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Nettwerk Music Group CEO Terry McBride on Sarah McLachlan’s Start, Passenger’s Rise and Why Music and Yoga Are Intertwined

Nettwerk Music Group, which is celebrating its 30th year in business, helped launch acts including Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Dido, Avril Lavigne, Tiesto, Coldplay, Ladytron and Skinny…

Anyone hoping to meet with Nettwerk Music Group co-founder/CEO Terry McBride at lunchtime should come prepared to do downward dog.

That time is reserved for his daily yoga class.

The 55-year-old father of three is not a casual yogi: Since 2007 he has run Yyoga, a chain of 13 yoga studios that has expanded to Toronto from his home base in Vancouver. For McBride, music and yoga are deeply intertwined.

“They are both thousands of years old. They both deal with emotions,” he says. “They’re very closely aligned for me.”

Like a yogi seeking balance, McBride has built Nettwerk as a diversified company achieving equilibrium among its three parts: recording, music publishing and artist management. In the process, Nettwerk has become Canada’s most successful independent music company.

McBride and business partner Mark Jowett, 54, launched Nettwerk in 1984 after attending — and both dropping out of — the University of British Columbia. McBride had studied civil engineering; Jowett took classes in creative writing, theater and English. The two met at a house party where Jowett’s electronic music band Moev was performing. They set up Nettwerk for the most practical of reasons. “We realized no one was ever going to sign Moev,” McBride recalls. (It was one of the few times they bet wrong: A few years later Atlantic Records signed Moev, but after Jowett had already left the group.)

From that modest start, Nettwerk, which is celebrating its 30th year in business, has grown into a powerhouse with seven offices around the globe, more than 80 staffers, 30 management clients and a label roster of 46 artists. Through its label and management divisions, Nettwerk introduced North America (and, in many cases, the world) to music from Sarah McLachlan, Barenaked Ladies, Dido, Avril Lavigne, Tiesto, Coldplay, Ladytron and Skinny Puppy. With McLachlan and booking agent Marty Diamond, Nettwerk helped create the influential Lilith Fair, a touring festival that showcased dozens of established and upcoming female solo artists and female-led bands from 1997 to 1999.

Among the highlights of Nettwerk’s history, McBride cites McLachlan’s 1997 international smash “Surfacing,” which has been certified eight-times platinum in the United States. Jowett discovered McLachlan in Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the mid-’80s during a Moev tour and initially wanted the then-underage singer to front his band. Her parents nixed the idea, but after she turned 18, the company signed McLachlan and helped the nascent talent become one of the top-selling artists of the ’90s.

More recently, the label, distributed by Alternative Distribution Alliance in the United States, has seen singer-songwriter Passenger (real name Michael Rosenberg) break through with “Let Her Go” (selling more than 4.3 million downloads, according to Nielsen Music) and Sinéad O’Connor’s return to mainstream acclaim with her album I’m Not Bossy, I’m the Boss. Management clients Fun, Father John Misty and Christina Perri have flourished. And Nettwerk’s thriving publishing division recently purchased Robot of the Century’s catalog and acquired a 50 percent stake in the Nashville-based Ten Ten Music Group.

Fueled by what McBride calls “blind passion,” he and Jowett worked day jobs for 10 years following the company’s launch, squeezing in Nettwerk business early in the morning and late at night between McBride’s odd jobs delivering pizza, toiling at a fish factory and even working as a barista for one day. “We knew where we were going,” he says. “We just needed to get there.”

“There” was the sweet spot occupied by their favorite labels, tastemaker British imprints like Beggars Banquet and Rough Trade. “We were very focused on music from the U.K. — stuff that wasn’t on the radio. That stays true to today,” McBride says. “It’s not that our bands didn’t get radio; they just didn’t get radio right away.”

As Nettwerk grew, McBride and Jowett (who today holds the title of vp international A&R and publishing) recruited Ric Arboit, 54, and Dan Fraser, 51, now presidents of Nettwerk’s label and management divisions, respectively. Like Beggars Banquet and Rough Trade, Nettwerk had a certain ethos from the start that remains the same in 2015, says McBride.

The conversation with potential clients hasn’t changed “an iota” in 30 years, he says. “‘Where do you want to go? What do you want to be?’ If it’s about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll, we’re the wrong company. If you’re about writing songs that represent your life, that can make this world a better place by helping others, then you’re at the right company,” he says.

If there’s a through line to the Nettwerk story, it is this: Find unknown talent, nurture it and let it grow organically. Acts like McLachlan, Lavigne and Coldplay (whom Nettwerk picked up for North America after all other EMI-distributed labels passed on the band) arrived at Nettwerk as unknowns and left as superstars.

“It’s not like they joined Nettwerk after selling millions. They joined Nettwerk after selling nothing or hadn’t even released music,” McBride says. “We’re one of the few companies that has a great track record of developing nothing into something from a commercial point of view. The artists are the drivers. We are there to open up opportunities.”

More recently, he trumpets Passenger’s growth and the rise of Los Angeles band Family of the Year through the use of its song “Hero” in the 2014 movie Boyhood.

McBride has no regrets, even after watching artists like Lavigne and McLachlan move on to major labels or other managers. “They might do one or two albums with us and then go sign with someone else — we’ve still got the back catalog,” he says. “We have good relationships with these artists, and if they’re no longer with Nettwerk, that’s fine. That’s the separation of the ego from just doing great stuff.”

Nettwerk always has looked ahead, especially when it comes to new digital business models and technologies.

“I remember how they broke Dido in North America off of a synch for the TV show Roswell,” says Shane Carter, president of Sony Music Entertainment Canada. (Dido’s “Here With Me” was used as the theme song for the science-fiction series for three years beginning in 1999.) Sony distributed Nettwerk’s releases in Canada for a decade and has worked with the company’s management division before that.

“Using the show-viewership analytics as indicators,” Carter recalls, “we targeted radio in the markets where the show was popular and built her base, one fan at a time. While technology has changed the landscape significantly since then, using these types of indicators was a precursor to the analytics from Shazam and Spotify that we all use today to identify early trends.”

In 2008, McBride and Brent Muhle, who is now head of marketing for iTunes Europe, presented a paper for the U.K. music business development organization MusicTank that correctly predicted that millennials cared about immediate accessibility over song ownership, streaming would largely eradicate piracy and young consumers saw their artists as brands. The paper became a template for Nettwerk’s future.

After watching streaming subscription models transform the Nordic countries, McBride is bullish on the platform. “The U.K. will be next to tip over 50 percent, and that’s going to lead to double-digit growth,” he says. “It might be five to eight years away, but that’s what’s going to happen [in North America].”

Tired of “spending 90 percent of my time dealing with other people’s drama,” McBride backed off from his management duties in 2008 and has since become increasingly passionate about creating more value around Nettwerk’s intellectual property.

To that end, Nettwerk raised $10.5 million in new financing from investors in 2013. It used some of the money for the Ten Ten joint venture, the purchase of Robot of the Century and the acquisition of Bumstead Records, a Canadian indie that owns k.d. lang‘s early recordings.

McBride, who says he circled the globe 30 to 40 times between 2004 and 2010, is now content to work from the company’s headquarters, take in his mountain view of the Vancouver skyline, conduct meetings on his office patio with its herb garden, strawberry patch and cherry tomato vines — and take time out for those midday yoga classes.

After 30 years, he’s upbeat about Nettwerk’s trajectory. “Mike’s success with Passenger has been amazing; what’s about to happen with Family of the Year is amazing,” he says. “We’re at the beginning of what might be a five to six-year [run]. This is so much fun.”

This article first appeared in the March 14 issue of Billboard.