Interview - Feb 5, 2003
“Sum 41 did everything right without compromising themselves.”“Parkside” Mike Renaud is the Executive VP of A&R at The Donald K. Donald Group of Labels (DKD) in Montreal, Canada. Acts he works with include Sum 41 and Serial Joe. Here he tells us how Sum 41 worked to achieve their success, how DKD support new artists and what business model he thinks record companies will have to adopt in order to adapt to the new technological environment.
How did you get started in the music business and how did you become an A&R?
In 1997, I moved to Montreal, where I started playing drums in a band called Parkside Jones, which is how I got my nickname. Our band was booked at one point by DKD, which is also a big concert promoter in Montreal, and I met their A&R guy, René Leblanc, who was nice enough to give me an internship. My first job was to mail out packages and I just went on from there.
DKD had signed a rock band called Serial Joe, who were these 13 and 14-year-old kids out of New Market, Ontario, which is near Toronto. They were assigned to me because of my age—I was 21 at the time. We had to record their first album in one week over the March break, so that they didn't miss school. They went on to have a pretty big hit with “Mistake”, a single that sold about 80,000 units in Canada.
All of a sudden people thought I knew something when I was actually just making it up as I went along. We wound up getting a deal with Sony Music in New York, but unfortunately the person who signed us was let go in the process and Sony then decided not to release the band, even though we had re-recorded “Mistake” with Don Gilmour in Los Angeles.
Then DKD/Aquarius signed Sum 41 for Canada, although they’re with Island/Def Jam for the rest of the world. They're the biggest band I’ve worked with.
What experiences have helped you to develop your skills as an A&R?
Having a musical background and having an easygoing attitude even at stressful times.
Some A&R people have production skills and, while I know the basics of the studio, I’m not a producer. Perhaps my greatest skill is knowing instinctively who will work well together: I see my job as that of a facilitator, who is personable, knows a lot of people and ensures that the producers and the people working with the band have the right demeanour and attitude. Basically, I just try to make every situation productive and conducive to good records.
We’re an independent company, so I end up product managing most of the bands after they have made their record; I’m usually a little bit more involved than a typical American A&R because of the nature of our company.
What is the DKD Group of Labels?
We have Aquarius Records, which is our primary English-language pop/rock label. It started off with April Wine, 35 years ago, and has had numerous hits with artists like Corey Hart and Sass Jordan. We have Tacca Musique, which is home to Quebec superstars like Kevin Parent and France d’Amour, and one of the first Quebec hip-hop bands called La Constellation.
Other labels are DKD Disques, which focuses on rock and caters to Quebec, and DKD D-Noy Muzik, named after Daniel Desnoyers, the VJ on Musique Plus, a TV music channel that is the French-language equivalent of Much Music. Desnoyers releases compilation dance records and DVDs.
Part of our strategy is to set up joint ventures with groups who specialise in different genres. The core is the Aquarius team that works on all these different labels, but the other party in the joint venture has a speciality that maybe we do not have. We have an r&b/hip-hop label, Awesome DKD, which is a joint venture with a well-known guy from Toronto called Awesome. We have another joint venture with Steve Herman, who runs the Agency Group in Canada; one of the bands we have on there are Micro Maureen, who are very exciting. We have an indie/rock label with Indica Records called Indica AQ, which is home to GrimSkunk, a very popular Quebec indie band. Indica is very skilled in working with artists at the grass-roots level.
Although we’re distributed by EMI, the DKD Group of Labels is strictly owned by Donald K. Donald, so we are an independent record company.
What acts are you currently working on and how did you find them?
I’m personally working on Sum 41. We have a rock band with a horn section from Vancouver called Crowned King; they're seven guys in their early twenties. Their manager was very persistent, without being annoying, and she kept sending us stuff on the band and eventually we flew out there to see them. They’re probably the most promising group we’ve signed. We’re also working with punk/pop band All Systems Go, who are now based in L.A.
Spek is an urban artist on Awesome DKD who was previously a member of the successful hip-hop outfit the Dream Warriors. We’re starting the Aquarius International imprint where we’ll be taking acts from different countries, releasing them in Canada and then exporting them to other countries. We have a bunch of bands from New Zealand to work with straightaway and we have a lot of stuff in development.
