When Mike Denney travelled to the 2008 Canadian Country Music Awards in Winnipeg, the last thought on his mind was to initiate a new record company. Victimized by three personal redundancies as the music industry went pear-shaped as major record companies merged, downsized and eradicated literally hundreds of employees in response to plunging record sales, Denney felt he had to find another career outlet.
He had already been packaged off; first by Sony Music, secondly by Universal Music and then finally by Fusion 111 distribution. As a career record company salesman, Denney was running out of job options when he attended the CCMA’s, his primary objective being to possibly seek out future job opportunities.
“I have never envisioned myself as an entrepreneur,” explained the Niagara-On-the-Lake native. “I was always the corporate guy whose main motivation was to ship as much product as possible and hopefully reach my quota and earn a bonus. But when I attended that CCMA event, I was struck by how friendly everyone was, how eager everyone was to help and assist each other and how much musical talent was on display at the awards show and various club showcases.”
Denney realized opportunities existed but wasn’t quite sure specifically what he was going to do. “My first idea was to find artists with finished masters and do production and development deals. I didn’t have any money and nobody was financing what I was doing, “explained Denney who returned from that Winnipeg trip with two experienced artists (Melanie Doane and Julian Austin) and three developing artists.
Calling his fledgling company MDM (Mike Denney Music), Denney’s initial thought was that no major was going to give him a distribution deal so he wasn’t about to waste his time with the big boys. How wrong he could be! Now eight years later with a new two-year distribution deal inked with Universal Music, a roster currently containing some 15 established and developing country music stars, five of which released successful records in 2014, Mike Denney’s MDM record and management company is the toast of the Canadian Country Music Association.
“From day one it was always about passion, it was never about money,” explained Denney, in the process of wrapping up a highly successful year. “My motto is, if you work hard and are passionate about what you do, the dollars will follow.”
Realizing the major labels were having their own problems back in 2008 and would not be able to relate to his little operation, Denney first struck up a deal with Peter Piasecki who was just launching his Conveyor Canada Music label and was in need of Canadian content for his labels’ Can Con requirements.
Denney’s first break came when record producer Mitch Merrett called him about a budding young artist called Chad Brownlee, a promising hockey player who had been selected by the Vancouver Canucks in the sixth round of the 2003 entry draft. The defenceman had received a series of injuries playing in the Canucks’ minor system, and had decided to pursue a singing career instead.[quote]My motto is, if you work hard and are passionate about what you do, the dollars will follow[/quote]
“I heard his voice, I heard his songs and said `Holy Cow’, this kid has potential,” noted Denney who credits Brownlee for being his label’s first impact signing. Once the label released Brownlee’s self-titled debut album and his first single “The Best That I Can” started to have impact on country radio, the phones started to ring with Music Canada’s Tony Tarelton calling to ask if Denney was interested in a meeting with EMI president Deane Cameron.
“EMI was like the number four domestic major label in Canada at that time and they didn’t have the man power to sign all the production distribution agreements being offered, so they asked if I was interested in being an imprint label for EMI Music Canada and enter into a joint venture agreement with them,” explained Denney. “Deane said EMI Music Canada would invest in my company, we would have an a la carte arrangement with them, we would pursue the entire Factor and Star Maker funding, they would back us up with sales and distribution help and if any of our projects looked like breaking internationally, the big boys would step in to assist”. It was a move, which at the time gave MDM Recordings serious credibility in the Canadian Country Music community.
This agreement was reached in September 11th 2011 but two months later, Capitol/EMI was taken over by Universal Music and a sense of déjà vu struck Denney again. “I was in a panic, it was like, `here we go again’. Universal could have easily quashed the agreement but President Randy Lennox told me we weren’t going anywhere and he and his label have been solidly behind us ever since.”
