Industry Profile: Chris Gero
By Larry LeBlanc (CelebrityAccess)
This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Chris Gero, founder and vice-president, Yamaha Entertainment Group.
As head of Yamaha Entertainment Group, Chris Gero oversees global artist branding for the Yamaha Corporation of America.
Gero supervises the company’s artist relations departments in New York, Nashville, Indianapolis and Los Angeles, supporting some 3,600 artists including Elton John, Alicia Keys, Paul McCartney, Norah Jones, Josh Groban, Sheryl Crow, Michael Bublé, Jason Mraz, Sarah McLachlan, and Sara Bareilles.
Yamaha Entertainment Group, housed in a 19th-century former factory in Franklin, Tennessee, also has a recording, and video production studio available nearby.
The Yamaha unit has 7 full-time employees responsible for the development and advancement of the Yamaha brand name through numerous artist-related activities worldwide, which includes providing instruments for national television shows, major award ceremonies, and concert performances.
The unit may utilize up to 30 consultants on any given project, and uses the support services of Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA) to market, promote and distribute recordings by its label artist roster which includes such high-fliers as Nathan East, Bob James, Jason Webb, Frederic Chiu, Leogun, and Pull Start Rockets.
Gero began his relationship with Yamaha as a sponsored artist in the early 1990s. When that agreement ended, he began working with the company in 1994 as a consultant, and then as artist relations manager for the Pro Audio and Combo Division.
In 2001, Gero founded Yamaha Corporate Artist Affairs which exclusively focused on artist services. The unit evolved into the Yamaha Entertainment Group in 2011 which extended all artist support programs to include TV and film product placements, developing concert and film projects, and a label.
Matching instrument manufacturers with music artists isn’t new. For decades, musicians had the attitude, “I’m famous. What can you give me?”
Yes. The truth is that (early relationship) still exists, but it really never made sense to me for it to be just so casually cut-and-dry like that. I still run artist relations for the company, but I also I run the label and the film group.
In 2001, you founded Yamaha Corporate Artist Affairs and rebuilt the company’s artist support program. Since being transformed into Yamaha Entertainment Group in 2011, Yamaha has become quite sophisticated in its approach to artist relationships. You now seek out as many opportunities as possible.
To be frank, the reason why we needed Corporate Artist Affairs was to maximize the nature of the business that we are in. The end game for us is that when you see an artist, you see our brand. So it’s brand management through talent. We still get calls saying, as you said, “Hey, I am famous. I deserve to be given something for free, and have a nice day.” The truth of it is, very scientifically, nothing is for free. Our obligation used to be fairly cut-and-dry. We provided a linear service. “Here’s your instrument. Go out into the world. We hope that it is seen. We hope that your career is successful.” What we realized in all of that was, more times than not, that we were giving product away.
Today, you offer bands instruments and services that fit their careers and Yamaha’s branding strategies. Still, you also loan out equipment.
Sometimes. We won’t as much as we used to. What kind of changed for us was that when I came to Yamaha there was no accountability at all. There was no accountability for what we were giving away. How it was being branded. How it was being used; and what the return was for us. So we changed our system to maximize the reciprocal responsibilities on both ends.
Our agreement... I hand wrote the agreement out, and then sent it over to our lawyers within the first week of my working here. I said, “This is what I want everybody to sign.” It’s effectively the same agreement today. It is effectively a one-page agreement that says, “Listen you are going to be good to us, and we are going to be good to you. In return do what common sense would dictate, and we are going to do what common sense would dictate.”
It became a very effective tool in which most people, especially the younger kids at the time, just did not understand. “We are not doing this because we like you. We are doing this because of a very specific reason which is, “We expect something out of you, just as you expect something out of us.”
You yourself started at the company as an endorsed artist. Why switch careers to work at Yamaha?
I had a moment of, “I don’t want to do this anymore.” I was also doing a lot of production. It just naturally made more sense to me (to change career paths). I jumped out of that life when Yamaha came along, and said, “Jeez, we would really like to have a place for you here to help us. You know a lot of people. You have worked with a lot of people.”
Was Yamaha not well embedded in the American music community by that time?
