“When you have had a hand in the top four rock songs playing the United States in one year, that’s usually the moment when you realize that you are doing something right in the music business. Jonathan Simkin, part owner of Vancouver’s 604 Records, said that’s exactly what happened to himself and Nickelback front man Chad Kroeger to inspire them to open the label that is now home to some of Canada’s top rock acts.” http://www.tangiblesounds.com/604.cfm
Jonathan Simkin’s name is associated with a long list of the who’s who in the Canadian music business. This interview provides a ton of great insight for bands that are trying to make a career in music, as well as for those who are simply interested in learning more about the business.
We want to thank Jonathan once again for taking the time to answer our questions.
Interview with Jonathan Simkin
How did you get started in the entertainment business?
Okay, I went to law school many years ago and really I’ve always been a huge music fan, but I never really had any inclination or thought that I was going to make a living in the music business, I was just a music fan like a lot of people are. It was all kind of an accident, to be honest with you. I was a criminal lawyer when I came out of law-school, having specialized in criminal law-type courses. I came home to Vancouver and I opened a criminal law firm. I was mostly doing legal aid sort of work for petty sort of crime. I just happened to move into an apartment building, this is like sixteen years ago, next door to a band. I became friendly with them. Again, that had nothing to do with my professional life, they were just friends. But I would go to parties with them and there’d be other musicians there. I don’t know if you’ve seen what I look like — I look a little disheveled, let’s just say – I’ve always had long hair and I am kinda scruffy looking. I’d have all these musicians coming up to me, saying “Hey man, you don’t look like a lawyer, like wow, that’s cool man. Can you help me with this contract?” That sort of thing. I’d always have to say no, ‘cause I really didn’t know… I didn’t even take copyright in law school. And I’d always say ‘no’. But the more people were asking and the more I was growing disillusioned with doing criminal law, the more I started to wonder that maybe that might not be a bad idea. So, one of the first clients I took on was Matthew Good, and I got him a record deal and all of a sudden I was Matthew Good’s lawyer. All of a sudden, a lot of people started to call. It’s just one of those weird things. I didn’t go looking for it. People often call me for advice for how to get into that part of the business, I never even know what to say, because you know, it was all one big accident. I’m really glad it worked out that way.
How has your unique approach to 604 records made it such a successful Canadian label?
Damn, I don’t know. It’s a good question, and again, it seems like so many things in my professional life have been kind of accidents and 604 is no exception to that. 604 had its genesis with the band Default, who are not a 604 artist but were the first artists that Chad Kroeger and I decided to work with outside of Nickelback. Chad was always a guy who liked to do things outside of his own band. That’s not a new phenomena. Even before Nickelback had a whole lot of success, Chad liked to work with other bands and produce other bands. He’s a bit of a workaholic that way. Default was a band that Chad and I pulled together. Chad produced the record, and I sort of helped the band from a management perspective….
So, it’s a long story but Chad and I did an agreement with the band. Basically, where we shopped them for a record deal and when we got them a record deal, we got a piece of their advance. And it really made me think, when we were successful and actually getting them a deal, we thought, “Wow, this is something that we can really do.” Because I had been a lawyer for a while at that point, I was aware of the different kinds of deals that were out there. I remember saying to Chad, next time we find a band we should do it a little bit differently. And he said “Yeah, whatever man, that’s your specialty. You do what you do, and I’ll produce the music.” And so when Theory of a Dead Man came along, a few years later, it was my idea to start up a production company. I wasn’t thinking we were going to be a record label. I was mostly thinking, If we deal with a band where we have rights to a number of records somehow that’s going to put us in better shape, financially, than if we just did it the way we did it with people. But again I wasn’t really thinking it was going to be a record label. But the stars kinda lined up a certain way. Nickelback suddenly went huge and Default went huge and that Hero song from the Spiderman movie went huge. And all of a sudden, all these Americans were looking at Chad and I like we were godfathers of some neo-grunge movement. I realized that we had an opportunity to seize the moment. So that’s what happened, there wasn’t really a label. There was just one piece of paper: one contract with Theory of a Deadman. That was it. There was no infrastructure but I very quickly was able to turn that into the illusion that there was a label. All of a sudden all these Americans weren’t just bidding on TOAD, they were bidding on 604. Bing bang boom, next thing you know I’m on a plane to New York and Chad and I are meeting everybody from Clive Davis to Lyor Cohen. We ended up doing our deal with Lyor Cohen back in 2001 and that gave us the seed money to start the company. I think part of the reason we’ve done well is that neither of us came from the background of record companies. We both have a lot of experience with record companies, but from a different perspective, myself as a lawyer and Chad as an artist. So we never really came into it with a set of rules or a set of expectations. We just kind of signed music that we liked and tried to make smart decisions about things; there’s never been some big overarching plan about the whole thing. Having said that, our real success has been in the last 5 or 6 years because as the rest of the music business goes down the toilet, we’ve been small enough and limber enough to be able to change our business model and do it on a dime. You can still make money in this business there’s no doubt about it. It’s just harder, you just have to be smarter and control your overhead. We have a relatively small company and our bands still make money, so that’s been a big part of it too. But I think it comes down to smart A&R choices, and really, really, people always say this phrase over and over again, it almost becomes like an empty cliché, but we really are into artist development. I don’t have to sell a hundred thousand copies of every record to be a success. I can take some time to develop a band. I mean look at Marianas Trench, I think we signed them eight years ago and it’s only in the last year and half that they’ve really exploded. If they were on a major label, they would have gotten dumped after their first record. But we stick with our bands; we can afford to do that. We also have a lot of in-house services here. I have a multimedia guy in our company. We have an internet/marketing campaign group in our company. It’s an interesting combination of people. So A&R, low overhead and smart marketing has been the key for us.
