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Back in the day: An interview with music lawyer Erika Savage

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On the aftermath of the “This is for Toronto” screening, I started thinking of the city’s urban entertainment landscape.

Many things have changed, and a surprising number of things have remained the same.

Nothing underlines that point more than this 2003 interview with Erika Savage. It was initially published in a now defunct urban Toronto magazine called “Cocoa.”

Erica Savage was one of the main lawyers at Universal Music Canada at the time of the  interview, which was conducted at Universal Music Canada . It has been edited, so dig in.

ERIKA SAVAGE

Kenai: What is your official title and what duties does your position entail?

Erika: My title is Manager, Business and Legal Affairs. I’m one of three lawyers, at Universal. We provide in-house corporate commercial legal services for the record label. Basically, that means day-to-day that we’re negotiating and drafting contracts.

That means whether it’s a distribution agreement for a label that we’re signing, or a license agreement for an artist’s album that we’re licensing, we do a lot of the A&R agreements, that relate to our artists. Like video agreements, artwork agreements, producer agrekements, we do a lot of sample clearances.

Basically all of the deals that come through the door at Universal have to be negotiated and we have to work out how they are going to actually work.

Kenai: What does it take to be a lawyer in the music industry?

Erika: I think a lot of people who go into law want to be in the music or at least the entertainment industry because it seems sort of sexy or glamorous or fun – it is fun – but I think for music specifically, it really helps if you love music.  All the music lawyers that I respect … first of all they are fans of music, that’s their love, and that’s definitely my love so I feel really grateful that I get to do these in law. An understanding of the industry is really important so you keep focused, not just on arguing over language. When you’re a lawyer, you can get caught up in the details, but it’s more about creating good relationships with people …

Kenai: Establishing good business relationships …

Erika: Absolutely. And understanding how the recording industry works, because it’s very pressurized. So when you come in as a lawyer and after starting at Universal, which was my first job after being called to the bar, so I obviously never worked in the music industry before and you have a lot to learn about, like how do we sell records, how do royalties get paid? When a record is signed, how does it end up that the artist delivers the master? How does it end up going out the front door and being sold?

There’s a whole operations department that works on the packaging and who’s paying for the packaging and how does that work? How early do you have to get all the parts have to be in before the album can be released? It’s a business and a really exciting and interesting business, but the better you understand the industry, the better you can grasp the contacts so that you’re covering all the angles you have to actually cover.

Kenai: Describe the moment of being called to the bar.

Erika: Uh, I was really … I didn’t realize how overwhelmed I’d be at the exact moment, but I think there’s a lot of pomp and circumstance, I mean you’re wearing your robe and your parents are there and your family, and you just get very excited, and I didn’t think I would be kind of moved by it, but I was.

You stand up and take an oath and I really took it seriously. I had the opportunity to work with at a law firm that was doing a lot of civil right cases in native law. And I always thought really strongly about the ethics of the cases we were representing, so it was great, I was always on the right side. For me, I felt good about what we were doing, so when I got called to the bar I just felt honoured to have worked on those cases. I was representing the family of Dudley George, the Native protester who was shot at Ipperwash National Park in September of 1996. That was a wrongful death lawsuit the family brought against the government of Ontario, so I was honored to have worked on that case. When I got called to the bar, I was just  proud of the cases I was able to work on. It was a really nice feeling. I know it was important for my parents and it was exciting.

I didn’t have a job at Universal at that time, so it was a big decision about what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to get into music, which was a big risk because there’s a not a huge number of opportunities for lawyers in the music industry. It’s getting better, but they say Canada represents about three percent  of music sales worldwide. It’s not a  big percentage, so our population per capita, it’s not a bad number, but overall it can’t sustain the number of lawyers like in a city like New York or LA, so there was a bit of a decision when I got called to the bar about going to the States and working there. I’m really glad I was able to find a home at Universal and stay in Canada.

Kenai: How did you become interested in being a lawyer?

Erika: Well, I always had two totally separate lives. I like to say I lived a double life because one part of me was very much into going to school. I went to U of T; I did my undergraduate of U of T. I did sockology, then decided to go to law school so there was part of me that was into studying and going to law school everyday, and then there was part of me that was always going out to shows and seeing different bands. I’m a dancer, so that was kind of my first avenue of getting involved, taking dance, and then becoming involved with choreography, and really getting involved in promoting shows, artists and becoming involved with PhemPhat.

