So far, 2016 hasn’t been kind to artists from the classic rock era. We’ve mourned the notable losses of David Bowie and Glenn Frey of the Eagles, whose songs, each in their own way, captured the 1970s zeitgeist as well as any, and better than most.
When one thinks of that era, it brings to mind elaborate albums, monster tours, jet-setting bands and the excesses of rock and roll legends. Those were also days when big record companies invested in developing the artists on their rosters. Their monster sellers helped subsidize the costs of supporting and developing emerging artists with potential. For artists and labels, these were the “Golden Years” Bowie sang about.
I’ll stick with you baby for a thousand years
Nothing’s gonna touch you in these golden years
But the industry sings a different tune today. These days, artist development seems like a quaint notion. Major label artists that don’t hit it out of the park the first time don’t often get a second chance.
Recognizing that the industry landscape has changed substantially, three Canadian music biz veterans started a conversation about how they could do more to help artists. Eric Lawrence and Rob Lanni have been artist managers since the late ’80s and early ’90s, and are the co-founders and co-owners of the artist management company Coalition Music. Coalition represents such acts as Simple Plan, USS, Our Lady Peace, Finger Eleven, Andee, and The Balconies.
“What can we do to elevate these artists that deserve a chance to be developed?” – Vel Omazic of Canada’s Music Incubator
The third man, Vel Omazic, had been a Sony Music executive for about 10 years but had been out of the biz for some time when Lawrence and Lanni sought him out.
“What was clear to the three of us was essentially that the major labels had been downsized and merged, obviously, and so the depth of their resources to invest the time to find talent, to develop that talent, was not the same,” Omazic says. “But yet, there’s all this great talent that continued to present itself to the companies, and it’s, like, ‘What can we do to elevate these artists that deserve a chance to be developed?’”
Out of that conversation came the idea for Canada’s Music Incubator, for which Omazic signed on as Executive Director. Canada’s Music Incubator (CMI) is a not-for-profit initiative that Coalition Music launched in Toronto in 2012. Its purpose is to help emerging artists, managers and other music industry professionals grow their careers into viable and sustainable businesses through networking, workshops, hands-on mentoring and collaboration with established professionals.
The Artist Entrepreneur Program is one of three incubation programs offered through CMI (the others being Tour & Tech and Artist Management) that bring participants to the Coalition Music headquarters at Victoria Park and Lawrence in Toronto. There, they interact with, and learn from, an array of experienced music industry experts on topics including marketing, management, promotion, publicity, social media, funding, touring, music law, accounting, publishing, booking, talent buying, music supervision, sound, songwriting, radio, performing rights organizations, funding bodies and more.
The program runs for 10 weeks, twice a year, in February and August. Participants are on-site from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Friday. All musical styles and genres are welcome, and artists have come from as far as Whitehorse and Newfoundland. For example, such award-winning artists as Ben Caplan and The Fortunate Ones have already benefitted from the program.
Although CMI is run as a not-for-profit, there is a $7,500 fee to enrol in the program, but each applicant is automatically eligible for scholarships of up to $5,000 thanks to CMI’s sponsors and patrons. No artist has ever had to pay the full cost, and some have been fully sponsored.
The purpose of the fee, Omazic explains, is to attract artists who have skin in the game. “It’s a cliché, but we want artists who are invested,” he says. “You have to be doing this already as your career, as your business. So we’re looking for people who are actively touring, actively releasing singles or albums.”
Omazic is also quick to point out that the program is not modeled after an academic program. This isn’t School of Rock, with Jack Black holding forth in a mortarboard cap.
“We’ve modeled ourselves on the concept of incubation – small business incubation specifically,” says Omazic. “We’re helping starter companies get their feet on the ground, and giving them some focus, giving them some direction, some guidance and some motivation. You’re coming here to work, and to move your career.
“We really emphasize the importance of songs. We can help them get their business together, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t mean anything unless they’ve put the time into their craft and have songs that are going to help them advance their career. It’s all driven by the song.”
Universal Music recording artist Andee has been driven by song since she was a youngster. Originally from the town of Saint-Jean-Chrysostome, just south of Québec City, the pop singer-songwriter burst onto the scene in 2012 as a finalist on the province’s popular singing competition TV show, Star Académie.
At the urging of her manager, she moved to Toronto in 2014 to take part in CMI’s Artist Entrepreneur program. She started in February of that year while she was in the process of getting signed to Universal Music.
“It really helped me make really important decisions for my career, especially since I was signing with a major label.” Andee says. “I didn’t know anything about a label and they helped me understand how it was going to work, and what my responsibility was in this.”
She’d been trying to stay on top of the business side of her burgeoning music career, working with an accountant and organizing a budget. “But I wasn’t really good at it,” she says, laughing. “So meeting a lot of professionals in the music industry really helped me get more organized in my business, and helped me get more confidence, too. Even if you don’t like the business side and the financial side of it, you can’t ignore it. You have to become your own boss. If you’re planning on doing this as a career, you have to know all these things.”
As for the future direction of the program, Omazic says that one of the things they’re planning to implement this year, though they’ve yet to announce it, is a way to help artists get funding to make top-notch professional recordings that can compete in the marketplace. He also foresees the program evolving with further initiatives for helping artists with marketing and promotion.
But the success of the program’s artists won’t necessarily be measured in platinum sales or top spots on the Billboard charts.
“The whole long-term goal is to develop sustainable careers and businesses,” says Omazic. “When we screen them, we talk to them and we say, ‘What is it that you’re trying to achieve here? What’s your end goal?’ And nine times out of 10 the answer is, ‘I just want to make a living doing what I love: writing, playing and performing music.’ And so that’s really the goal, is to help them achieve that.”
The Golden Years are over. These days, whether it’s marketing or developing their craft, or navigating through all the revenue stream options for their music, artists need to be more hands-on in the careers. Maybe armed with the knowledge gained from CMI’s Artist Entrepreneur program, today’s music-makers will be able to forge the best path possible within present-day circumstances.
“Nowadays, it’s a different reality,” Andee says. “So when you know what you’re doing, where the money’s going, where the money’s coming from, you have so much more confidence and freedom in what you do, because you’re on top of everything. I think that’s necessary today.”
Who will go the distance? We’ll find out in the long run. But thanks to Canada’s Music Incubator, today’s music artists can learn what they need to take it to the limit.