Industry Profile: Ralph James
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess MediaWire)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Ralph James, president, The Agency Group in Toronto.
The Agency Group opened an office in Toronto in 1996, and immediately began fiercely competing for a good hunk of Canada’s booking pie.
The Agency Group's accelerated expansion in recent years, as well as other agencies’ reactions to mounting competition for new acts and keeping existing ones—notably Canada’s largest full-service talent agency, S.L. Feldman & Associates—has led to Canada becoming a significant international source of music.
The Agency Group is one of the world’s leading booking agencies, with a roster of over 1,000 artists and offices also in London, New York, Los Angeles, and Malmo, Sweden.
London-based Neil Warnock, chairman of The Agency Group, was somewhat intrigued when Ralph James and Jack Ross first called him about opening an office in Toronto. However, he told them, in no uncertain terms, that he had no intention of opening in Canada at the time.
James and Ross, who knew Warnock had an affinity with Canadian music from having represented Max Webster, Lee Aaron, Triumph and Rush over the years, persisted until Warnock agreed to the idea.
It turned out that the timing for a new agency in Canada was perfect.
The successes of Barenaked Ladies, Sloan, Moxy Fruvous and others earlier in the decade had galvanized Canada's growing indie grass-roots community. They had opened the door for acceptance of a wave of alternative-styled acts in the mainstream.
The changeover was underscored by the lessening Canadian chart visibility of many veteran artist highfliers—most of which were handled by S.L. Feldman & Associates—and the growing popularity of newer acts, many of which were now being booked by The Agency Group, including Nickelback, Three Days Grace, and Billy Talent.
James and Ross launched The Agency Group in Canada with a small core of critically-acclaimed Canadian acts. Their staff of 22 people today now oversees a sizable roster that also boasts such strong booking draws as Sam Roberts, Metric, Bedouin Soundclash, Alexisonfire, Marianas Trench, Hawksley Workman, Stereos, and the Arkells.
In 2005, The Agency Group unveiled a new North American management structure under which James and Ross were named co-heads of the Canadian office, with James also taking on a role as part of the senior management team.
In 2008, James was named president of the Canadian office. Ross is Sr. VP /partner, The Agency Group Toronto.
Ralph James, as anyone in Canada’s music world can tell you, began his career as bassist for Harlequin in 1975. He toured and recorded with the celebrated Winnipeg rock band until 1987.
The capital of the province of Manitoba, Winnipeg has traditionally had a diverse music scene, and an abundance of local music venues, the best-known being the Zoo, the city’s premier rock club for three decades.
While young punk bands were swarming the barricades of complacency in the U.K., the ‘70s brought a hard rock vibe to Winnipeg’s music scene with Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Harlequin, and the Pumps leading the way.
The era was also a great one for Canadian rock.
Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Rush, April Wine, Saga, Max Webster, Harlequin, Chilliwack, the Stampeders Trooper, and Prism all sold well in the era, and played throughout the country and abroad. Meanwhile, newcomers like Bryan Adams and Loverboy were beginning to make their presence felt.
“The Canadian music industry started—the rubber started hitting the pavement in the mid ‘70s,” claims Canadian singer Gino Vanelli in the recently-released book “Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.”
“I could feel the tires screeching a bit. But, I don’t think that the Canadian music industry really took off until the ‘80s. (Canadians) had a very provincial attitude to recording. The attitude was “It’s good enough for our territory. They never had a thought of getting their records released worldwide. Only by the late ‘70s, and the early ‘80s did that start to change.”
The story goes that Harlequin was discovered in a small Toronto bar by representatives of Jack Douglas, the New York producer of Aerosmith, Artful Dodger, Cheap Trick, and Patti Smith. Douglas eventually got Harlequin a deal with CBS/Epic Records in 1979.
A year later, the band released its first album, “Victim of a Song” and began receiving heavy radio play, particularly in Western Canada. The follow-up “Love Crimes" (1980) produced two national hits, "Thinking Of You," and "Innocence."
