The first person I called when assembling research for this week’s Grid cover story was Bernie Finkelstein, the founder of True North Records, an independent record company formed in 1969 whose first album was Bruce Cockburn’s 1970 debut—making the label only one year older than I am. True North was known primarily as a folkie label (Murray McLachlan, Dan Hill) before Finkelstein signed new wave act and groundbreaking sexual outlaws Rough Trade in 1980; the label has had many other successes over its 44 years. Finkelstein founded the Canadian Independent Record Production Association, was instrumental in setting up the FACTOR system as well as VideoFACT, and is a huge part of what the Canadian music industry is today.
He retired a few years back and sold the company, though he’s still Cockburn’s manager. He wrote a very entertaining 2012 memoir called True North: A Life in the Music Business, which was nominated last month for the National Business Book Award (he lost to Chrystia Freeland’s Plutocrats—which, for the record, was wildly disappointing, and I’m a big fan of her writing).
At last year’s NXNE festival, I had the pleasure of interviewing Finkelstein on stage. It was the first time we’d ever talked. Most of my writing career I’ve only ever interviewed artists, and not having moved to Toronto until I was about ready to give up music writing for a living, I was never hanging around industry events, so Bernie and I never crossed paths. My loss. He’s a great raconteur. And he likes to toot his own horn—which is perfectly fine, because he’s more than entitled to. Among other things I learned in this conversation: he’s not a big Stompin’ Tom fan. Here’s our conversation from last month.
May 14, 2013
Is it fair to say that True North was the first label in this country to focus on albums, as opposed to singles?
I think it is. I try not to make too many claims. I know there were other people with independent labels before me, people like Roman Records and Red Leaf Records, but they didn’t last very long, and they didn’t really go anywhere. They weren’t album labels per se. They made singles and may or may not have packaged something as an album at some point, I don’t know. I always describe True North as one of the oldest and one of the largest and certainly the longest-running independent label now, by many miles. We were certainly the first of the modern independent labels.
Popular Toronto acts like the Paupers, Kensington Market, McKenna Mainline—they all signed to American labels.
They did. With Kensington Market [which he managed] I made two singles before we signed to Warner Brothers, which I produced. They were with Stone Records in Oshawa, a neat little label that [distributed] the Spencer Davis Group. Paupers signed to Verve in New York. David Clayton-Thomas made a single or two for Roman Records. True North was the first real album label.
How would you define companies like Arc or Quality?
They’re interesting companies. They were very large. They put out some good music. They were largely manufacturers and distributors of foreign material, but they were Canadian-owned, both Arc and Quality. Quality had that great green and red label. I think they were releasing Chess Records in Canada; I think Chuck Berry’s records were through them here. And they put out that Guess Who record, the one that didn’t have “These Eyes” on it. Jack Richardson did a two-sided LP, one side with the Guess Who, one side was the Staccatos, who became the Five-Man Electrical Band. Quality and Arc were larger companies than anything that’s happening now. They disappeared because they both ended up suffering from the same thing, which was that they made their living distributing foreign records. And the foreign companies grew bigger here in Canada, and the Canadian companies that started competing with them were like what I did and were more appealing to artists. But there’s been no Canadian company since that did everything they did. Quality owned their own manufacturing plant, did their own distribution, and nobody really does that now. All—or most of—the independent labels end up being distributed by foreign labels. So when people talk about True North or Arts and Crafts, they’re all distributed by Universal or EMI.
So would you draw a line when defining indie labels between people who have major label distribution and people who sit around a room stuffing envelopes themselves and beating the street?
Well, these are old arguments. Somewhere there will be purists who think True North isn’t an independent label because it has major label distribution. For some of these people, to be a real indie is to make the record in your basement and don’t become successful. I think True North was the first what I think you would define as an independent label in the first wave of independent music in Canada.
You were the manager and the label owner and then another company handled distribution. How involved were artists in the process after they finished making the record?
Not very much at all, by choice. Different era. The artists I worked with—and I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I think it is true of that whole generation, whether it’s Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen or Bruce Cockburn or even Rough Trade—they didn’t want to be involved in the business of music. That wasn’t that sexy. It is now. Now artists should really understand what is going on. It’s a different thing; I don’t think there’s any right or wrong about it. It wasn’t part of the times. What an artist wanted was a way to make the music exactly the way they wanted; they may or may not have got the odd nudge or hint from me, of course. And they were involved with making sure the covers turned out the way they wanted. But once that happened, they weren’t that interested in making sure that there was an ad being run here, or a radio promo being done there. That was something business people did for them. Today, they want to do it all.
One person who was incredibly hands on with everything he did was Stompin’ Tom. I’m curious about the role of Boot, and how you would place that in this history.
