In the wake of profound changes in the music world over the last few years, there are a few Cassandras heralding the impending death of the music industry. But on the frontline are visionaries who know how to re-invent themselves to adapt to the new reality. “The problem doesn’t come from lack of demand; the variety of available supports nowadays means demand for music has never been greater,” says Denis Wolff, co-founder and artistic director of Harris & Wolff. “The problem is the value of music: micro-payments generated by streaming aren’t sufficient to help artists stay afloat. Even though the new rules are known, there’s still a lot that remains unclear. We’re navigating in fog, among icebergs, but at least we know how to navigate.”
In this analogy, Denis Wolff is a Master mariner. Whether through his Maisonnette agency or his MasterKut studio, he’s been a key player on the Québec music scene for many, many years. Three years ago, he founded Harris & Wolff alongside Mary Catherine Harris, his partner, who’s in charge of marketing and business development, and also has tremendous experience in publishing (Plateau Music, Third Side Music, Genison). Behind such an understated brand name, more akin to a law firm than a cultural organization – an impression that highly pleases the two partners – lurks a small but very ambitious publishing outfit.
We met with the pair in the basement office of a Saint-Joseph boulevard building in Montréal that’s also home to L-A be, Louis Armand Bombardier’s record label. The two principals of Harris & Wolff are poised to conquer the world, one song at a time. The collapse in record sales doesn’t diminish the need for music. Ads, TV series, movies, websites, apps… visual content creators are constantly on the lookout for new sounds to augment their productions. And when these content creators are looking for a specific sound or atmosphere, they ask specialists like Harris & Wolff.
All told, Harris & Wolff represents about 50 artists, of which about 30 exclusively create audio-visual music. And their catalogue grows and diversifies on a daily basis. “What we offer is curated content,” says Harris. “A lot of companies go into licensing and simply sign as many artists as they can, who are totally interchangeable to them. We choose them carefully, and we create playlists for different atmospheres, which is very helpful for our clients.”
“We work with real artists that have actual personalities, not anonymous composers whose work is the musical equivalent of stock photography.” — Denis Wolff of Harris & Wolff
These playlists are just one facet of the company’s very accessible website, described by its owners as a one-stop shop. “It’s the heart of our business, we worked on building the user interface for two years,” says Harris. That proprietary interface is the brainchild of Wolff, and is so user-friendly that people have asked to license it.
So how does it work? Say you’re a movie producer looking for music for your next film. Do you need music in a minor or major mode? Need something lively and upbeat? Maybe German reggae? The search filters allow you to be extremely precise. Then you’re taken to a request form: what’s the desired usage? Ad, film, TV? How many seconds? Background or feature? With just a few clicks, the customer gets a quote, and a ready-to-use audio file. Harris & Wolff owns the masters, which avoids the music users having to seek the rights holders, and translates into savings in time and money.
“By combining that interface and our local and international network, we’re really looking to serve a global market,” says Harris. “What sets us apart is that we’re close to the artists in our roster,” adds Wolff. “We don’t offer generic, prefab, soulless music. We work with real artists that have actual personalities, not anonymous composers whose work is the musical equivalent of stock photography.”
The pair weren’t born yesterday, and they know the business inside and out, so they’re greatly appreciated. As a matter of fact, Wolff and his Ho-Tune Musique publishing company received the very first Publisher of the Year Award at Montréal’s SOCAN Awards gala on Sept. 12, 2016, an honour that truly touched the man who’s always been a champion of the Québec music scene. “It’s obviously an immense honour!” he says. “The general public doesn’t really understand what we do, or the effort required to do it, but the SOCAN people do. We’re partners.”