So I’ve always been a promoter. In terms of high school, I was always putting on shows, my boyfriend was in the band and I was managing his band when I was in high school, and then putting on raves and always organizing in relation to music and artists.

When I moved to Toronto, I got involved with PhemPhat because I went to the Honey Jam. I went to U of T and I was going to all kinds of shows, hip-hop shows and so on. I ended up seeing a Honey Jam flyer and going to check it out at Lee’s Palace and being blown away by it and I thought, ‘This is something I want to get involved with.’

So I volunteered with PhemPhat and started working with Ebonnie Rowe and so I had these two separate things; Going to law school in the day and working on things like Honey Jam or Women on Wax in the evenings. So I realized, ‘Hey why don’t I combine these,’ because at PhemPhat I was starting to see people who were lawyers who were doing law and I was thinking I can do that and seeing people like Susan who spoke at a seminar that PhemPhat used to do called ‘Women in Urban Music Seminar’ and they always had a panel on lawyers.

It’s amazing that finally when I started at Universal I started coming to work and realizing I don’t have a split personality anymore. I don’t have a hidden life. People that I know at Universal know I that I do PhemPhat, they know that Honey Jam is part of who I am and what I do and they support that. And when I’m with my friends working in terms of organizing events, they are asking questions and I can now have both parts of those personalities become one person so that’s great.

Kenai: I can imagine.

Erika: (Laughs)

Kenai: Your thoughts on the SARStock concert.

Erika: I was there! It was great. I felt old, because I didn’t want to go into the mosh pit anymore. I was perfectly happy to sit in the tent watching people drink beer. I thought it was great, I mean it was a good opportunity for a lot of Canadian bands like Sam Roberts to get some exposure with huge acts like The Rolling Stones, it was kind of a good bonding experience in Toronto, it’s been a long time since we had a really big show like that, so I thought it was a great idea. I was nervous trying to get there, I was thinking it was gonna take two days to get there and back but it was  well-organized, so I thought it was good.

Kenai: I thought ACDC stole the show….

Erika: Yeah! I agree. I was laughing because I was thinking that. I left about four songs into The Rolling Stones to be honest and I really enjoyed seeing ACDC because I’ve never seen them live, I’m from Calgary, so I listen to a lot of ACDC. I knew every word of every song! I was laughing because there’s a big age difference between ACDC and The Rolling Stones. A lot of kids there probably didn’t know ACDC that much maybe a little bit, but by the time The Rolling Stones came on, they’re into it because it’s The Rolling Stones. They were probably too young to really know the meaning of the songs and even I am. I’m 29, so I love The Rolling Stones, but it’s not like ACDC, so I have to say ACDC was the highlight for me …

Kenai: Now I noticed … I had a bit of a pet peeve in that there wasn’t any Canadian hip-hop or R&B on the stage.

Erika: No, there definitely wasn’t.

Kenai: Maybe they’ll do another one next year and put a little bit of that into there, that would be the icing on the cake …

Erika: Yeah, I think that’s a good point, not criticizing in any way, but a good point nonetheless. I’m trying to think of the Canadian acts … Kathleen Edwards, Sam Roberts …

Kenai: There was a Quebec group (La Chicane), Sass Jordan …

Erika: That’s right. I think one of the comments that was made in relation to The Rolling Stones that they were the greatest, rock, rhythm and blues group, (laughs) it just rubs you the wrong way. I was kidding with my friends like, ‘What is that?’ I don’t know that the Isley Brothers would agree The Rolling Stones are the greatest rhythm and blues group ever. The fact that the Isley Brothers are there is a good point. If you can have the Isley Brothers, then why can’t you have a Canadian R & B or hip-hop act in the show? They clearly weren’t just having rock acts in the show you know, so … it would have been a great place to have been seen … it’s not surprising to me.

Kenai: You’ve been quite active in the field, you mentioned PhemPhat, your involvement with them, and you’ve also co-produced the HoneyDrops album. Can you describe producing the album and its impact that it’s had on the female artist?

Erika: Sure. Ebonnie and I co-executive produced the CD. It’s a little different from co-producing the album because production is more of the actual technical behind the boards. I wouldn’t want Tyson to think I was trying to produce because I’m not a producer… but Tyson was the person that we sought out to help with the project from a technical production standpoint. He mixed all the songs on the album as well as he was one of the co-executive producers as well, but that CD compilation, it started as a promotional CD only.