Well, to be honest, I wasn’t the hugest Stompin’ Tom fan. I’m glad to see him getting his due, and I guess he did get his due all along. When he handed back his Juno Awards [in 1977] I thought it was a stunt; he did it basically because Neil Young or Joni Mitchell won an award. Fair enough, you know, but I thought it was a worthless thing to do. I’m happy his songs have lasted.
What about the business aspect of what he did?
Well, what was he doing? I don’t really know. Did he own the label?
He owned half of it.
Well, that’s a terrific idea. I think that’s great. As does Broken Social Scene own half of Arts and Crafts—well, maybe not the whole band, but Kevin Drew. And Frank Sinatra owned part of Reprise. There’s nothing new about any of that.
But I thought Tom might be the first Canadian to have real commercial success with that model.
Yeah, I guess. There’s a good stat for everything. Like baseball. There’s always someone who’s the first to get two doubles, steal a base, and catch four flies in the outfield in one game. So you’re probably right. Stompin’ Tom—I’m not trying to be derogatory, but you have to qualify this word success for me, too. No one knows him outside of Canada. That doesn’t mean “The Hockey Song” isn’t a great song. But does that make Tom’s model more successful than Bruce’s, who is known everywhere outside of Canada, but made all his records independently here in Canada? These are tricky things. But, you know, I wouldn’t argue if you said that Tom’s model was terrific and it really counted for something.
Let me ask you then: who else were pioneers who followed in your wake?
Rush, with Anthem, came a few years later. That’s a great example. The label in Montreal that Donald K. Donald started with Terry Flood, Aquarius, with April Wine came after that.
The article I’m writing is just about Toronto, though.
Oh, okay then. A lot of people made their own records and then brought them to record companies. Which is still what’s going on now, to some degree. Except a lot of people don’t even need a record company anymore and just go to a distributor. I think the very best example is Rush, because Anthem lasted as long as True North did. Al Mair’s label Attic had Triumph at the beginning.
What about Current [Parachute Club, Martha and the Muffins]?
Current was a fine label, but it didn’t last long. I guess it depends how you define “long.” Who else is on your plate there? You might be able to prompt me. Tonnes of people put out records, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to remember them right now.
I was also thinking of labels that weren’t necessarily commercially successful, but that widened exposure for certain genres, like reggae or jazz or the Music Gallery’s label, for example.
There was Sackville Records in Toronto, who put out so many great jazz records. They had Terry Clark and Doug Riley and Don Thompson, lots of the great Toronto jazz players and from across the country. Who else? When we had our first Canadian Independent Record Production [CIRPA] meeting in 1970, one of the original founders was Jack Richardson, who had the Nimbus 9 studio. They also had a label, but it wasn’t a serious label and it was largely a production studio. Then there was Ax Records, Greg Hambleton, Fergus Hambleton’s brother. He had a curious group of acts that I can’t remember.
Then later Blue Rodeo is a game-changer in their own way. They did exactly what an independent label would do, but instead of taking their music to a label—be it an indie or a multinational label—they took it to Warner Brothers and licensed it to them. In a way, they’re indistinguishable from being a Warner act, but they’ve always owned those records, as far as I know. They’re one of the early examples of a successful band owning their music and going for distribution from the big labels.
Anthem is interesting for many reasons. All of Rush’s albums are on the Anthem label, but the label itself has grown and contracted over the years. There are times when the commitment to the label is not really there, it’s just a home for Rush; other times, they get adventurous and sign people.
Did Anthem function in a similar way to True North? Obviously Rush is on a lot of major labels around the world.
That’s what I did with Bruce. I would make a Bruce Cockburn record, and release it here on True North. Then I would divide the world up and try to have individual deals in as many places as possible, because I believed if I could get a German company to care about Bruce’s records, that would be better than getting an American company with an office in Germany. In America, Bruce’s records were released by Island Records in the beginning, then an independent company called Millenium, who were distributed by RCA. Then we went to a company owned by Danny Goldberg, called Gold Mountain. After that, we went to Columbia, and we did the two T-Bone Burnett albums and a Christmas record. Then we went to Ryko. Then we went to Rounder, which is where we’ve been, although we’re no longer technically with in them. In each case, True North owned the records and we’d license them to those companies for various periods of time. The ownership always returned to us after a period of time. I think that is what Anthem does. [ed note: They do.]
And now there is an artist like The Weeknd, who put out a record for free online, blows up worldwide.
And that’s a whole different topic. I think in the end, what really happens with these people is like the old model: most acts still end up signing with a big label of some kind.
Well, The Weeknd did.
He did? Exactly. So the Internet is offering a new way to get your music seen and heard by all kinds of people, but it’s a much more cheap and efficient way than having a guy like me knocking on people’s doors in London or New York. But I guarantee it wouldn’t be as much fun for me now, because I loved knocking on those doors!