Updated Nov. 26
Al Mair, C.M., Attic Music Group co-founder and one-time manager of Gordon Lightfoot, passed away Friday, Nov. 25 at Sunnybrook hospital in Toronto away after a brief illness. He was 82.
A Member of the Order of Canada and one of the music industry's original architects, the Toronto-born Alexander Mair started his career in promotions in the 1960s with Apex/Compo – winning three Gold Leaf Awards as an executive for his business acumen. The Irish Rovers' smash Unicorn was among his successes.
In 1968, he handled Gordon Lightfoot’s business affairs and set up Early Morning Productions and Lightfoot’s publishing company. Coming on board with the album Lightfoot!, Mair helped the singer and songwriter find international success with his hits If You Could Read My Mind and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.
His biggest move, however, was co-founding the hugely successful independent record company Attic Music Group in 1974 with former Warner executive Tom Williams. In 1984, he bought out Williams and ran it in total for 27 years, selling his company in 1999 to a consortium known as The Song Corporation that was headed by political pollster and Tragically Hip co-manager Allan Gregg.
Song Corp. ultimately filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Attic’s Canadian catalogue and masters are now owned by Unidisc.
While Attic was operative, Mair brought mainstream and international attention to the careers of Triumph, Patsy Gallant, Hagood Hardy, The Nylons, Katrina & The Waves, Haywire, Jennifer Warnes, Weird Al Yankovic, Creed Maestro Fresh Wes – Canada’s first successful mainstream rapper – Teenage Head, Lee Aaron, Anvil, the Downchild Blues Band, and many others.
The label registered sales of more than $100 million in Canada, gathered 114 gold, platinum and multi-platinum awards and became the largest and most successful independent record company in Canadian history. Attic’s publishing arm was also extremely successful, representing, among others, the Canadian publishing rights of The Beatles, Elton John, Genesis, ABBA, James Brown, and The Cars.
An early advocate of CanCon who participated in CRTC hearings to establish the regulation, Mair also helped launch the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) (when it was known as CIRPA); the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Association (CMRRA) and the National Aboriginal Music Association, laying the groundwork for the Aboriginal Music Juno award category.
A former president of CAPAC, Mair served on the board of directors for SOCAN, the SOCAN Foundation and an eight-year term as President of the Canadian Music Publishers Association (CMPA). FACTOR, OMDC, AVLA, and Radio Starmaker also benefited from Mair's business expertise. He also served on the Massey Hall Board of Governors for 20 years and was an honourary governor of both Massey and Roy Thomson Halls.
Later, Mair established MHL Communications, publishing the controlled circulation magazine Applaud! which was sent to global embassies and touted Canadian talent internationally. The publication had a circulation of some 7,000 in more than 80 countries around the world.
Until his death, he also served as a consultant to numerous clients that included various independent labels, law firms, the Minister of Heritage and the Cultural Ministers of Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia – and as Chairman of The Mobile Cartel/Volu.me – a leading mobile app developer for bands and musicians.
In an interview with FYIMusicNews’ Bill King, Mair disclosed that it was around 1950 he was struck by music during the doo-wop era and listened to Hamilton radio station CHML’s Top 10 countdown every Sunday at noon.
He also discovered Buffalo radio station WUFO with announcer George “the Hound” Lorenz and WOWO in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.
Growing up in the Keele & Bloor era, Mair attended Humberside Collegiate and worked at a local record store at the age of 12.
“The bass singer with the Crew Cuts always came in looking for new R&B stuff, maybe the Crew Cuts could cover. I suggested a few of the songs I turned them on to appear on their albums.”
DJing on the weekends, Mair helped Jack Scott score his biggest hit My True Love by flipping over the A-side of the intended single Leroy and recommending to Scott’s record company they should release the B-side instead.
A sometime guitar player, Mair enrolled in an accounting night course at the University of Toronto and was hired by Capitol Records as a royalty accountant, jumping to sales in just six months.
After a very brief stint at London Records in promotion, Mair leapt to the Compo Company as Ontario promotion manager, then to National Promotion Manager and vice-president of promotion. From 1964 to 1968, Mair was vice-president of the Compo Company, a forerunner of MCA Music and Universal Music Canada.
It was in that position, with his company distributing United Artists, that he met legendary songwriter Gordon Lightfoot and eventually jumped ship to become his manager at Lightfoot’s request.
“During that period, I realized I didn’t want to be that closely involved in someone’s personal life,” Mair told King. “What I wanted to do was have my own record company. A friend of mine I helped get a job at Warner Music, Tom Williams – he and I sat down that Friday – he had quit that day - and decided if we were to ever start a record company, now’s the time.
“So, on Saturday we wrote out a business plan, never seeing such a document before yet did it in a logical sequence. Then on Sunday, an accountant came over. Keep in mind this was pre-computers. He had a bookkeeping machine that was at least a yard wide and possibly electric. Anyways, we did budget projections for five years and by then we’d all be millionaires and living off the fat of the land, so to speak.
“On Monday, I called Allan Slaight. I had invested some Lightfoot money in a broadcasting operation Allan owned. I approached him about being a shareholder and he said he’d just bought another radio station and suggested I meet with one of the other directors of his broadcasting operation who had been chair of the Toronto Stock Exchange.
“I called him, we met on Tuesday and he said he thought he knew somebody who would be interested in helping fund the operation. We were naive and didn’t understand he wanted a piece of the action. He made the call to the 17th floor. We went up and spent the afternoon with a venture capitalist – very conservative, that was owned by Sun Life, Bell Telephone and a rug company.
“We sat for three hours and at the end of the conversation, they said they were in. They asked for us to give them a list of 20 names who say this can be done and that you are the guys who can do it. We supplied the 20 names and raised $300,000. We weren’t the only Indie but the first to have funding. We didn’t want to be a Mickey Mouse label struggling to make the next single.”
Attic’s first hit was Hagood Hardy’s The Homecoming, an instrumental number that was used for a Salada Tea commercial and sold 300,000 copies in Canada alone.
Attic also negotiated a deal for Triumph with RCA in the U.S.
"As for Triumph, we told them lower than what we would normally ask in advance, but we got a two-album commitment from RCA and that was important,” Mair told King. “They took what was the “best” of the first two Canadian albums, assembled and put it out in the States and then funded the next album and that funding went to build Metalworks Studio.”
One of the biggest albums Attic released was Famous Blue Raincoat, a tribute to Leonard Cohen by his former backing singer Jennifer Warnes that enjoyed multi-platinum sales.
"Running a successful label and publishing company, only one creator ever thanked me when they received royalties in the mail...Leonard Cohen," Mair once said.
In terms of philanthropy, Mair has supported the Unison Benevolent Fund, and the Lillian and Donald Mair Clinic for mood disorders at Hamilton’s St. Joseph Hospital.
A member of the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame, Al Mair was a cornerstone in the growth of domestic music and establishing homegrown talent as an international resource.
He is survived by his son Sebastian, president and co-founder of Tokyo-based Music Solutions, and daughter Jennifer, Ontario Centre publicist with the National Film Board of Canada.
**Correction** - An earlier version of this article stated that Al Mair promoted the Motherlode song When I Die. This was not the case and FYIMusicNews apologizes for the error.