The idea behind it was that we would give away a promo CD at Honey Jam but included are the people performing so we put out the word to basically to almost all of the alumni at Honey Jam artists over the past seven years and we asked for tracks to be submitted and we were blown away with what we got. They were absolutely incredible. They were far more songs that didn’t make it on the compilation that could have.

We had eighteen tracks on the compilation. It was an amazing opportunity for a lot of artists, sadly all of the artists that were on the CD I’ve heard live, but almost all of them had never ever recorded their voices in the studio. So we’re talking about artists that performed locally you know night after night, but never had the opportunity because of finances really. It costs a lot of money to book a studio and to record and to get a producer. To me, the challenge was to get the energy that the some of these artists have when they perform live and channel it into the studio, but what Universal did, which was really amazing, was provide the money to say ‘you book the studio time, you can have the artist record, and they will retain those masters.’

Usually the typical situation is whoever pays for the recording will own the masters, so if Universal signs an artist to a direct recording deal and says ‘we’re gonna give you $50,000 to record your album,’ the tradeoff is you get to record your album, but Universal paid for the album, they own the album and they own the master. There’s reasons why that makes sense, but what happened here which was really unique was that Universal basically said we’ll provide the money for CD’s to be re corded and the artist will each individually own the tracks. It was great.

Some artists came with finished tracks, some came with nothing recorded and of course started from scratch and it was great because what the artist had something they could put in a package, as a demo that had hopefully their songs alone that here ‘I’ve been on this project and Michie Mee and Motion and Tara Chase is on it’, you’re with some more established artists. It gives you that product. It’s so hard to get to that first piece of product, where you actually have something physical, your manifestation of your work, so we did that and we had five amazing videos that come out of that CD. We had Akin’s video, Michie’s video, Tara Chase’s video, which won one of the Reel back awards for best video. I’m missing somebody.

Anyways, the opportunity for VideoFact and videos but without the compilation you never know if the VideoFact application would have gone through, so that was a great opportunity for videos for these artists, because of the huge success of giving the CD’s away at Honey Jam, we had so many people wanting it, Universal allowed us to go back , make more copies, because we had an initial run of 2000 copies and they were gone at the Honey Jam, so we decided to sell them online which was another opportunity the artist to be able to have product to sell at their shows. You know when there out doing shows they could sell off stage, so it was great.

The idea behind the CD was not to ever go to town, and a lot of people have asked why it isn’t available at HMV… The answer to that is marketing … and I don’t feel that it’s a good idea to put a CD out for anybody if they don’t have money that they can spend on marketing that CD because without posters, without ads, it’s really difficult, and I just didn’t want to see the CD go out to HMV, spend 1000 units or something – which would have reasonable under the circumstances with no advertising or marketing – but then you have to say ‘Oh, the CD only sold 1000 copies, ‘ so this was not that type of CD. It was a CD for independent artists to come out, not you know Baby Blue Soundcrew CD, where Universal spend hundreds of thousands of dollars marketing the Baby Blue Soundcrew CD, made 50,000 copies but that wasn’t what this project was.

So that is a success we’d love to see happen, we’d love to see a full-scale commercial release compilation that has some tracks by big US artists, like Baby Blue has had, some you know, Jay-Z and Eminem and there we would have the Mary J with Kardinal or whatever. Which is great, I’d like to see something like that where you have Mary J Blige and Lauryn Hill and then you have a couple of tracks by the top Canadian female artists who have the hottest tracks. That’s the realistic way to go, because it’s very hard with 18 pretty much unknown artists and 1000 units, so that’s where we are, but it was a great opportunity for the artists, and Ebonnie and I learned so much.

I remember when Belinda (Belinda Brady) sang “I’m Feeling It” in the studio and we were almost in tears, because she and I had been friends for years and she had never had that opportunity. She sounded great; The track came out sounding amazing, I felt honoured to be present honestly when I got to witness these things happening at the studio.

Kenai: Who were some of your favorite artists growing up?

Erika: Oh, It’s kind of odd because, I think of the things when you grow up, it’s a small town whether its Calgary or the suburbs in Ontario, you’re exposed in Canada to wide variety of music, so growing up I was a skateboarder so I was into punk, rock but then at the same time we were listening to hip-hop because it was always that influence whether it was Public Enemy or that sort of early stuff. But for me it was always about dancing, so I always thought of hip-hop as the most revolutionary form of music.

