JAIMIE VERNON: The Music That Got Away
Running a record label requires the stealthy and diplomatic handling of not only music but the egos of those that make it. Like certain personal relationships, you gotta put up with the crazy shit occasionally to get at the good sex.
To that end, the metaphorical sex was pretty good 95% of the time when I ran Bullseye Records. I have no real complaints. I got to work with some legends in the Canadian music business – Randy Bachman, Klaatu, Goddo, Honeymoon Suite, The Kings, Moxy, Killer Dwarfs, Rick Santers, Tony “Wild T” Springer, Mainline (without Mendelson…though he does make an appearance later in this story), Walter Zwol, Tom Wilson & The Florida Razors, Figures At Dawn, Geoff Gibbon’s Silverlode, Paul Zone’s New York punk band The Fast, Dave Rave (The Shakers, Teenage Head), Bob Segarini, Garwood Wallace’s Twitch, David Quinton (The Jitters, Stiv Bators Band), and non-Canadian artists like Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson and Leo Sayer. There was also the added benefit of helping solo performers who had been in these acts like Terry Draper & Dee Long from Klaatu, Jeff Jones of Red Rider/Ocean/The Infidels/Carpet Frogs fame, and Tom Hooper of Grapes of Wrath.
Bringing dozens of these disparate musicians and products together under one roof was the easy part – I had a silent partner who supplied the capital needed to allow us the luxury of offering the most lucrative advances and royalty deals for any indie label in the country. We offered a 50-50 split on sales which was unheard of. There was a good reason for that…it was a stupid idea from a business perspective. We were assuming all the risks and not recouping first before paying the acts. But I was determined to not be like every record label before us – where the artist never saw a dime. Everyone at least got some decent money up front. Sales were never record breaking so royalties were always thin. But many of these artists were just grateful to have product at their shows again after being out of print for years and years. New sales equaled liquid cash at live gigs. But as with many marriages, money ultimately drove the bus and caused the occasional battle – especially in defending who we were going to give the biggest promotional budgets to. The whole machine – including the acts – managed to make a living for a fleeting 5 or 6 years before the ship hit the economic iceberg in 2008 and sank faster than the Titanic. As with all great adventures one always regrets that it comes to an end. But, overall, it was a hell of ride… albeit briefly.
People still ask me about the near-fantastic stories on how I got to work with Bachman (he bought me Chinese food, I got him distribution), or going on the road with Goddo (where I drove the equipment van into a moose), or insider details on that mystery band Klaatu (NOT The Beatles…just an incredible stimulation). But I’ve never really talked about the ones that got away. Despite our fantastic brand-name Classic Rock roster there are quite a few projects that just never materialized. Some were so close and others just part of a Canadian music geek’s life-long wish list.
When my business partner and I teamed up in 1998, a mandate was established after I’d done some research into getting national distribution. The major labels weren’t interested in the few titles I had in the catalog – several tribute albums to 1970s classic rock and solo works by Terry Draper and Dee Long. To get wider distribution – potentially with EMI or Sony – we knew we had to bring on more titles and recognizable artist names. I started doing detective work through the network of industry people I had known for years. I asked around. Who owns the rights to these titles? Who’s got master tapes? Pacemaker Entertainment helped us secure Goddo and David Quinton. Gary Pig Gold had helped co-produce our Bay City Roller and Sweet tribute albums and got us Dave Rave, The Shakers, Tom Wilson’s Florida Razors, Robbie Rist’s The Masticators and New York punk act The Fast for full-length re-releases. I had also been in touch with many acts through several years of correspondence online via my Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia. The deals and the signings were rapid fire. By 2000 we’d acquired nearly 20 titles. The major labels still wouldn’t talk to us but we finally landed national distribution through KOCH – mainly on the back of bringing Randy Bachman’s titles, Klaatu and Honemoon Suite to the negotiating table.
