Time Travel Stories For People Who Love Music
By Richard Flohil.
Are you up for some time travel?
We’re going backwards — maybe before you were even born. We’re in the ‘70s and the ‘80s, and it’s cold in Canada; it’s the last week in January. And you are with me in the south of France…
If you’re in the music business, part of your life is spent at industry conventions. Here in Canada — in pre-pandemic times, anyway — we have Canadian Music Week, North by North East, Independent Music Week, Country Music Week, Breakout West, gatherings in the Maritimes, the Prairies and, once every few years, Folk Alliance International. Wherever you’re reading this — in the US, the UK, Australia, South Africa, Japan, just for starters — you probably have similar events.
But join me now at La Pizza, a lovely Italian restaurant overlooking the smaller of the two harbours in Cannes. Our relatively inexpensive lunch is a break from business meetings at the Palais des Festivals, the huge concrete convention centre — known informally as The Bunker — where we are meeting record company people, business managers, agents, music publishers, international concert promoters, independent music entrepreneurs, and even a few musicians.
We are at MIDEM — the biggest, busiest, noisiest, loudest, craziest music convention in the world. You and I are just two of the 12,000 delegates, who have arrived from literally all over the world, paid a fortune to get here, and coughed up a staggering fee for our delegate badges.
But the sun is shining, the air is clean, and even the quality of the light seems wonderfully different.
This is an adventure.
True story #1: Is your wallet full?
Cannes is an enormously wealthy city; this afternoon we can wander over to the bigger harbour and check out Aristotle Onassis’ yacht (the one with a helicopter pad on it), and visit the Casino, where there will be a concert later tonight.
We are staying at the Martinez, a huge hotel facing Le Croisette, the avenue that runs along the side of the pebbled beach and the sea and the two lush islands a ferry ride away.
This is the rock and roll hotel for music biz people like you and I who can just about afford it, if we’ve got a grant or an expense account. We can’t afford the Carlton, a luxurious hotel next door inhabited by the presidents of major record companies and millionaires (yes, did I tell you I literally bumped into Keith Richards coming out of the revolving doors — “Sorry mate!”).
Up the street, opposite the Palais, is the Majestic, the hotel of choice for old-school European music publishers and the convention’s visiting star musicians. Most of our friends, though are staying in dozens of small, less glamorous, hotels scattered around the city, all of whom have doubled their prices for this week only.
“Deux bières, S'il vous plaît,” we order in our halting French. We get Kronenbourg, the Labatt’s Blue of France, and the bill. A quick mental translation — and remember this is during our ‘70s visit — tells us that each beer is $12.00. Our waiter reassures us: “Oui, m’sieur — a special price pour le MIDEM. Normally only $6.00.”
Alas, it’s not all great food, fun and games: Business does get done
The value of music industry gatherings lies in what you learn about a rapidly-changing industry, but more importantly it’s about who you know, who you meet, who you need to impress and what you need to sell, or buy.
Canada’s music business is just getting under way in the early ‘70s, thanks to the Canadian content regulations (radio stations were mandated to play a percentage of made-in-Canada music). As the years went by, there was a Canadian exhibit space at MIDEM — a loose collection of a meeting space and small listening rooms. A dedicated staff of bilingual people manned the “booth” (as we called it); meetings were arranged, licensing deals done, publishing catalogues bought and sold, music listened to, relationships started or implemented.
Among the early participants are Al Mair of Attic Records, Holger Petersen of Stony Plain Records and Bernie Finkelstein, the founder of the True North label. And all these years later, they’ll tell you how the deals they made helped build the record companies they had started….
True story #2: a dinner date that didn’t work out well
One of the good people at MIDEM this year is Pegi Ceccone, the dynamo who runs the publishing activities of the band Rush, and the roster of artists signed to the Anthem/SRO label.
She is in the bar at the Martinez having a business meeting with a South American concert promoter and tour manager.
Deep into negotiations, she is interrupted by a well-known Canadian musician, considerably inebriated.
“Dinner for one, Pegi?” he asks, unzipping his pants.
She looks up, smiles, and responds: “Child’s portion?”
