Bernie Finkelstein has been a behind-the-scenes music industry maestro for more than 40 years, steering the careers of Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Rough Trade, while founding the Juno-winning indie imprint True North Records.
And the secret to his success? Knowing when to leave his artists alone.
“Most artists that would come up to me that might have ever said, ‘I’m just willing to do anything’ — that was the first reason that I didn’t sign them,” said Finkelstein, 67, during a recent interview in Toronto.
“I was interested in people that had a strong sense of what it was they wanted to accomplish, but needed a lot of help to get it accomplished. That’s where I fit in.”
Finkelstein looks back on his long career in the Canadian music industry in his new memoir, “True North: A Life in the Music Business.”
But truthfully, any notions of a Canadian music industry didn’t really exist when Finkelstein began wading into the fledgling folk scene in Toronto in the early 1960s.
A high-school dropout raised in a migratory military family, Finkelstein launched his first promotion agency as a teenager. While the venture was a failure in business terms, it gave Finkelstein an entry point into the astonishing music scene burgeoning in 1960s Toronto.
The downtown neighbourhood of Yorkville — now a web of luxury clothing stores, restaurants and hotels — back then offered an embarrassment of riches of a different sort. It was an edgy, bohemian neighbourhood where a series of smoky clubs offered in-the-know music fans the opportunity to hear a miraculous collection of still-developing artists, including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, one-day Steppenwolf leader John Kay and even future funk pioneer Rick James.
Finkelstein initially took odd jobs at any club that would have him — as a dishwasher, a bouncer, whatever was needed — but didn’t wait long to involve himself into the burgeoning scene developing around him. Among his first clients were psychedelic rockers the Paupers and local rock outfit Kensington Market.
In his recollections, Finkelstein seems to have lost little of the wide-eyed enthusiasm that lifted him through those early years. But he was concerned about glorifying a period that is always recalled in glowing terms, with a healthy heap of nostalgia.
“I don’t think anyone wants this idea shoved down their throat about Yorkville, but it was such a big part of my life,” he said.
It’s easy to understand why the period looms so large for Finkelstein when sifting through his memories.
His book includes anecdotes about rubbing shoulders with a cast of now-legendary musical figures, including Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and the late Linda McCartney (whose surname was Eastman back when she called on Finkelstein’s hotel room, two joints in hand).
In fact, that sort of casual drug use figures into many of Finkelstein’s stories. Sitting across from Finkelstein — exceedingly friendly, with a paternal greying beard and conservatively clad in a sweater — it’s a little hard to imagine the free-partying wildman depicted in his book, who once woke up with a woman on one side and a bag containing a possibly lethal amount of meth on the other.
And Finkelstein says he did struggle with how he represented that period in his life.
“But I couldn’t write about that era without writing about the drug situation,” he said.
“It wasn’t the musicians only, it was everybody — like the audience, everybody was stoned. I did my share of harder drugs. I never got addicted to anything, thank God.”
Finkelstein’s industry successes were numerous. Aside from the legacy-forming output issued by the likes of Cockburn and McLauchlan under Finkelstein’s watch, his True North Records and its accompanying publishing group garnered 40 Junos and 40 gold and platinum records. He was founder and chairman of MuchFACT — which funds videos by independent Canadian artists — for 26 years.
He also received the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award at the Junos, the Order of Canada and is a member of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.
Still, when looking back on his career for the book, he joked there were as many misses as hits.
“This book’s more about failure than it is about success,” he said.
But Finkelstein doesn’t necessarily regret the creative or commercial misfires that occurred under his watch. His guiding principle in recruiting acts over the years was always to look for something a little different.
“I did not sign Murray or Bruce or Rough Trade with the idea that these are going to be … hitmakers,” he said.
“But the funny thing is, there was still a part of me that said: ‘Well, I’m going to make them hits.’
“I think my talent was hearing things that were a little left of centre … and figuring out how to get them into the centre without affecting the music.”