Yes. What had happened was in the ‘80s, and it was the heady days of DX7 (FM synthesis-based digital synthesizer). The DX7 revolutionized ‘80s music. It was probably the principal instrument in pop music for about 7 to10 years. Yamaha made a fortune from the technology. Then they didn’t really orchestrate the follow-up to that. We started to diversify very quickly, and really never had the same momentum.
Sometimes an instrument will entirely drive the market, and that happens every once in a while. So you have certain instruments that drive an entire revolution in music. Or there are technologies that drive revolutions in music. Yamaha has been successful with a handful of things that have happened. DX7 (manufactured by the Yamaha Corporation from 1983 to 1989) happens to be one of them.
What then happened, because they had no follow-up, was that a little depression came in the very late ‘80s. Yamaha was very diverse, but their artist relations program really felt apart. In the ‘80s, the attitude was, “What anybody needs, sure.” There was no accounting. It was like one big party. “Yamaha Salad Days” is what I call them. So for many years after that, between 1980 and 1994, there was no artist relations program at all.
Yamaha didn’t place a high value on building the brand through artist sponsorships and related programs?
To be truthful, it really fell to the product and marketing managers. What happened is that it became very, very specific to what those people liked as opposed to what was good for the company. Yamaha got to be known as a being very conservative, just (doing) jazz and classical kinds of things. That was because, for the people in the marketing departments, those were the types of musics that they preferred. So they gravitated to those types of artists, and those types of musical genres.
At the same, as more innovative technology came along from such competitors as Roland, Tascam, Akai and others, the field of artist sponsorship, and endorsements in the instrument world became a lot more competitive.
Across the board. Yamaha had pretty much dominated most of those markets, especially the guitar market in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and then it all changed. You had companies coming up on their heels making amazing instruments and learning from a company like ours how to do it better, and how to do it quicker. I was brought in to deal with this lack of brand relationships because they were very small and nested when I came in. There was no great company profile program.
Why would Yamaha be interested in hiring you? In fact, why is the company so interested in affiliations with artists? I understand that Yamaha does little in the way of traditional advertising, which is prohibitively expensive. And there’s no question a 90-minute film impacts more than 30 second TV commercial or a magazine ad. But why is it so important to have artists associated with Yamaha products?
It’s very simple. We make instruments that make music. Although the company is a big company, and it makes all kinds of things that don’t make music, Yamaha Music Corporation makes instruments, and it has since the very beginning. Mr. Yamaha (Torakusu Yamaha), what he did was that he made instruments. What we do with the parent company, which is Yamaha Music Corporation, we make musical instruments. That being said, the only way that it goes from being two dimensional to three dimensional is, in fact, through an artist who is being creative with an instrument that they are inspired by playing it.
Brands today generally seek to build programs in order to make face-to-face human interactions with consumers. Therefore, Yamaha’s strategy is probably that a 17-old keyboardist or guitarist will see a big name artist playing a Yamaha product, and make the brand connection, “I need a keyboard, it should be a Yamaha?”
Yes. Correct. This is a unique business in which there is very, very little money or ability to compete in the mass market because it just not designed like that, and the entire industry is not designed like that. In the ‘80s and ‘90s and 2000s, almost 100% of the way that we could tell our story was through talent. There were no real commercials, and there was no advertising.
Except with some of the trade publications.
That’s exactly right, but not with talent. It’s (that advertising is) very little, and very small. As you fully know, the music industry changed dramatically and, as it changed, everybody had to adapt. What happened, subsequently as it happened, is that we realized that everything was about eyeballs and the perception of what that means. For example, when we started our relationship with Elton John it was very linear. We provided a few pianos, and he went out and did his business. But then we started filming content. We started co-developing stuff together. As Elton became more of a friend, and as we trusted each more and more, it became much more a greater partnership and about doing things together.
An evolution of the endorsement strategy.
Very much an evolution. With very traditional artists like Elton, everything kind of went on the table in regards to what can we try together. What are the things that we are capable of doing together? As we started to grow how we brand, and how we tell our story, it became a very powerful vehicle to how artists told their stories as well.
Technology and internet-based social media then came along to aid you in the process as well.
