Every Friday, Warner Music Canada president Steve Kane posts to his Facebook page a message like this: “The weekend begins here with Sarah Harmer ‘Basement Apartment’,” or “The weekend starts here with The Saints ‘Kissin’ Cousins.’” The veteran executive, with a personal record collection over 15,000 pieces of recorded music, will be inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame next May at Canadian Music Week’s Canadian Music & Broadcast Industry Awards. Billboard recently spoke to Kane at length about this honour, his passion for music — he still spends every Saturday at a record shop — his start in the music biz, who he learned from and how he took that knowledge into Warner Music Canada.
How do you feel about this induction?
My first reaction was, ‘Gee, that’s really odd; you want to honor me for doing a job that I absolutely love?’
But you don’t feel like that when other people get inducted.
I suppose not. I suppose it feels different because I look over the 25-plus years I’ve been doing this and honestly, with no false humility, I’m the guy who shows up and does my job and I try everyday to think about, ‘What did we do for our artists today? How did I expose that song? How did I expose that artist? How did we grow audience?’ So it was surprising, but very nice and I was very touched by it.
You were with Universal before and a couple of other labels, but do you have an association with Warner that predates working in the industry, back to your teens, albums you’d turn over to check the label?
Absolutely. The music identity for Warner Bros. is something that was always such a huge part of my record-buying experience. As a consumer, I’d go back to the inner sleeves that Warner Bros. Reprise would do. They would offer these sampler sets for 99 cents. It was that beautiful Burbank label of the palm-tree-lined street. It was such a strong visual element. Warner Bros. was one of those iconic labels and then when you figure that Atlantic Records is part of that same family.
I think about my dad’s Ray Charles records or all those great R&B records and the bands that came out of the ’60s and ’70s on Atlantic — ‘Oh, my god, Led Zeppelin’s on here too.’ Then you get to the Asylum and the Elektra years, which was the sound of Southern California, which was the sound of singer-songwriters, you start to put together all those pieces of the puzzle and this is what the Warner Music Group represented. These were all the pillars — my god, what an amazing catalogue.
And probably the last piece of that for me, one of the touchstones for me, was when they started distributing Sire Records, so there’s that period of The Ramones, The Undertones, The Saints — all of Seymour Stein’s punk discoveries.
You were that guy that would turn the album sleeve over and read the label?
Absolutely. I spent so much time just pouring album credits and delving into who did what, noticing who the producer was, recognizing the names of studios and publishing companies. It becomes an entire world.
How old were you when you started doing that?
I probably started going to a record store every Saturday afternoon when I was about 12 with my paper route money, my after school job money. I’m 52 now and I can probably count the Saturdays that I haven’t been to a record store on my two hands.
What was your first job in the music industry?
My first paying job was at a record store, Records On Wheels, on Yonge Street. Because I was always a record collector, because I was always around music, I hung out in record stores, anywhere to become involved in it. I’m not a musician. I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket. So during the flourish of what really was the punk rock ethos of ‘don’t just sit back, get involved,’ the way that I could get involved was I published a fanzine (The Black Triangle) with a couple of friends, and I wrote about music. It was hardcore punk rock and country music; a little of everything. I did college radio at Trent University. I tried to help book gigs. That was my way of getting involved in something that I was just fascinated by.
There are some people at the majors in Canada that have worked there for 20, 25, even 30 years that rise through the ranks of their own department but never become the president. What do you think you did that prepared you to even get offered that job?
There was an interesting point when I was hired [in 1989] by Paul Orescan, who was running IRS Canada. It was during that post-punk college radio rock era, and I knew where those fans lived and I knew how to reach them. This was when word-of-mouth actually happened by mouth, finding those networks of people, knowing what they read, knowing what they watched, knowing what clubs they hung out in. For me, marketing music was a) tribal; and b) you had to be open. You had to be like an antenna. When you spend enough time doing that, you start to become receptive to things that are outside your sphere, so you begin to understand, ‘I’m not working at a record label because of my personal taste, I’m working at a record label because I’ve got a chance to take a whole myriad of artists, a whole variety of genres, out there.’
