This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Charlotte Thompson, President, and owner of Red Umbrella P.R.
Publicist Charlotte Thompson is a Canadian music industry treasure.
Just ask around.
For over two decades, Thompson has been the welcoming PR presence at red carpet events, conferences, and backstage interviews, and meets for a generation of Canadian music journalists, TV presenters, and domestic and international artists.
She’s pro’s pro renowned for deftly handling entertainment, music and lifestyle media relations for artists, record labels, music associations, and philanthropic organizations.
Red Umbrella P.R.’s current client list is formidable. It includes the Big Machine Label Group, BMG US, Anthem Entertainment, MDM Records, SteelHead Records, the El Mocambo, and the Unison Benevolent Fund.
Among Red Umbrella P.R’s current or active artist priorities are such international acts as Tim McGraw, Sheryl Crow, Ayron Jones, Jason Mraz, Kylie Minogue as well as by Canadians Rufus Wainwright, Nickelback, the Glorious Sons, Avril Lavigne, Dallas Smith, JJ Wilde, Jess Moskaluke, Tim Hicks, Curtis Waters, Classified, JoJo Mason, Mikhail Laxton, Stuck On Planet Earth, and Elijah Woods x Jamie Fine.
Thompson served as an intern with Toronto’s Top 40 CFTR-AM while in high school. She then took the Radio & Television Arts Program at Ryerson University, while interning at PolyGram Records Canada.
Prior to opening Red Umbrella P.R, Thompson had a nearly 17-year run at EMI Music Canada– until Universal purchased the company– as director of national media and artist relations leading national media campaigns for such artists as Katy Perry, Nickelback, and Lady Antebellum.
Thompson officially launched Red Umbrella P.R. in February 2013.
How has your week been?
In addition to a publicist, I am also a mother of a child that may be returning to school on September 8th. So the week has been very stressful. As parents, we are trying to figure out if we will send our child back or if we are going to move to virtual learning. So that was the start of my week.
Your son Ryder is 12?
Yes. He is going into grade 7. He’s very, very smart. Loves school.
As elsewhere in North America, options for back-to-school all-day learning are still being prepared in Toronto, and are being hotly debated. After the Ontario government’s back-to-school plan was released, parents and school boards have criticized the lack of physical distancing standards in the elementary grades. In response, Ontario’s Education Minister Stephen Lecce authorized boards to dip into their reserve funds to hire more teachers to increase physical distancing but stopped short of mandating smaller class sizes.
(The Ontario government on Monday, Aug. 17th rejected Toronto District School Board proposals for reopening both elementary and secondary schools, claiming plans for both don’t give students enough time in class. The Toronto District School Board’s Interim Director of Education Carlene Jackson has since said that barring “a miracle” it is very unlikely that thousands of Toronto students will be back learning on Sept. 8th as scheduled.)
If back-to-school goes forward in Toronto will you send Ryder?
We are going to send him. We have a lot of questions, and this is something that we are going to closely monitor. You do have a choice. If you choose to send your child back five full days a week, then the next window of opportunity to move them out is in November. You can then change your mind, and move to online learning. But, of course, we could take him out at any time. When the break happened in March, they (the schools) went into this very loose, virtual version. The system that will happen in September will look vastly different in that they (children) will be assigned to a virtual classroom. Essentially, they will be on a zoom call where they and the teacher will be visible. The teacher may not be a teacher from their school. People choosing the virtual learning version might be doing it because they don’t like (their kids) going to school as it is, or they are thinking that this is just another class that isn’t being monitored. We won’t know until we get into it. There’s a lot of uncertainty and, as a parent, it definitely adds a level of stress that I feel is affecting what I do daily.
With one after another cancellation of tours and festivals in the past few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and with artists scrambling to do streaming events or drive-in shows to keep visible, you are being kept busy publicizing these activities?
Yes. This started for us when the Junos were canceled.
(The 49th Annual Juno Awards, scheduled at SaskTel Centre in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan on March 15th, was canceled by the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) just three days before the event. Along with first-time host Alessia Cara, Daniel Caeser, Lennon Stella, the Glorious Sons, iskwē, Neon Dreams, the Dead South, and Tory Lanez were slated to perform.)
Many artists and industry figures learned of the Juno Award cancellation while on an airline flight from Toronto to Saskatoon.
