JAIMIE VERNON – SAM THE UBIQUITOUS MAN

This week, the legendary music retailer Sam Sniderman – the ‘Sam’ in Sam The Record Man music stores – passed away at the age of 92. The outpouring of tributes to one of the Yonge Street’s last retail mavens has been endless. He was a hero to Canadian musicians, an ally to record labels and a hard-nosed employer to his staff and franchisees. [see selected quotes from Facebook and the Twitterverse below]. I got the rare opportunity to deal with Sniderman on FOUR levels – media writer, musician, record label rep, and employee.

Bob MacAdorey interviews Sam http://youtu.be/cfw-aCgyuZM

During the early days of my own indie label, Bullseye Records, I was never able to get my product into Sam’s stores as I didn’t have the business acumen to know how to negotiate deals and saw Sam’s as just an extension of the major label machine. Record Peddler and Records on Wheels were a lot more receptive to our DIY ethic and I established a long running relationship with both. But, as distribution became more important for my artists and the label’s profile, I struck up a consignment deal with Sam’s mothership store at 347 Yonge Street to at least get our first CD releases some rack space. One of the store’s managers at the time was Mike Fisico and he was quite helpful in getting a deal for our product ironed out; the Barenaked Ladies had managed to turn retail on its head with a little yellow cassette demo tape that went on to sell over 80,000 copies because of the support of retailers like Sam the Record Man and the newly invading HMV chain. Then I shot myself in the foot.

At the time I was publishing ‘Great White Noise Magazine’ which was keeping a finger on the pulse of the Canadian independent music explosion in real time. When HMV boldly unveiled their first store at 333 Yonge Street only doors away from the Temple on the Mount that was Sam the Record Man, there was an industry excitement and a simultaneous disruption in The Force. HMV invited the magazine to the launch party, gave us swag and generally made every effort to kiss up to the media. It was all very new and shiny…and British. The Wizard’s curtain had been pulled back and behind it was Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. The coverage in ‘Great White Noise’ was done in the form of a comparison chart between the two mighty chains (the third mighty force, A & A’s Records & Tapes at 351 Yonge Street, was already bankrupt at this point). Days after the issue of the magazine hit the street I got an angry phone call from a very agitated Mike Fisico about my not-so-complimentary assessment of Sam the Record Man’s dilapidated old retail museum.  Not only was ‘Great White Noise’ banned forevermore from the store, but Bullseye’s music product was removed from the shelves. I learned a lesson that day: don’t poke the bear or bite the hand that feeds you.

Fast forward to 1998. I had been tapped by John Sakamoto, editor of the Toronto Sun/CANOE Jam! Showbiz website, to update and re-invent their grossly out-dated Canadian Pop Encyclopedia that had been launched in 1994. I had the knowledge to give them what they needed and the money would be handy as my lovely wife, The Rockgoddes, had just given birth to our son. At the end of the summer I caught word that the second set of City of Scarborough/Toronto amalgamation employee buy-outs was about to be offered up as a means of attrition. I had been working for Scarborough as an archivist for a decade and was anxious to become a dancer, er, I mean a full-time record executive with my Bullseye label. This was the opportunity that could make those dreams come true. But a curious thing happened the day I got my exit package from Human Resources. Sakamoto called me up and said that Sam the Record Man was about to launch a retail website and they needed a content editor – specifically someone with a vast knowledge of Canadiana; Sam Sniderman was adamant about staying loyal to his reputation for supporting Canadian talent and wanted that reflected in the website itself. I was intrigued and followed up with a phone call to the new website’s ‘President Elect’. I didn’t let on that I already had a foot out the door at my current job and told him that for me to leave the City I needed to start at the same pay scale and with the same benefits: 3 weeks vacation, dental, medical, etc. He hired me over the phone. I went downtown to see him the next day to sign an employment agreement where my car broke down on Wellington Street directly in front of his office building nearly making me late for the appointment. But my nervousness in the meeting turned to disbelief when he asked me what a website was(!?!) Turns out he was an advertising executive that Sam the Record Man had hired as a defacto capital investment broker to raise the money to make the retail site a reality. He was an internet Luddite, knew nothing about the music industry, and didn’t know the first thing about the retail business. He’s the guy I would be reporting to. I should have walked away right there. But instead, I took a three week vacation so that my wife and I could move into a new apartment and showed up at the Sam the Record Man website head office on December 7, 1998.