With the power of the internet, home studios, online marketing, social networking and digital downloads, where does a bands live performance stand in their overall success?
Well it’s huge and never more so than now. Now that people don’t buy CDs anymore or recorded music. And they really don’t. I mean, that’s done. CDs are done. You really have to focus on stuff that you can’t download for free. And the experience of seeing a band live is still something that’s unique and something that you just can’t experience on your computer. Same thing with t-shirts – you can’t download a t-shirt for free, you can’t download an autograph for free. The show has become increasingly important on all sorts of levels, but without being able to count on record sales, it’s increasingly become an important revenue source for all artists. It always was, but it’s more so now because there are less revenue streams that one can count on.
How do you find out about new up and coming artists?
All sorts of ways. People obviously send us demos all the time. I have people I know in the business who know what I like and are always giving us tips. Sometimes it’s local producers who are working with a band or sometimes you just hear a buzz about a band and you go looking for them. I have staff who will go out every weekend and are really into the music scene. I mean, I am too but I’m also older now and I have children. I can’t just be out at clubs all the time, so I’ve got the staff who are in their 20s who love doing nothing more than going out and seeing bands. There’s all sorts of ways that new music come to my attention.
Are there any specific online music resources that you think artists should know about or be a part of?
I still think YouTube is the best thing that has ever happened to the music business; just because YouTube has the potential for a whole lot of exposure if you’re doing cool stuff. There’s no politics, it’s not like MuchMusic or the radio. The only politics on YouTube is creating something that strikes a nerve with people. It’s a real great equalizer. So, I think YouTube is huge. MySpace for musicians, it’s still huge. I know, MySpace has kinda lost its luster, it has lost a lot of ground to Facebook, but it’s still better geared to music than Facebook. So I think that’s important. Tumblr is becoming kind of important for musicians. It seems like everyday a new sort of on-line receptacle opens. I just think it’s important to be aware of it and to be trying to get involved with as much of that as possible.
At what stage in an artist’s career does approaching a label make sense?
I don’t know if approaching a label ever makes sense anymore. That’s how much the world has changed. Labels basically have two things to offer to artists. Number 1: Distribution. But that only really makes sense when there were CDs that people were buying, because they literally had a physical distribution chain, everything from the warehousing to the trucks to the relationships with retail. But that doesn’t matter anymore. Every day it matters less because every day people buy less CDs. The beauty of iTunes and stuff is that anybody can do that. Anybody can jump on iTunes, anybody can figure out a way to get on there and to sell their music on-line. So all of a sudden, you don’t need that distribution that the major labels had. The other thing they had was money, which they don’t really have much of that now either. I’m not sure it makes sense to ever approach a label anymore. And I think you are about to witness the absolute death of the major label business. So, in a time of such insanity and such change, it’s an impossible question to answer. I think there’s this morphing right before our very eyes. And I don’t really know what’s it going to morph into. It’s funny. It’s such a simple question, yet it ended up being a complicated question. The answer is I don’t even know if anybody should be approaching labels at this point.
The other thing is, be careful what you wish for. The record deals that are being offered right now are grotesque. There are these 360 deals that are godawful. Who wants to sign a 360 deal? All it does is guarantee that you’ll never make any money. I don’t think that’s the way of the future. To me the 360 is sort of the last dying gasp of a business model that’s dying in front of our very eyes. I think people who sign these crazy 360 deals are really, really misinformed and are making a giant mistake. That’s what major labels are offering now. They want a piece of all your revenue, but they are not really willing to contribute back. And that’s just because people aren’t buying records anymore.
What are some of the ways that bands have got your attention recently?
It sounds kind of corny -I think I can probably speak for Chad on this front too- It’s just about songs for me and it always has been. When you look at our label, it’s sometimes confusing for people… how does the same label sign TOAD and The Organ? They’re such different bands, how does that happen? They both write great songs. I don’t see the conflict. I don’t see the contradiction. Especially these days; iPods have changed the way people listen to music. Genres sit nicely next to each other now. To me there’s nothing strange about having a country artist, a rock artist and a whatever artist all on the same label. I’m just looking for great songs. That really is what I’m looking for. If I don’t have a song I can market, I’m not interested. So, to me first and foremost it’s about the song. Then it’s about the person and by that I mean, is this a person that people are going to be interested in? Is this an artist that’s saying something unique? It starts with the song and circles outwards to all those other factors. No song, no interest.
What should a band not do if they want to work with someone like you?