We were on our way to get on a plane to fly to Saskatoon and got a call. We had checked our bags, and the call came in saying, “Don’t get on the plane.” We got our bags, we came back to the office, and I had three tours back-to-back pull off the road including the Glorious Sons, who were on their way to Saskatoon; Letterkenny Live! which was in Buffalo, New York; and Gord Bamford’s tour which was in the middle of its Western Canadian leg. Everything just snowballed after that. One by one by one by one everything canceled. This was on Thursday (March 12, 2020). By Monday, we had pivoted so fast and furiously. It felt like we were being hit with a wall of phone calls and emails. There was almost a desperation (by artists) to remain visible as they were watching everything, their livelihood essentially, crumble because that live music business is everything.
While the COVID-19 pandemic meant initially that there were fewer clients available, as some would not be willing to spend money needed elsewhere for media representation, I presume Red Umbrella P.R. is now doing a brisker business if only because with no touring, artists are now focusing on releasing new music to radio or they have increased their streaming activities or boosted their social media to reach fans. Have clients left only to return recognizing that as COVID-19 continues they have to do something? That media opportunities can still be found. Did Red Umbrella P.R. face those scenarios?.
We did, and I know that others have too. We are more than aware that our time might come. Right now, it is warm weather, and there are opportunities, but come to the end of October and November, I can’t lie and say that I am not concerned about what that might look like. There may come a time where it (hiring a publicist) is not going to make sense, and it’s not affordable, and it’s not the right thing to do for a client. This is a business after all. I 100% understand that, and I expect that to happen. We’ve been really, really lucky. We’ve had great artists, and great managers, and great label partners to work with, and to pivot with really, really quickly. Sure, we have lost a few clients, but one of those was signed by a major label in the midst of our campaign, and that’s what we wanted for them. They obviously decided to take the services that the label offered them.
For an independent who has built the media foundation for a client, that’s frustrating.
Yes and no. This is a business. We’ve done our job, and we did it well, and they ended up getting signed. I take pride in that and now it’s up to the label that has signed and invested in them to do their job for them. If they (the act) decide that is not working, they can always come back.
So often major labels promise significant marketing support to their new artist signings but don’t follow through because they have too many artists.
Too many artists.
And artists go along with being tied to the company’s marketing blueprint because they either believe in what they are being told or don’t want to pay for an outside service. Once they realize they are no longer a priority at the label, they may change their minds. My guess is label priority for a new signing lasts about six months, and then they become part of the roster and have to lobby for attention.
Unless there’s a hit.
When the COVID-19 pandemic became evident what steps did Red Umbrella take to pivot?
In mid-March when COVID-19 happened, the biggest thing that we did as Red Umbrella was–and we acted really quickly– to realign with another independent publicity company, Cristina Fernandes, and her Listen Harder company (co-owned with Jen Cymek). We really thought that it was important to not sit back, and wait for someone to save us, eventually. Or fix it for us or think that this was going to stop. We were not that naive. We thought that it was really important to be pro-active. To reach out to our media partners, and remind them of the importance of finding a creative solution to keep our artists, their projects, and their stories in the media.
So you and Cristina looked out for the other?
We did. We still do on a daily basis. There is such a bond between Cristina’s company, and my company and our employees because we really elevate each other.
Still, there must be competition between the two of you
Yes, there is competition to some degree. We are competing for coverage, the space we take up in the media with our clients, air time, etc. But I don’t think we are competing personally, but rather professionally through the clients, and projects we take on. I don’t have the time or interest in comparing myself to the next PR professional. I would much rather call on my peers for their advice and help navigate PR strategies, etc. Cristina and I realized very early on that we could operate two separate businesses in the same space, but also work together, support each other, even share media lists, which is unheard of in this business, and help elevate each other by collaborating, and sharing our insights, knowledge, and experience with one another and in turn, this benefits our clients. Our successes and failures are what make us who we are. We are modern PR professionals who likely only resemble a fraction of what the dictionary definition of a publicist might be.
The bond between you and Cristina deepened further with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Well, we couldn’t let that situation paralyze us or to pick up all the space in the media. We really felt that it was important to remind them to tell the world that there’s a pandemic, and then let’s get back to entertainment; the thing that brings us joy and some kind of light during what is really an uncertain time. Not knowing what that was going to look like we challenged our partners to pivot. Some were pivoting already. Some took longer than others to pivot. Some are still changing the way that they do things. And some remain the same way. if there is such a thing as going back to normal, I’m not sure if I know what that is. I certainly learned during this time. I found out what works and what doesn’t for us.