It’s funny to say that now when you see hip-hop now, because you don’t feel that, but back then what was going on with KRS-One and Public Enemy that was like the most challenging form of music. So that was the most interesting to me at that time, I was into a lot of what would be considered now as grunge, punk bands like SNFU, Canadian punk bands, that kind of stuff, and I found it almost alienating because it was so masculine like guys, sweaty guys, it was a really excruciating genre of music for me, because I was involved in that skateboarding scene. Then after a while I was like, “this is just a bunch of, like, white guys singing about what I’m not exactly sure.’ To be honest with you, I just wasn’t … (Laughs) You know what I mean?

I was just tired of it, so anyways that was part of it. I was around guys in bands, I was dancing a lot, they were playing rock and roll, and it just wasn’t meeting me and when I was listening to the stuff that was going on in hip-hop. I just felt it was challenging, it was more interesting, that something more radical was happening. But at the same time, as a dancer listening to house or whatever, it was always urban that I connected with on a level of dancing. So dancing, I want to do breakdance, I want to do hip-hop, I never had any other kind of music that I wanted to really get involved with from a dancing perspective.

So when I got older, it was hip-hop choreography that I was doing. I managed the PhemPhat dancers and started the PhemPhat dance agency with Jae Blaze, who now does all the choreography for the dancers. The PhemPhat dancers were really founded by Jae and myself, and that was an amazing opportunity where you know everybody had their thing, some people are MC’s, some people are R & B singers. My thing was always seemed to be dancing, that was always the element I brought to the table whether I was b-girling when I was younger or just doing hip-hop as a dancer.

So what I said to Ebonnie was ‘what I’d really like to do is I’d like to start organizing b-girls.’ I felt like in Toronto, we were working with female DJ’s, we were doing Women on Wax to bring female DJ’s together, we were working with female artists, there were this girls that are out there in Toronto, that are like in their basement practicing that are too scared to come out to the jam because the guys are all in the centre breaking, and they’re not meeting each other, so that was really the impetus for me to bring female breakdancers together. We did that and that was cool.

We were able to put the word out. I literally was like ‘Do you know any girls that break?’ And I would ask everybody that. It would just snowball to the point where we would find these girls and get them together and then we would end up getting booked for these ads and commercials and videos because there was a demand for it. It had a novelty factor attached to it and there were all these guys that were into it in crews, but it was a good to have the female breakdancers represented. But that’s how the PhemPhat dancers started it started as breakers and branched out. We could book in videos and it didn’t have to be just breakdancers, but we were very successful.

We got “The New Music” to do a half-hour segment on female breakdancers where we were all interviewed. I was proud of that, and then the dancers were successful and unfortunately I had to stop managing the dance agency when I started to work at Universal due to time commitments. They went on to form the Blaze Dancers that are now Blaze, they were in the last Sean Paul video, the Shaggy video. They started as the PhemPhat dancers so I turn on the TV and I see Andrea Edmead as the lead dancer in the R Kelly video (Snake remix featuring Tigger). She’s the lead dancer. She’s the one that’s the mirage at the very beginning.

Andrea Edmead was one of the original PhemPhat dancers. I remember her auditioning at the community centre, picking her. I talked to her recently, she’s in LA, getting her visa together and working to say in the States. I’m so proud when I see that. That’s the height of your career. I’ve always had a pet peeve about the image of women and music videos because the I think the dance form, the art of hip-hop dance form has never been given any credit, so we had all these amazing dancers for years who were asked to show up and wear shorts and stand up to do the video and it’s only been the last six months to a year… the Gimme the Light video was the first video I thought like ’finally, the people really see what this danceform is really happening when it comes to dancehall.’ It’s just amazing and now look at the success of Sean Paul in that video.

It took years for a video to actually showcase the athleticism and amazing artistry of what dancehall is when you look at the danceform or hip-hop as well, so you know Andrea in that video was great. She’s an incredible dancer, and physically it’s just as athletic as any athlete. For years, dancers were basically nothing more than models in videos. But it’s starting to happen and that’s something I’m happy to see.

Kenai: What are some of the realties of the female urban Canadian artist?

Erika: Oh boy. Long hard work, no payback basically. Tons of time and limited opportunities. It’s been a slow process. It’s only recently that the major labels have started to look at black female artists in Canada. So you have successful artists like The Rascalz, Kardinal. The number of male artists that are signed to Canadian labels is not what it should be, but its light years head of female artists. Jully Black signed to MCA, Universal was the first and that was like last year. Michie’s never been signed to a Canadian label.

Kenai: First Priority back in 90 something or late 80 something.