Yes. What happened was with that we knew everything was about perception, and we knew that everything was about getting to the audience. The way that we got to the audience was through very much strategically focusing on the method that we transport that impression. So we very seriously started to focus on that. When I came in it was like, “We have to focus on all of the big artists. Obviously, we can’t let off the gas on the smaller artists, but we had to really focus on guys like Elton, and then guys linked to how that messaging happens.” A big component of that was making sure that our services were bullet-proof. Twenty-four hours a day, 7 days a week, it doesn’t matter where they (artists) are in the world, we will be available to them. And that still exists to this day.
I read that you travel about 120,000 miles a year.
This year I have been a little bit closer to home, but typically I do. I travel quite a bit. It’s often to Japan, obviously, often to London, and then back-and-forth from Tennessee to California, which is quite a frequent trip for me.
You have 7 employees?
It depends. I have 7 core employees, and there’s a bunch of people that are around working on projects or they report in. There’s one woman who works in the office who is, essentially, on call 24 hours a day, just for pianos. We know that often that we are called for a surprise visit on the “Today” show (on NBC-TV) by, say, Josh Groban. What happens is that everything has to stop, and we have to get a piano moved in New York City overnight. They do production and pre-production on the program starting around 4 A.M. So the decisions that are made or the requests that are made--often several times during the day--have to be moved on very quickly. There’s almost zero push-back. Meaning that it’s almost literally impossible to say “no,” especially to our principal clients because that’s what we are here for.
If a major act like Josh Groban appears on the “Today” show, does Yamaha cover the costs of that instrument being placed on the show?
If it’s televised, we cover it. That’s the trade-off. That’s the partnership. When he’s doing what he does, we are there with him. When you see Alicia Keys doing the opening ceremony for the (2013) Super Bowl, and it’s four minutes (actually 156.4 seconds) of a blocked camera angle, and we are lucky to be part of it, that it is kind of the Super Bowl for us. Why we do what we do is for that massive impact. That is why we very much stay very strategic with that type of branding because the way we do all of our branding is, in fact, all done through this type of talent management.
Are artists paid by Yamaha Entertainment Group to play Yamaha instruments?
With Yamaha, no money has ever been exchanged with an artist. That’s not who we are. Other people try to sell us as that’s how we should get things done, but we have never paid out a dime for anything like that unless it was some product development thing that is quite a bit different than an endorsement.
Your role at Yamaha Entertainment Group goes far beyond artist relations. You oversee stage shows, film, and recording activities in partnership with your artists.
Yamaha Entertainment Group grew out of how we service our clients. It grew out of a necessity to have tighter control over our own message. And we were already doing these things. We were already making films with artists. We were doing all kinds of artist-related films and recordings.
You do now have recording and video facilities near your Franklin office?
You work with many artists that would have been your idols as a teenager. You have had more than a two-decade relationship with Elton John. As a child of the ‘70s, you would have grown up with him
That’s exactly correct, yes.
How did the relationship develop?
The first time I met him, it was a very surreal moment. He was not particularly having a great day. This was an idol that I had grown up with, and so with this job, I had to have this meeting. This was easily 22 years ago. He wasn’t particularly having the greatest of days. In that era, I think he was a lot more outspoken if he was having a bad day. I quickly realized that, maybe, that wasn’t the day for us to meet. I pulled out of the situation. After meeting just about everybody, I was told that sometimes you don’t want to meet the person you look up to. Many times they can be disappointing because of the nature of what (stardom) is.
Then, when it came time to meet him properly, it was an even more surreal moment. Our relationship with him started by accident. He was a long-time user of another manufacturer’s piano through the ‘70s. One day, it broke down, and apparently they said, “We are not going to help you.” So Elton kind of wound up with Yamaha by accident. But, for a couple of years, there was no (formal) relationship at all between Yamaha and Elton. It was literally that we provided a piano. They had backed up a truck to Loyola University in New Orleans, took the piano out of the university, and never looked back
You were then asked to establish a relationship.
I met with the people who manage him, and said, “The piano that you guys borrowed, it was never designed for the type of rigors and abuse that a piano takes by being played by Elton.” He’s so hard on an instrument.