The phone started to ring with other acts wanting to get on board. John Sakamoto who had been my editor at CANOE.ca had given some vinyl restoration work to ex-Twitch guitarist/singer Garwood Wallace – who also happened to be the floor manager at Sam The Record Man on Yonge Street where I was working a day job while we struggled to get the label off the ground. Garwood had stripped clean vinyl transfers of the two Kensington Market albums and an early ‘70s teen pop act called Abraham’s Children. These were for personal use as the titles weren’t available on CD and John, Garwood and I enjoyed listening to the stuff again as fans of Canadiana. I enquired as to who owned the material. The Kensington Market albums were still under the control of Bernie Finkelstein’s True North label (and was already requested for re-release by Pacemaker) but the Abraham’s Children album, ‘Time’, was controlled by the band – specifically the multi-talented Jimi Bertucci.
I sent him the completed master after Garwood gave it a more thorough cleaning. He loved it. I sent him paperwork for a deal. He signed it. Then at the 11th hour the band requested a change in the deal. They wanted 4x more money than I was offering. My deals were standard. The album had been out of print for 35 years, the band no longer existed, and the master was not from source tapes. It’s a big factor in trying to price and budget for a re-issue – especially when audiophiles would surely take us to task for lifting the master from vinyl. It’s not that it sounded bad, but tape sourcing is crucial in trying to price and promote something for the first time in digital form. I told him the album wasn’t worth what he was asking. From a business perspective it was true. I wasn’t there to judge the material or its artistic value – only its market value. Our mid-tier re-issues were going to sell cheap and even with that, our sell-through was only expected to be 500 copies. It was a niche market in collectibles without a big profit margin. The amount he wanted in advance would negate the thin profit. He reasoned that the album would sell thousands. We couldn’t come to terms. I let him have the master for free – despite having paid Garwood for the work he did on it. I decided to take the loss and move on. The band did reunite and Jimi sold CDRs from his website. You can still get it here, I believe:
Dee Long of Klaatu is well respected engineer and has worked with some of the biggest names in music – David Gilmour, Duran Duran, Paul McCartney, Mark Knopler, and more. He produced the 1984 Gary O’Connor album ‘Strange Behaviour’ at ESP Studio in Buttonville, Ontario. Dee was kind enough to introduce me to Gary whose song “Shades of ‘45” might be one of my favourite CanCon tracks of all time. Gary wanted to record a new album. He had a bunch of tracks demoed and I thought it would be a great idea to team up. In return he also had a number of after-market compilation projects and contacts with the majors he was willing to attach my label to. It seemed like a perfect fit – especially with industry legend and former bandmate from his days in Cat, Jim “Soupy” Campbell , helping us along. I got him an advance against some recording. But soon we both got busy. We managed a number of meetings but things went sideways from there. I was juggling the production and mixing of Moxy’s “Raw” album and Mainline’s “Last Show @ The Elmo” projects and left Gary to his own devices. Then his father – the truly legendary big band leader Billy O’Connor – passed away. It seemed inappropriate to push Gary to get me some rough bed tracks for the album/EP or whatever we were going release. Then I lost touch with him. It was my own fault as he was struggling to deal with his Dad’s estate AND make a living. I should have kept on top of the deal. Alas, bigger projects fell in my lap and Gary was lost in the shuffle. I’ll always be sorry that we didn’t sort it out before the label fell apart. He’s a great guy…and always took time to make my son, who was very young at the time, feel part of our lunch conversations.
