After 20-plus years working for Canadian major labels in A&R (Artists and Repertoire), in early 2017 Fraser Hill formed his own independent company, frazietrain productions Inc. Conceived as a music consulting firm to serve both signed and unsigned artists, with a specialization in cross-genre A&R and artist development, the company takes its moniker from a nickname Hill was given many years ago.
“That came from the guys in [the band] Pride Tiger,” Hill says, laughing. “They were having fun with me one night and it stuck. So, when it was time to name the company, there it was.”
The transition has been on the horizon, Hill says about his decision to strike out on his own, adding that it’s not the first time he’s worked independently: “I’d been on my own for a while as a manager and producer for a number of years,” he says.
Hill started out in the mid-1970s as an engineer/producer. “I was crazy about music, but I couldn’t play and really wanted to be in it somehow,” he says. After studying at Humber College in the broadcast program, he landed a gig as an assistant at Toronto’s Eastern Sound. That changed his life, he says, recalling the first session he worked on –with Anne Murray. “It had to be around 1977 and I was just an assistant, sitting by the tape machine, getting everybody coffee. That’s how it started,” he says.
Later, Hill formed a management company, Mighty Music Entertainment, with agent Ed Smeall, and co-managed The Northern Pikes. Hill and his business partner, Rick Hutt, also co-produced and engineered a number of the records including the Pikes’ Snow in June, which garnered them a JUNO Nomination for Engineer of the Year.
“It’s the one fundamental, from being in the studio to being in A&R. It was always the common thread; learning how to listen.”
From there he moved on to EMI Music Canada, ultimately becoming Senior Director of A&R, before transitioning to Universal Music Canada after their buyout of EMI. “I had a tremendous time with Universal and EMI all those years, and learned a ton from some fantastic folks,” says Hill. Among them were Randy Lennox, Deane Cameron and Jeffrey Remedios.
“What I want to do is to be an artist’s advocate,” says Hill. “To help artists make records and advise them on the process. Having done it for so long, and for so many people, I really felt I had a service that I could offer – because there’s a lot of young people, young artists, who are doing things on their own because the digital age allows that.”
Being that kind of advocate – one with a wealth of experience in marketing, promotion, and facilitating partnerships between artist and producers, agents and others in the industry – is key to what frazietrain is all about.
There’s also a benefit to the artists he works with – particularly now, given the fact the barrier to entry, at least in terms of recording and releasing a record, is lower. Having the benefit of outside ears, someone with experience in both the studio and in A&R, is highly valuable.
As for the benefits of going independent, “There’s excitement to being on your own, because you never know what twists and turns are in front of you,” says Hill. “It’s invigorating, it’s entrepreneurial, and I really like that. It captures where I was [when I was] engineering, producing and managing.”
Back in the day, prior to the digital shift, there were a certain amount of hoops you had to jump through to even have access to the kind of expertise that Hill offers. “The great thing about technology is that it levels the playing field, allowing people to get in,” he says. “Now there are some incredibly talented people embracing technology and just tearing their way through it. But it doesn’t hurt them to have experience as the second ear to adjudicate what they’re working on; someone on their team who says, you know, I think a little more effort here is going to help you get to where you want to go sooner, and be happier with the result.”
Ultimately, while an artist has to make their own decisions, they certainly won’t suffer from informed guidance. And Hill is uniquely suited to provide that guidance, having worked as a producer/engineer with the likes of Anne Murray, Red Ryder, Grapes of Wrath, The Northern Pikes and many others and in A&R with artists such as Serena Ryder (his first signing at EMI), Shawn Hook, 2015 SOCAN Songwriting prize winners Dear Rouge, The James Barker Band, Wes Mack, July Talk, These Kids Wear Crowns, and Kreesha Turner.
He continues to work with artists he encountered during his time at Universal, and is currently working with Donovan Woods on his next album.
In all of his work, the thing he carries forward is “always listening.” That’s been key to every aspect of Hill’s career. “It’s the one fundamental, from being in the studio to being in A&R. It was always the common thread; learning how to listen, and learning how to take the music in… listening critically and making the right musical choices for the song.”