What staff does Red Umbrella P.R. work with?
I have one full-time person and one part-time publicist. My full-time senior publicist is Shelby Burnell. She’s also my sister. My part-time junior publicist is Dani Spears.
Does Canada have enough high-level music publicists?
We do not have enough high-level publicists. We have the publicists at the major labels which I don’t feel are competition. I don’t look at it like that. I’m sure that people do. I don’t look around and think of what’s out there as competition. I’m not competing with anyone except for myself. My job is to serve my client, and to the very best that I can do. I’m not worried about what publicist A B or C is doing. There are going to be overlaps in areas, but I think that we really have to diversify ourselves and align with each other. I think that you have to step out of the box. I don’t think every publicity campaign can be the same. But there is definitely room and we could use more doing the work and doing a really great job.
Are a lot of your business leads from word-of-mouth?
All of our business, I would say, is word of mouth.
Well, you need to have the relationships.
If I had to say what has been at the core of Red Umbrella’s success today coming out of the gate and moving so quickly that we didn’t even get a chance to set up a website was the relationships and the work. You will never see us solicit for something. That is not who we are or what we do. We believe that we are not going to please everybody all of the time. You might do your very best and the results just might not be there.
Red Umbrella P.R. and other publicity firms operating in Canada greatly benefited from multinational consolidations, and the resulting staff downsizing at the majors in recent years; where the remaining majors could no longer service media and marketing of their distributed labels in Canada as well. Smaller independent labels, production companies, and artist managers have since filled the void and teamed up with third PR parties in establishing and creating artist brands, and reinvigorating them on a continual base. It is a different scenario than what came previously. With less than half of their previous staffs, multinationals in Canada can’t easily service smaller distributed imprints.
No, they can’t do it. They suffer from volume. With a label like Big Machine, their artists deserve to be given priority attention, and you can’t do that when you are sort of second in line. I understand that a major label would prefer their direct signings, first and foremost. They are putting all of their investments into that area. So it’s not to say that Taylor Swift, who was part of Big Machine when I took that PR retainer over, wasn’t deserving of a lot of attention, especially at that time. You really do have to dig in because you are only going to get so much time with those international artists. So, you really have to come to the table with a strategy. You might get an hour. So what are the 4 or 5 things that you can do that really maximizes those opportunities? Big Machine asked if I would be interested in joining them. They wanted exclusivity which means I don’t work with any other U.S. country artists. But I do work with U.S. pop and rock and anything not in that genre. They really wanted to make sure that their artists were receiving the priority and attention that we could give them.
Big Machine came to Red Umbrella fairly early, about 18 months after you opened.
Once I decided to start Red Umbrella very quickly artists like Nickelback, whom I had worked with for many, many years (at EMI); pulled their press out of the major label that was overseeing it, and they were looking for an independent. So it’s a similar situation with Big Machine. They decided they wanted to make a change in Canada. They wanted it to be super served. They had a very vibrant list of artists, very familiar level of artists for me, given what my roster had been at EMI. I was used to working with the superstar acts as well as these developing acts.
What is intriguing is the strong collaborative spirit between independent publicists and their clients in Canada.
I think that there are relationships where the sensibility of the publicist and the artist are really in total harmony. There are publicists, like myself, who are often much more than what a textbook publicist is. I feel that we are always looking to step outside the box. I cannot stand being inside the box. It’s a gift and curse because you are pushing boundaries, and you push down barriers, and when you create this big plan, you then you have to execute. it. It is about executing it with sensitivity, forethought, and diligence.
I am a big fan of collaboration with my artists, and I don’t know that you get to do that all of the time. I certainly tried to bring that to my role at EMI but because of (artist) volume and 27 other people that you are working with within that label, it was often difficult. It’s really important for us to collaborate with the clients we work with. I don’t need 7 people in the middle of our conversation. I need to have that trust, and that honesty in that direct relationship with the artist or with the (label or management) client so we can collectively work in tandem to achieve the results that they are looking for. Build big strategies, amplify those narratives, and be versatile. That’s really important as an independent publicist. I’m not saying that there are not relationships like that at the major labels because I was in there, and there certainly were. Nickelback would certainly be one of them. I grew up learning with them, learning from our mistakes, 100% growing, and never making that mistake again. I am still learning, and that is what is really exciting about this. For those who say they have everything covered, they are in the wrong business. This is ever-changing, and ever-evolving. It’s really important to know that there are publicists acting as managers, parents, sisters, friends, and getting the job done, and doing it differently. It doesn’t have to be the same old thing.