On the French-speaking side we have a great new talent called Antoine, who has been described as a cross between Stevie Wonder and Frank Zappa. We’re going to launch his French record in April and his English record next year.
Most record companies seem to be scaling down, but we’re getting aggressive and think that there’s definitely room for us to become a major content provider in the next couple of years.
What styles of music do you focus on?
I’m looking for quality rock music that has something different to it. Crowned King is a good example: they have the energy of a Sum 41 but the music is a little more rock and they have a horn section, which makes it very appealing to me. Micro Maureen are a really solid rock band that have a bit of a British sound to them and they’re phenomenal players. All Systems Go have a raw rock & roll energy that appealed to my independent rock background as a musician.
Rock is what we’re really good at, so if I come across something that has an urban feeling to it, I’ll send it to Awesome, or if something needs to be developed, I’ll present it to Indica AQ.
How did you first meet Sum 41?
Terry Flood is our VP of International and his primary function is to take our bands and get deals for them in other territories. He was at the North by Northeast Festival in Toronto and was talking to some people about this band called Sum 41. He went to check them out and thought that they would be a great follow-up to Serial Joe. So we started negotiating a deal, but when we eventually reached the same level contractually that we had with Serial Joe, we could not give them more because Serial Joe were very hot at the time and they were unknown. They respected that and they were really appreciative when we got them a couple of shows in Montreal and some tours.
They went on to make a homemade EP, which they sent out in the States. A bidding war ensued, and they decided on the Universal company Island/Def Jam. Clearly we were afraid that we'd made a grave mistake, that we should have just given them what they wanted, but they were cool and told Universal to let Aquarius have Canada because we were the first people interested. I’ve been more of the product manager for Canada for them as opposed to their A&R guy, but I have a close relationship with the guys in the band and their manager. It all worked out very well; the guys are the engine and we just build everything around them.
What did they need to improve before recording their debut album “All Killer, No Filler”?
People who saw Sum 41 at the beginning thought that they had the energy and the songwriting skills to go to the next level. But they definitely needed to tour, which they did, and since then they’ve become really good players. They had a fanbase in Toronto and they were smart; they didn’t go out and make an album straight away, instead they made an EP called “Half Hour Of Power” and they toured the States endlessly in a small van. They did the right things and that got them ready for “All Killer, No Filler”, which was their big breakthrough.
What were the important factors in the breaking of Sum 41?
Their commitment to touring, to the band and to doing anything that was in their hands, along with their songwriting skills. They played something like 320 shows in the first year. They wanted it, and everyone who met them thought they were funny and personable.
How do you find new talent?
Usually, if something’s happening somewhere, I hear about it from a manager, a studio manager, a club owner, a publisher, through the Internet, or I get a package. I would say that packages get the least attention, unless I’ve heard about the band or spoken to them and I am expecting a package. Blind demos are probably the least favourite way of finding a band just because it tends to not work out. I would suggest bands to try to create a buzz in the city they’re in by playing live, before sending out packages. If more and more people come to check you out and the club owners like you, eventually A&R people will hear about it.
Playing live, developing a fan base and setting up a web site that’s professional, that has e-mail lists and guest books, is more important than sending out a three-song demo and praying for the best.
So you accept unsolicited material?
I do, but I definitely get to it last and only when I can. Maybe once every two weeks I’ll open a bunch of packages and listen to stuff, but I have so much coming in from other angles that I don’t have much time for it.
What do you look for in an act?
Charisma, craftsmanship and energy go a long way. You don’t have to be the best guitar player in the world to be a successful artist.
What are the pros and cons of Canadian artists being so close to the US?
One of the major pros of being a Canadian artist is that there’s so much government funding available. The government is very supportive, and I think that that’s the main reason why Canadian artists are doing so well. A band can go and apply for some money to do a demo and if they get that, they can then apply to make an album, a video, to go on tour: there are funds to support all kinds of different aspects. All this helps you to become more professional, and when you reach the level where you get interest from a Canadian or even an American label you have the experience, which is a huge plus.