The office was on the second floor of the Carpet Factory on Liberty Street near King & Dufferin Streets. As I entered the security locked foyer of the facility there sat a drop-dead gorgeous receptionist who looked like P!NK who greeted me. The sign on the wall behind her said Modern Technologies [not their real name]. Was I in the right place? Was this another interview with someone more qualified than my boss to run the show? I was soon ushered through a set of unmarked warehouse doors beside the receptionist and found myself in a massive loft that had been freshly renovated and smelled of paint and sawdust. Sitting at work-benches two-abreast were more than 30 people tapping away on computers.  I was intercepted by the Sam’s I.T. facilitator and was shown a work bench of my own. It had no computer on it but did have a telephone. I called my boss and asked him what I should do.
“Have you met Fabio, the I.T. guy?”
“Yes”, I said.
“Good, you and Fab will build the website together.”
“I don’t have a computer.”
“Yeah…that…we can’t have one delivered until after Christmas.”
That was the second signal that I should have walked. I spent the next two weeks reading a book and doing music biz stuff on the phone with bands and artists I was trying to sign to my evolving record label. Fab would have me sit with him a few times a day as he began designing the home page for the website. We went over logo ideas and tried to figure out what kind of tabs and headers would be required. We took a break at Christmas and when I returned in early January 1999 (after Mayor Mel Lastman had the Army clear the snow on Toronto’s streets), I not only had a computer, but Fab and I had been moved to a special loft balcony over-looking the computer drones who were obviously working away for whatever this Modern Technologies company was doing. Turns out, they were the programmers for a Triple X porn site. Sam’s was going to need a lot of computer power to drive the website once it was up and running. This company not only had the server space we needed but they were a silent investor in the project. Over the next few months consultants were brought in to create the back-end metrics required to not only run a massive 250,000 music title database but to handle merchant issues with credit cards. They bought the interface from some company in New York City. Soon the place was crawling with consultants…all contradicting and superseding each other. The Modern Technologies administrator was left to handle organizing all these technical people and the rampant overload of new set-backs.

What should have taken less than 6 months to launch was becoming a massive headache to co-ordinate and get functioning. In the melee Fab and I probably quit half-a-dozen times because our own ‘boss’ was off jet setting around the world with a famous host of Fashion Television and leaving us directionless. I wondered aloud why he was making $100k a year…and I was getting $30k for doing his job. I voiced my frustration with his incomprehensible (and non-existent) management skills in a meeting with the consultants and was promptly fired by the Modern Technologies project leader. We had a bit of a public yelling match with me running up one side of him and down the other. He didn’t have the authority to fire me and when he went to rat on me to my real boss, was quickly informed that I was the most senior staff on the team – having been the first one hired. I was also the ONLY guy that had been keeping notes on the complete clusterfuck going on and knew EVERY inch of the project – short of how to get the damn thing actually working! Truth was…they couldn’t risk me taking that info to say, HMV, who had already launched well after us. As we got closer to BETA testing the site, more Sam’s employees were hired and we were shuffled off to another set of offices in the Carpet Factory building. Goodbye porn. Hello sanity. Well, for a short period anyway. I was more than offended by the sudden decision to have a new supervisor installed over me – but it was the inestimable Howard Druckman who had far more writing experience than I and we got along great. He was also the one having to take the heat from management as we were tasked with back-filling descriptions and bios for every title in the Sam the Record Man inventory catalog. They also brought in an office coordinator and two other content writers – Chris O’Connor and Jessica Pack. We became a sick-and-twisted dysfunctional family and constantly gave management the gears. As the fall rolled around I was already planning my eventual exit strategy as I’d managed to entice a rather financially well-off American to invest in my record label. I’d also discovered a powerful legal firm on another floor in the Carpet Factory who helped me incorporate…and bring Randy Bachman to the table as a recording artist. Wheels began turning fast behind the scenes and my plan to eventually leave Sam’s was in motion. I was waiting for the perfect time to make my escape. Several events hastened that departure.