When we completed the mix of the Mainline album “Last Show @ The Elmo”, the band’s drummer, Tony Nolasco fired the finished mix off to former member – and chief songwriter – Mendelson Joe. Joe had not been in the band for years having carved himself out a life as a solo performer and notoriously hermitic painter and artist. Joe embodies the true hippie spirit of dropping out of society. He returns to the big city only when personal business demands it – usually when his paintings are presented in Toronto art exhibitions. He’s also notoriously impossible to work with. I assumed Tony ironed out the details of how/why/when Mendelson Joe would be involved in the disc as he wrote or co-wrote every song years before when the group was known as McKenna Mendelson Mainline. I was assured everything was taken care of and was given the song publishing details to put on the artwork (created by Mainline’s longtime go-to-guy David Andoff). Mere minutes after we’d launched the CD I got a hand-written cease and desist letter from Mr. Mendelson personally. He pointed out his displeasure with the credits and the incorrect publishing details and went on a tirade about tropes with various band members dating back 30 years. But it didn’t stop him from asking me if I wanted to re-release his out of print solo albums. I called him to sort out the publishing discrepancies and he was quite amiable once I established that I wasn’t out to rip him off. His trust issues were assuaged when I offered to listen to whatever he was interested in re-issuing. Not long after that I received a package in the mail with another hand-written note outlining his master plan for the re-issues, his payment expectations and what he would and wouldn’t do to promote said releases. To his eternal credit I immediately recognized that he wasn’t on some ego trip – but was very protective of his art and his work ethic. As much as I respected that, I needed something with commercial appeal. The albums were never best sellers and I didn’t want to insult him by bringing him on board ONLY because of the Mainline connection. We agreed not to pursue a deal.
I turned down a lot of acts who I didn’t feel suited the label – even the ones with marquee power. Having worked with photographer Marko Shark on a number of promotional shots for my acts (including Goddo and Velvet Hammer), he was determined to help my label get international clout by introducing me to some of the biggest Classic Rock acts in North America. Sounded like a perfect marriage – on the surface. He really wanted us to secure Alice Cooper whom he’d been personal friends with for years – but Alice left the conversations with his handlers. His handlers weren’t very co-operative in the least. There was a lot of talk back and forth but I always got the sense that they were juggling a dozen other deals behind the scenes that would have been impossible to reconcile with whatever plans we might have had to market and promote him – especially being in different countries. But Marko kept dropping my name into the laps of the rich and semi-famous. Joey Molland from Badfinger called one afternoon out of the blue. He’d been made aware of my presence previous through Marko but never followed through – until he’d seen an article about our label in Billboard magazine written by Larry LeBlanc. He had put two and two together and realized we were the label Marko had spoken about. Alas, Molland came off as pushy and desperate. He may not have been – but I’ve been hustled before and this appeared to be the lead up to a money siphoning grift. I stayed clear. Mark Farner, ex-Grand Funk Railroad, was next. He was selling his new born-again Christian solo release. It was so NOT a fit for our label. I never told him I was an atheist.
Then there was the day a call came that my account manager, Stacey Washington, took. He runs into my office and says, “There’s a guy on the phone saying he’s Edgar Winter. I laughed and didn’t believe him. He said Marko sent him. He said you’d know who that was.” Sure enough it was Edgar Winter. We’d met briefly at Canadian Music Week in 2001 or 2002 when Greg Godovitz hosted an industry music panel featuring Sass Jordan, Steve Vai, Edgar Winter and Dweezil Zappa [PS - Zappa was a complete and utter a-hole during the entire 2 hours – chip on your shoulder much, dude?].
At the time Greg was trying to promote his autobiography, ‘Travels With My Amp’, and was determined to put it in the hands of Edgar Winter and Vai. Which he did. So, when Edgar and I spoke he asked how Greg was doing and began talking about the wild stories from the book. It was a surreal conversation. International rock star, Edgar Winter, amazed and amused by our very own Greggy. Winter was about to release a jazz album and wondered if I was interested in picking up distribution in Canada. But after follow-up conversations with his handlers, it again appeared that we would be low-man on the food chain in terms of a promotional tour and performances. It was very tempting. But jazz wasn’t our forte –I had already turned down Randy Bachman’s first jazz release – and I would be mortified to put it out without a knowledgeable basis for promotion which could ultimately embarrass Edgar and our label. I had built a solid reputation with the industry on Classic Rock and didn’t want to back an album I couldn’t firmly believe in.