With the support muscle of Universal Music behind him, Denney has capitalized on the surging growth of Country Music in North America as a whole to develop and expand his roster. Brownlee, the Kelowna B.C born hockey player, has recorded three albums in the past four years and has won the CCMA Rising Star award in 2011. Calgary’s Bobby Wills has also recorded three albums in the past four years, winning the CCMA’s Rising Star award in 2013 while the label’s current gem, Langenburg Saskatchewan’s Jess Moskaluke is the reigning CCMA female artist of the year and her second album is making progress on both sides of the border due to airplay for her single “Cheap Wine And Cigarettes” off her latest `Light Up The Nights ‘ album on Sirius XM radio. Other artists on the label include The Mandevilles, The Lovelocks (2014 Discovery Award winners), Hayley, David James and Robyn & Ryleigh as well as Charlie Major and Lori McKenna
“John Marks at Sirius XM is border blind,” joked Denney. “If he likes a song, he’ll play it regardless of whether it’s American or Canadian. Exposure like that is invaluable. You start getting legitimate airplay like that and suddenly your phone starts to ring. Instead of you chasing industry people down there (Nashville), they start chasing you.”
Despite the fact that most commercial record sales are plummeting and radio for contemporary rock music is virtually non-existent, the country music scene in Canada is currently booming. Aside from Denney’s roster, domestic artists such as Kira Isabella, Dallas Smith, Johnny Reid, George Canyon, Dean Brody, Autumn Hill, The Sadies and Road Hammer have become bona fide superstars and it could be argued that CCMA’s awards telecast is far more relevant in breaking new talent than even their more established Juno Award counterparts.
“The infra-structure for country music is in place,” explained Denney. “The CCMA (originally launched in 1982) is strong and every province has its own country music association, which you don’t find in any other genre of music. These associations nurture new talent and give them the encouragement they need. New country music radio stations are springing up almost weekly, they actively promote new talent and we have some of the biggest music festivals in North America. I think the Boots & Hearts Festival (which is moving to Barrie Ontario in 2015) is the second biggest festival of its kind on the continent and we have other great festivals such as Cavendish PEI, Craven Jamboree and the Big Valley jamboree. Even established rock clubs are hosting country music.”
Denney notes that Punk, Grunge, Hip Hop, Rap and EDM may have been the domain of youth but country music has always enjoyed a consistently strong fan following.. “You look at what Taylor Swift has achieved and think of what artists like Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Faith Hill, Lady Antebellum , Carrie Underwood, Florida Georgia Line and our own Shania Twain have been able to achieve to commercialize country music. It’s a lot easier for country music acts to cross over into pop than it is for rock acts to cross over into country.
“The key element here is that country musicians are so accommodating to their fans which in turn make the fans intensely loyal to the artists,” observed Denney. “We have three key buzz words in the CCMA; Educate, Elevate, Celebrate. The core of artist development is to make these artists accessible to the public. At any MDM show, our artists will go into the audience after every concert and they won’t leave the building until every autograph and every photo request has been granted.”
Considering the recent success of MDM, it’s hardly surprising that the label has been inundated with artist requests and Denney admits he has his hands full processing new talent . He admits though that he’s always on the lookout for the right songs and the right artists. “With me, it’s all about passion,” he notes . “When I hear a song or hear a voice, it has to hit me in a certain way. If I don’t feel the passion I won’t sign the artist.”
With 14 CCMA nominations to MDM’s credit, including Jess Moskaluke’s current Female Artist award and Denney’s win as Record company personality of the year plus that new two-year agreement with Universal filed away, MDM’s future looks promising. The label has just expanded into Australia via a distribution agreement with the Maven Agency / Sony Music Australia and Denney is still actively working the U.S market with Nashville-based A&R contact Chad Green and The Agency Group booking agent Nick Meinema.
“It’s still tough cracking Nashville,” lamented Denney. “It’s very expensive travelling to festivals with four or five musicians and you have to be established to get anywhere, but with the radio airplay on Sirius we will keep trying, but we have to watch our nickels and dimes. It is important that Chad (Brownlee), Bobby (Wills), Jess (Moskaluke) and other acts on our roster establish careers in Canada first. Then we’ll worry about other opportunities as they develop”.
One benefit of having artists under both recording and management contracts is that it is possible to bundle bands into touring packages and this is what Denney plans to do with Brownlee, Wills and Moskaluke early next year. “We are organizing a national tour; all three acts on the same bus, Chad’s band will support all three artists, one tour manager, one promotion team. And if this works out, we will split them on future tours and add additional MDM acts to the packages.”
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