Erika: So Canadian labels have really have been sleeping on the female black artist in Canada. It’s been frustrating in my opinion. So I’m glad to see with Jully being treated in the way that she should be – as one of the top singers period – with Melanie Durrant, and Jully Black, etc. all having deals, it takes that for the movers in Canada to kind of wake up and say, “maybe we should start looking at this,” but what you see happening is women being backup singers for male artists. You have a lot of women out there who have been tagged as perennial backup singers or ‘hook girls’ and Jully has suffered from that. It’s been frustrating for her, because she’s not just the girl who is keeping the hook in the Kardi song or the Choclair song, she has recorded her album and it’s absolutely amazing. I’m so proud of her, and you can hear it! You can hear it in her voice.

People are tired of standing behind, coming out for the five seconds and doing their thing and then going back to the corner. That’s nobody’s fault. I certainly don’t think that it’s the fault of any of the male artists; it’s just the way that things have been traditionally. It’s been a struggle and it takes a while. The guys have started something and now the ladies are starting to get their opportunity and I’m really excited about it. There’s so much talent here and it is frustrating.

There’s no question that A & R departments across Canada – oh I could compare the way the US is going with any of that – but they sign what they know. That’s not a criticism, that’s just a reality. If you don’t love hip-hop, how are you gonna have an ear to know what the next great hip-hop or R & B singer is, or if that beat is hot? If you know rock inside and out and you can hear, you can walk down the street and hear a girl in the back of a club that’s a rock and roll voice because your ear hears a rock singer, you know that kind of music that makes you feel different and that’s taken years.

You’re finally starting to have A&R positions for people who have grown up loving and listening to hip-hop and R&B and it’s gonna take a while to have those. That makes an impact. The States is at least 15-20 years ahead in the development of an infrastructure at the label level of A&R marketing albums. We in Canada have developed a marketing infrastructure instead of an A&R infrastructure and that’s typical because why? Because it’s selling a lot of black music; we sell huge numbers of Eminem and 50 Cent, so we have a huge marketing department that’s the whole urban marketing department; we don’t have what’s called the whole urban A&R department. That’s because the emphasis is that, ‘oh well we’re trying to sell this music because it’s coming to us from the States and its making us money so we’ll sell it,’ but what about developing it? It’s starting to happen, but it’s really taking some time.

I’ve had some really great opportunities to meet some amazing women who worked in the music industry in the States who find it absolutely fascinating that there isn’t a single Black woman that works in a creative position here and that would have been the situation in the States 20 years ago. So we’re 20 years behind. That’s some seriously sad pathetic business. So they’re looking at that like ‘you’re kidding right like that can’t be right’, that was 20-30 years ago before like Motown happened. So it is a situation of a population issue in that sense, yes, the population of black artists is greater in the US, but music wise, the percentage of black artists selling is no different; we sell massive amounts of 50 Cent albums. So to me, the respect has to be there for the music and realize that this is something that has to be accepted. And if we’re were selling huge numbers of Mary J and 50 cent albums, what are we doing to create those artists in Canada so we can have the Marys and the 50 Cents five years from now?

Kenai: So diversity is obviously still an issue then in the industry.

Erika: Yeah it is, I mean it’s a huge issue. I think it’s starting to become something that people just acknowledge; we’re not so much in denial about it. MuchMusic right now, I don’t know how topical you want to be but right now, there’s a meeting about canceling the Downlo on MuchVibe because of MuchMusic, and you know I don’t how controversial I should be in this interview …

Kenai: Go ahead.

Erika: It just sounded interesting because people who have been organizing to do something to respond. A number of people in the urban music community that have gotten together to say “What are going to do to respond and how do we challenge the canceling of the DownLo.” Then, there are the people in the record company on these emails that are responding that are saying “This is what we have to do” and “Let’s to this” and “Let’s do that” and these are major record companies, senior vice presidents.

So it’s like “OK, I totally understand the issue on urban programming on channel 29, but like you guys are working in record companies, what are you guys doing?” So you know it just seems so hypocritical to me. I’m glad that they’re getting involved, because we need the heads of the record companies in this fight with Much because I think that Much is getting worse not better and since Master T left, things have gotten worse and not better and I really don’t like where things are going.