In their infinite wisdom the hired the head of the newly bankrupted BMG Music Service (competitor to Columbia House) who became our new boss. The gent that hired me was, ahem, phased out – especially after an incident at Sam the Record Man head office where Sam Sniderman’s son, Jason Sniderman, called him out on his complete and utter lack of knowledge about what was going on with the project. Ironically, his new American replacement knew about as much as my old boss did. But, he was a verbally aggressive, mintzing, over-bearing Nathan Laine-type circa ‘La Cage aux Folles who also happened to be an American. This guy was NOT Sam Sniderman approved but was hired to bridge the gap between the record labels, the advertisers and Sam’s vision for the new-and-improved internet store. He was rarely at the office and his yap-shit little dog spent most of the time pissing on the office hardwood. But when he got down to business he was very effective. His first mission was to have us relocated to 347 Yonge Street. There needed to be coordination between head office and our office. The best way to keep the information and communication flow problem-free was to put us in the same building. We were set to launch the site leading into Xmas 1999. Fulfillment staff was hired, our desks and office equipment was moved and nearly one year to the day that I had started with Sam’s we fired up the .COM office on the third floor of the Sam’s mothership. Then something truly unexpected happened. The weekend after we arrived there was an unimaginable snow storm and on the Sunday night the roof collapsed…destroying half of the third floor and much of our office space. The details after that were chaotic. I remember not going back to the office until sometime in January 2000. The roof had been fixed. The website was abuzz and CDs were being bundled in dozens of mailbags each night like so many of Santa’s toy sacks. Then more shit hit the fan. Inventory for the website was being pulled from the main store’s floor stock. We were depleting the bins and it was affecting sales in the store itself. The manager during days was not amused. We were selling more than we could replenish. Soon both the store and the website were scrambling for product. There were a lot of closed door meeting about what to do. Initially, I was sent on a fact finding mission to see if there was an independent distributor in the Greater Toronto Area who could handle the fulfillment. I met with executives at Saturn Distribution but their inventory was a scattershot of calling in favours from other sources if and when they needed stock in a hurry. We passed on them which was a prescient decision when they suddenly went bankrupt. The solution was offered up by Jason Sniderman and his crew at Sam’s warehouse – Roblan’s Distribution. The website would get product directly from them and free up the store to carry on with their own inventory as before.

Not long after, the legendary Sam Sniderman himself came to us and spoke to my bosses and I about running a major campaign to drive traffic to the website as a tie-in with the upcoming JUNO Awards. Sam wanted to feature and promote an entire month’s worth of CanCon music leading up to and following the Awards show itself. I was immediately re-assigned and made the lead on collecting data and coordinating pricing, placement and efficacy of certain titles. The campaign would involve identifying every JUNO nominee and winner since the origins of the awards dating back to the early 1960s. With my online Encyclopedia already in place I gathered my research documents and spent a week compiling a complete list of everyone who had ever sniffed the wind of a JUNO victory. Turns out there had been more than a thousand such designations. I compared these names against the Sam’s website. Then I cross-referenced it against the 250,000 titles in the store inventory database. Suddenly, the grim reality of the situation and what it meant to Sam’s campaign became crystal clear. I called a pow-wow with my bosses…and excluded Sam himself. I didn’t want to piss the old man off or embarrass him or his staff.

The truth of the matter had major implications for proceeding with the online campaign. Of the 1,000+ winners and nominees of past JUNO Awards, less than 1/3 of those had product available on CD. The record labels, in their infinite wisdom, had either stopped producing older titles or never re-issued the recordings in the first place. Secondly, less than ½ of the remaining artists had never been carried by Sam the Record Man stores so they didn’t appear in the company’s database. And the third kicker was that 1/10th of the remaining names had no product in Sam’s inventory. It would have to be rush ordered from label warehouses in time for JUNO Week. I dropped the bomb in the lap of my bosses. They’d have to tell the Sam’s store managers who, in turn, would have to tell Sam – a guy who was already working on a TV bumper for the broadcasting network with the Barenaked Ladies to advertise the CanCon sale at Sam the Record Man stores. In the end, the website featured 80 CDs by various current and former JUNO nominees and winners. It was hardly the celebration Sam had envisioned. I couldn’t help but feel we’d all failed on various levels. But I came away with a vision for the future of my label. I would chase down the rights to the long out of print Canadiana and re-issue it. Sam the Record Man would then have the inventory they’d need for future JUNO campaigns.

By this point the mood in the office and the uncertainty of Sam’s as an entity (we’d had two paycheques bounce during this period) was pushing me to take my leave. But I had one more thing to do before I would beat a hasty retreat. I made a deal with the store buyer to carry Bullseye’s current releases which I’d been putting out sporadically over the year. They even let me write the copy to go on the website. A store employee, Lou Bova, heard about me and my label while shop talking with store staff and he hooked me up with KOCH Distribution.  KOCH and Bullseye signed a deal shortly thereafter. My work at the store was done. I began lazily calling in my content copy from home when I had time to bother with it. Eventually, the office gave me grief and insisted I come to work. I pointed out the bouncing paycheques, and the failure to recognize the merit increases I’d been promised by the original corporate president. They balked. I quit without remorse.

