Bernie Finkelstein has worn many hats in his music career: artist manager, label owner, music producer, music publisher, concert promoter. Whatever the hat, his passion for music has always guided his extraordinary journey. The trailblazing mogul built True North Records into one of the pre-eminent indie labels in the world at a time when “indie” was not a ubiquitous word. Not bad for a high-school dropout from suburban Downsview in Toronto.
“Bernie’s chief assets are loyalty, a passionate love of music, and a chess player’s gift for strategizing many moves ahead,” says Bruce Cockburn of his longtime manager.
It was curiosity that led a teen Finkelstein to Toronto’s hippie hangout of Yorkville circa 1967, when coffee shops abounded, drugs were in the air, and live music was everywhere. Some of Canada’s greatest acts– such as Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young – honed their chops at long-gone venues like The Riverboat, The Penny Farthing and The Mynah Bird.
: “I was thinking of a beatnik life when I left home at 17. I was a lousy student, but I fell into music.”
“I got lucky,” says Finkelstein of his start in the music industry. “I was thinking of a beatnik life when I left home at 17. I was a lousy student, but I fell into music. It was very serendipitous because I fell into something I loved, had a big passion for, and also something that I had a really good ear for.”
Besides a little luck, zeal made this path possible. If Finkelstein believed in an act, his dogged determination made people take notice – whether it was negotiating a distribution deal south of the border or landing their singles on the Billboard charts. For that, they remain forever thankful.
“I’m not much given to ‘what ifs,’ but it’s reasonable to assume that if there hadn’t been a Bernie, someone else might have stepped into that role,” says Cockburn. “But it was Bernie. I think we’d be looking at a very different scene if we put ourselves in an alternate universe that didn’t include him.”
Besides Cockburn, over the years Finkelstein signed such acts (either to True North Records, to management deals, or both) as The Paupers, Murray McLauchlan, Rough Trade, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings and Stephen Fearing, among others.
These days, Finkelstein is semi-retired, having sold True North in 2007; the Canadian Music Hall of Fame member whiles away the day with his wife, either on their Prince Edward County farm or at their North Toronto home. Recently, McClelland & Stewart published his memoir True North: A Life in the Music Business.
Oddly, the book doesn’t deal much with his work as a music publisher. Back in 1970, Finkelstein and Cockburn became partners in Golden Mountain Music. Last year, the pair sold it to Rotten Kiddies, a subsidiary of U.S.-based publisher Carlin Music. As with the sale of True North in 2007, Finkelstein says the decision to divest of the publishing business was because his passion was no longer there.
“The Canadian publishing business is becoming more and more complicated,” he explains. “I came up during an era where if you had one thing and it sold a million copies, you got paid everything all at once for the million. Now it’s the inverse. There are a million things and they all collect one penny. The idea of knowing what the rates are for Yahoo in Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia was not appealing.”
Finkelstein flourished as a publisher in the ’70s. “I recognized, as a young person moving his way into what we now call the music business, that the ability to earn a living and build a company was marginal, almost non-existent,” he says. “I started realizing I needed to be involved in as many things as possible. The corollary to that was, my artists would say, ‘So-and-so wants my publishing, what should I do?’ It became apparent that the odds of the artist giving away their publishing rights in those days was very high.”
So Finkelstein set up a structure where the artists were their own publishers; in return, he owned part of these rights as the administrator. “At the time I didn’t realize it, but it made my business very fluid,” he says. “When people needed to license one of our artists’ records, it would be one-stop shopping. In 2012, the big catchphrase is 360 deals… but we got there a long time ago.”
With the music industry constantly changing, Finkelstein is glad he left when he did. He doesn’t fancy the “retired” label, but he’s certainly enjoying a more leisurely pace of life.
“There are days when I miss it, particularly when I speak to old friends that are still involved, but I didn’t want to just stumble around,” he says. “I use the sports metaphor. I thought I had a fairly decent career: my numbers were pretty good, maybe Hall of Fame numbers, and I didn’t want to keep on playing and watch those numbers get worse. I’ve got too much pride for that.”