From the tumultuous early days when Yorkville was a music hotbed through to the 2007 sale of the record label he founded, Bernie Finkelstein was not only a mainstay but a driving force in Canadian music.
Finkelstein, who splits time between his homes in North Toronto and Prince Edward County, was one of the early movers and shakers, getting into the industry at a time when there was really no organized Canadian music scene of which to speak.
He has chronicled his journey from young army brat and truant student at Downsview Collegiate to esteemed producer and manager in his recently released memoir, True North.
His book serves as one of few recountings of the early days of the Canadian music industry, an industry he helped to shape.
“Canadians are famous for having cultural amnesia,” he said of his reasons for writing his book. “I sold my business in 2007 and that freed my time up to (write a memoir) on the one hand, but it also felt like the time to tell the story because I was no longer in the middle of it.”
Finkelstein had no training and little experience in music apart from attending shows in Yorkville when he started managing groundbreaking Toronto acts such as the Paupers and Kensington Market. In those days, however, that was hardly an impediment.
“There really wasn’t a Canadian music industry in those days,” he said. “I didn’t know much, but I knew as much as anyone else.”
He managed his early acts to some minor success both in Canada and in the U.S. but – when partnered with other, more established producers – felt both the Paupers and Kensington Market were making what he believed to be artistic mistakes.
Not one to be kept down, Finkelstein switched gears and moved his focus from managing some of the louder bands of the era to working with folksier singer-songwriters. He began managing such luminaries as Bruce Cockburn and Murray McLauchlan, signing both to the True North label.
While those artists earned more acclaim than many of his other acts, Finkelstein’s memoir demonstrates an almost fatherly pride over every act with which he worked.
“At the heart of the matter, right until the very last day when I sold (the record label), I loved every album we put out,” he said.
For that reason, Finkelstein cites the breakthroughs of Cockburn’s ‘Wondering Where the Lions Are’, McLauchlan’s ‘Farmer’s Song’ and Dan Hill’s ‘Sometimes When We Touch’ as landmark moments but will not say they are his greatest achievements.
“There were obviously some outstanding moments,” he said. “They’re not necessarily the best ones, but those are big memories.”
While he does not lament the transformation of Yorkville from a bohemian hotspot, he does feel the area lost much of its charm when rumours of a hepatitis outbreak in 1969 essentially cleared out many of the artists and musicians and helped paved the way for what it has become.
“To me, what it is now is just a haven for the richest people in Canada,” he said. “I think it would have been better off if it had stayed the way it was.”
Still, Finkelstein has never been one to look back. He credits growing up on military bases for giving him some of his resilience throughout the tough times. Though there were definitely lean years early on and some setbacks when he cut ties with the Paupers, Kensington Market and others along the way, he said his childhood was beneficial in helping him constantly move forward.
“I wasn’t very dependent on hanging on to people or hanging on to things,” he said. “Growing up on army bases, we were always moving and it was always chaotic.”
At the height of his game – and even when he scaled back his involvement in the business in later years – Finkelstein was instrumental in changing the face of the Canadian music industry.
Decades ago, when Canadian artists were having a hard time getting airplay, he spoke out vocally in favour of the Canadian content regulations that now ensure Canadian radio stations must play music by Canadian artists.
He also helped found both the Canadian Independent Record Production Association (now the Canadian Independent Music Association) and VideoFACT (now MuchFACT). The latter of these has provided grants to countless up-and-coming Canadian artists.
Finkelstein is currently promoting his book and recently wrapped a documentary on Bruce Cockburn, dubbed Pacing the Cage. He will also join Cockburn, whose career he still manages, on a U.K. tour this summer.
When not relaxing in Prince Edward County, he enjoys spending time in midtown Toronto, where he has lived since the late 1970s.
“I’ve watched the area change; it’s not as sleepy as it was and in some ways it’s now the centre of the city,” he said. “It’s got everything I’m interested in in a city.”
Finkelstein’s memoir, True North, is currently available at book stores and online.