Five years ago, investor Michael Wekerle purchased the El Mocambo—the Toronto nightclub famous for its neon palm sign—for $3.8 million, and then sunk $20 millions in renovations. Rumors about the club’s business plans, opening date, and bookings keep circulating. The club was about to open as the COVID-19 pandemic struck in March. Where is the club at as of today?
Where we are at right now is that you need to come through the building because it’s is absolutely jaw-dropping. When you can, and it’s safe to do so, we’d love to have you in there. So we joined with them sort of late in the day They were half-way through the construction. Probably a couple of years into what was a five-year rebuild is my understanding. You have to keep in mind that it’s not the El Mocambo that you know. There’s nothing anything like it in North America.
There’s now a third floor.
Yes, and there’ a mezzanine level, and a studio. It is a content building. Right now the El Mocambo is virtually open meaning you can go in with safety protocols. There are two separate venues there. So two stages with separate entrances and exits. They can operate as two individual venues, essentially under Ontario’s Stage Three COVID-19 opening framework.
According to Toronto’s Municipal Code, the number of customers at an establishment is limited to no more than 50 indoors. No more than 10 people are allowed to be seated at a table.So, there’s still no rush to open up fully the El Mocambo to the public?
They do want to open, and they are going to open. Right now it looks as if that will be in September. I don’t have a hard date. They are in the midst of booking some smaller shows and obviously they can accommodate that number of guests when there are VIP-type artist release shows and so on. They also plan to do weddings, parties, conferences, and work with viral acts. They did the Canada Day event for the city of Toronto (on July 1st) and there were artists there, and some performances were broadcast to the rest of the country through one of the streaming services that they are using in the building. If I was an artist or a comedian or someone seeking to do something and broadcast it out, I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to speak to them and book the club to do that. It’s conferencing capabilities, are second to none. It’s pretty elite. There’s nothing like this.
(UPDATE: El Mocambo Productions along with Michael Wekerle, owner of the El Mocambo announced Aug. 27th that the club will reopen its doors to the public on September 10th, with a live concert event headlined by Big Wreck, presented by Jim Beam in association with Wahlburgers, Nobis, and powered by Mogo. The Big Wreck performance will be streamed live from the second floor of the El Mocambo via streaming partner Nugs.net.)
You are now practically into another lockdown mode leading up to the 38th Canadian Country Music Awards on Sept. 27th 2020 which will be its first streaming broadcast with performances from Burl’s Creek in Oro-Medonte Township, north of Barrie, Ontario; and from Nashville. I remember you running hard at last year’s CCMAs in Calgary where your client Charlie Major received a Lifetime Award. A crazy time leading up to this year’s event with all of the performance pre-tapings?
This year is crazy but in a very different way because obviously, we are not running around at an awards show doing red carpet and multiple events. Everything will be virtual with the exception of the filming of certain performances, and certain (production) bumpers. There is a TV show that is being created between Ontario and Nashville with performances that were filmed last week but will not air until when the award show airs.
(Tenille Townes leads the pack of CCMA nominees with 6 nominations, while Dean Brody and Brett Kissel tied with 5 nominations each. The James Barker Band, the Reklaws, and Dallas Smith have 4 nominations each. Following them with three apiece are Jade Eagleson, Hunter Brothers, Mackenzie Porter, and the Washboard Union. Popular Calgary-raised Lindsay Ell has two nominations.)
Red Umbrella’s country clients are having a banner year.
We had four artists that were filmed (at Burl’s Creek), and they were all filmed the same day so we didn’t have to go back-and-forth on those other days. It was a very different set. What was allowed, what was permitted was posted. None of the artists had to cross paths at any point. So it was quite a bit of choreography to get it done. We actually have 5 artists (on the show) because we have an international act.
That act is a Big Machine artist?
Coming from Big Machine, yes.
And you can’t tell me who?
No. Everything done would reveal who is on the show.
You work with Mike Denney’s MDM imprint which recently had three songs in the Top 50 at Canadian country radio, Jess Moskaluke’s “Halfway Home, Tyler Joe Miller’s “I Would Be Over Me Too,” and David James’ “If I Were You.” Mike is having a terrific year.