When people try too hard to sell themselves that usually has the exact opposite effect. When I get a demo in a super elaborate package with a three-page introduction about how this band is going to be the next big thing, that’s always the last thing I want to hear. That’s always the kind of thing that turns me off. It’s really just about the music. If you’re going to send a demo, make it really concise. Don’t send forty songs, send your three best songs. Don’t send eight hundred pictures, send one picture. Don’t send this big, long story about how great you are. Send a really brief bio with what you’ve done, who you are, what you’re about. Really brief. People like me are busy and get so overwhelmed with music that when we get a package that looks like it’s going to be a hell of a chore to get through it all, that can be enough to put it to the bottom of the pile. So that’s number one.
And like I said, a lot of times a band comes to our attention because they’ve done enough on their own locally that people are starting to talk about them. If you can’t build a buzz in your own city, then what the fuck do you got? If you can’t get people talking in your own neighborhood, how are you going to get people to talk about you in the rest of the country or the rest of the world? So what do you do? Be a band. Try to create a fan-base in your own city. Try and get people to start talking about you. When people start talking about you, that’s when people like me hear about it.
Where does a label -and its artists- largest stream of revenue come from in today’s music industry?
Good question. Depends on the band. But certainly merch, live performance, playing shows, is where a lot of the focus is. Nobody sells many records anymore, so it isn’t record sales. Although the truth is, it was never really record sales; record deals were structured so unfairly to bands that it was rare for bands to make royalties on their records anyway. But they could at least get advances from the record companies if they were having success selling records. But that just isn’t how it works anymore. Even a big success in the music business isn’t much of a success anymore. So it’s not records but it’s all the other stuff that was there before. Radio plays, live performance, merchandise, endorsements, stuff like that.
According to Kiss’ Jean Simmons, Canada is the “new England.” Is the Canadian music scene on the up and up?
I’ve now been in the music business for fifteen years or so and every time I hear that stuff it just kinda goes in one ear and out the other. There were great bands here when I started, there are great bands here now. The scene doesn’t seem that different to me. People always have to say stuff like that to have something to write about. A couple of bands have some success, and all of a sudden, Canada’s the new England. Honestly man, that stuff doesn’t mean anything to me. Canada has always produced a lot great artists. Canada is going to continue to produce great artists. Canadians are music lovers and that’s great. But I really have no comment about any sort of grand proclamations about Canada being the new anything.
What sort of changes do you foresee in the business of music in the coming years?
I think it’s largely the stuff I’ve been saying. CDs are done and they’re not coming back and that’s that. You’re already seeing it, HMV just closed a couple of stores in the Lower Mainland. There’s going to be less places to buy music because there is less demand for it. You walk into Best Buy these days and it’s hard to even find the CD rack. And when you find it, you find that all they’re stocking is Top 40 and Greatest Hits records. Major labels are done. They’ve got giant infrastructure built around one activity and that activity is the sale of compact discs. And so now that that’s done, the major labels are done. It’s just a matter of time. So that’s probably the biggest change. That creates opportunities for smaller labels like us. That creates opportunities for bands. That creates all sorts of opportunities. I’m excited. To me, it’s like the Wild West right now. There’s no rules anymore. There are so many ways of doing it and I love that. I think it’s awesome. The model is completely turning on its head right now. All I know is that we’re making our music available every way we can. We’re focusing on management. So it’s more about the artist now than about just selling records. It’s about selling the artist. It’s about creating demand for an artist. And once you do that, there’s all sorts of ways to make a living from it. The focus is not going to be records anymore, from the commercial activity point-of-view. It’s still the records that brings the fans in. The record is still crucial to the process because it’s still brings people out to the shows. But it’s no longer the pinnacle of commercial activity and that’s an amazing change. I mean this has been an industry that has been controlled by the major labels for a long time and that’s coming to an end. It’s wild and fascinating …it’s very rare that you get to actually stand right next to it and watch as a business model comes tumbling to the ground, and that’s literally what we’re watching right now.
What does your daily schedule look like? Maybe people will get an idea of how busy you are?
I’m definitely not typical because in part I’m an insane nighthawk. That’s got nothing to do with the music business, I’ve always been somebody who my brain works better at night than it does during the day. I have kids, so that changes it too but I’m lucky I live very close to where I work. I usually do emails in the morning out of the house, see my kids, hang out there a bit. I usually roll into the office around one or two. I usually work from two till six. It’s mostly emails. I’m looking at my computer right now and I’ve got 176 emails I haven’t even read today. So that’s what I do. It’s kinda gross, it’s what you end up doing, sitting at your desk, getting fat and sending emails. But that’s a big part of my day. Then I go home, put my kids my bed, come back. It’s at night when I really settle in and really get anything done that involves more than just returning emails. That’s when I do a lot of that work, a lot of listening to music. Plus we have a studio in the office so there’s always bands in here. I wear three different hats, I run a record label, a management company and I’m also still a lawyer. So my days are crazy, it depends what hat I’m wearing and what’s going on that day. I’m dealing with artists, I’m dealing with contracts, I’m dealing with my staff. I’m dealing with a million different things. Every day is completely different.
Are you looking for new artists?
Absolutely. Yes. Every day. Every moment. Yes.
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