By its third album “One False Move” (1982), Harlequin was a staple on Canadian radio. However, the band’s self-titled fourth album (1985) sold disappointingly.
James eventually left the band to work as an independent manager and booking agent. As an agent, he became a significant national force after stints at the Hungry I Agency in Winnipeg, The Agency in Toronto, as well as at S.L. Feldman & Associates, working in its Toronto and Vancouver offices.
What are the most significant differences between the Canadian and American markets?
The proximities of the cities in America make touring there a hell of a lot easier for the most part. I get slapped from saying this from time to time, but generally, you need to have a job to buy a house and a car in Canada. We’re a resource-based economy. So chances are we have a little more resilience (against market downturns), and the economy (here) seems to be plowing along at a pretty good pace. The main thing in Canada is that there is less apprehension about the economy. The banks here are pretty stable and are well run and controlled.
The main difference right now is the economy. And, there are only 32 million people in this country. So we have to pick our spots (to book). There are more people in California than there are in Canada.
The geography alone in Canada is…..
When you take a look at the geography, and the climate here—it is minus 28 (Celsius) in Toronto in late January—you know that you are in Canada, for sure.
What did you learn about Canada being a member of a touring Winnipeg band?
I have a PhD in Canadian geography that has come to serve me well in this line of work (as an agent). Having done it (toured), it is so much easier to understand this aspect of the job.
For a Western Canadian band, the travel is outrageous. The closest cities are 8 or 10 hours apart, and there is not a lot in between. We managed to find places in between (to play) as do most of the Canadian bands. We developed those secondary and tertiary markets—and lower than tertiary. I’m not sure what the word is, but we managed to find some of those too.
Did you tour rural northern Manitoba with Harlequin?
Oh boy, you name it. Yeah, we played all of those places. Thompson, Flin Flon, The Pas, all of those places. We played everywhere.
The booking and touring business today seems to be in flux. Concert and club goers want good packages at a good value.
I think that people are just going to look at what value they get, and make their decisions. If it is (a show) that they absolutely have to see, then the caution, maybe, gets thrown to the wind. For the most part, people are looking for value. You look at the Ticketmaster page or the weekly reports, and check what shows are out there, and people are making decisions in five seconds. They look and think, “Here this package, here’s the price. Done. I’m going.” They make their decision that quickly. If they hesitate, you may have lost that opportunity. So presenting the right packages, with the right ticket prices out of the chute, is critical at this point.
Are you putting tour packages together today with acts that might have been able to go out on their own five years ago?
The chance to do real numbers in a package, as opposed to being on their own, is so obvious to most people at this point. Most artists and their managers are smart enough to realize that strength in numbers is quite often the best solution (to touring). That there is nothing wrong with being on a four band bill. That being first on is not such a terrible thing. You are going to be playing in front of a lot more people than you would on your own. There are certain artists that (still) want to headline, but, for the most part, especially in the rock field, packaging is becoming more common. A lot of the bands have toured together before. They get along. They know that they are going to be treated well.
Is there more push-back from buyers these days about things?
They are being pretty aggressive. The competition is fierce. Everybody wants to be involved with the hit packages, or what is perceived to be the next artist coming up. There is definitely competition out there. Certainly, Live Nation and AEG are incredible companies doing huge business (in Canada), but there are also a lot of independents that are taking a very aggressive stance, and going after markets and artists that they feel are available. There are some really great young promoters trying really hard, and doing great jobs.
Who are some of the bigger indies you are working with?
The Union, Harvey Cohen and Nhaelan McMillan, teamed up (in March, 2010) with Jonathan Ramos here. So they are doing a lot of shows. There are a lot of different options now. Embrace, and Against the Grain Collective Concerts are both doing all kinds of concerts. There is definitely competition out there.
[In March, 2010, Calgary-based promoter The Union Ltd expanded its operations nationally in Canada by acquiring the concert promotion assets of REMG Entertainment Corporation in Toronto. REMG founder Jonathan Ramos now runs The Union operation in Toronto.]