He is having a great year. Two back-to-back #1s. One being an artist debuting at #1 with Tyler Joe Miller’s “I Would Be Over Me Too,” something that has never happened at country radio in Canada. His debut single went to #1.
(Toronto’s MDM label is 12 years old and is home to Black Mountain Whiskey Rebellion, Charlie Major, Bobby Wills, James, Moskaluke, Tyler Joe Miller, David James, and Don Amero. Past artists include Chad Brownlee, Leaving Thomas, the Lovelocks, and Tim Chaisson.
Also, you work with Dallas Smith who just racked up his 10th career #1 and 9th consecutive #1 with “Like A Man.” His latest project “Timeless” is due to be released August 28th, great timing in advance of the Canadian Country Music Awards on Sept. 27th. Meanwhile, Dallas’ chart run is impressive.
His 10th (career) #1 and 9th consecutive #1.
(An admission: My wife Anya Wilson is Dallas Smith’s radio promotion representative in Canada).
As big as Dallas is in Canada’s country music world as a solo artist, and despite his previous stint in the popular rock band Default, his enormous mainstream country success seems to be largely ignored by Canada’s media.
You are right in that he has hit the mainstream, but I do not think that we have
dedicated country media properties. We don’t have the country music bubble that they have in the U.S., speaking specifically of Nashville. So when we are doing media campaigns with someone like Dallas Smith, we are relying on these giant accolades, and pivotal events to really drive his story at media. The other bonus with Dallas is that this is his second career. So for those who don’t know it, he’s already had a career in rock and roll.
(Until 2013, Dallas Smith was a singer with the Vancouver-based rock band Default which formed in 1999, and released four albums. Among its Canadian hits were “Wasting My Time,” “Deny,” and “All She Wrote.” Default had brief mainstream success in the United States with the power ballad single “Wasting My Time,” produced by Chad Kroeger and Rick Parashar. It reached #13 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 2002, and #3 and #2, respectively, on the Modern Rock, and Mainstream Rock airplay charts.)
Did you work with Default while at EMI Music Canada?
I worked with Default as well. Not through their entire career because they were at Universal (Canada) and then they were at EMI (Canada) and then they went back to Universal through 604 Records at that time. Now we handle the Default stuff, and we handle Dallas. So we have been working with Dallas since I started Red Umbrella.
Canadian newspaper dailies devote little space to music in general, and seem fairly dismissive of country music. They are mostly attracted to international pop and rock artists followed by international music gossip, and artists performing locally that are alternative-based rather than country, jazz, or even black. Have I got the breakdown right?
Yeah. I think it’s because of a few things. I feel like we have lost many great writers. We have lost numerous print publications. They have been bought, swallowed up, and dissolved or they are migrating online; which would make you think that there is more space for entertainment coverage, but the writers are no longer being employed. So you now have entertainment writers that are spending 50% of their time dealing with the business section or they are migrating into the lifestyle side of things which could be entertainment-based; but, if you look at the entertainment sections, purely entertainment and music sections which are what we would be looking at for music artists, they are tiny. The size of a postal stamp and the majority of the content is being culled from American sources, to be very honest.
That is the way it was for the Canadian dailies in the 1950s and 1960s.
Yeah, and it is extremely difficult to work around. Part of the survival for Canadian major music labels is to break an artist. We do not have the ability. In most cases, 99% of the time I would say, or 9 out of 10 times that I am working with an emerging artist, and it can be someone who is smashing records (nationally or internationally) or be an artist like Dallas Smith who is at the top of his genre in this country, and is managed by a U.S. management team (Big Loud Management in Nashville), there is just no space for these emerging artists stories. It is the quick, the easy, and it’s is the international superstar that get the space. It is a lot of the same with very few taking the risk of publishing a huge big article on an act like the Glorious Sons or JJ Wilde who are just killing it in their genres. Not just here at home in Canada but these are some of our biggest newest break-out artists, and biggest exports right now in music, and we don’t know about them here in Canada because we can’t get the Canadian media to support these stories, That is frustrating, and a lot of that has to do with volume, and a lot of that has to do with the limited amount of space that the (newspaper) are dedicating to that content, and we’ve lost the writers.