I think that MuchVibe out of Toronto has been created to offload the content so that MuchMusic can say “We’re not playing your video but we have it on MuchVibe.” Well, nobody knows how many people have MuchVibe, but it is certainly not the majority of Canadians because the amount of money it costs to have a cable box and MuchVibe. It’s just not reasonable to expect the people are going to be able to have that. All they’ve done is make themselves feel better because they’re like “We’ve created this special channel,” but this special channel is like totally ghettoized all these videos that no one’s ever going to see. So the last time, the last six times an artist made a video that has gone straight to MuchVibe and it’s not spinning on Much.

In the old days before MuchVibe, if you made an urban video and it was good, as in that the production value was at a high enough level, it was automatically going to be on MuchMusic because it didn’t have that much representation. So there were like “OK.” Like how many times have you seen “Northern Touch?” That’s important, because now there are kids who know Kardinal because they saw it on the Much. But if “Northern Touch” had come out now, it would be on MuchVibe and these kids will never see that. The only urban videos that are getting on the regular MuchMusic in my opinion are the Jay-Z’s and the high-budget $500,000 videos.

So the Canadian artists that are getting VideoFact, and are making good videos like the IRS, the Brassmunks are … I know some of them are being played like crazy on MuchVibe, but how much of those things have been happening on MuchMusic? It affects the record sales because we’re looking at how much we’re to spend on our deal with IRS? Well, how much is he selling? This all has an effect because if their video is not being played properly on MuchMusic? Is my cousin in Mississauga going to buy an IRS video? Well no, he doesn’t know about it because he doesn’t have MuchVibe, you know only MuchMusic. So I’m glad to see that the record company execs are getting involved in the MuchMusic debate because I think they have a responsibility to be involved, but they also have to have the responsibility. They’re not immune.

We can’t just point fingers at MuchMusic and not look at our own backyard say “Well, what are we doing here? What are the last five acts we signed? Well, four are rock and only one urban and what does that mean.” It’s hard, but when A & R people sign artists in Canada they will typically not recoup. I didn’t really realize that till I started looking at it and worked with the artist and understanding how the mathematics worked.

I don’t mean the artist recoups; the record companies don’t recoup because as I said before with Baby Blue, you have hundreds of thousands of dollars marketing it, and even when you sell 50,000 copies, you’re don’t make money because of the costs involved and what you do with the videos etc. So when you sign an act, you’re doing this… You’re not really doing it to make money; you know that you’re probably going to lose money, but we do it because we want to have a recording industry in Canada that’s domestic. We could just close our doors in our department and sell 50 Cent and Eminem CD’s and we’d be fine. We’d be doing great because our department is probably a financial burden on the company and I say that in strictly a dollars and cents burden.

But it’s our lifeblood of the company because it’s out heart and our soul and it’s the Canadian artist that we love. We don’t get to talk with Eminem and 50 Cent. But if you’re going to take a risk to sign a rap band, because you are going to develop the rap band, why not take a risk with a reggae band? “Well there’s not a lot of reggae, you know.” Sean Paul is at the top of the dance scene and our biggest artist is Shaggy. So, “well, there are not a lot of sales of Canadian reggae.”‘Well no, because we’re not signing anybody. We have to be careful with criticizing MuchMusic.

Kenai: So would you say that Canadian record companies nowadays they still aren’t signing urban artists?

Erika: I would say part of the problem is that they’re signing them, but the problem is that they’re signing them and waiting to see the sales and the sales aren’t there with the Canadian artist. When I say this I get in a lot of trouble, when I say that I’m not in any way trying to say that’s the artist’s fault. The music is really good. I think they’re way past that stage. We used to say five years ago that the music was not as good. We used to say “If I’m in the store, and I could buy an American rap album verses Canadian rap album, and I have my $15 and I’m 14 years old, I’m gonna buy the American because the Canadian one is subpar.”

I don’t think that is the case anymore. Looking at the Rascalz last album, Kardinal’s last album, you’re listening to the Rascalz album, they are amazing albums, there’s no way you could say their albums are not as good. I’m not putting this on the artist or the contents of the CD, but when I was a kid, you didn’t buy Canadian rock because there was a stigma attached. I was not buying this and so on … I was not into Rush because it was somehow not as good … It took seven years for rock music to evolve to the point where nowadays a kid will buy a Our Lady Peace CD and not think of it as different as a rock CD. I really believe that now, finally. It’s only been the last little while. Sarah McLaughlin, around that time in Canadian rock music it started to be OK. So rock artists are no longer having that problem but urban artists are still having it.

