By Isabelle Speerin
From jamming on the Festival Express to lifelong label executive, James Campbell is one of the industry’s most respected champions of emerging Canadian musical talent.
A former artist himself, he spent his teenage years as frontman of the Spasstiks, a band who made a name for themselves in Toronto’s vibrant Yorkville music scene in the late 60s. Their melodic pop-rock sound caught the attention of Canadian record producer, Jack Richardson, who signed the band – renamed as Cat – with Nimbus 9 and RCA Records in 1968.
Richardson and then protégé, Bob Ezrin, worked together to produce Cat’s first record in Chicago. “Our band was the first band Bob ever produced,” Campbell notes.
Cat eventually broke up and Campbell lucked into the business side of the industry through a former Nimbus 9 colleague who was looking to fill an entry-level A&R role. “He asked me if I wanted to be in the music business,” he said. “I was 25 and singing jingles at the time and said, ‘yeah sure.’”
Campbell joined WEA Canada, now Warner Music Canada, as an A&R assistant. His main job was to screen demo submissions and bring the best ones forward.
He spent the next eight years at WEA, dabbling in promotion and artist relations for a while and then returning to head up the A&R department. “Sadly, we had limited success as a creative company because at that time the machine was very focused on our international catalogue and superstars,” he explained.
Campbell moved to RCA Records in the early 80s to head up artist development and marketing, a role that eventually unlocked his passion to develop Canadian artists both domestically and internationally. “When RCA became BMG, I segued into a more domestic artist-focused role with the international component that came along with that,” he said.
Campbell spent a total of 22 years at BMG, the last 5 years as Senior Vice President of International for RCA in New York. During his time there he had the opportunity to work with a diverse roster of artists, including huge international acts such as Foo Fighters, Dave Matthews Band and Christina Aguilera, having already developed globally successful Canadian bands Crash Test Dummies and Cowboy Junkies. “Both are still touring internationally now, almost 40 years later,” he notes.
When the music business started to turn in 2003, Campbell returned to Canada to personally manage the winners of the reality television show, Canadian Idol. “The opportunity came about as I had worked for many years with Simon Fuller and I knew Simon Cowell for a long time as the A&R consultant at BMG UK,” he said.
When Idol wound down, Campbell fortuitously reconnected with Gary Slaight (they were regional promotional partners at WEA in the mid 70s). Gary Slaight and Derrick Ross had just launched a music company to mentor, grow and support Canadian talent. “Gary asked me if I’d like to be involved and I’ve been handling the A&R and the music publishing side of Slaight Music since 2013,” he explained.
At its core, Slaight Music is an artist incubator, and has launched or furthered the careers of over 40 young Canadian artists and groups since 2011.
Campbell describes Slaight’s publishing division as boutique at best. “We have about 1,100 songs as of today and only two fulltime songwriters,” he said. “The rest of our roster is comprised of six to nine writers we’re also developing on the artist side.”
Although Slaight Music works very closely with indie label partner Hidden Pony Records, they also aspire to partner with and upstream developing artists to major labels and other indie labels, which they’ve done in the past with Washboard Union (Warner), Theo Tams (Warner), Kayla Diamond (Cadence), Notifi (Sony), Moscow Apartment – now called Housewife (Hazel Street) and Jillea (Universal). The current Hidden Pony roster includes Roslyn Witter, Ryan Langdon, Theo Tams and New Friends.
Unlike most publishers, Slaight isn’t looking to acquire catalogues. Campbell is more interested in working with heritage songwriters like seven-time Canadian Country Music Award (CCMA) winner, Patricia Conroy, who is based in Nashville.
“We wanted to develop some country artists and thought it was important to have a writer who was boots on the ground in Nashville and that became Patricia,” he explained.
Conroy has co-written more than 40 artist cuts while with Slaight Music Publishing, including the # 1 US hit “Champagne Night” for Lady A as well as “Working on Whiskey” by Jessica Mitchell, also cut by Trisha Yearwood.
“We also have a heritage writer here on the country side who was a big star in the 90s called Jim Witter.”
In 2020, Slaight inked a three-year deal with CMRRA client, Reservoir Media, to handle administration, sync placements, and provide creative support. “It has worked out beautifully,” he revealed. “We have the total support of their creative offices, their sync divisions and the back office that help us keep everything in order.”
As a long-term label executive, short-term personal manager and even shorter term publisher, Campbell credits CMRRA with helping him navigate the nuances and complexities of music publishing. “CMRRA is an extremely valuable resource,” he said. “Five years ago, I couldn’t define a mechanical licence and they really helped us through that.”
When asked about challenges facing the industry, Campbell points to the increasing pressure artists and writers face to create their own social assets to engage with fans.
“The industry has to change and revisit some of the aspects of the former business model that allowed artists to do what they’re supposed to be doing, which is creating,” he said. “There’s so much time now spent on creating assets and engagement that nobody has time to create or they’re not creating to the fullest that they aspire to.”
The shift from analogue to the digitization of music has also proven to be a double-edged sword for many industry professionals who grew up on vinyl, cassettes and CDs.
“When I work with creators now, I am dealing with a completely different recording process to the one that I grew up on and what guided my career,” said Campbell. “The digital recording process has been both a blessing and a curse because I don’t always love the finished modern sonic landscape.”
Another way the digital age has impacted creators is the niche factor, says Campbell. “Today it seems it’s about superstars and then everybody else,” he said. “There’s way too much music being released every day than is wise for our industry or the end customer, in my opinion.”
His advice for creators looking to build their fanbase? Truth, honesty, and conversation. “I want to be engaged with a songwriter/artist and I want people to feel our roster of artists as real people,” he said.
Campbell lives in Toronto with his wife Ulla and has two adult daughters and three grandchildren.
To learn more about Slaight Music, visit their website at www.slaightmusic.com.