Elton is a very percussive player.
Yeah, he’s a very percussive player. Both Elton, and Billy Joel. Early on, they were both renowned for breaking strings due to a lot of phenomenal abuse to an instrument. So we had started getting calls that this or that was wrong with the piano. It was stuff that they were adding onto the piano through the other company that was failing him, and they (Elton’s representatives) were looking at it as an issue with Yamaha. So I sat down with Keith Bradley, Elton’s tour director. I said, “Listen that piano is going to continue and continue to fail. We collectively have to do something about the reason that it is failing. It was never designed to do what is being done to it. Let’s put a game plan in place.” “Keith said, “You are the first person to come along who has been proactive. To say all of the right things.”
Then he said, “Elton wants to talk to you.” So they escorted me into Elton’s dressing room, and he was sitting on a couch. He said to come and sit down. I shook his hand and sat next to him, and he just started asking me, “What kind of music do you like? What’s your plan.” I said, “We have to get you away from this piano. It’s already 15-years-old.” He said to me, “I will never do that. It’s never going to happen. I am never going to stop playing this piano.” Well, that was now 11 pianos ago.
Was Elton’s “The Red Piano” inspired by François Girard’s 1998 Canadian film, “The Red Violin?”
“The Red Piano” was his idea. He came to me and said, “I am thinking about this show. I’m thinking about a very specific design element.” Then he added, “and the color that I want the piano is this Chinese red that is in the hallway of my townhouse in Atlanta.” So we went down, and we took a swatch, and we came back and, essentially, there it was in the show (that, originating at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, ran from 2004 to 2008.)
Was American commercial photographer, fine-art photographer, video and film director, and artist David LaChapelle the creative force behind the show?
A lot of the imprint was David’s. I remember being in The Colosseum watching everything unfold for the very first time as we were running through the early rehearsals. I thought, “Yeah, not so sure. This feels like a lot of David kind of married to Elton.” But the show was very successful, and my involvement, other than getting the piano up online, wasn’t that demanding.
You certainly stepped up to the plate, if not batting a home run, for Elton’s “The Million Dollar Piano” extravaganza. You produced and directed the "Making The Million Dollar Piano," the hour-long documentary on the making of the custom-designed Yamaha piano featured in his show, "Million Dollar Piano." You also produced and directed the concert film.
By then a lot of stuff had changed with Elton and I. I had produced several things with him. I had produced a big gigantic tribute show to him in 2003 in California. From that moment on. he just looked at me very differently. We would then often talk about music. and exchange music. He’s always looking for new artists. We would have these dialogues whenever I would see him.
Then he and Keith came to me and said, “We are thinking about this new show, and we want the piano to be extraordinary, but we also want to do something different” blah blah blah. So we sat down, and I came up with the idea of the LED (lighting) across the piano. They originally wanted the piano to be made of crystal. That would have been extraordinarily challenging. So we together started to have an idea. Then we went back to the design team at Yamaha to see what they were capable of creating.
The piano was four years in the making during which Elton didn’t see it.
Yes, the piano took about four years to build, and make. The price tag was a little bit over $1 million. I just happened to say to Elton, “It’s about a million dollars.” And he said, “Well, that’s the name of the show, ‘The Million Dollar Piano.”
[Gero produced and directed the full-length concert film of "The Million Dollar Piano,” released through Cinema Live on March 18th and March 26th, 2014 in 1,200 movie theaters worldwide. Gero also produced and directed the 2014 DVD "Making The Million Dollar Piano," an hour-long documentary on the making of the custom-designed Yamaha piano. A short form of the DVD is part of a bundle package with John's album "The Diving Board.” Yamaha Entertainment Group also produced a DVD release of the live show distributed by Eagle Rock Entertainment.]
As much of a major star that Elton is, how did you sell your parent company in ponying up $1 million to create a piano?
Obviously, we have a long-standing, very significant powerful relationship between Yamaha and Elton which has just continued to grow and grow.
Any word association to the piano, Elton‘s name is the one that first comes to mind.
