12 November 2014 - The headquarters of Canada's oldest and arguably most successful independent record label resides in an industrial strip mall on Burlington's Harvester Road, squeezed between a military memorabilia dealer and an auto leasing outlet. The green and white sign above the storefront office is a simple one, "True North Records."
It's nondescript appearance belies 45 years of success. In this YouTube age of free music, when most record labels are folding or floundering, True North appears to be flourishing.
Less than a dozen people work in the open-concept groundfloor space, marketers, publicists, graphic designers, number crunchers. In a backroom, with loading dock access, rows and rows of industrial strength racks contain thousands of CDs, some first recorded decades ago, others so new they're still awaiting release.
Together the CDs represent hundreds of artists and a fair chunk of Canadian musical history — Chilliwack, the Canadian Brass, Gordon Lightfoot, Downchild, 54-40, Ashley MacIsaac, Big Sugar, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Peter Appleyard, Rough Trade, Ron Sexsmith, Jackie Washington, the Guess Who, The Tea Party, Stan Rogers, Fred Penner, The Nylons and many, many more.
At the front of the office, positioned like a receptionist's station, is the desk of the current president and co-owner Geoff Kulawick, a veteran of the music industry who purchased True North from legendary folk-rock impresario Bernie Finkelstein in 2008.
"We're running out of space," says Kulawick, who moved the label to Burlington five years ago to be closer to the Carlisle home he shares with his wife, Brooke, 16-year-old daughter Karina and 14-year-old son Matthew. "We're actually shopping for a new location somewhere in Waterdown."
True North is a very different record label than when it sprang up in the middle of Toronto's Yorkville hippie scene. The year was 1969, and Finkelstein started up the label to house his favourite musicians — Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and the pioneering psychedelic band Kensington Market.
Forty-five years later, Finkelstein is no longer part of the company, although he does continue to manage Cockburn, who remains the label's flagship artist.
As a matter of fact, this month, True North launched one of its most ambitious projects — "Rumours of Glory," a beautifully packaged 117-song, nine-disc box set chronicling the history of one of Canada's most respected singer-songwriters.
Each set is autographed, sequentially numbered and contains a 90-page book featuring rare photos, culled from the Cockburn collection of the McMaster University Archives, and extensive liner notes. The ambitious release has been compiled as a companion to Cockburn's newly released 544-page memoir, also titled "Rumours of Glory," published by HarperCollins.
"It's a good book," Kulawick says. "It contains a lot of things about Bruce I would never have known, like he likes to shoot guns, he goes to target practice. I would never have guessed that in a million years."
Other recent releases include "The Great Wall of China," a collection of Chinese songs performed by the classical quintet Canadian Brass; "Signal," an electro-jazz album by Toronto singer Elizabeth Shepherd; "A Multi-media Life," a documentary DVD by Buffy Sainte-Marie; "Where in the World," by children's entertainer Fred Penner; and "LA Bootleg 1984," a rare concert performance by the late Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau, produced by Randy Bachman, who is scheduled to release a much-anticipated solo rock album on the label next March.
It's an eclectic mix of releases, none of which will likely achieve "gold record" status (sales of 40,000 units), but most will reach niche markets and turn a profit for both the artists and the label. Kulawick avoids pop artists, preferring folk, jazz, roots, bluegrass and classical performers.
"It's far better for us to sign artists that tour and have some kind of base that is not tied to commercial radio," Kulawick says. "Even if there's no hit on the record, there is a community around the artist that will tune into it."
Kulawick, a 50-year-old native of Ottawa, studied music production at London's Fanshawe College in the early '80s before moving to Toronto to start a career in the music industry, first with indie rock label Solid Gold Records, then A & M Records as a tour manager, then Anthem Records (home to Rush) and Warner-Chappell Publishing and Virgin EMI.
After taking some accounting courses, Kulawick formed his own label, Linus Entertainment, in 2001, based out of Toronto and then his home in Mississauga. Some of his early signings were Lightfoot, Ron Sexsmith, Hamilton singer-songwriter Ray Materick and Toronto jazz singer Sophie Millman.
A few years later, when he heard Finkelstein was considering selling True North and its large catalogue, he recruited two financial backers — Harvey Glatt, founder of Ottawa radio station CHEZ-FM and private investor Mike Pilon — and scooped up the label.
"Each of us own a third of True North, but I manage the business," Kulawick says. "And I still own all of Linus."
Since taking over True North, Kulawick has continued to expand taking over the Mushroom Records catalogue last year, adding '70s Canadian acts like Chilliwack and Doucette to the True North/Linus brand. He has also purchased The Children's Group with its catalogue of artists like Penner and Robert Munsch.
"We're a multi-million business and we're continuing to grow," Kulawick says. "We want to break new artists like Elizabeth Shepherd and Matt Andersen, but we also want to by more catalogues and labels."
Kulawick admits much of the company's catalogue skews heavily toward the plus-40 demographic.
"Those are the people who buy CDs. One of the reasons we've been successful is because we have been targeting adults on the CD side," he says. "At this point, most of our repertoire does target an older demographic. But it's more than that, it is music of substance."
~from thespec.com/news-story/4992925-true-north-strong-and-free, by Graham Rockingham.