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CIMA Awards: Canadian Indies Honor Arts & Crafts for Gord Downie Project, Iconic Promoter Donald Tarlton

Stories of partnerships, loyalty, community and mentorship were key themes in the video tributes and acceptances speeches from the handful of carefully selected recipients at this year's CIMA Awards…

Stories of partnerships, loyalty, community and mentorship were key themes in the video tributes and acceptances speeches from the handful of carefully selected recipients at this year’s CIMA Awards, held last night at the Glass Factory in Toronto by the Canadian Independent Music Association. “I’ve never been a lone wolf,” legendary promoter Donald Tarlton, a.k.a. Donald K. Donald “and Deke to some,” told the intimate gathering of 200 peers.

The CIMA Awards honors the pioneers, entrepreneurs and innovators from the Canadian music business. “I’m very proud to be associated with an organization that actively values and recognizes the success of our entrepreneurs and our Canadian artists,” CIMA president Stuart Johnston said from the stage to kick off the night.

“If there’s anything that organizing this gala the past three years has taught us it’s that there’s no shortage of heroines and heroes that drive our independent industry. We have more than our fair share of innovators, mavericks and independent thinkers.”

This year, Tarlton received the Builder Award; East Coast management queen Sheri Jones (Jones & Co.) the Brian Chater Leadership Award; lifelong management duo Rob Lanni & Eric Lawrence (Coalition Music) the Entrepreneur Award and indie music champion Steve Jordan (Polaris Music Prize) the Unsung Hero Award. 

Eric Lawrence and Rob Lanni
Eric Lawrence and Rob Lanni David Leyes 

The only award not revealed in advance was the marketing award, which was presented near the end of the evening to Kieran Roy and Jonathan Shedletzky of Arts & Crafts for Gord Downie’s Secret Path project. The other nominees were Dine Alone Records for Monster Truck’s Sittin’ Heavy; and Six Shooter Records for Tanya Tagaq’s Retribution. All three contenders had their own tribute videos shown at various parts in the CIMA Awards programming detailing their marketing strategies and approaches.

Tarlton, who is a Member of the Order of Canada, received his trophy first. The Builder Award was established to honor a person, who has made a significant and influential contribution to the Canadian independent music industry.  Derrick Ross, president of Slaight Music, began his introduction of Tarlton by telling the story of Janis Joplin throwing up on the shoes of Tarlton’s mentor, the late Sam Gesser.  “On that day Sam said to Donald, ‘Enough already with this rock ‘n’ roll stuff’ and passed the torch to Donald.”

Tarlton founded Donald K. Donald productions in 1966  “and the rest as they say is not only history but legendary,” Ross said, becoming, among others, the promoter of record for Celine Dion. He also co-founded Aquarius Records in 1969 and later a French label, Tacca Musique, as well as investing in a number of ventures, including globally established labels Last Gang Records and Arts & Crafts Productions.

Donald Tarlton and Derrick Ross
Donald Tarlton and Derrick Ross David Leyes 

After a standing ovation — which all the recipients received at their turn  — Tarlton gave a speech peppered with his trademark stories, starting with one about Bo Diddley who did not want to go onstage. “Mr. Donald, there’s something you’ve gotta know, the Bo don’t go ’til you hand me the dough.” But in between the laughs, he gave heartfelt thanks to others from “my super hero Michael Cohl” to his business partner and good friend Terry Flood, with whom he started Aquarius.  “Find work with great partners and collaborators. I’ve never been a lone wolf,” he said.

Steve Jordan, the founder and executive director of the Polaris Music Prize, was given the Unsung Hero Award, “designed to recognize any individual, group, or organization that may not necessarily be on the industry’s ‘awards radar’ but yet has made an outstanding and exceptional contribution to the independent music community in Canada.”  The man, who got his start at Kingston, Ont. radio station CKLC, and worked at various labels from indie (True North) to major (Warner Music) as an A&R guy, joked “This is a tremendous honor. I am getting an award for giving an award. How perfectly Canadian.”

He thanked his partner Michelle Murphy, who once worked in the music industry, for encouraging him to quit True North and get Polaris off the ground. “When I thank people, I get accused sometimes of deflecting attention, but in reality Polaris would not   have happened without everyone’s support, including almost all of you in this room.” He called it a “community project” and soon noted how everyone in the room is dependent on artists and said it is imperative to not ask artists to work for free. “It should be the one line that can not be zeroed.”

Steve Jordan
Steve Jordan David Leyes 

He also said he would accept applause for his next move — to increase the number of women and marginalized groups on his board (and jury pool) to 50 percent in two years — and hopes those in the room will also move it to the forefront of their agendas in the coming months and years. 

Sheri Jones was given the Brian Chater Leadership Award, named after CIMA’s former president (then CIRPA), which “acknowledges individuals in our independent music industry who demonstrate a transformative commitment to their craft.” Jones got her first job out of university working for manager and promoter Brooks Diamond (Rita McNeil), before setting up Jones & Co. (Ashley MacIsaac, the late Ron Hynes) and her own label, in 1997, called Turtlemusik (Mary Jane Lamond, Gordie Sampson, Joel Plaskett).

“I really feel fortunate to be part of this community. I feel so lucky to wake up every day still excited about what I do. I work with talent, creative, driven artists,” she said, also mentioning the support she received from both men and women “when only a handful of women were in the business.”

Sheri Jones
Sheri Jones David Leyes 

The seemingly inseparable duo of Rob Lanni and Eric Lawrence (Simple Plan, Our Lady Peace, Finger Eleven, Justin Nozuka) got the Entrepreneur Award , which “celebrates fearless vanguards and trendsetters who spearhead and drive successful businesses, emerging or established, with an ethical approach and a true indie spirit.” The pair, who have worked together more than 30 years with artists who have collectively sold more than 50 million albums worldwide, started with Frozen Ghost, Rob’s brother Arnold’s band, which had a record deal.

Lanni said the questions they get asked frequently are “Are they always together?” and “Don’t they get sick of each other?”  “The answer is yes and no.”  

“We didn’t really start off as entrepreneurs,” said Lawrence.  “We started off in fear of this lady,” showing a photo featuring Lanni’s mother. “That mother and brother didn’t trust anybody so they went mafia style and they decided to hire a guy in the family to run the business. So Rob got the job as manager and he needed a tour manager so he said, ‘Well I’ve got this friend Eric, he’s kind of a good guy.’ So all of a sudden we were in the music business…Our fear was we would let that lady down.”  Their job all these decades, he stressed, is three words: we help artists.

The Marketing Award — decided by a group of independent impartial industry judges, was given to Arts & Crafts for Gord Downie’s Secret Path, an emotional and vital historical document about a 12-year-old Ojibwe First Nations boy Chanie Wenjack who ran away from a residential school more than 50 years ago in the winter and died trying to get home to his family.

“It’s an honor and a privilege to be standing before you tonight to be accepting this award,” said Arts & Crafts president Kieran Roy,  “but more importantly to be trusted by all these people involved in this project and specifically Gord Downie to deliver this important piece of art and this important the message to everybody in this country.”

The CIMA Awards began in 2015 as a 40th anniversary celebration. It has now recognized 19 “Canadian heavyweights for their immense contributions to our indie music scene,” it says on the CIMA web site page that called for nominees for 2017. The association asked for submissions from “anyone currently employed at a CIMA member company” along with an explanation his or her choice, which are then presented to the jurors.