The extension of that is you become really interested in other areas of the business. You don’t just get focused on the one era. You become interested in how exactly does radio promotion work? And what’s a good pitch to a journalist if you’re working with your publicity department? How do you tie it all together with marketing? And how do you get involved in the A&R process early on so that you really begin to get a good sense of the artist’s vision, and how is it you want to position them, and do they have a strong sense of themselves, and what is it you can bring to it?
So I think it’s being receptive. I had the amazing good fortune to work with the greatest generation of record people that this country has turned out. When you get to learn from people like Joe Summers, Gerry Lacoursiere, who launched A&M Records in this country. When you get to learn from Doug Chappell, who ran Virgin Records while I worked there, who was the consummate promotions guy, and just a a fantastic A&R guy who really related to the artists that he was working with. People like Laura Bartlett at Virgin, who really understood that intersection of marketing and promotion, radio promotion and overall artist marketing; you start to sit with these people and really listen to what they did and how they built something and you let them know “I’m here to learn’ and that you want to put all of this into motion somehow. The person I learned more from than anyone over all the years was Deane Cameron [former president of EMI Music Canada], not only during the time I worked for him [EMI bought Virgin in the early ’90s] but through all the years of our friendship and just trying to follow his example. Deane, of all the people I worked for or with, is the one I actually call a mentor.
When you were hired at Warner, from Universal, what shape was the company in?
I was actually working at Polygram when Universal bought Polygram so I ended up doing a couple of years post-merger. I came in as sort of a general manger. I can’t even remember what my title was [Gary Newman was president then]. What we had was a company that hadn’t quite made the transition yet from being a very strong sales company to a very strong marketing company. It was a company that had an incredible legacy of not just international artists, but of some really strong domestic stuff. Blue Rodeo had been at home for 20 odd years, Great Big Sea. So many artists that had grown up from within the company, but there was a change going on in the market. We were seeing those initial changes from physical to digital. You were dealing with the peak of piracy, and it wasn’t really a company that had got their heads around artist marketing. It was still very much the sales company and there’s nothing wrong with that. It was just a model that wasn’t evolving as quickly.
What I discovered when I got here was there was an abundance of executive talent. There were people within this company who had really rich, really smart ideas but there hadn’t been put into place systems and a culture to let them chance those ideas. So that’s what I tried to achieve.
There’s been significant changes the past few years. When former vp of A&R Steve Blair was there, you started the management division, but there were significant changes in A&R too, more development and singles deals, when Ron Lopata was hired. What led to that?
Before those recent changes, there was a change in attitude towards domestic artist development. It was not necessarily taking the safe bet. Warner Music Canada had been known for somewhere that signed very safe acts; it was something that was very much geared to the quick turnaround of ‘We can build this at radio and then we’ll go find an audience for it.’ When I came in, I wanted to shake that up a bit. I wanted to not be so safe. So taking the chance, along with the A&R team who were already here, that we’re more than willing to roll the dice and try to do some new things. I still remember the stories in the press when we signed Buck 65. It didn’t sound like the type of artist that Warner should be signing.
Where are you now with the management division that Steve Blair had started and Ron Lopata’s A&R approach, of discovery and development and singles deals?
For the last eight to 10 years, we’ve really started to look at what our business means and what it means to be a record label, what it means to be a music company and one of the important pieces in the last decade is coming to terms with the idea that we’re not necessarily in the hit singles business; we’re not necessarily in the record business — we’re in the brand business. And if you look at what we do with somebody like a Billy Talent or Scott Helman or ISH [Ishan Morris]. What our duty is now is to build these brands as big as possible so that these people have multiple income streams, that we can help them build. So extended rights deals are exactly that — it’s an acknowledgement that we’re involved in helping you build your brand. That’s what we bring to the table.
