Industry Profile: Chris Taylor
By Larry LeBlanc
This week In The Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Chris Taylor
Chris Taylor is a pivotal figure in Canadian music.
As a Canadian music industry Young Turk of the Ď90s, he developed and utilized an extensive list of industry contacts worldwide, leading to major label signings for Nelly Furtado and Sum 41 in the U.S.
Taylor was raised in Windsor, Ontario, and graduated with a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto in 1990.
After graduation, Taylor fronted the reggae-based rock group One which signed with Virgin Records of Canada in 1994. The group released four albums and performed extensively throughout North America before splitting up. In 1996 Taylor returned to finish law school articles and was called to the bar in 1997.
In 1997 Taylor began practicing law with the Toronto law firm of Paul Sanderson & Associates, representing Nelly Furtado, Avril Lavigne and Tom Cochrane among others.
In 2006 he founded his own law firm, Taylor Mitsopulos Klein Oballa. With 6 full-time lawyers, two students and three support staff, the firm represents such acts as Furtado, Billy Talent, Three Days Grace, Justin Nozuka and Lights.
After several years of introducing indie new wave/rock act Metric to industry contacts with limited success, Taylor co-founded Last Gang Entertainment in 2003 with colorful Montreal promoter/impresario Donald Tarlton, CEO of The Donald K Donald Entertainment Group.
Last Gang has released recordings by Metric, Death From Above 1979, MSTRKRFT, Tricky Woo, Crystal Castles, Chromeo, Emily Haines and Soft Skelton and the New Pornographers.
With the arrival of new technologies, Canadaís independent labels, led by Last Gang and Arts & Craft, now look outside Canada more often for support for their rosters. While these Canadian labels face many of the same problems as their predecessors such as lack of money, geographic isolation, and economic barriers, unlike their predecessors many of them, including Last Gang, increasingly cater to an international audience.
Taylor currently sits on the board of directors for the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences and on the advisory board for Transmission.
Americans often underestimate Canadians. How dumb did the American lawyer think you were when you did your first record deal in the United States?
The lawyer on the other side reminded me on every telephone call that I was never going to do a deal as big as this ever again. That was in 1999. Afterwards, Iíd call him every three months or so to say I had just done better with someone else.
One of the artists you pitched was Nelly Furtado to DreamWorks.
I represented Nelly and shopped her demos. I took her on in 1998. Gerald Church and Brian West from the Philosopher Kings were producing demos with her. Her manager Chris Smith played them for me and I really liked them. Nelly, Chris and I went out for lunch at the Rivoli and sat on the patio on a wonderfully sunny day. I later looked down at my watch and it was 4:30 PM, and we had started at 1:30 PM. I couldnít believe it. She is so engaging and so much fun to be around. There was a naivete at that point but she was hungry, driven and funny. I was smitten.
What have been the challenges with her career?
Chris is the gatekeeper on a lot of that. Heís a magnificent manager. He was my manager with my group One.
These days you are often in New York or Los Angeles shopping records or meeting with A&R people. Why is it important to be in those centers? Canít you get to do the same communication on the telephone?
I do a lot of it on the phone but face time is still important. When I am in Los Angeles I often have a Canadian artist that is recording there. A couple of clients live there. A lot of managers who work with my artists are based there. Our distributor Fontana (for Last Gang Records) is based there as well. Often I will have an artist playing a show there and I will work a trip around that. So itís a combination of those things.
In Canada when someone is looking for an attorney to help them to do business internationally, we want to be the law firm that they call. One of the ways that we assure that is by being a presence in the U.S. market and other territories.
What are the differences between Los Angeles and New York in doing business?
L.A. people take pride in showing that they are not working that hard. They take pride that they go home at 4 P.M and thereís a kind of showmanship all of the time. They want to know what kind of car you drive. What hotel are you staying at? In New York, people donít ask. One thing that is different about New York is that there is a club-hopping circuit that includes Arleneís Grocery, the Mercury Lounge, the Continental, those sorts of venues where you will see everybody. Whereas in L.A., you get in your car at night to see someone at the Viper Room and you might see a few people there but you may not go to another show because itís across town. You arenít driving all over the place to see shows. So thereís social networking that goes on in New York that doesnít go on in Los Angeles.
It is often overlooked that major labels can still provide market sizzle for acts. Until somebody else is able to do that, how much is going to change in our business?
I agree with you 100%. Artists and managers somewhat ignore the (industry) infrastructure. Everybody is talking about the money but there are still good people working at (major) record companies. If they are focused on your career then it could be 100 people focused on your career as opposed to four people in a manager's office trying to put out records.
One of the pressure points in contract negotiations these days is the 360 degree deal. Isnít that an 800 pound elephant being put into the room during negotiations?
