Denise Donlon looks to the floor beside her upholstered pale grey armchair, searching for something. She, too, is wearing grey, a lightweight suit in a darker tone with a white cotton top. She’s looking classy and self-possessed. She’s just been reminded that she’s often called a cheerleader due to her role as Canadian music promoter extraordinaire — and, not finding what she’s looking for, she lets loose her trademark throaty laugh. The joke, it turns out, is at her own expense as she reveals, with mock relief, what she was pretending to forage for: “I’m a bit old for the pompoms.”
The image of the statuesque 45-year-old Donlon doing jumping jacks and cartwheels is a bit of a hoot. (Not that she’d be incapable — she looks as though she could still perform a half-decent cartwheel.) But while Donlon sees it as her job to promote Canadian musicians, she gets her ya-yas out a lot differently. And with a lot more respect.
Even before she took the helm at Sony Music Canada last November, Donlon was one of the most powerful people in Canada’s music business. She was the frontline personality at MuchMusic, the music-video channel broadcast into seven million Canadian and almost 40 million U.S. households. At Much, she could make or break a performer’s career, and is credited with launching those of many well-known Canadian artists, including Jann Arden, the Barenaked Ladies, Moist and the Tragically Hip. The recipient of countless awards and accolades, Donlon is one of the handful of Canadians who form the framework of the music business in Canada, says Brian Robertson, head of the Canadian Recording Industry Association. “She’s played a tremendous role.”
As president at Sony, Donlon is now in a position not only to make or break careers but to create them — and launch artists out into the world. “It is more encompassing in a lot of ways because you can really start at ground zero,” she says. The Sony label in Canada, which includes on its roster such stars as Celine Dion, Leonard Cohen and Our Lady Peace, vies for second place — behind Universal Music Canada and its 30-per-cent market share — with Warner Music Canada and EMI Music Canada. The label is, of course, part of the Tokyo-based entertainment conglomerate Sony Corp., which boasted sales last year of $90 billion. Revenue figures aren’t broken out by country, but industry stats show that Sony holds roughly 15 per cent of a $726-million pie in Canada — a pie that is shrinking due to the ever-growing popularity of online music downloads.
- Donlon’s key mission, as she sees it, is to capitalize on her company’s global muscle. She says she’s building relationships with her Sony colleagues around the world so that when the next “real deal” emerges here, it can shine globally: “Our job and our task, as a major label, is to find the talent, nurture it and get it up to bat.” Coming soon from Sony’s current roster, she says, is the “undeniably good” Jarvis Church, aka singer Gerald Eaton from the Toronto-based sextet Philosopher Kings, who is set to release a solo CD. Project Wyze, a new band that does “pumping hip-hop mixed with hard-core, live guitar riffs and beats (using the best electric acoustic guitar),” according to its promo material, is just about to release misfits.strangers.liars.friends. And Amanda Marshall’s second album, Tuesday’s Child, is, Donlon says, “amazing.”
The success of Canadian artists is partly a function of this country’s expansive geography, Donlon declares. Musicians cross Canada “10 times in broken-down vans, you know, across the snow-covered plains, to small and, hopefully, ever-increasing audiences,” she says. And then she gets into a riff of her own: “You know, you play your gig, you get in the bus, you drive drive drive drive drive, you get off, you do some press promos, retell your stories, do your gig, get back on the bus, drive drive drive drive drive — ummm, so yeah, you have to have the heart and legs for it,” she says. “So when they get up to bat, they generally hit a run.”
With roadie on her CV, Donlon knows firsthand what it’s like to tour with a band. Doing advance work for little-known artists, she came to the attention of Moses Znaimer, founder of Toronto’s CityTV and one of the masterminds behind Much Music. “The thing that’s obvious and remarkable about her is her range,” he says. “It’s rare to find someone who has the understanding of a performer and is still a good administrator.” Znaimer hired her for Much in 1985 as the Rock Flash News anchor, but she soon graduated to host/producer of a music and pop-culture show called The New Music. By 1997, Donlon was running the place and given the title of vice-president and general manager.
- Donlon has not been afraid to be political, or to put issues she considers important in front of young viewers. Issues such as literacy, for which she developed Between the Covers, a program that asked rock stars about the role books played in their lives. “Denise has made a much bigger contribution than many would ever guess,” says broadcaster and journalist Peter Gzowski, a friend and fellow literacy fund-raiser and advocate. Much viewers were, in her words, “a very young audience, very willing to engage and really build with that I-can-change-the- world kind of dream,” and she wanted to tap into that energy. She introduced election coverage to Much, and put to party leaders questions that included her audience’s real interests — Does Stockwell Day know who is the Real Slim Shady? Would Joe Clark allow his children to go to a rave?