Of course. He is probably the most prolific piano player in modern history. He truly owns 40 #1 singles, has sold more than 200 million records, and has been awarded Academy and Tony Awards, and Grammys, everything across the board. He’s the only guy that holds that entire field, all by myself. Now I’m not discounting people like Billy Joel whom I am also a big fan of. The difference is that Elton, he’s synonymous with piano. He is the biggest artist that we have on our global roster. He impacts millions of people every month.
Now granted it is a very large machine, and a very large brand that he is the head of. So our partnerships have to be very organic, and they have to be very much in the best interests of both parties. As opposed to something being shoved down his throat because somebody paid him millions of dollars to do.
As a matter of fact, the very first time I was in the room with him he was being told that he had to do something for another manufacturer. He was just having a meltdown because it was very unnatural for him.
So going to Yamaha, and saying, “Yeah, we are going to design this piano from the ground up. We are going to have a lot of influence on the design, on the entire show, and on the entire message,” it is really kind of a no-brainer. I went to the head of the company, and I just said, “This is a remarkable opportunity. More so it’s a remarkable opportunity because we get to tell the whole story of our relationship with him from a much different angle.
Subsequently, for the four years that the piano was under development, we filmed every bit of it. Then we filmed the concert as well. It sort of fell into this thing that there are very few artists on the planet of his caliber. Almost no one talks about Yamaha the way that he does or talks about any other manufacturer for that matter. It’s a very, very natural relationship.
You and Elton have apparently become close.
One night at his Oscar party in a big huge ballroom--I was on the other side in some other place--Elton was onstage speaking. He was just talking along, and his agent Harold Rose said to me, “He’s talking about you, right now.” There were probably a thousand people in the room. I said, “What did you say?” He said, “He’s talking about you, right now.” The very last thing that I heard Elton say was, “My very good friend Chris Gero.” I never really saw him like that. I have always tried to stay in the background, and try to never really hang out. I was never that person.
Like you have been in the company.
Very much so, though being the head of the label it’s a little harder because I have to be out there. I’m relatively a very shy person. I kind of keep to myself, but I unwittingly became really known because of this part of Yamaha. It’s very un-Yamaha.
So your recent emergence as a major industry figure is the result of the launch of the label of which you are the head of?
Somebody interviewed me a week ago from Yamaha (in Japan), one of the PR people, for an article on an album we are working on, and her opening statement was, “How does it feel to be more famous than the president of the company? “I said that it doesn’t feel good at all. But, while, I am much more a focal point (than I was), people don’t understand what we do.
When people find out what I do, they say, “You just must jet set all over the world, and it must be so romantic, and you know all of these people. The truth is that I don’t. I am a pretty average, normal l person. I’m only close to about five artists.
To this day, people don’t really understand what I do for a living. Frankly, most days I don’t understand what I do for a living either. My own mother says, “I just don’t understand what you do” because I wear so many hats in the company.
The best way that I respond to that is that I say that I just do what I feel. I get up, and I don’t go to “my job.” Instead, I get to go and be creative, and have an outlet, and work with all of these incredible people. That‘s not to say that it’s not very stressful, that it’s not sometimes phenomenally stressful because you always have got to be bigger than life, and the things that we commit to, some of them require a pretty serious set of balls. For example, the 125th anniversary that we did with Elton. That was live and completely untested.
[In 2013, Gero produced a concert for Yamaha’s 125th anniversary featuring Elton John which was heard around the world, literally. When Elton John took the stage at Disneyland that night, he effectively played pianos in 56 other cities around the world. Elton's performance on the Yamaha Disklavier Piano was reproduced through Yamaha's DisklavierTV, along with a 75-piece orchestra. Every stroke of the keyboard and tap of a pedal was measured by a computer and instantly reproduced on acoustic pianos using Yamaha's Disklaviers in all of the participating cities. This was the first instance where Disklaviers were used to play live performances, not recorded ones.]
It’s very cool that Elton’s playing was matched at once in pianos around the world.
Well, it had never been done before, and it had never been done like that live before. When I decided to produce that show, it was fairly late. It was January show. I think that we started getting underway in November. The Japanese (at Yamaha) started getting very nervous. They were thinking that, maybe, we weren’t ready. I had to push them hard. Elton wanted to be the first to do it. He loves being that kind of pioneer. I told them, “We can’t turn back on this.” So everything was put on the line for those two hours. Our reputation. Everything. It was hugely successful, but with those type of things, the risk is always there. We don’t know what the outcome is. We just try to plan as best as we can.