So that was the idea behind experimenting. Is there a role for us in management? Certainly our merch business and our artists services division, run by Chris Moncada, that’s all about the non-reported portion of an artists career. How can we bring the expertise that we brought to marketing music to marketing their entire brand? So some of those experiments have worked. Some of them not as much, or we put them on hold for a moment [like the management] and think, ‘What did we learn there?’ ‘Where else do we apply it?’
You mentioned Blue Rodeo and Billy Talent and Scott Helman. You’ve also got Brett Kissel and Victoria Duffield and Courage My Love. Canada has long had a tough time breaking our domestic signings internationally. What are Warner Music Canada’s plans for 2015?
We always sign with a view to global. I’ve never signed an artist that I think is just going to have a sustainable career in Canada. The goal is always thatyou sign something because you think there’s a global audience for it; you thing there’s global potential. So when you take a look at something like Scott Helman, we’ll get Scott over to the States and over to the UK as quickly as possible. Courage My Love did the entire Warped Tour this past summer and now a follow-up tour. So they went in; they did Warped Tour; they made a hell of an impression; they did great at the merch table; they built a real solid fanbase and three, four months later they’re back in the States doing another round down there and they’re going to build it, country by country. And we’ve been working closely with our U.S. company on building a digital release planned for them and now we’ll see what happens on this tour because there’s now people watching them.
Anyone that’s your Facebook friend and follows your posts knows that besides your love of the Big Green Egg and barbecuing and we see how proud you are of your wife [Debbie Rix] and her café corner store The Lucky Penny, and her debut novel, External Forces. But every Friday you post “The weekend starts here….” And you mention a track or an album. Tell me when you started that and what is in your basement — how many CDs and vinyl?
My overall record collection — between the singles, LP, CDs — is somewhere north of 15,000. And when we were renovating our house, I was lucky enough to steal some space for myself. Like I say, every Saturday I’m somewhere buying a record. I’m somewhere rifling through a bin, whether it’s a CD or a LP. It’s just something I like to do.
How do you decide how your weekend starts when you have 15,000 to choose from?
The phrase ‘The weekend starts here’ I actually lifted from the legendary U.K. 60s television show Ready Steady Go! When the theme song started, the voiceover used to say, ‘the weekend starts here’ and I think I first saw it in The Kids Are All Right or maybe from when I was a little kid in the UK. What I do, it could be a song I hear on the drive home; it could be a song that’s playing on the iPod when I walk into the house and it could be a song that either sums up the mood of the week I’ve just been through or is a signpost of what I want the weekend to feel like. It’s just a little bit of fun to separate… when music’s your profession and your passion, ‘The weekend starts here’ piece of music is my way of shutting off the professional part of music and really concentrating on the next 48-72 hours passion part of music.
You mentioned Led Zeppelin at the beginning of our conversation and recently you bonded with Robert Plant over a song. Was that the first time you met him?
Yes, that was the first time I met Robert. It was one of the highlights of my career and we had our business conversation about where his record [Lullaby and…The Ceaseless Roar] was, and what we were doing to make sure that people knew that it was an amazing record — which by the way it is; it’s one of my favourite records of the year. This was somebody that wasn’t resting on his laurels, that had this adventurous and fantastic new music. We had that whole business end discussion and we just started chatting about covermount CDs and I happened to mention one that he had compiled. It contained one of my all-time favourite soul songs, and he said, ‘What song is that?’ and I said, ‘Shine It On by Vernon Garrett’ and he just looked at me and said, ‘How the hell do you know that song? Have you ever heard….’ And then that launched a whole conversation, ‘Well do you know this song?’ ‘Isn’t this guitarist amazing? Isn’t this horn line fantastic?’
You should have invited him back to hang in your basement.
I think I might have, but he didn’t take me up on it.