KOCH would have my CDs stocked in every Sam the Record Man store in Canada by the Fall of 2000. I owed Sam Sniderman a debt of gratitude. His decades long mission to recognize Canadian talent became mine. Alas, the company finally succumbed to internal hemorrhaging in 2001. Jason Sniderman attempted a revival but the coffin was finally nailed shut in 2007. The store was demolished shortly after and my place there has become but a distant collection of anecdotes. I don’t regret my time there…only the kidney stone I got the day I went to collect my final pay cheque. Sam’s it seems was both a joy and a pain. Like the legendary man himself.

SAM SNIDERMAN IN MEMORIAM:
Former L’etranger guitarist/singer and now NDP MP ANDREW CASH recognizes Sam Sniderman’s contributions in the House of Commons http://youtu.be/XPJ3-rXKLpw

“(Sam Sniderman) was a great supporter of local and independent music”. – RICHARD UNDERHILL (Shuffle Demons)

“Sam the Record Man told me as a teenager, “Since you buy so many records here, you should think about getting into the music business”. – KEVIN DOYLE (Award winning Canadian music producer)

“Sam was the only retailer that would carry my “Head Roach” album. He gave it a prominent spot on the wall next to Neil Young”. – SEBASTIAN AGNELLO (Lords of London, solo artist)

“My Dad introduced me to Sam at his Yonge Street store when I was 11 years old; Sam handed me a free copy of the 7″ single of Wild World by Cat Stevens, and to this day it’s one of my fave songs”. – JOSEPH TRAINOR (Joe College & The Rulers)

“Sam was a great guy. When I was a teen, I dated a kid (an aspiring actor) who worked at Sam’s so we hung around in the store a bit. Sam was like your favourite uncle making jokes in a kindly way. Sad day, indeed”. – EVA EVERYTHING (independent solo artist)

“Much of the success of CHUM’s Production Department was due to Sam’s extensive Soundtrack and Instrumental Catalog. Every few months we’d go into Sam’s on Yonge and buy $600 worth of anything that looked interesting”. – WARREN COSFORD (Chum Radio executive)

“Good Night dear Sam! You did great stuff”. – DAVID MARSDEN (CHUM/CFNY/THE ROCK 94.9 DJ)

“Sweet Sam Sniderman,,,,thanx for all the laughs…RIP”. – KELLY JAY (Crowbar)

“A true legend of the record business”. – BOB ROPER (WEA, Anthem, Harris Institute)

“He was a colourful character of the first order who was in some ways a more compelling entertainer than some of the artists whose records he sold in his stores.” – MARTIN MELHUISH (Author of the books “Heart of Gold” & “Oh! What a Feeling”)

“When record buying was fun. The excitement of going into a store and seeing what hidden or lost treasures were there! Great retailer.” – TERRY McMANUS (Recording artist, producer, Fanshawe College instructor)

“…when I was working at Manta Sound, I would go into Sam’s and see the artists I had worked with, front racked in the store. No other record store did so much for Canadian recording artists and independent labels. Thank you, Sam”. – RON SEARLES (Manta Sound Studio)

“Sam is a mensch of the highest order, a true gentleman. He always treated me with kindness and respect…he bought my Pointed Sicks record and other product from Quintessence label. Great guy!! Great record store by a great guy who we missed since the closing of the store. RIP and enjoy the music in heaven…and enjoy the silence of salesmen. You done great! Rest well, my friend”. – MICHAEL WILLIAMS (MuchMusic VJ, Quintessence Records)

“How many music fans and Canadian music industry peeps spent time in Sam The Record Man as a teenager? Everyone. RIP Sam Sniderman”. – ERIC ALPER (eONE)
“Thank you, Sam. You were a true Canadian music fan. RIP.” – BERNIE LABARGE (Famed Canadian guitarist)