A year ago, Donlon joined doctors Samantha Nutt and Eric Hoskins, of the Ottawa-based humanitarian group War Child Canada, on a trip to Sierra Leone, where she visited a refugee camp with 30,000 amputees, many of them children. “It was life-changing, as you can imagine,” she says. Much was a founding sponsor of the group and now, Sony is involved. Recently two of Sony’s recording artists, Chantal Kreviazuk and her husband, Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace, went to Sierra Leone on a separate trip, again with War Child Canada (they also visited Iraq on a journey Nutt and Hoskins chronicled for Maclean’s in February). “You don’t have to do it in a big grand way every day, but you can assist in ways that are consistent,” Donlon says. “You can change the world with music.”
That may even be true. Yet what’s certain is that the music world is itself in the midst of dramatic change. The domestic industry has never been stronger — Canadian artists Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Sarah McLachlan and Dion have buoyed global sales. But the Internet, and its capacity to deliver copyrighted music for free, has wreaked havoc in the business. “The industry has been on a roller-coaster ride for the last two or three years,” says Robertson of CRIA. Via Napster and now its look-alike cousins, music listeners can download music from each other, making CDs at little cost. And Canadians are doing it more than just about everyone else — a fact Donlon is acutely aware of, especially in meetings with her Sony counterparts from other countries. “I go, ‘Hey, we won!’ ” she jokes, her fist punching the air. “We reeeeally didn’t,” she laments.
Along with the Taiwanese, Canadians are at the top of the list — 76 per cent of 18-to-24-year-old Internet users download music files, according to polling firm Ipsos-Reid. The United States is sixth, at 73 per cent. One reason Canadians are out in front is that this country is highly wired: 31 per cent of Internet households have a high-speed connection to the Web, more than twice the percentage of U.S. homes. “The numbers are alarming,” Donlon says. “Are we taking a hit? Absolutely.”
The hit has seriously affected sales. Figures for Sony Music Canada are not made public but industry-wide numbers show CD purchases began to decline last year, and then took a steep dive in 2001. In May, CD sales were down 20 per cent from the year before, according to CRIA. At the same time, sales of CD-Rs, the blank CDs used to record new material, are on a dramatic upswing. In 1999, 45 million were sold in Canada; last year, the number more than doubled to 95 million. The association is projecting 130 million for this year. The technological advances came fast and furious, says Robertson. In response, the industry now is “playing catch-up” with plans for online subscription services, he says. This fall, two industry-backed online delivery systems will be available: MusicNet, a joint offering from AOL Time Warner Inc., Bertelsmann AG and EMI Group; and Pressplay, owned jointly by Sony and Vivendi Universal, parent of Universal Music Canada. Pressplay will offer both a subscription service — for a monthly fee, music lovers will have access to a listening library — and direct downloading, in which consumers will be able to buy and keep a piece of music.
For Donlon, the issue is not about recording-industry revenues. “Having creators compensated for the work they do is an issue we need to champion,” she says. “We have to have an actual conversation about intellectual copyright and how we’re all shareholders in this.” A lot of people don’t equate downloading copyrighted music for free with walking into a store, putting a CD under their coats and walking out, she says. “It is the same,” she asserts, her voice turning edgy. “It is stealing.”
Donlon admits that, as a 13-year-old, she, too, made her own cassettes, taped off the radio. Education, she says, is part of the answer. “People want their artists to be able to continue to put food in their mouths so they can continue to make records,” she says. Another part is, in her words, “simple human ergonomics.” She recalls how time- consuming it was for her to make her cassettes and how she’d regularly clip off the ending. “You know, it lasted awhile — a month — until I got bored and it was too much work. And I’d rather actually own the piece of work.”
Sony Music Canada, where the work gets made, is located at a sprawling property in the suburban northern end of Toronto. The building includes a manufacturing operation, state-of-the-art studios, writing labs, a soundstage — a far cry from the broken-down bus of the early days of Donlon’s career. Her office is spacious, a living room-style setup of chairs and a sofa at one end, an imposing wall of black shelving behind the exec desk at the other. Photos of rock stars and movie stars, including one of John Travolta giving Donlon a hug, line the wall. A skylight sheds natural light onto the muted tones of grey and cream. It has the trappings of a major success. But Donlon, who’s been hanging around musicians her whole adult life — she’s married to one, Canadian singer-song writer Murray McLauchlan, and they have a nine-year-old son — eschews the star status for herself. She has said she doesn’t feel up to the accolades. She clearly takes her work seriously, but not herself.
She readily admits she felt like an impostor on her arrival at Sony: “Oh, completely, yeah. The learning curve is steep.” And then she pokes fun at herself again: “I can tell you a lot of things about polycarbonate resin compounds.” That, and just about everything else that goes into making music.