It’s not good because the labels you know, it’s a risk and they say “OK, we’ll put out the first Rascalz album and spend “x” amount of money” and it sells 50,000 copies, we put out another one and it only sells 25. So you do the math and look at it and say, “well we do we put out another one?” This is everybody, because the numbers are way down. Everybody on SoundScan … I did a chart a little while ago and it’s sad because you see why the labels are a little bit, you know.

You can put out a pretty crappy rock album and expect to “ell 25,000-30,000 copies just on the basis of spinning a video on MuchMusic. You’ll get 40,000 people to buy the album and that’s the difference of the break even, like it makes it worthwhile to sign. But if you’re selling 10,000, you’re losing your shirt.

So you’re losing your shirt here, here, and here and you’re just kind of barely making it over here. That’s the problem. It literally comes down to dollars and cents. But that’s my problem because I say, “be willing to lose your shirt, just keep doing it. You’ve got to.” We as an industry have to be developing urban artists. You can’t say “Oh well, The Rascalz only sold 25,000, so we’re going to put them out,” because every time the Rascalz profile goes higher and higher and its only the last year or two that I’ve heard my guy friends talk about “Oh is that Kardinal? Is that K-OS?” When I was a kid, it was Maestro and that was it. There was Maestro and there was nothing for like you know years and years.

That star power that they have when they see Jay-Z, they see 50 Cent, these kids they get it right away. Kardinal has that star power, and the kids see it and they like Kardinal and they want to be like Kardinal. That’s powerful. We have to keep developing this star power idea so that kids will say,  “Oh here’s Jay-Z, oh here’s Kardinal, I like Kardinal.” It’s really hard. It won’t happen without money, because if the labels don’t put marketing dollars behind it, you don’t see the nice videos. That’s what the kids need because Jay-Z, he’s got the videos with the boats. It costs a lot of money to make that happen.

Hip-hop’s about branding. It’s like I always say to people. It’s not that Jay-Z‘s the best artist, it’s because his beat that he’s on costs $50,000 and it’s Jay-Z, so as soon as you know it’s automatically going to be a hit. The concept is Jay-Z, the branding is Jay-Z, he has his own identity. You have to build that and it costs money to build.

Kenai: How important is the compilation album for the record company?

Erika: I would say it used to be huge. There was a real peak around Baby Blue, where they were doing tons of compilations and the dance music compilations were selling like hotcakes. Everybody was really into Baby Blue; people were going and getting the compilations. I think with the whole stealing of music with the networks of Napster and Kazaa have lessened the value of the compilation because people are going and stealing the music and making their own compilations. So it has radically gone down and it’s been  hard for departments to come up with new ideas for compilations and registering the songs and licensing them and so on.

I’d like to say that I feel that urban artists are severely hurt by the illegal downloads because with an artist like The Rascalz, the urban audience is probably one of the most savvy computer users type of audience. If you look at Norah Jones, she’s selling like 700,000 units in Canada. Well why is that? Well people who listen to Norah Jones have no idea how use a computer and get a track and download it illegally off the internet. So people like my parents are still going to HMV to buy the Norah Jones, but they’re not buying the Rascalz because people are going to Kazaa and downloading it and it has a massive impact, because what happens is that the record company president can see that no one is buying The Rascalz album and thinks no one likes the Rascalz. That’s not the reality; the reality is that the kids got the songs off the internet, but nobody sees it.

We always say that the way that you vote for the music that you love is by buying it because we use SoundScan. That’s our bible. We use SoundScan to tell us what people like and if you don’t see it on SoundScan and we don’t see it selling, we just assume it’s not popular.

Kenai: What advice would you give aspiring female urban artists trying to get into the business?

Erika: I think as artists, it’s all about association, aligning yourself with people who are well affected with what they’re doing, just being professional business wide.

There’s so many people in this business that have gotten unfortunately a reputation for being unprofessional. You know, it’s a very small community, closely knit; we deal with the same people all the time. So as an artist, if you’re working with a manager make sure that manager is somebody actually answers phone messages and does fax people and email.

If you don’t have a manager and you’re at a point where many artists have to hustle, they’re doing two jobs and trying to perform, or they’re trying to perform and they have children and families to look after, don’t over manage it. It seems really difficult, but sometimes it’s a matter of trying to realize what your limitations are so you can get somebody to help look after emails and other stuff… and don’t wait for people.