(JJ Wilde’s song “The Rush,” leading up to the June release of her “Ruthless” album on Black Box, recently held the #1 spot on all three rock charts in Canada, a first-time achievement for a debut song, and the first time this has been achieved by a female Canadian artist.
Label mates, the Glorious Sons closed out 2019 after playing shows with the Rolling Stones and Twenty-One Pilots, and with their single “S.O.S. (Sawed Off Shotgun)” was the most played song at U.S. Rock Radio and the #2 song on Canadian rock radio. “Panic Attack,” the lead single from their latest album, “A War On Everything,” was the 10th most played song on Canadian rock radio in 2019. The Kingston, Ontario band won rock album of the year honors for “A War on Everything” at this year’s Junos.)
There’s little music content on Canadian TV other than the morning shows and CTV’s “Etalk,” and Global Television’s “Entertainment Tonight Canada.”
TV is one of my biggest mediums at the moment, especially during this COVID-19 pandemic where people are watching more linear television. Our morning TVs really do help us to very quickly introduce an artist, but it is really a limited window. It is quite limited to a certain audience being at that time of day. So we aren’t reaching the TikTok kids, and we are not reaching all of the kids that are on social media with our morning TV. And the we’ve got “Entertainment Tonight” and “Etalk”…..
“Entertainment Tonight” and “Etalk” focus on largely international superstars. If they feature a Canadian it’s Drake, Shawn Mendes, Nickelback, or The Weeknd. Neither is likely to do a major spot on the less heralded Glorious Sons.
I would say that if you could deliver a really compelling story to “Entertainment Tonight” or “Etalk,” then you can secure what is called a “One To Watch” feature for these artists. But outside of that, yes that’s right. We can put out a Nickelback press release any day of the week, and everybody is going to pick it up. Everybody wants to talk to them about Chad’s projects. I’m thankful for this, and I’m sure that they are thankful too. But there’s a Nepalese-Canadian artist Curtis Waters who was raised in Calgary, Alberta. He currently lives in the U.S. (in Cary, North Carolina). He put a song out in June which has currently over 100 million streams. and there are likely few people in Canada who know who that is.
(Curtis Waters‘ “Stunnin,‘” which features a verse from Harm Franklin, has found a strong audience with 100 million plays on Spotify to date. The track first became a hit on TikTok earlier this year with a 15-second music clip posted online
The 20-year-old student—real name Abhinav Bastakoti– and his 16-year-old brother Albert dance goofily together to a short snippet of “Stunnin’,” recorded at home. Underneath, he posted a caption, “Dancing to my song everyday until it goes viral tbh.” Now, he has a licensing deal with BMG.)
Today, labels, publishers, managers, and digital marketers need to understand social media, radio, music licensing, video platforms, live streaming, and streaming platforms including grasping Spotify’s algorithms. Do you pay attention to those Spotify algorithms?
Not as much as the managers, and the digital marketing teams that these artists have that we work with. I certainly see the pure streaming numbers on the play listings, and in the importance of some of their campaigns. I know what the DSPs (digital service providers) that I use, and I know that this is how people are consuming music. But I do not pretend to be an expert in that sector because that is a whole trend job in itself.
People are mostly finding out about music through YouTube, but there’s also Facebook, Instagram, Spotify, Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, and other online platforms informing them.
TikTok is interesting. My 12-year-old son only listens to the radio when he is in the car on his way to school, home from school, and anywhere that we are going. Because of the amount of time that Ryder spends on YouTube watching video game tutorials, and crazy YouTube content–and he has an affinity towards music–but when he’s hearing a song in the car on Top 40 radio, he refers to it as “a TikTok song,” because that is how influential TikTok is. Yet, at the same time, Ryder does not have a TikTok account. He’s not interested in having a TikTok account which is also the fascinating part. He doesn’t have Instagram or Twitter accounts. He’s only 12. But he is very familiar with YouTube; and not only is he familiar with YouTube, but he defines popularity and success (of a track) by the number of views a YouTube video has. Very much in a “Rain Man” type of capacity, he injects information and will regurgitate it by saying to me, “Mom do you know what the Top 10 videos are and how many streams are?” I will say, Oh millions.” And he will say, “Higher.” He literally knows that Dallas Smith, for example, has this many followers.
Is Twitch on your radar at this point?