American record companies are looking for stuff that’s pretty much finished because they don’t have the opportunity, time or resources to develop bands. So if someone like us can do some development on a band and on top of that use Canadian government funds, then we can present artists to American labels that are pretty much ready to go. It’s worthwhile for both industries and many American labels are looking at Canada as a breeding ground for talent, so it’s great time for Canadian artists.
How important is the potential crossover factor to the US market when you are considering signing a new artist?
It’s definitely where everybody is going to make the most amount of money. If we can develop a product and then sell it to the rest of the world through an American company, it’s a good deal. But it’s not just that, because if it’s something we just believe in and we think we can sell some records, we’ll do it. We made great money with Serial Joe and they just sold records in Canada.
And how important is the crossover factor to the French market?
Quebec artists can make an incredible living just by being in Quebec. We have an artist, Kevin Parent, whose three albums combined have sold close to a million records. But after having worked in Quebec, most Quebec artists want another challenge and it becomes quite important for them to reach into France, although it’s more important to the artist on a personal level than it is for us.
What is most missing in the bands you hear but do not sign?
Originality. A lot of bands emulate bands that are popular right now or were recently popular. They think that if they sound like Nickelback or Sum 41 they’re going to get more interest than if they sound like something completely different. For me it’s totally the opposite, if something sounds like something else, then I’m not at all interested.
Once signed to you, do you support a band financially so that they can focus on the music?
We do normal deals where we give the artists an advance, because obviously the whole point is to make a record, and if every band member has to hold down three jobs to support themselves and have no time to go into the studio, then what’s the point? The advance from us is probably not sufficient for a four or five member rock group to go into the studio and make a record for six months. The band has to be committed to their career and they have to be able to support themselves, at least in the early stages, but we do offer tour support and things that help the band get going, and we do access government funding and use that in their interest.
How much does a newly signed artist generally get in advances?
If it’s a baby band that is going to need a lot of development, our advances could range from $10,000 to $50,000. It depends on the situation, but most artists who are committed to being successful would rather have small advances and thus have less to pay back as they are all recoupable, and that opens us up to more dollars for marketing and promotion. I don’t think that advances are the most important thing to an artist these days, unless they really need some money. I think they’d rather have someone who’s committed and have the money there for tour support, videos, promotion and the marketing of the album.
Which of your acts did everything right in order to build a career before you signed them?
Sum 41. They played shows in Toronto, they had a buzz going, they had an energy and they went out and made this homemade EP that they sent out to everyone, and that captures their spirit perfectly. They’re four best friends who wanted to play music together and go out on the road, and their commitment level is unparalleled. They also had a good team behind them: Greg Nori managed them, they had a publishing deal with with Mike McCarty at EMI Music Publishing in Canada, and they had a great lawyer in Chris Taylor.
They just did everything right without compromising themselves. If you look at TV shows like American Idols and Popstars, those people are willing to do anything, but in another sense: “I can sing, make me into whatever you have to make me for me to become famous.” Sum 41 showed everyone that they wanted to rock in their own, particular way.
What advice would you give unsigned acts on how to build their careers at an independent level?
The important thing is to play shows and get a buzz going locally. A band shouldn’t ignore that they’re doing something wrong if nobody is coming to their shows after twenty shows. You have to get out there and hustle and get people to your shows. If people like you, you’ll feel it and it will start to build. Play shows wherever you can, and get people interested in your band at a local level before going to A&R people. If you can get all the clubs in town, club owners will talk to agents and then the agents will come and if they like you they'll take it to the next level.
Do you pay attention to who the manager, attorney and team behind an act are, when considering signing them?
It helps if someone has a good manager with a track record, but finding a great band in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t discourage me. I’d then go out and find someone who wanted to be on their team.
How much does it usually cost to record an album and then market and promote it in Canada?
Serial Joe’s album we made for slightly more US$30,000. Budgets for albums at an independent company are a little different to those at majors: we spend between $50,000 to $65,000, and after that it depends on how things are going. We’ll usually make a video, which will cost around $30,000, and we’ll spend $65,000 to $650,000 on marketing and promotion depending on the life of the record.
And then to promote it in the US?