This was true of David Clayton-Thomas as well who was sent to me via Toronto Hogtown R & B singer Virgil Scott. Virgil was helping DCT promote his upcoming jazz album. I told him DCT and Virgil that it was out of my league. Mostly I was afraid. Should the album fail to gain appropriate media and radio attention I feared DCT might put a hurting on me! I gave them some real jazz labels to pursue – including the one through my next distributor FUSION III’ Justin Time Records. Mr. Clayton-Thomas thanked me for being straight up with him about my abilities to help his career. He respected the fact that I could have taken him for a ride…and I didn’t. I had similar experiences with Bruce Good of country act The Good Brothers – though, to his credit – he realized immediately that they were not a gooffit for my label and we part ways after a delicious lunch in Richmond Hill.
Over this period of time I was intently pursuing two Canadian legends – Jerry Doucette and Teenage Head. I wanted both acts’ entire catalogues. Jerry stonewalled me for years – first telling me he had a guy with $100,000 ready to go so I needed to offer at least that much. I told him that he should marry the guy with the $100k, we’d both have a good laugh and I’d go on my merry way. This went on for six years. I even sat him down in Vancouver but he became defensive and wanted to know who I was using for distribution – and the names of every employee in the company so as to never come in contact with anyone who’d previously ripped him off. A deal was untenable but there were never any hard feelings. Doucette is still a killer guitarist and has a lot of insights on the music business (including having been snubbed on all three JUNO boxed sets).
As for Teenage Head, well, Dave Rave – now signed to us – had played in the band as a utility guitarist and eventually as lead singer while Frankie Venom wandered off to pursue his short-lived solo dreams during the ‘80s, brought Gord Lewis to the table – along with management and his lawyer brother. There were many meetings. There were memorandums of agreement passed back and forth. I even offered to help them rescue their two previous Attic Records album beings held hostage by Unidisc in Montreal. And I was willing to drop the same cash advance on the table for their catalog as I’d offered Goddo and Klaatu.
The lawyer and management thought it was an amazing opportunity. We had the infrastructure to put Teenage Head not only back in the stores but give them a POSITIVE media experience. But Gordie was gun shy. Head had been on so many record labels and screwed by so many people they had ring marks on their bodies from everyone that had poked them with 10 foot poles. They were also in a legal battle over their latest recording – a best of package featuring surviving Ramones member Marky Ramone. Gord was pro-actively attempting to clear up all their ancient contractual issues, gather master tapes and brand themselves for the digital world – including an official website. He was going about it the right way. He was reclaiming control of the band’s legacy. But once the smoke cleared and the Ramones-related album was free to be released, Teenage Head chose Sonic Unyon Records – mainly because it was geographically located close to Gord’s house near Hamilton. For him, access to product – not necessarily money – was of prime importance. It was the craziest rebuff I’d ever had. Alas, it all came too late as Frankie Venom passed away within a year.
Other artists, who were handling their own business affairs also came into my peripheral. In these situations I always kept one hand on my wallet and one eye on my BS detector. I had artists attempting to do end runs around me to get directly to my business partner as they could smell the sweet sent of freshly minted cash. He’d invariably send them straight back to me. I carefully extracted myself from such stalkerish conversations so when there was legit talent and honourable intent on the table I was a little more attentive and willing to help. I gave cult punk figure Steve Leckie money for a Viletones re-issue that he assured me he owned. Turns out he didn’t. But I didn’t care. He needed the cash and it was a gift to a guy that I feel helped create a music scene that I ultimately benefitted from. That, and I’ve always been in awe of his command of not only the English language but media manipulation. He’s the last hero of the original punk ethos and I respect that he never sold out.