“He’d been out of the news for so long that most people’s reaction has been, “I didn’t know he was still alive.” It’s the end of an era nonetheless. I so miss the glory days of Sam’s and A&A’s – we knew, even then, what an extraordinary concentration of music retail it was at Yonge & Gould. There was nothing like it, before or since, anywhere in the world, for choice, deals or – especially – the proximity of two well-matched competitors right beside each other. NYC, London, any place I ever went that had great record stores – they were always some distance from one another. Toronto was special.
I spent so much of my life (and money!) in those stores, from around 1966 to 2002 or so, when it all began to fall apart. The main HMV store, just south of Sam’s, was pretty good for a long time, but it’s a shadow of its former self today. They’ve abandoned half the building and now music is all but lost amongst DVDs, video games, magazines and whatever other ephemera they can still sell.  What made Sam’s and A&A’s so special was their willingness – especially Sam’s – to stock absolutely anything, assuming that somebody, sometime, would buy it. This led to those amazing bins on the second and third floors that held treasures you simply couldn’t find anywhere else. Yes, the place was a dump, it was dirty, chaotic and the last word in un-automated disorder, but it was great. I miss those days so much! And Sam could be tough to deal with. He always had a smile on his face, but he could be cantankerous and irascible, too. Still, he was a hard man to hate. I remember one Saturday morning in the mid-90’s when I walked in there to buy new CDs, and I’d already been to HMV (did anybody ever go to just one store?). I knew him a little bit – at least he knew who I was, anyway – and, seeing what I was carrying, he growled at me, “why are you giving your money to foreigners?” He was one of a kind – or, at least, one of a now-vanished breed of tough, smart, idiosyncratic Jewish retailers who exploded onto a moribund retail economy full of ideas, energy and chutzpah. Dull old Toronto, boring safe mock-British T.O. fell before them like ninepins: Sam, Ed Mirvish, Mel Lastman, all the developers, dealmakers, all hungry and smart and energetic as hell. Not genteel, not cultured or intellectual, not members (at least, not in those years) of the country clubs or the Lake Joseph crowd. One generation removed from the immigrant generation, straight outta Kensington Market. My dad’s generation, now as remote to us as the Victorians. One thing you have to give Sam – there was nobody, nobody at retail, nobody in broadcasting, nobody in the media, who was willing to give Canadian talent a shot like he did. And there really isn’t today. And that really is a tragedy”. – DAVID BASSKIN (of the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency).

“RIP Sam. You were the best !” – MARK LOGAN (Encore Records, Kitchener)
“I’ll never forget  in The Lords of London when our 1st single “Cornflakes and Ice Cream” 1967…was taking off, he decorated the whole front window and part of the 1st floor with Lords pictures and we spent part of the day signing pictures and records in the store and on Yonge Street…was a lovely “iconic” man.” – GREG FITZPATRICK (Lords of London)
“I worked at head office, just up from “The Brown Derby” on Yonge St. circa 1974. He was a fine employer, albeit, a tad thrifty but I was given control of the 45 department and full access to the basement & the third floor… where I often spent my lunch 1/2 hour. I still have a good number of those dusky jewels in my vinyl collection. Thanks, Mr. Sniderman…” – TERRY DRAPER (Klaatu, former Sam’s employee)

“Glass Tiger was doing an in store on Younge st. Sam asked how many singles had we sold. It was about 48,000 and when we left the store he placed an order for enough to make Don’t Forget Me When I’m Gone a GOLD single. I will never for get him for that.” – JOE BAMFORD (Manager for Glass Tiger)

“First store to take a chance on a young indie band called, Barenaked Ladies and offer for sale a 5-song yellow tape. The ‘Indie Revolution’ of the early 1990’s wouldn’t have been without Sam’s!” – MATTHEW PAGE (Page Publications & Distribution)

“I worked for his as well in the 80’s…got my start in the business and also used to make trips down to the store when i was a kid to buy the latest and greatest. Both he and his stores will be missed.” – WARREN STEWART (EMI Music)

“Went there many times during my two tours of duty in Toronto, first to pick up some 33’s and 45s I couldn’t get through the radio station and later, laser discs (remember those?) Video tapes, both Beta and VHS, and import CDs. If Sam’s didn’t have it back in the last century, it probably didn’t exist.” – MIKE CLEAVER (DJ 1050 CHUM, CFRB, CFTR)

Last night of Sam the Record Man
http://antennastoheaven.wordpress.com/2012/04/23/sam-the-record-man/

Paul Myers’ blog
http://pulmyears.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/remembering-sam-the-record-man-june-15-1920-september-23-2012/

From Canadian music archivist Nicholas Jennings:
The best tribute Toronto could give Sam Sniderman would be to resurrect his iconic neon spinning discs sign. Ryerson promised to do it but is now reneging.  Write Ryerson prez Sheldon Levy (pres@gwemail.ryerson.ca) and Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (councillor_wongtam@toronto.ca) and urge them to honour their commitment and pay Sam the respect his legacy deserves.

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

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

3 Responses to “JAIMIE VERNON – SAM THE UBIQUITOUS MAN”

  1. Another good story Jaimie and this along with others are my favorites. My biggest memory of going to Sam’s was meeting Gordon Lightfoot and he signed two signatures of his two Lp’s he did with United Artists which was his first and second album. no other store will ever emulate Sam The Record man.

  2. You really should write a book. Or a poem. Thar’s gold in them thar words, Bucko. I wish I’d written that.

  3. […] 12 ½ years from November 1998 when I was hired as content editor for Sam The Record Man.com (see last week’s column) through June 2011 when my contract ended with dB Promotions doing radio promotion. I also ran my […]

Leave a Reply to Max Brand Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: