-- Interview with Bernie Finkelstein --
-- by Mark Dunn --

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26 March 2020 - Mark Dunn Interview with Bernie Finkelstein - September 2019

Mark: Alright. When you are working with an artist, do you do you prefer that they are somewhat involved in the business side or that they stay out of it altogether?

Bernie: I don't think it's possible for any artist to stay out of it altogether, so that's not a possibility. However, I think your question is, "is it okay for them to be a little involved…or do I like it when they are a little involved?" and I think that depends on the person, the artist. You know, I've managed many different artists in my career. I currently only manage Bruce Cockburn but that's because I'm semi-retired. For instance, Dan Hill was quite involved in the business and I enjoyed that. I enjoyed discussing all of the daily activities and reaching out, you know, from record sales to so-and-so, why so-and-so didn't like a record. On the other hand, somebody like Bruce is quite aware of the business but he doesn't get involved on a daily basis at all but on the other hand, you know, for tour dates and things like that that you want to know about before we confirm anything like that. So there's a wide degree and I don't really have a preference as long as the person I'm dealing with shows an aptitude for what they are talking about.

Mark: Great. If you were working with a new act in this current media landscape, how would you go about it? Would it be different than what…

Bernie: Every once in a while I do think about it, more in a conceptual manner as opposed to a realistic manner. And I say, "what would I do today?" And I think it would be a great challenge but it would be a great market to work in in many ways. However, until you really do something, you don't really know. I don't really have a magic bullet that I'm going to be able to give to you an idea of what you should do. I don't really know but I don't know that I have any particular to say that people haven't heard over and over again. Obviously, I would be super, super aware of the social media aspect of everything and how to use that and what's the right way. But, you know, in the end it always comes down to a great song and then it comes down to intelligent and smart marketing. And then, finally to throw in the mix, a little bit of luck. Without luck, you are going nowhere. So I don't have anything to say today. I look at people out there who are doing what I used to do and some of them are doing very well and some of them aren't. That's the way it always has been.v

Mark: Yes, for sure. Congratulations, by the way, too. This is the release date of "Crowing Ignites", right?

Bernie: It's a funny thing that you used to release a record and you had to wait a week or two to know exactly what was happening although you would get some daily reports like oh, the record is selling well at A&A's or it's not selling very well at Sunrise. Those are the kinds of things you would get. Cues from around the rest of the world would be very slow to come in but now you get it instantly. So Bruce's record has been #1 in the US and Canada on the singer/songwriter charts on Apple and #1 on the singer/songwriter charts on Amazon on both sides of the border, and actually I have been a little lazy or I could look-not really, I've been really busy-and see what's going on in the UK or Germany. But I can just see it. I can see it right now as you and I talk that it's still #1 on the singer/songwriter charts.

Mark: Does it seem strange to you now that there are colleges that focus on promotion and managing and manager training?

Bernie: It's a good thing. It's a really good thing. I don't think it seems strange. I'm not unhappy that I came up when I did in the 60s. None of that was available. I don't know how that might have changed my life. I hadn't really thought about it but I think it's a good thing. I admire people like John Harris of Harris School and others that have done similar things. I don't know how you teach luck but, on the other hand, the business is very complicated so when I started off I had the advantage of even though I didn't know much, no one else knew much so it was okay. Today, people know a lot so I think that when starting out, some education could be seen as an advantage.

Mark: A couple of Bruce questions if you don't mind. So, from an outsider's viewpoint, Bruce's first album is a classic album and it's wonderful but it doesn't really hint at what comes later if you look at his whole work without knowing. When you started, did you recognize Bruce as a genius when you first met him? Did you suspect what he would be capable of?

Bernie: No, well, you know, it depends how you put it. I think he is but I don't go running around screaming at the top of my lungs. If you do go back to the first album…first of all I don't mind saying when I first signed Bruce it was because I thought "Going to the Country" and "Musical Friends" had the real possibility of being hits until he recorded them and then I realized that when we were recording them, Bruce didn't really want to commercialize the songs any more than they already were and then I went, "Well, that's going to make it a bit more difficult." But, with that being said, I signed him because those songs stood out to me. However, while we were making the album, and I'm not sure you are familiar with this, it was songs like "Spring Song" and "Man of a Thousand Faces" that sprung out at me and I went, "wow, this person has some serious ideas on his mind." But I didn't really realize that when I signed him-the day I signed him-I didn't realize it until I heard the whole album being played back. I mean I was in the studio everyday while it was being recorded. I think to some degree there is an indication on the first album of where he might go but it's profoundly there as it was afterwards. It was the first album. The next artist I signed was Murray MacLauchlan, although that wasn't the second record. The second one was by a synthesizer and continuum. You know, Murray became a bigger star than Bruce in the early days well before Bruce did very, very well. Bruce was a very slow grower.

