legendary. And who doesn’t love a guy who has THREE meat grilling/smoking appliances on his deck!"
Smart, cool, fun, upbeat, passionate, creative, works hard, a great track record, talented, and a solid family person. What's not to love about this lad?
Keep making a difference Steve, and atta be!
Thank you, Steve Kane, for being one of “The Good Ones”. Feel free to like and share Steve’s positive story. Who is the subject of tomorrow’s JJ-365 Salutes? As they say, stay tuned.
– Jim JJ Johnston is the CEO, President and Chief Programmer/Talent/Content Coach for JJIMS INC. and works with talent in many different industries worldwide.