It’s not on my radar, and I don’t think it’s on Ryder’s radar. We do have a child that plays a very large amount of video games. That’s how his circle of friends communicate. They wear headphones. They are all in their homes. They play video games, and they chat with each other. They are hearing the music in games like Fortnite and Overwatch. What is interesting Larry is that he will come downstairs and say, “Mom, this is my new favorite song,” and it will be a song from 10 years ago by LL Cool J.
People discover music differently today as I just mentioned. They hear it on the streaming platforms or in films. I’m unsure of the role of radio today but I know radio programmers are being influenced by traction demonstrated by artists and songs performing well on streaming services. Music remains the lifeblood of the radio industry. It represents the vast majority of all of its content, and music engages and helps to retain radio’s sizeable audience. As part of our music environment, many artists still need radio and its reach.
I think that it is a part of the bigger strategy, definitely. It is still very important. It is an opportunity to showcase artists. They certainly do a much better job highlighting and amplifying emerging acts than other platforms. There is still a lot of repetition, and I feel like Canadian radio spends a lot of time looking at the U.S. from our proximity; to a fault in some cases. We have an incredible amount of Canadian talent that often does not get recognized until they have had success south of the border.
That is a traditional pattern. With an American record being played by 100 U.S. stations that’s a pretty good argument to pitch to Canadian radio programmers; whereas Canadian recordings, unless by a known act, start out at ground zero, and have to gradually find support. So that has been a traditional pattern for decades.
That is very traditional.
You started Red Umbrella in 2013?
The idea for the company started in December 2012. So my last day at EMI Canada was November 30th, 2012. I don’t sit still very well so it was two weeks after that I had a conversation with a couple of individuals who I have a great amount of respect for. I just had very casual conversations with them. I wasn’t 100% certain that this is what I wanted to do. Truthfully, I did not see myself running my own company. There was a part of me thinking, “Somebody come and save me. Come and give me a job.”
To a great degree, being in multinational like EMI Canada for nearly 17 years, you are cocooned.
You are, and as free as I felt with a lot of rope, and room to do my thing, you don’t realize until you are on the outside looking back, how cocooned you really were inside of those walls. And the job itself at that time was changing. We were just getting into brands, brand partnerships, developing brands for artists, and that was a whole division in itself that was really just starting.
Had Universal Music Canada taken over EMI Canada at that point?
They had yes.
Were you let go from Universal as EMI Canada came under its control?
No, I wasn’t. I was offered something different. I wasn’t invited to move over into the communications department. There was another plan presented to me. There was a discussion about coming to Universal to handle media for its associated label division. Any of the media that might be needed in that area. So if Universal proper wasn’t going to take the media in-house then I think the idea—and it wasn’t 100% clear to me—was that I would handle media for some of the associate labels, and their artists. I did think about it. I had 4 or 5 meetings after I signed my papers, and took my severance package. I had meetings with Randy Lennox (president/CEO, Universal Music Canada) and with my former boss at EMI who had moved over to Universal, Paul Shaver.
You also had to figure out some personal aspects of your life.
Yes, I had a three-year-old child. I was doing what every parent does and every mother especially; feeling guilty about not spending enough time and, thinking maybe. that this was a minute for me to catch my breath because I had been moving at such a fast pace for so many years; working weekends, nights, 7 in the morning to 10 or 11’o’clock at night on an average weekday, let alone the days that had concerts or events and whatnot. I really felt that it was a moment to figure out what I really loved and maybe spend more time. At the same time, I knew that being a stay-at-home mom, which is one of the hardest jobs in the world, wasn’t for me. To be a better mother, I needed to be outside of the house and working at something that was mine. To have my own independence in a way. I considered working at a Tim Horton’s or an LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) outlet. Sort of “beep beep” work, and not take the job home with me as I had done for so many years.
What was disheartening about EMI Music Canada was that before being taken over by Universal Music Canada in 2012, it had shrunk from 240 to 115 employees, and there was the earlier closure of its head office in Mississauga where it had been since 1971, moving downtown to Liberty Village. To see the company shrink down from about 240 employees to 115 by 2012 was heart-breaking.
Yeah, it was very, very sad. It was sad to be inside those walls as that was happening. When I joined EMI—and I don’t remember the exact year—I would have been there for 17 years in March 2013. So that would have been my 17-year mark.
(Ousted in the Universal buy-out was EMI Canada’s CEO Deane Cameron who, after rising from the stock room though the company’s ranks, served in the top position for 24 years. Three years later, Cameron was named the president and CEO of Massey Hall, and Roy Thomson Hall.
