Welcome to Entrepreneurs, a new series in Words + Music. As the music industry undergoes disruptive technological shifts and constant change, the role of the entrepreneur has become one of its main driving engines. Canadian music entrepreneurs invest in and nurture the careers of our music creators – a feat that, now more than ever, requires courage, finances, and operational skill to succeed. For the first in our series, we’re looking at ole, the biggest commercial Canadian music publishing success story ever.

A decade ago, when Robert Ott first talked to Words + Music about ole, the new Toronto-based music publishing start-up he founded with entrepreneur and one-time CHUM-FM radio personality Tim Laing, he proclaimed almost offhandedly, “Yeah, we’re going to give it a shot.” 

“We’re always grateful to be in Canada because I think the talent here, pound for a pound, is the best in the world.” – Robert Ott of ole

Some shot! Ten years later, ole (pronounced “olé” an acronym for Ott-Laing Enterprises) has ballooned from two founding partners, bankrolled by a silent partner to the tune of $40 million, in a downtown Toronto office, to a staff of 60 in Toronto, Nashville, Los Angeles and New York; a publishing catalog of more than 45,000 songs, 60,000 hours of film and TV music, and 150,000 production music tracks; total acquisitions of $300 million USD; and an expansive vision that encompasses global rights management.

ole also boasts a 102-strong songwriter roster, which includes such active and legacy hit-makers as Tim “Timbaland” Mosley (Justin Timberlake, Nelly Furtado), Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, Jim Vallance (Bryan Adams, Glass Tiger), Mother Mother, Lindi Ortega, and most recently, Rush. Not to mention hits like Timberlake’s 2014 Grammy-winning R&B song “Pusher Love Girl,” Taylor Swift’s Grammy-winning “White Horse,” and Eric Church’s chart-topping “Springsteen.”

Additionally, ole owns the film and TV catalogues Sony Pictures Entertainment (1993 to 2012), Cookie Jar Music, WGBH and Cineflix Media Inc. among many others.

“I think there’s no question that we’re the biggest music publisher that’s ever been in Canada, but the story has always been a global one in our minds,” says Ott, ole’s Chairman and CEO. “We’ve never set out to be a Canadian publisher, although we’re proud to be.  We very much set out to be a global music publisher… We’re always grateful to be in Canada because I think the talent here, pound for a pound, is the best in the world.”

The ole story began when the Hamilton-born former BMG Music Publishing Canada vice-president and general manager, who had launched his career at the age of 19 with his own Lunar Music, decided it was time to form a new voice in Canadian music publishing and approached his good friend Tim Laing.

“At the time, we were both looking for a new challenge in our respective careers,” Ott recalls. “One thing led to another and it got out of control,” he laughs.

Ott says former Chairman Laing, who left day-to-day operations in 2009 and unfortunately died last year, was an ideal business partner. “Over the course of our time together, we never had a cross word,” says Ott. “It was a relationship built on respect… Tim handled a lot of the operational nuts-and-bolts while I worked on the deal-making part of the program, and building a staff… The biggest thing I appreciated about Tim was his willingness to act as a sounding board. We’d think through our ideas out loud and hone them before they saw the light of day.”

As a result of this meticulous planning, ole has grown into a global powerhouse, building an impressive portfolio of assets that include innovative co-ventures (Last Gang, Roots Three Music and ole Bluestone, its partnership with Timbaland), smart technologies, and expansion into production music, audio-visual secondary rights, and managing digital assets, all emphasized by ole’s “majorly indie” philosophy.

“‘Majorly indie’ is part of our trademark,” says Ott. “The statement was made to advise people that we had the personal touch, with the adaptability of an indie, but the reach of a major.”

On the technology front, Ott says one of ole’s most prescient inventions is “a data analytics tool that helps us really increase collection for our clients. When you’re looking at millions of bytes of data, I defy a human to figure out that Cue 100, Episode 50 of a television show in Australia went missing from the [royalty] statement, which this proprietary IT solution we built can actually do in about five minutes,” he adds.

Of course, Ott is bullish on the ole’s future.

“We started the company at the time when a lot of people said the sky was falling,” he admits. “Ten years later, the sky is still falling, and I’m happy to say that we’ve never had a year that wasn’t better than the one before. I believe that we’ve got a good vision of how the future should unfold for ole: that involves doubling the size of the company. We’ve got a substantial war chest of capital to get that agenda completed, and we’ve got a new orientation in rights management where we’re diversifying intellectual property management even further.

“As a foundation to all of that, we’re going to stick to our fundamental goals –to acquire profitability, add value, build our brand, and continue to provide good personal service to our clients and partners.”