Mark: He's a long distance guy for sure.

Bernie: Yeah, he's very brilliant, a very unique artist.

Mark: I was surprised to learn that your business relationship was just spoken. You didn't really sign a contract or anything like that.

Bernie: Yeah, that's right. As far as managers go, we didn't sign a contract and we still don't have a contract. We did have to sign record contracts because we had to produce record contracts so that we could make deals with other countries and other companies in other countries. So we never had a management agreement. We still don't. And I think it's a good thing because if we would have had a management contract, it would have been for five or seven years and then Bruce would have left. But now he doesn't know how to leave.

Mark: This is the last Bruce question for you. There is this passage in "Rumors of Glory" where he writes about coming out as a Christian and then this really funny description of you-something like his image of you then becomes two arms like exclamation marks pointing to the heavens. What I'm getting at is: has Bruce's activism caused you problems in managing?

Bernie: Well, yeah, in many ways. That's two questions, though, because you started off with his Christianity and then about his activism. I suppose in some ways, they are somewhat similar but they are different. They are very different streams. Yeah, it sort of looks good when you look at it backwards. I was thinking about that actually this morning because of a question somebody else asked me-not that I was doing another interview, they just asked me a question about "If a Tree Falls." I was thinking to myself that although that song on one hand was well accepted and did actually get a lot of radio airplay, it also was not particularly…you know, I mean, Bruce has never been a critic's favourite in a funny kind of way because his material is difficult for them sometimes. When people are singing about apartheid, Bruce was signing about the environment because he had already covered apartheid ten years before that. So he's so far ahead of the curve and when you are that far ahead of the curve, you are either taken for granted or missed. And I think the same thing is going to happen now. I've noticed that just in the last week now that the reviews are starting to come out on the instrumental album and some of the stories and even the way Bruce talks about it himself because Bruce doesn't really consider how to lead the media down the road in any particular way whatsoever.

People want Bruce to be talking about Trump but Bruce isn't going to talk about Trump because he's got nothing to add to it. So there's a certain kind of select disappointment that Bruce isn't writing a political album and, of course, it's even exasperated by the fact it doesn't have lyrics at all. I was thinking about that today even if you go back to "Rocket Launcher" or "If a Tree Falls" or any number of Bruce's well-known (and I don't think he would like this word) political songs, they are often ahead of the curve. A lot of people didn't know what he was thinking about in "If a Tree Falls." It's much more understandable today. People didn't necessarily understand that cattle were a bad thing for the Amazon. They didn't get it all. And I'm just using that as an example. So his activism often meant that we would get a certain kind of "oh no, it's him again" thing or "oh boy, here they come again." However, that's fine, and, of course, Christianity is not very high on the check marks for being hip. It's actually pretty low. So that's what Bruce brings to the table. It's an incredibly thick mix of things and out of it comes these incredible songs.

Mark: It's interesting now that it seems, it's almost a prerequisite that an artist needs a social cause or a political cause.

Bernie: I guess so. I don't follow it that much. I don't hear a lot but I know that a lot of artists do have causes and that's good. The other unique thing about Bruce is that he actually wasn't writing about them and it's a simple thing to say but it's a really hard thing to do. It's easy to write a bad song about war.

Mark: Looking at your work with Video Facts, you anticipated the importance of video to artists in the early 80s.

Bernie: Yeah, and it's still really, really important. I'm very proud of that new video that Bruce made, the one with Kurt Swinghammer. I'm sure you've seen it.

Mark: You mean "April in Memphis." That's wonderful.

Bernie: It's a beauty. I would like to get more on television and not just on the internet. But, on the other hand, video is still really important. It just doesn't get played much on TV anymore because it's all available on the internet.

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This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.