The year before, you oversaw the filming of Sarah McLachlan’s performance for a Disklavier TV broadcast from her house in Vancouver.
That was a more controlled environment where we went into her studio. We filmed in advance, and when it was released it was very much controlled.
You are in a unique position of being able to gauge instrument sales which might lead to being able to determine the future direction of music. So where are we going musically?
I would like to say that I know what I am talking about but, in truth, I don’t. And I’m not shy to say that. It’s very stressful and disappointing to watching the older traditional guard being replaced by a younger, revolutionary guard, if you follow me for a second. What that means is that traditionally artists, they hone their craft, especially the songwriters, and they use all of these instruments. It has become more very much so about that they are not really honored for their craft anymore, and everything is much more communal, and instantaneous now.
The majority of artists don’t make money from their recordings. They have to make money on the live side.
Very much so, especially with the new kids coming up, and many of them don’t really care about that. What they care about is the communal, instantaneous social gratification that comes from that with no real true attachment.
But that was the same in the 1950s and 1960s when popular music artists were expected only to have three or four-year careers.
Sure, and that it is always universally changing. Like I came up where you made a fortune from all of those things.
If you were successful as an artist or as a songwriter.
Yes, if you were successful, but even if you were moderately successful as a producer, you still made money, and the labels were making phenomenal amounts of money. We didn’t start our label as a driver of a massive boost in income. We started it as an extension of how we market ourselves, and how we brand with talent as opposed to the traditional services that we were providing.
It allows you to be a one-stop shop.
Correct, but it also takes pressure off of us to have to compete in an area where it is very difficult to compete with, to begin with. Money is still being made (by labels) but it’s just not at the same level.
You aren’t using the label as a big money maker. You are using the label as a vehicle for both the artists involved and the Yamaha brand.
That’s exactly correct but the difference is that we get to do it our way. The products that we produce have to be representative of the brand that we are.
Part of your culture.
Part of our culture. That’s right. For example, I’m producing the second Nathan East record right now and, ironically enough, Nathan and I are having this dialogue right now. I would say that we are having a heated dialogue, but it is clearly a relevant, in-depth dialogue about what goes on and what stays off this record. An artist of smooth jazz like Nathan East, probably the cost of an average record for somebody like him would be $20,000. This is not a $20,000 record. It is an extraordinary record. There’s a full orchestra all over it, and there’s just this big impact impression that is greater than anybody would expect. That’s not really driven by him. That’s driven by me because it has to represent the best of the best of the best. Obviously, how I’ve earned my reputation is that there is never a compromise on that.
Are you filming sessions as you did with Nathan’s debut album?
We are filming most things, but that is also the vehicle in which we tell part of the story.
[In 2014 Gero co-directed the award-winning documentary “Nathan East: For The Record,” an 80-minute film showcasing the making of bassist Nathan East’s debut solo album on which he was joined by several longtime associates, including Stevie Wonder, Michael McDonald, Eric Clapton, Ray Parker, Jr., and Greg Phillinganes. Gero co-produced the album.]
Everything is driven by audio and video. More so visually. Very much so true. That’s a very strategic design in how we tell our story, “This record is coming. Here’s what this little thing looks like over here. Here’s what we are going do next,” blah blah blah. The difference is that when we were making Nathan’s first record we were also making the commentary at the same time. We are not doing that this time because we don’t need to. This record is even bigger than the last record. We also had the strength of the documentary simultaneously and by the time we went to the Grammys, where it was nominated for best contemporary instrumental album of the year, we were also very strategically having a lot of these premieres around the United States around the documentary. We didn’t officially release the documentary. We had it out there to point to.
“Nathan East: For The Record” is a remarkable telling of the story of his debut album.
Granted, the documentary, obviously I directed, it is really about our friendship, and who this guy is. I get to tell the story who this guy is through our friendship. But it’s also a lot of about Yamaha, a lot about who were as people, and our own beliefs.
You are a Canadian.
Yes. I grew up in Paris, Ontario. I moved to the U.S. when I was 13. My brother still lives there. I have a sister who lives north of Toronto. My parents divorced and I subsequently went with my mother to St. Petersburg, Florida. Paris was, and is this beautiful little town. I still have very strong childhood ties with a lot of folks there. I have remarkably fond memories from there. I am remarkably fond of Canada. I still consider myself Canadian.
Do you have Canadian citizenship?
I have dual citizenship. Both of my parents were American, and I was born in Canada. My father was trying to decide whether or not to go to the University of Chicago or, I think, to maybe go to York University (in Toronto). My father was a psychologist. He worked his entire life for in social services for the Canadian government. My stepmother still runs a very large Community Living social service for the intellectually disabled in Essex Country, just outside of Windsor.
Did you grow up with Canadian music?
Of course. Rush, Max Webster, and Bachman-Turner Overdrive. BTO was a big influence on me early on.
Did you play in bands growing up?
No. But when I was a little boy, I knew that I was going to be a musician. My two older brothers both played guitar, but we weren't very close when we were very young. Though I was influenced by them growing up, they were much older than me. So I never got a chance to learn an instrument until I was in the 8th grade. I started with guitar and while my oldest brother wasn’t around too much I remember that he was an influence. To be honest with you, I just starting picking it (playing music) up by myself. I would sit in my bedroom at night and listen on my stereo receiver through headphones. It was just strong enough to pick up FM stations in the States. It just blew my mind. I was always very musically driven. I was always singing. I would be out in the yard singing at the top of my lungs. I always knew that music was my career.
The early days of being a musician are usually rough.
Yeah. I came from a broken family, and it (growing up) was not pretty. I had to find my way very early, and I had to find it on own. I had to find an internal strength and find people that would help me.
You must have been a good musician. You were endorsed by Yamaha.
No. I became a pretty serious songwriter. I dabbled around. I had an on again, off again, and on again relationship with labels out of New York. With Fiction, and then with Warner Bros. It was more me not really being sure what I was trying to do. Truthfully, I was always all over the place. I never really knew what I was comfortable doing. The one thing that I was never comfortable doing was getting up in front of people and playing.
A drawback for any performer.
Yep, a slight drawback. So, that being said, I would be pulled into the studio and somebody would ask me for my opinion. It was much easier for me to find my own creativity without anybody around me. So I started writing for other people and subsequently started doing music for shows. Then I started producing live events which was the connection that led to what I have become at Yamaha. I had already been working, producing events and had worked with other artists. I preferred to stay in that world but Yamaha and I were both like, “Well what does this relationship really look like?” The unique relationship between me and Yamaha allowed me to really follow my creative path but, at the same time, really extracting the kind of things that they needed simultaneously until it grew to the place that it is now.
It certainly a unique learning curve.
Yeah, but truthfully, they trust me, and I don’t take that very lightly
At 51 and working in contemporary music today, probably part of you remains in your 30s.
Correct. This is a very young business. It also is a very stressful business as you know. I started late doing what I do now. As you get older, it is very much how I best describe it is that there are things that I don’t take for granted. I really kind of sacrificed having a family for a career and as I’ve gotten older that has really gone in reverse. Subsequently, I don’t take much for granted, which helps me stay very focused on why I do what I do.
With four young children, you will always know what’s going on in music too.
Sure, sure. Of course. The three oldest children are all very musically-inclined. My 7-year-old Jack is very musical. My three-year-old, Finn, is also very musical, but he is also very rigid. He only wants to hear certain pieces of music in the car, and all of them are symphonic pieces. Just the other day, they were both in the car, and I was taking them to the toy store. Finn calls music “snukik.” So that’s what we call him. He was like, “Daddy play snukik.” I turn on the radio, and he’s like, “No snukik!” I can’t remember what it was that was playing. I think it was some Blue Oyster Cult song or something. It was, “No! Snukik!” So, until I got the thing that he wanted to listen to, he was pretty much having a meltdown.
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.”
Larry is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry. He is a board member of the Mariposa Folk Festival in Orillia, Ontario.