For videos, if it’s a band that the company thinks MTV will be all over, they’ll spend $500,000. If it’s a band that the label doesn’t think will be an MTV band, they’ll spend less money, perhaps $100,000. Marketing and promotion cost millions of dollars for every band.
Has the amount of time labels give new acts before they break decreased in recent decades?
At major labels, yes, because they’re accountable for every quarter and they need to make money fast. In our case, in one year we’ve made two albums with artists who didn’t sell with their first albums, so I think we’re a little bit more patient. If we believe in an artist, we’re going to try everything we can to break them. We work with smaller budgets, but that’s an advantage to artists in certain respects: if you sign a big deal with a major you have to pay all that money back pretty quickly.
Do your artists share the costs for the videos and the making of the album?
We recoup 50% of the costs of making the music videos and as for the making of the album, it’s 100% recoupable, but the fact that we can access government money helps a lot in that respect. We have pretty standard record contracts and the only thing that I would say is different between an independent and a major are the figures.
If artists share the costs of making videos and albums with record labels, do you think they should also share ownership of the masters?
I think that eventually it’s going to get to that point, although right now record contracts are rooted in a very old tradition. I think that record companies do many things for an artist that make it justifiable for them to own the masters, at least for a certain period of time. But I do think that artists are going to be in a more favourable position very soon.
What shape will labels' business model take in the future?
Because of downloading, burning and the Internet in general, I think that record companies are going to become “music” companies. By that I mean that record companies are going to have to offer more services than just making records and that they will use CDs as leaders to sell T-shirts and tours. EMI recently did a deal with Robbie Williams that follows this exact model. I think it’s a very good idea, because it covers merchandising, touring, publishing and a little bit of everything. The music is going to be the lead for everything else and you’re basically going to create music to sell the artist.
A music company will enter into a joint venture with an artist and create a new company. They are 50/50 partners in that company and the artist becomes a staff member, gets paid a weekly salary and then they try to make the company grow. The music company has to be able to provide services that cover merchandising, publishing, touring, etc. and at the end of the year, if the company’s been profitable, each of the parties makes their dividends, and if not then they decide whether they continue into the next year.
Does Canadian radio play new music and break new artists?
Radio is not what it used to be and I can’t say that radio breaks new artists. The artist probably had a lot going for him/her before it got to the radio stage. Radio worries about the listeners and plays it safe. We have our CanCon rules, which state that they have to play a certain amount of Canadian music, but with all the successful Canadian artists it’s easy to fill the Canadian content quota for a radio station. They can play Nickelback, Sum 41, Shania Twain, Céline Dion, and the list goes on.
It would be much better if there was an outlet for new music, just to give it a chance. Lots of Canadian stations have programs where they play new music, but I don't think any station has broken a new band strictly from radio play. Having said that, if you can get something to play on all the radio stations, then you will sell some records.
What are the most important tools when breaking a new artist in Canada?
The ability to tour, a good record and good videos. We offer tour support, but if that support is their whole tour budget, they’ll only go on one tour. If a band can figure out how to use that budget to make it cover three or four tours, that’s so much better. Videos are great tools in Canada and the music video channel Much Music is a great outlet.
If you could dramatically change some aspect of the music industry, what would you do?
The thing that bothers me about the music industry is that there are a lot of people who talk about people behind their backs. I’m working for an independent, so it’s not really something I have to deal with every day, but I wish that company politics in the music industry were cleaner and that there was more of a live-and-let-live philosophy.
What has been the greatest moment of your music career?
I came to see a friend in Montreal and we went to a Maceo Parker show. It was three hours of the best music that I’ve ever heard and it changed my life. I decided to move to Montreal and about three years later I had started a band with my friend and we opened for Maceo in Montreal. That was the highlight of my musical career!
The highlight of my record company career was seeing Sum 41 on Saturday Night Live, which was real cool.
What do you see yourself doing in 5-10 years?
I haven’t looked that far into the future, I’m happy where I’m at right now and I like working with bands that I like. I’ll probably always be involved with music in some way or other. There are so many opportunities in the music industry for working with artists on different levels so I see myself working in music somewhere.
Interviewed by Jean-François Méan
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