Actual music at MIDEM? Not as much as you’d think.
The ‘70s and ‘80s at MIDEM were years of huge changes in the music industry. Vinyl was disappearing, and something new called "compact discs” were being touted as the next big thing.
Other issues: harmonizing copyright legislation among all the European countries. Oh, and something called personal computers were about to come into vogue. Something called the Internet might arrive on the scene in the ‘80s. There were also failures: whatever happened to cassette tapes, 8-tracks, and mini discs?
There are panels, and round-table discussions and keynote speeches and guest lecturers; this is a BUSINESS convention above all.
There is also actual music. Concerts at the Palais, late night events in the Casino, and showcases in hotels. Look, we can see Willie Nelson at the Casino. Remember when Tori Amos reduced us all to stunned silence in the Martinez ballroom, as did the Pointer Sisters.
Oh, and do you remember the concert in the Palais when the British guitarist Richard Thompson opened for Van Morrison? That one was a live concert for television all over Europe and even Russia. MIDEM officials gave the best seats to local French teenagers, who whistled at Thompson in disapproval, and seemed indifferent to Morrison.
Photograph - Van Morrison circa 1970
We refused to sit in the balcony, and yelled at the ushers and demanded we sit up front on the main floor. And watched as Van the Man, who started the show with incredible intensity, broke a string, threw a towel at the keyboard player (Georgie Fame?), glared at the drummer who wasn’t sure whether or not they were going into the next song, and stormed off…
True story #3: James Brown is late for his press conference
In a basement theatre at the Palais, we are waiting for James Brown, the self-styled Godfather of Soul. Remember, he had played last night at the Casino, to a “show me” crowd of music business professionals like you and me. “He doesn’t do the splits like he used to,” we muttered. “He needs to lose weight. The band isn’t tight enough, he’s not as good as he used to be…”
Three quarters through the show he had finally got his jaded audience to clap in time, and by the end, two or three couples are actually dancing in the aisle.
He’s going to hold a press conference in a few minutes, and, anxious to cover every aspect of MIDEM, the European media is waiting.
There are at least two dozen television cameras, raised behind the pen-and-pencil writers sitting in the front rows. On the floor in front of the stage, a dozen photographers adjust their lenses.
On a table at centre stage are a cluster of microphones, with logos of radio stations from Stockholm, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and half a dozen other European capitals. Huge banks of flowers flank the table behind which Brown will take questions.
There’s a low buzz of conversation, which continues as the time passed. Mr. Brown is apparently delayed, a functionary tells us. The chatter continues, the men behind the huge television cameras mutter to each other. Another half hour goes by, and Brown eventually arrives, 90 minutes late. Only three people have lost patience and left.
The delay? “Ah, m’sieur, we are making a terrible mistake,” explains a MIDEM functionary.
“We are sending a white limousine for Mr. Brown, but he will only ride here in a black limousine…”
Wait a minute, Brown is staying at the Majestic Hotel, where his party occupied four suites.
The Majestic is directly across the road from the Palais. About 90 metres, door to door.
“But he could have walked across the road, with a couple of bodyguards…”
Remember what the MIDEM official said, as he stood ramrod straight?
“Surely, m’sieur, you don’t expect the Godfather of Soul to walk?”
The good old days are not coming back…
Today, they hold MIDEM in the summer. A smaller number of Canadians go each year, and total attendance is down to some 5,000 delegates.
Change continues. Streaming is everything, the CD has almost disappeared and is now a quaint artefact, useful only as a souvenir or a calling card. Vinyl’s exceedingly limited
“comeback” is, frankly, a novelty. Publishing catalogues are traded on the stock market.
And this summer it may well be a “virtual” event, just as most industry events will be.
Alas, the old expression that everything old is new again no longer applies. Things ain’t what they used to be.
But those were the days, my friend.
Richard Flohil is a now-retired Canadian music industry veteran who attended MIDEM from 1971 through to the late ‘80s, representing CAPAC, one of the two performing rights organizations that merged to become SOCAN in 1990. This piece may well become a chapter in his upcoming memoir.
He writes regularly for thesoundcafe.com