What makes you and Jack Ross work so well together?
We both love music. We both have an understanding of exactly how hard we have to work to have success. Neither of us is afraid of rolling up our sleeves, and getting our hands dirty. That, in itself, separates us from a lot of other people in our line of work. Some of them only work as hard as they have to. Generally, we work day and night, every day.
When you and Jack have disagreements can you put them aside the next day?
It is like any other kind of partnership situation. It’s a high pressure business, and there have been a couple of times that we have had disagreements, but for the most part, it has been incredible for 15 years.
You were promoted to president in 2008. Is there still an equality between the two of you at the company? Jack is now Sr. VP / partner.
We are still a team. It’s optics more than anything. We make our decisions together. I don’t tell him what to do, he doesn’t tell me what to do. We absolutely do have a tremendous opportunity to get advice from (our) people like Neil Warnock, Ken Fermaglich, Andy Somers, and Bruce Solar. There are some great agents in our system that have a ton of experience so, generally speaking, there are not a lot of disagreements.
In recent years, you have strategically added staff, and expanded into such areas as country.
Nick Meinema has been a tremendous addition here (in country and other genres). Darcy Gregoire is doing the PACs (Performing Arts Centers). It has been a matter of finding the right people. We didn’t want to disrupt the chemistry here. We have a great core of people here that have been with us for a long time. We have very little turnover. It’s nice to grow, and there are opportunities out there to do that, but we won’t do anything that is going to disrupt what we consider to be a phenomenal working relationship, and good vibe here. It’s still fun to come to work. I don’t want to change that.
How many on staff?
It's 22 people. Darcy is another Manitoba boy, and so is Ziff (Rob Zifarelli). We have known these people for a long time. Nick was a bit of a wild card. We had kinda heard about him (from his working at LiveTourArtists in Toronto). He’s a tremendous agent, he really has a great understanding of a style of music that I don’t know a hell of a lot about.
Your agents have a reputation for being aggressive.
I don’t think you have much choice in this line of work. I think that “honest” and “aggressive” would be the way to put it. Sometimes, being aggressive means being blunt. Generally speaking, there’s a way to save everybody a lot of grief, upfront.
A very un-Canadian trait, some people would say.
Well, I think that people appreciate quick answers. Reponses as opposed to no responses. “Yes” or “no” instead of “maybe.” Most people in the business, at this point, appreciate that. How you deliver it is up to you.
Why did you and Jack approach Neil Warnock about setting up a Toronto office?
We were looking for expertise, and certainly the opportunity to get our artists on an international playing field. That was the objective. Neil’s experience, absolute wealth of knowledge, connections and all of the rest of it were invaluable, and continue to be invaluable to us.
You and Jack already had relationships with many of The Agency Group’s agents in America.
At that point, I think (the late) Dave Kirby, Steve Martin and Steve Schenck were in New York. Jack had worked with Steve Martin on a bunch of projects. (Being a Canadian) Kirby obviously understood Canada, and Neil had been booking bands in Canada for decades. He appreciated that there was a market here. Steve Martin had always done a lot of work here as well. They both could see that there was an opportunity here.
Certainly, the talent pool in this country—I’m a flag-waving Canadian, for sure—but if you take a look at the size of this country, the amount of hits and artists who have come out of here is impressive. Certainly, Neil Warnock and Steve Martin recognized that, and they felt that Jack and I could do the job here.
Also, if you were going to go head-to-head in Canada with S.L. Feldman & Associates, you needed that amount of international support as well.
Well, certainly we wanted to do things different and…..
C’mon you are dancing here. Either you could end up being a secondary agency or be a serious player.
Yeah. It was our intention to go international, and having Neil, his expertise and his connections absolutely gave us a leg up on a bunch of different fronts. But, I think that our A&R sense was, as much as anything, important too. We found some great young talent and developed it.
In the mid-‘90s, the Canadian music scene was in transition.
There was an established Canadian hierarchy, and it was ready for a whole bunch of fresh new blood. There were some great young artists out there that we were fortunate to come across, and that we worked to help develop. The timing was great. There’s a lot of talent out there right now; there’s another wave of incredible young artists that are coming along that will fill in the gaps for the ones that fall to the wayside.
You may have needed the link with Neil in 1996, given what happened with the live music consolidations that came soon afterwards.
The timing definitely was good for us to get this company going in Canada. But it was a battle. There’s no question about it. Certainly, we did lose a number of key artists along the way in the first few years, the grass being greener in the other pasture. But we understood that, and just kept marching forward.
Why would you lose clients in those early years? Was it because S.L. Feldman & Associates was so dominant at that time?
Having been an artist, I know that it is hard (for musicians) to decipher between reality and hype. Certainly, you can present the facts a bunch of different ways. People were promised things, and whatever. Artists come and go. Artists feel that there’s a better opportunity somewhere, and off they go. That happens, and will continue to happen.
For several years, there was considerable animosity between your agency, and S.L. Feldman. The rhetoric has quieted down in recent years. How competitive are the two agencies?
I think we are doing our thing, and they are doing their thing. There are other companies—Paquin (Entertainment) is doing a good job in Canada right now, and a lot of the American companies have smaller operations here as well. So, there is a lot of competition. Bruce (Allen) and Sam (Feldman) have top notch management companies, and they have a good agency that has been around for a long time. We go about things a bit differently. I think we are pretty focused on the job at hand, and I don’t really feel like that I am spending all day looking over my shoulder like I did 15 years ago.
As agents, your company books the artist rather than by territory?
I think that really works better for us. There are certain aspects of the territorial system that has its advantages, but I think that our system is the best system and it is certainly working for us.
You hadn’t worked that way before?
Was it hard to adapt to?
Not at all. No waiting around for our Vancouver office to do something because we didn’t have a Vancouver office. The disadvantages of territorial is that people, who don’t really understand what’s important to the artist, are out there trying to put tours together. There are certain finesse points, especially with certain artists, where you just need to get on the phone, and do it yourself.
Back in the mid-90s, many Canadian bands still toured across the country rather than north to south across the border into the U.S.
Well, when we started The Agency Group here 15 years ago with Neil, Jack Ross and I, one of the main objectives—and it had been one of the objectives of mine, dating back to my band days—was to eliminate the border. That was one of the first things that we did, that the border no longer existed. If you got to Winnipeg, the next place that you would play would be Minneapolis and Chicago, or whatever.
Steve Herman played a pivotal role in the agency, as president of the Canadian operations, and later as the CEO of North America.
Steve came into the company at a critical time in (2003). To find someone with his background was incredible. He had promoted Harlequin at Carleton University. He brought us in four times, I think. I had worked with him at Feldman, and at The Agency (not to be confused with The Agency Group). He promoted a ton of our shows. He and Michael Rapino (as Core Audience Entertainment) were actually the first guys to give Nickelback a shot in Toronto. We got them on with Creed and Oleander (at The Docks in Oct. 1999). I begged, and begged and they got it. Steve came in and did a terrific job here. The Agency Group had grown like a weed.
Steve was here six-and a half years (from 2003 to 2009). He was based in Toronto, but he worked out of the L.A., New York and London offices on a regular basis. He really helped make the company grow and become more solid.
[Currently, Steve Herman is president of artist services at Live Nation in Los Angeles. He oversees the company’s artist services group. Previously, Herman had co-founded Core Audience Entertainment and also held senior positions at Universal Concerts, SFX Canada, and S.L. Feldman and Associates.]
Steve also had considerable international connections.
Steve made a point of getting to know everybody. He has such a unique combination of skills. From being a college promoter, to being an agent, to being a promoter at the highest level. He had been involved in a lot of different aspects of the business. He is an absolutely tireless worker and he really helped to structure the company, which was growing at a phenomenal rate. He made a major contribution.
Working with such acts as Nickelback, Three Day Grace, and Billy Talent has led to you working more and more internationally.
That’s for sure. We do some territorial things by continent. I certainly book a lot of the artists on my roster in South America, Australia, Japan, wherever, and utilize some great agents in our U.K., New York and L.A. offices to help with some of the stuff.
Specifically in America, we have some outstanding agents that have done a great job for some of my artists. It has worked out really well. We like to take a look at the whole world when we are planning a tour. It’s a lot more interesting than just plowing back and forth across one country.
Steve Kaul in our New York office has worked with me on Nickelback and Three Days Grace. He’s a fantastic agent, and just an amazing guy. And Geoff Meall in the U.K. has been on Billy Talent with me from the beginning.
At what stage do you introduce agents in other offices to new Canadian acts?
With Nickelback, I sent their independent CD (“Hesher” in 1996), out and said, “I think I’m onto something here.” I sent it to the guys that I thought would get it. Steve Kaul came back to me, and said, “You know what? I think you are onto something too.” With Billy Talent, I think that Geoff Meall had worked with (manager) Pierre Tremblay on Barenaked Ladies. When Geoff heard Billy Talent, he got it right away.
Can we credit former CFOX-FM music director Rob Robson in Vancouver with introducing you to Nickelback?
You can definitely give Rob the credit. The brothers (Chad and Mike Kroeger) were very persistent as well.
At what stage in their development was Nickelback then?
It was definitely the early days. Chad, Mike and I sat down and figured out how we were going to approach trying to move the bar up a little bit (for the group), by working some radio that Chad was really, really good at, already. There were some people that I was able to get on the phone.
Did the band have the Roadrunner Records’ deal yet?
No. They were free agents in every sense. They didn’t have a manager, and were looking to change agents. It just worked out so perfectly. It’s an understatement to say that it worked out well.
You then booked Nickelback on some odd bills including with blues rockers Big Sugar, and Wide Mouth Mason, as well as with alternative rockers 54:40.
If Big Sugar could sell tickets, we were there. It was about getting Nickelback in front of more people, and on the right shows—whether they were musical matches made in heaven or not. They certainly learned a lot from playing with those bands. It also gave them the chance to work with the presenting radio stations. Every night, we would get calls saying, “This band was far better than we thought they were going to be. I think you are onto something here.” We knew that we were.
What was it about Nickelback that you found appealing?
They had songs, and they had incredible drive. Incredible drive. They were focused, really hard-working, and had an uncanny sense of writing hooky songs. They are also really good people. It was as much about the work ethic, and them being good people. I would have to say that’s true for the majority of the people that I’m the agent for. Why work with people that you don’t like? It sure is a lot easier to work with people that you trust and who are super hard working.
What’s common to Nickelback, Billy Talent and Three Days Grace?
They all started with really strong tunes, and an incredible work ethic. This sounds like a broken record, but what a concept! It’s a formula. Work really hard on your music. Work really hard, and then you are in the game.
The common ingredients for the success of Nickelback, Three Days Grace, and Billy Talent were songwriting and (their) work ethic. All three also have exceptional managers in Bryan Coleman (Nickelback), Q-Prime (Three Days Grace), and Pierre Tremblay (Billy Talent).
At what stage were you introduced to Billy Talent?
They were playing as Pezz, and had been together for a few years. I had seen them a couple of times at the Horseshoe (Tavern), and they were incredible. It was so intense, it was way off the meter. One night, (announcer) Dave Bookman, who works at The Edge (CFNY-FM in Toronto), gave me a demo of theirs with “Try Honestly,” “River Below” and other stuff, and it was incredible. They had turned the corner from (just) being intense—and just great players. All of a sudden, there were some really memorable tunes there. It was a couple of years after that they even made a dime still.
Three Days Grace, the same thing. We went out to see them play 30 minute sets at The Rivoli. They had some really solid tunes, and were good guys too that impressed me as people, and as musicians.
With two albums, Vancouver’s Marianas Trench seem to be the next big band to come out of Canada. When did you first come across them?
Marianas Trench was then with S.L. Feldman and on 604 Records at the time. I thought that they were the most amazing vocal band I had heard in years. How many young bands idolize Brian Wilson? When the opportunity came to work with them, we brought them down to Ontario, and they slugged it out on the (Highway) 401 (corridor) for about three months.
The first show they played to 10 people at The Cameron House (in Toronto) in the back room. Six months later, they sold out The Opera House. They built (their base) one fan at a time.
This band is doing serious business everywhere in Canada at this point. They are just going out on their first big American run. It starts in a couple of weeks. They are an incredibly talented band. One of the only bands in the modern era that has harmonies like that. (Frontman) Josh Ramsay definitely has got the goods. He’s incredible.
What other Canadian bands have you seen that you really like?
There’s a great band from the East Coast called Gloryhound (from Halifax, Nova Scotia) that nobody knows about yet. It is a very inspiring young band.
You represent the Arkells, who won the Juno Award for top new group last year.
The Arkells are the most improved young band out there, right now. I saw them recently. They are absolutely incredible.
Your roster seems to be fresher than ever.
We have a whole crop of “the next ones” I would say that we take our time, and try to pick the ones that have the most ability, obviously. It’s a matter of sticking with them through the first real lean years. You have to decide how much time you want to invest in something. When you see the work ethic coming back, and the improvement, it gives you the inspiration to keep slugging it out (for them).
Some of your original clients are back touring this year.
In our 15th year, we’re going to have some fun with some of the original clients, who are all out working again. Big Sugar is back together. The Watchmen are out doing gigs, and the Headstones put out four shows, and sold them without running an ad. And, 54:40 is in its 30th year.
I’m also working with some chefs, which is something that I have always been interested in. I’m doing a tour now with Bob Blumer and Kevin Brauch called “Live & Uncorked.” As well, Ted Reader and Rob Rainford are out there. Chefs are the new rock stars. Check out the Food Network, everybody watches that channel.
[Canadian food author Bob Blumer is the creator and host of Food Network's “The Surreal Gourmet” and “Glutton for Punishment.” From 1984 to 1993, he was business manager for Canadian artist Jane Siberry.]
How does it feel knowing that Harlequin is still active?
Pretty funny, actually. Looking at the spins that the band still gets on Canadian radio, and a little bit outside the country, it is kind of gratifying to think that some of those tunes have an enduring quality that still warrants radio playing them. We’re still buddies. I haven’t played with the band since ‘87, other than a couple of minuscule reunions when the Junos were in Winnipeg (in 2005), and the Hall of Fame performance we did (in 2006) for Western Canadian Music Week. A couple of tunes here and there. But (singer) George Belanger still has the band going. They get out, and do things from time to time.
With acts like Saga, Triumph, Streetheart, and Trooper happening, the late ‘70s was a great time for Canadian rock. There was Rock Express magazine (later renamed Music Express) in Calgary, writing about Canadian bands nationally.
They were big supporters of ours in the beginning, which was pretty cool. All the bands you mentioned, we played with at one point or another. We opened for Saga in Puerto Rico at a stadium there. Our band was massive down there (the track “Innocence” had been a hit single Puerto Rico). With that introduction, playing for those promoters there, we ended up going to South America. We sold out two nights at El Poliedro (in Caracas, Venezuela), which is pretty unbelievable for a bunch of Canadians from Winnipeg.
Triumph took us out for two different Canadian tours, and two American tours. We played tons of dates with Kenny Shields and Streetheart over the years. Then there was the “Nature of the Beast” tour (of North America in 1981) with April Wine. They were in a Learjet, and we were in a van. It was pretty interesting keeping up with them.
Winnipeg was a great place to grow up for a musician.
The music was hugely important to everybody there—huge—and, it still is. It’s just the type of city that it is. There’s a great competitive radio market there and there’s an unbelievable amount of talent still there.
It was a meat and potatoes rock and roll town back in your day.
For the most part, that’s the way it was. The Guess Who was certainly an inspiration in that it was a band that was playing community clubs one day, all a sudden has hits big, and gets out of Canada. They certainly showed the way that it could be done.