It absolutely is. (Labels) started putting that gorilla in the room a couple of years ago but they would politely escort him out once you asked him to leave. Now everybody brings the gorilla to the room. You can have four offers from four majors for a new artist in a mid-level bidding war situation and you are still looking at 360 degree (deal) elements. Labels will walk away if they canít get it. They arenít allowed to go beyond a certain line without getting some of it.
What are the American major labels seeking?
Active involvement in the merchandise. Warner Bros has a pretty good merchandising company. Universal has a merchandise company. They will both try to escort you over that way and there may be incentives in the deal to go that way. Sony may look to participate but they donít have an active merchandiser at this stage. I havenít done a deal with EMI for a while.
Will labels make a play for concert revenue?
Absolutely and thatís probably number two in what they are seeking. The publishing you can kind ofÖthereís a discussion to be had there too. Some times you can have publishing excluded and other times you canít. Sometimes they want a matching right. Publishing seems to be the one thing that there is some wiggle room on (in negotiations). Endorsements, sponsorship and live touring, they are looking for some kind of participation with those as well.
Labels will argue that they need this revenue because of sagging record sales. On the other hand, you could counter with, ďWhat are you bringing to the table?Ē
Iíve heard stories of artists thinking that they had outsmarted everybody by keeping everything off the table during a negotiation. The next day the head of the label or an executive VP calls saying, ďYou should put the merchandise back on the table here. We need this.Ē Itís like forcing a single on a label. If you are a new artist, do you not want to get the full weight and degree of enthusiasm of that label behind you? Do you want to be 27 and kicking yourself because you didnít give up 10% of merchandise and then somebody pulled the plug on your project?
If they canít make money off you, they arenít going to spend money either.
There is always that risk. Until someone else, LiveNation or some management company, booking agency or law firm starts putting development money and infrastructure into the equation, (major labels) are going to have a persuasive argument that they are still the gateway to getting to the next level for a new artist and artists know this.
Thatís not to say that all 360 deals are the same.
All of the labels approach these issues differently. One will try to have participation in merchandise and another will try to force you to sign with their publishing company. Another might offer a more artist friendly (royalty) rate if you go with their publisher.
Itís not to say that a little bit of resistance will get you a better deal at the end of the day. Is it 5% or 10%? Does it last for the life of the contract or just the first couple of records? You can put in caps or floors (for shared participation). All of sudden, you are negotiating four deals instead of just one. So if you can be creative on a recording agreement you can get four times as creative on the new-fangled arrangements. You have to know the ins and outs of how all of this works. Labels are up to speed on publishing but they are all just learning how live and merchandise works.
U.S.-based entertainment lawyers often represent Canadian acts in recording negotiations in Canada. Do they know the Canadian legal terrain for recording deals sufficiently?
There are ways you can structure agreements in Canada that donít make sense in the U.S., just in terms of accessing funding programs and other monies that are available. If they are not paying attention, you might lock yourself out. There are tax considerations as well that need to be taken into account. I donít know how much U.S. attorneys school themselves on some of the nuances in negotiating Canadian deals but we certainly pay attention to the nuances when we are looking at U.S. recording agreements. We see it as a prerequisite to playing down there. IĎm not sure that American attorneys see it as a prerequisite to working in Canada. Canada is often an afterthought in the negotiation structure.
Controlled composition clauses are standard in the U.S. but not so in Canada.
Well, Sony (Canada) is still up to that but you are right by and large. The full rate on 12 songs is an industry standard in Canada whereas (paying) 75% on 11 songs is kind of the Holy Grail in the U.S. When I first started doing deals with U.S. record companies they would speak to me as I had no idea of what they were talking about. But we have full rate on a number of clients (with deals in the U.S.). It is something that we try to take a stand on. That is money that is not cross-collateralized against record royalties income. If you can carve that out, it can be worthwhile.
With all the hoopla of digital sales and the death of music retail, digital sales are still only 7% of the world market, and both Canada and Europe have a strong music retail business.
Our skew of sales percentages at Last Gang are indicative of that. We skew higher in digitally/physical--56% to 34% favoring physical in the U.S., whereas in Canada, we are closer to 85% to 15% physical. In Europe, we are probably 80% to 20% physical.
With TV and radio being transformed, the music industry has lost some of its traditional tools.
Certainly, mass media and mass distribution have changed markedly over the last eight or nine years. But there are a lot of new tools at their disposal too. Now word of good music gets out there. A solid review on Pitchfork or by (blogger) Bob Lefsetz, or someone mentions the group in an article then itís out and around the world and consumers of music are eating it up.
Has the downturn in music sales affected deals?
Today, there are fewer deals. (In the early Ď90s) we were doing 25 major label record deals per year. We are probably doing 10 per year now. The size of the deals are smaller than what they were before even though there are normally more rights attached.
The business has returned to a more grassroots level.
We have seen the rise of mid-level type artists like Alexisonfire and Bedouin Soundclash, groups that can cobble together an international touring career. They can make enough money to earn a decent living, buy a house and have enough money to afford lawyers to help them. These days they can also make the record they want to make on their own terms because the gatekeeping for that kind of artist has been removed to a large degree.
Having a mainstream career is not the aim for some artists today.
I think it is still the aim for a lot of artists. But itís not necessarily their absolute goal. With so many artists sustaining themselves on that mid-level then that becomes a realistic goal, something that is achievable. Whereas before you had a day job as you were building your career. It either exploded or you worked at Steveís Music for the rest of your life and taught guitar.
Why have a label?
I ask myself that every day. I did it because I love Metric. I was cocky in 2003. I had shopped a lot of bands successfully. I kept looking at this band wondering, ďWhy wonít anyone take them on?Ē I couldnít even get a $5,000 or $10,000 demo deal. So I sat down with my wife at the end of 2002 and said I want to take some of my winnings and put it into his band. I met with Donald Tarleton (CEO of The Donald K Donald Entertainment Group in Montreal) around the same time and he said, ďLetís do it together.Ē Metric ended up doing well and Death from Above 1979 (a Toronto based dance-punk duo with Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Grainger) wanted to be on the label. They took off (internationally) and the label was suddenly a business.
Death From Above 1979 only had one album ďYou're a Woman, I'm a MachineĒ in 2004 but it was an underground sensation internationally, selling 250,000 albums.
We went to England 8 times on that record. We went to Japan three times. We flew around the world three times. Thatís probably part of the reason they broke up. We made that first record pretty fast. There was an idea and a design behind it. They had no aversions to going further or being more commercial on the next record. It was heart-breaking to me not to get to that record. I think if they had made the right record that they were going to walk in the footsteps of White or Queens of the Stone Age that were becoming their peers.
For all of the talk of a healthy indie infrastructure, there arenít many Indies with deep pockets.
Thereís XL Recordings, Matador, SubPop, and Beggars Banquet. I wouldnít put us on that list. We scrape and claw and build things brick by brick. We need an Arcade Fire, a Shin or that act that goes on to sell 240,000 records. We need something like that to put us in that (grouping).
You managed the bands on the label including Metric, Crystal Castles, MSTRKRFT and Mother Mother. But at the end of 2007, you stopped working as a manager. Why?
I just ran out of time.
Is there not an inherent conflict between running a label and handling artist management of the acts on the labelís roster?
You are right. It is a conflict between the management and the label every day. Some of the artists were buying houses, building studios, buying cars and flying first class around the world and I somehow was not doing a good enough job (as their manager). I thought if I got out of this theyíd probably go and find good managers. Most of them have.
In Windsor, you played in a band called the Bourgeois Faggot Assholes?
We were high school punk rockers. I didnít have a Mohawk. I was more like Johnny Rotten. Others guys in the band had Mohawks and combat suits.
Was Windsor a good market for music then?
It certainly was a place that you could see a lot varied music. Detroit is a stone's throw away (across the border). I saw shows there that never came to Toronto, punk rockers like Fleshstones. The first bar I ever played was the Coronation Tavern, a place that used to host (Canadian punk bands) DOA and Teenage Head. Windsorís legendary punk rock groups like DOS and The Rat Pack would play at Cass Corridorís or the Old Miami. It was insane.
At what point did you realize you shouldnít be a musician anymore? When your band One got dropped by Virgin Music Canada in 1996?
It was around that time. We had made four albums at that point. I had lived in a van with 9 other guys for five years. We drove all over North America playing colleges and universities. But we had about 7 managers during our tenure.
You then went to law school?
Yes, I had to article. I already had my law degree and went back to article. I articled at a labor law firm in Rexdale (Ontario) for a year. We represented pipe fitters. But my principal allowed me to do things on the side. So I started to do some work for music clients. I did work for Page Distribution, doing their distribution agreements.
You then worked at Paul Sanderson & Associates (later renamed Sanderson Taylor). Why did you open your own legal firm?
I was with Paul (Sanderson) for 9 years. I gained a lot from working there but it was time to move on. I wanted to make all of the decisions. He wanted to make all of the decisions. We both couldnít make all of the decisions. I started as a former musician trying to get people to trust me as a lawyer. Thatís not always easy. So having Paul there as my support structure gave people confidence and assurance to come into the firm and work with us. It was invaluable.
Chris Taylor can be reached at: email@example.com
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008, Larry was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, the London Times and the New York Times.