Cameron and his EMI Canada executive staff had stayed intact for decades in a company that had it its own aggressive culture and distinctive brand. Among the Canadian acts on its roster were Anne Murray, Stompin’ Tom Connors, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Moist, the Rankin Family, Nickelback, Serena Ryder, I Mother Earth, and the Tea Party; and it distributed such Canadian independent labels as Nettwerk Productions, Alert, Aquarius, Beat Factory, Marquis Classics, and Elephant Records.)
Cameron died May 16, 2019, at the age of 65. His sudden death shook the Canadian music industry hard. His memorial, held at Roy Thomson Hall, included a full house of artists, agents, managers, and label executives.)
When you started at EMI Music Canada Peter Diemer would have been VP of national promotion.
Yes. Peter Diemer was my boss. I was fresh out of Ryerson. I started in the business affairs department doing label copy and with the first 8 months a position opened up in the promotion department as an artist relations coordinator working with (artist relations manager) Steve McAuley and working with the PR team. Liz Doyle was the head of the PR team at the time. She was only there for, maybe, a month, and Beth Waldman and Anastasia Saradoc were the two heads of PR.
Are you proud of your years at EMI Music Canada where you got to work with and break so many acts?
It was very very sad (when EMI Music Canada was folded into Universal Music Canada) I loved the company. That’s the reason that I started my company because in the end, I was trying to figure out what it was that would be my next stop. I knew that it wouldn’t be at another record company, but I did know whole-heartedly that I loved what I did, and I loved where I did it, and there was no reason why I couldn’t keep doing that but on my own.
You serve as on two boards: the Canadian Country Music Association, and the Unison Benevolent Fund, a non-profit, registered charity that provides counseling and emergency relief services to Canada’s music community.
Well, I am very new to the Unison board. People are very aware of what MusiCares is in the U.S., and this is essentially the Canadian equivalent that is supporting our artists and music industry. It isn’t just for that artist that you see onstage it’s also for all those people behind the scenes. It’s me. It’s you. It’s everybody from lighting directors to stage managers to a person who worked at Live Nation Canada or someone who was at a major label and was let go, and then found themselves in a health situation and were financially-strapped and needed assistance. They have done a phenomenal job during the COVID-19 pandemic with their the COVID Relief Fund. They are a very small staff, but they are mighty.
(The Unison Benevolent Fund, the brainchild of Canadian music publishing veterans Jodie Ferneyhough and Catharine Saxberg, started as business plan drawn on a napkin during the 2009 Juno Awards following a catastrophic motorcycle accident that left Jacksoul’s lead singer Haydain Neale in dire straits. The pair talked about how difficult it is for those in the arts with no support. Even for an artist like Haydain Neale, signed to a major label, RCA Canada-affiliated Vik Recordings, there were very few mechanisms available to artists, and their families in times of crisis. On Nov. 22nd, 2009, aged 39, Neale, a non-smoker, died of lung cancer (diagnosed seven months earlier) at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital, but The Unison Benevolent Fund was born in his honor.)
There are many who are unaware that Unison’s programs provide financial assistance, and counseling of mental health issues, as well as health guidance.
I think the reason why we are now handling the PR for Unison is that they recognized that there was a disconnect within our own industry and, it’s been amplified during this COVID-19 pandemic window where you have the artist onstage, and people see the singer but we have bands and band members and crew members not realizing what Unison is. There are many who are unaware that Unison’s programs provide financial assistance, and counseling of mental health issues, as well as health guidance.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic hindered Unison’s fundraising capabilities?
A lot of the events that Unison does are public events, and with the COVID-19 pandemic, you can’t have our curling event, and you may not have our Christmas party that often raises quite a bit of money. What we found is that we didn’t hear from a lot of the industry. A lot of people don’t understand what it is, and what it is here for. So we have been really working on building awareness in our industry. And I’d love at some point to go into some of the big labels, small labels and industry associations, and have a town hall so people can really understand what Unison is.
Due to your own commitments, I understand you were initially hesitant in joining the Unison board.
For all the years that I worked in the industry, I didn’t know what Unison was. When I went to my first meeting, about 15 minutes in, I was like, “I am in!”
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-80. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record.
He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is a co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide,” and a Lifetime Member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
He is the recipient of the 2013 Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award, recognizing individuals who have made an impact on the Canadian music industry.