Rock Radio is Dysfunctional

So Ian Thomas and yours truly are engaged in a pleasant chat about his new CD `Little Dreams’ his first solo effort in almost 24 years, when the topic of conversation focuses on the current state of major radio airplay, especially for veteran bands and artists releasing new product. A fuse had been lit! The normally affable Thomas launches into a diatribe, the heat from which literally scorches the phone line.

“These major radio stations are dysfunctional. What they are playing has no relevance to the current market. They are eating the leaves off their own trees,” fumed Thomas. “I said to one of the CRTC guys, `Why are you allowing half of Toronto’s radio stations to be owned by two companies (Astral and Corus). It’s no wonder they all sound formatted. They are heading for a monopoly.”

“It’s all about being on the Billboard charts, yet how can you get on the Billboard charts if you are not getting any airplay,” continued Thomas. “God help you if you’re over 35 years old, you’ve got no chance. Just imagine if Louis Armstrong recorded “It’s A Wonderful World” or Frank Sinatra recorded “New York, New York” today they wouldn’t receive any airplay. Frank Sinatra was over 60 years old when he recorded “New York, New York”.

“Used to be a time when there was a connection between radio stations and concert activity, but not anymore. Bruce Springsteen sells out 20,000 seats without the benefit of any airplay because no rock station has played his latest album. That’s the same with a lot of major artists, but for some of the lessernames, it’s got to be a struggle, promoting a new album without the benefit of any airplay,” Thomas surmised. “The people I most feel sorry for are the deejays at the stations, which are passionate about their music, they find a great new song – but they can’t play it!”

“It’s an uphill swim if you don’t have airplay, but as an artist, you don’t really have too many options but to get out there and perform to plug the new material”- Which is exactly what Thomas is doing. He recently executed a highly entertaining performance at the intimate Hugh’s Room in downtown Toronto combining new material with his classic hits plus tracks from past albums with his two other bands; The Boomers and Lunch At Allen’s and says he’s prepared to play an expanded schedule, even venturing down to the States to play key conferences.

“People seem to like the show,” Thomas observed of his mixture of music, comedy and homespun philosophies. “The audiences have been very receptive and the promoters think I am doing something different…so I assume that’s good.”

Co-produced by ex-Boomers’ colleague, Peter Cardinali, `Little Dreams’ is a 10-track collection of songs (two co-written with Tim Tickner) which present Thomas in a comfortable position in life, happily married to wife Catherine for some 42 years which has sparked the influence for at least six of the songs. “When planes are being flown into buildings, it would be so easy to write negative stuff but I’ve tried to remain positive in my middle-age (he’s 62!). I have a very narrative writing style, I’m not big on metaphors like Marc Jordan (his Lunch At Allen’s band mate). It’s a solo album but it’s not really a solo record when you have people like Marc, Murray Mclauchlan, Molly Johnson, Jorn Anderson, Kevin Breit, Gary Breit, Robi Botos and Peter (Cardinali) performing on it.

There is something tastefully simplistic in tracks like the title track, `Don’t Touch A Thing’ and `Stash Sometime Away’ which asks the question, `what would you give to spend some final moments with a lost loved one’ in reference to his departed father.

Little Dreams marks a return to form for an artist whose songs dominated national and international playlists – yet ironically most of which became hits via other artists. `The Runner’ became a huge hit for Manfred Mann, ‘Right Before Your Eyes’ was a smash for America, `Hold On’ was a chart-topper for Santana and `Chains’ earned chart recognition for Chicago.

“I remember former (Arista and Columbia) record mogul Clive Davis telling me `The Runner’ was the most important song of the decade…but he couldn’t release my `Glider’ album…but could Manfred Mann record that track?” mused Thomas. “It’s a double edged sword. Of course you want to have success on your own level but it was a great validation for me to have so many great performers have hits with my songs.”

“Marc, Murray and I talk about those moments that got away, in discussing why none of us made it in the States,” explained Thomas. “Yes I would have loved to have been accepted in the US, but because it didn’t happen, it just made me work harder. I wrote two novels (`Bequest and`The Lost Chord), I wrote soundtracks for 20 movies, I’ve done commercials (he was the voice of Clive Firkin in the Firkin pub commercials), appeared on television (The Red Green Show) whatever it took to pay the bills. I may not have been a `golden oldie’ but I accepted the challenge to be a well-rounded person.

Thomas has enjoyed some creative success on his own terms. `Painted Ladies’ proved to be the Hamilton Ontario native’s breakout hit in 1973 (he claimed the 1974 New Artist Juno Award) but it was his fourth album, `Calabash’ in 1976 which forged Thomas’s reputation has a major singer-songwriter with major hits such as `Liars’, `Right Before Your Eyes’ and `Goodnight Mrs. Calabash’ a haunting salute to Jimmy Durante and those magical characters that dominated early radio airwaves.

`Still Here’, his 1978 release, provided “Coming Home” but the album, Thomas thought would be a major breakthrough, the 1979 conceptual `Glider’ stalled when his record label GRT went bankrupt just as he was about to release it. Thomas bounced back with `The Runner’ which was released by Anthem Records in 1981 and sparked North American exposure for the covers by Manfred Mann, Santana and Chicago.

Thomas contributed music for the mega selling Bob & Doug McKenzie; Great White North, Christmas album, starring older brother Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis and also wrote the title track to their 1983 movie `Strange Brew’. But Thomas hit a dry patch and three follow-up albums; `Riders On Dark Horses’, `Add Water’ and `Levity’ did not register on the charts. “Personally, I thought `Levity’ was one of my best efforts but I wasn’t touring much so maybe there was a disconnect with the street”.

Turning his back on a solo career, Thomas formed The Boomers with Peter Cardinali, Bill Dillon and Rick Gratton and went on to enjoy a four-album 10 year career with this quarter. “We still ran into a lot of apathy,” noted Thomas. “Our first album, `What We Do’ started to sell in West Germany, so I’m flying out on Luftansa, and an air hostess , recognized me, said she was a big fan, and bumped me up to First Class. But on the return flight, as I arrived back in Toronto, I fell afoul of Canadian customs and the customs officer is looking at my CD’s and he says “So I’m supposed to recognize you or something?” With an attitude like that, it’s no wonder Canadians have to find recognition outside of this country.

Yet despite two successful tours of Germany, the Boomers, according to Thomas “reached their sell by date” and he moved on to form a more low-key association with mates Murray Mclauchlan, Marc Jordan and Cindy Church as Lunch At Allen’s which resulted in the recording of two albums.

But more recently, Thomas has ventured out by himself. He’s found a strong acceptance of new material, a rekindling of excitement over his previous hits mixed with his unique brand of humor which he employs to connect with his audience.

“I’m still convinced there’s a shit load of money to be made off the boomers,” concluded Thomas going back to his bugbear with the lack of radio support for seasoned performers. “There’s a major age demographic (people over 35) that are not being serviced yet they’ve got money to spend. And there are people under 35 who are just discovering my music. I know they are out there. I meet them at my concerts”.

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