Two people I wished I’d been able to help but couldn’t was folk-singer Ronney Abramson who presented me with an option to release her two True North albums – Bernie Finkelstein gave me his blessing – but her cult audience was in Japan and I had no distribution there. I didn’t want to risk two CDs that I may not have been able to move in North America; the other was the late Kenny MacLean (Deserters, Platinum Blonde). Kenny had g’ven me a track in 1992 for my label’s long running compilation series ‘Unsigned, Sealed & Delivered’ called “In The Neighbourhood”. After I had established a working relationship with Canadian producer Terry Brown on several of my label’s projects he suggested to Kenny we should talk about reviving an album they’d produced together in the late ‘90s under the name CLEAR. Kenny and I met for lunch at The Pilot in Yorkville one day and he discussed his vision for the re-launch of the album. He was willing to assemble a live band under that name and promote the disc. Problem was…he wanted money to remix the entire record. The amount would have been the equivalent to recording a brand new album from scratch. We would have never made our money back on it and, so, the project never materialized.
Though he might have been stylistically off-base for Bullseye Records, I did pursue Ronnie Hawkins for his comeback record ‘Still Cruisin’’ (which was originally entitled “Can’t Stop Rockin’” based on a song Godovitz gave him) in 2001. We both recognized that he could make a splash in rock circles if he padded the album with big names – he brought in members of The Tragically Hip, Wide Mouth Mason, Big Sugar, David Foster, Beverly D’Angelo, Garth Hudson, Levon Helm and even Bob Segarini and Godovitz. Godovitz briefly performed in a new version of Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks and introduced me to the legendary rockabilly King. Greg talked me up so when Ronnie and I finally met face-to-face Hawkins called me “The One With The Smart Gene”. I was flattered. My parents were even impressed that I might be doing business with him – as they didn’t exactly approve of my career choice in the music biz. I was invited to his home on Stoney Lake, Ontario away from his ‘yes men’ entourage and met his wife Wanda and daughter-in-law Mary who was now handling the old-man’s business affairs. Ronnie showed me around the estate: “There’s the car Conway (Twitty) gave to me so I could come to Canada; There’s the Cadillac Elvis gave me after his first Gold Record; There’s the ruby/diamond/sapphire encrusted piano Liberace gave me – the rock star chick who lives down the lane from me likes to drink JD and puke underneath it; Here’s the crap that John & Yoko left behind when they stayed at my house in 1969. Yoko still owes me $400 for the phone bill they racked up talking to the press.” And so it went. When we finally got down to business Ronnie was asking for $100,000 advance against the new album. “I want to stop the Sheik of Araby from building a golf course in my backyard!” I told him, with all due respect, it was way too much given the expectations of how much I might sell it on my modest little an indie label. I told him that he should license the record to different labels in a dozen territories and ask for $10k or $15k from each. Then if the album tanked in one territory he’d at least be getting revenue from the others. If he put the album in the hands of, say BMG Records, for all territories the record would be done the minute they lost interest in it. This seemed like sound advice to him and he thanked me for walking him through it. In the end, his advisers decided to just press the CD independently and sell it at his infrequent shows. Then he was diagnosed with cancer and he put his career on hold. If you believe him (and the media) he was apparently cured over the phone by some kid in Vancouver that could astral project and empathically remove the lesions. The cynics in the industry noted that Ronnie often comes down with illnesses when he’s trying to promote a new record. Regardless, he did manage to generate a huge fundraiser for himself at Massey Hall – so I guess it all worked out for him.
The post-script to the Ronnie Hawkins story is that I had monitored these events and had my lawyer inquire in 2007 as to the fate of the independent product they’d manufactured those many years before. Turns out the CDs were collecting dust up at Stoney Lake. I offered management a flat-rate finished goods price for 1,000 discs and got the entire run of stock for a good price – which I sold out of in about 3 months. I saved $94,000 on the deal. Sometimes it pays to let some get away….cause you just might catch them on the rebound.
Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA
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Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com