I’m really proud of an artist a friend of mine named True (True Daley) who is super talented and was like, “you know what I sick of waiting for five record companies. There’s five major labels and none of them are knocking down my door, I’m gonna release my own EP.” She just went ahead and did it and it was an absolutely amazing EP. The photos are beautiful, she had her own CD release party, her own website is top-notch; she didn’t wait around to say, ‘well Universal is not signing me” and get mad about it, which a lot of people do.

She was like “I know that I’m really talented I’m gonna let other people know. I going to get the producers together” and put the songs out and just hustling. A lot of people have to a lot of different things; she’s acting the same time as she’s singing, hosting shows, it’s a hustle, it’s really hard… and don’t just… people need to realize that even the top artist, they don’t make their money off the CD sales.

They’ve got to be out there selling merchandise, books, doing whatever they can. Jan Arden opened a restaurant, it’s like these are the things that people do (laughs) because you don’t just sit in Canada unfortunately. You can’t just sit and hope the record company and you live in a lap of luxury and do  well. It just doesn’t happen like that right Garnett?

(Garnett smiles, nods in approval.)

Garnett: I’m the coach. (Laughs)

Kenai: Any personal goals or objectives for 2004?

Erika: Have a personal life, right Garnett? (Laughs)

Kenai: (laughs)

Kenai: Erika, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Is there anything you want to talk about before we go?

Erika: I just think that with PhemPhat, it’s really been an amazing thing to watch. There’s a Honey Jam tomorrow so it’s on my mind, I’m really nervous. I get nervous every year just because there are so many artists and auditions and you’re nervous for them and you’re talking to them and they’re excited. You know that everybody’s going to come but you always wonder, “What if nobody comes?”

Because, you never know. Everybody’s had that feeling with any kind of promotion whether it’s a house party or … I think its such an amazing experience to see how some of the artists like Nelly Furtado.

I heard Nelly audition, I remember her being in the room when she auditioned for the show, I was there to see her performance and I spoke with her afterwards. That was the first year that I had volunteered and I was working with PhemPhat and I went up to her afterwards, I wanted to tell her that I was impressed, I could see how nervous she was, and I wanted to tell her that she did a good job, and it was  cool to see. At that time, it’s almost getting harder and harder in a way because as the show gets bigger, we’re trying to get an artist that’s just starting out, but then we’re asking them to perform in a massive venue and they’re inexperienced artists. We’re not just trying to book artists that are like veterans.

We want some of the up and coming artists. We’re asking a 16-year old girl that’s never really performed live before to do a show in front of 1000 people, it’s a lot of pressure on them. When Ebonnie first started, I remember watching Tara Chase do her first Toronto performance, she was just coming from Montreal. She just started rapping, we all went bananas, it was such a novelty, it was like “Wow, she can flow,” those were the days they were only like three MC’s that were women that we ever heard of: Monie Love, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, there weren’t very many… But it’s almost like that energy is hard to replicate.

Those days, because it was so exciting, and it’s like “she’s killing it, she’s killing it” Now when you see Tara, she’s just as good if not better, but you’re used to it and before you’re “yeah that’s cool that’s Tara,” but its hard because it so … When I first went to Honey Jam, I was basking in the hip hop DJ’s I was like “this is crazy, this is so cool …” but now we’re not so wowed, it’s just hard because what do you do? How do you top that when that was just so unique back then and so special? It’s interesting and we’re doing more now to bring back some of the more established artists back …

Kenai: This will be the Honey Jam’s…

Erika: This will be the eleventh Honey Jam. Damn, that’s amazing. I think it’s an institution now and it’s exciting. It just astounds me because I can be somewhere… I was at a house party on the weekend and somebody said “Well Erica does the Honey Jam” and people are like “Oh no way” they’re like receptive that they know what it is and everybody’s heard of it, you never think of that happening that it has that level of exposure so, that’s good, and that’s a testament to Ebonnie to keep the level of talent that high.

Most people can put together one, two, and three when you get to four, five, and six, the interest just peters out, but that has not happened with Honey Jam, so we’re proud of it.

Kenai: Erika, it’s been a pleasure, Thank you.

Erika: Thank you, Kenai.

I’m not sure where Erika is today. At one time, I know she moved down to Los Angeles to work at Interscope Records. At any rate, the information she shared with me was invaluable, to say the least.

I went on to interview Ebonnie as well, but that is another story for another back in the day.

@kenaiandrews

KenaiAndrewshttps://www.mmacrossfire.com
Kenai is a former Postmedia Network online news and sports editor. He is the Editor-in-Chief for MMA Crossfire.

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