As well as Bachman-Turner Overdrive.
BTO, absolutely, and Neil Young. A lot of Winnipeggers have left Winnipeg, and went on to do other things.
Certainly, there was rivalry and competition there, as there is in any part of the music business, but there was a tremendous scene there. Great radio people from (the late programmer) Steve Young and the guys who started CITI-FM, Magic Christian, Brother Jake, and Andy Frost. There was a tremendous core of people in Winnipeg that were very, very supportive of the local scene. And the scene sustained, and supported itself.
Winnipeg still has its own independent vibe.
There’s still a fantastic scene there. Jokingly, it’s because there’s nothing to do and it’s so cold that (as a musician) you stay inside and practice. There’s a tremendous number of good talent in that market, remarkable for the size of the market. There’s a tremendous scene there too, of support between the artists.
Is it true that producer Jack Douglas spotted Harlequin at a Toronto club?
There’s a little bit of truth in that. Jack had a couple of different guys that he used to play with (in the band, the Liverpool Set), Lachlan McFayden and Kent Daubney (the trio formed Waterfront Productions in 1970). They were on the hunt for bands. Jack took us down to The Record Plant in New York. We had been passed on by everybody (in Canada) twice. Waterfront Productions saw something in us that other people seemed to have overlooked. They still didn’t get us a deal at first but, eventually, we ended up on Epic in Canada, and Columbia in America. We got a chance to work with Jack, a guy who really taught us a tremendous amount about focusing on songs, and arrangements, keeping it simple and the importance of just having well-crafted material. Jack is a very patient guy and he showed us a lot of things, including about making good songs.
Jack was a hot producer at the time. He had been working as an engineer with Canadian producer Bob Ezrin and had produced Montrose, Starz, and Artful Dodger.
He had Cheap Trick too. “Live at Budokan” (1979) was a big record for him. Obviously, there was Aerosmith. He started working on the John Lennon record (“Double Fantasy” in 1980) while we were recording. He’d say, “Guys, we have to take a few days off. I’m going over to Long Island to work with John Lennon.” Okay, that’s a good excuse. You can have a few days off for that.
Why did you hang up the bass in 1987?
It was 15 years with the same band. (At first) we said that we were going to work at (a career) for six months, even if it was that long it took to make it. We were going to give it a full six months, and then 15 years later, I just felt that I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish. I didn’t see it getting past that. I was very interested in the business aspect of (booking) and, quite frankly, I didn’t think that I wanted to be driving around in a van—although at that point we had progressed and were traveling in style and playing real gigs and making good money and all of the rest of it. I just thought, “I’ve got what I wanted out of this, and it’s time to move on.”
Were you married at that point?
Not quite, but getting there. But that wasn’t a factor in (my decision). It was just that I loved (playing in a band). It was all that I wanted to do. One day, I just didn’t love it, anymore. It’s a pretty hard job to do, if you aren’t completely 110% into it. It wasn’t fair to the others guys. I gave a year’s notice, and became Harlequin’s agent and manager, and we are all still pals.
Harlequin was booked by a number of agencies in Canada.
When I was still in the band, there was a whole network (of agents across the country). There was no national (booking) company at that point. We worked with Music Shoppe, and then Platinum Artists (in Toronto), and Rob Hoskin, who was in Vancouver at Feldman—he did a lot of stuff. He was one of the first guys who figured out that, in secondary and tertiary markets, you could put recording acts in night clubs that traditionally didn’t use them, to help route tours. He was an innovator in that sense.
Was Harlequin your first client at The Hungry I?
That’s a good question. Around that time, when I started getting serious about (booking), I also signed Monuments Galore, and then the Watchmen. I was looking after some things out west for The Tragically Hip and (their manager), Jake Gold. So I had some interesting bands.
What did you learn from working with Frank Weiner at The Hungry I?
Get the money. Real simple. Get the money. “Where is the money?” Frank was really good. He had just sold the company to Rob Hoskin (who passed away Feb. 28, 2009). Frank stuck around for the first six months or year in the transition. Certainly, he was a living legend and a real character.
Frank had The Hungry I, the record company, Franklin Records, and he also managed bands.
360 before anybody ever knew what it was. At the end of it, he took a lot of heat from everybody because not everybody quite understood what he was doing. But, I think he helped the (Manitoba music) scene. He was a huge part in getting the scene going, and growing.
In 1991, you went to Toronto to work at The Agency, which was owned by Michael Cohl and Bill Ballard’s Concerts Production International.
Then Steve Herman left Feldman in Vancouver, and opened up an office (for the company) in Toronto. So (in 1993) I went to Vancouver to work for Feldman. I moved back to Toronto for a short time, and left Feldman. Jack (Ross) and I decided that we were going to put an agency together. Jack had a management company (J.A.M., with such clients as Moxy Fruvous, hHead, and Furnaceface) that was doing really well, but he was also a great agent and has such great ears. We knew that we could work together. It was actually Jake Gold’s idea. We had worked together briefly at The Agency.
What was it like working in Vancouver?
I had trouble with it. I found the scene there to be weak. I had a number of clients there, but a lot of my roster was then based elsewhere. In the early ‘90s, there weren’t a lot of places in Vancouver to play. There still aren’t. (The city) was a little too laid back for my liking. I was there for a year and a half, and I think it rained every day. A great city, though.
What business have you been able to do in Quebec, which is primarily French-speaking? It’s a virtual “black hole” for many Canadian bookers.
Well, we have found ways to do business there. It’s on an artist-by-artist basis. Certainly, Billy Talent is a big band there. Three Days Grace does great there. We have some bands like the Lost Fingers from Quebec that have a following there.
Quebec is not for everybody. There have certainly been record companies that used to be focused on “We have to get the band to break Quebec” because a couple of bands had success there. But, it’s just not for everybody. Certainly artists of international status—once they have international status, the language become less of a barrier there.
You have only a few Quebec-based bands on your roster, Patrick Watson and Malajube being the main ones.
We have some. We could probably do more there.
Would you not concede that your agency isn’t on the ground in Quebec?
Certainly not at the development level. That would be fairly accurate. I’m not sure about the scene there. With radio, it seems that the English rock acts there get played in overnight rotation. Still, there are a number of artists, like Patrick Watson, that we have had some success with that we picked up at the ground level.
How successful have you been in booking The Agency Group’s international clients in Canada?
We have had a lot of luck in the last couple of years booking our international clients, certainly the Scorpions came in, and did real business. We have Deep Purple coming this year. They are going to do good business. Some of the heritage acts that only tour from time to time, we are having a lot of luck with. Jack has done Billy Bragg for years in Canada. Certain artists continue to do real business here year in and year out. They don’t always tour all of the time too, so when they do come here it makes a big difference.
Canada has always had an attraction to Brit bands.
So many of those British acts got their foot in the door in Canada before they got into America. To my point earlier about Neil Warnock really understanding the Canadian market, it’s because bands like Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, and Nazareth, all of those bands that he brought here in the beginning, certainly had a chance here early in their careers.
After all these years, you seem to retain your enthusiasm for music and the music business.
I can go down to Queen Street (in Toronto), and walk into The Horseshoe and grab a beer with some buddies, and watch a great young band. How can you beat that? I’m a sucker for that. I still try to get out and check out as many new bands as I can.
The thing about our line of work is that we spend every waking moment thinking about (seeing bands). Most people don’t. It’s, “I think that I’m going to The Horseshoe tonight.” They grab a couple of their buddies, and go out and drink some beer, and watch some bands. When they leave, they stop thinking about it. They may later pick up the newspaper, and say, “I want to see Bon Jovi.” They go and buy their tickets, wait six months until the show happens, and they plan around that. That’s their night out.
Whereas people like us, we think (about the experience). We overthink it. And, we think it again.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he 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, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.”