by Jon Dekel
CMRRA is examining the future in 2022. With change as a constant in our world right now, we examine the future opportunities in music publishing. We’re asking leaders in the music publishing space what is next. What changes are happening at their companies right now? What are their predictions? Is there a song that soundtracks the future? Can we keep up?
In his own words, Troy Kokol’s journey to becoming a chart-topping songwriter and self-publisher was “not typical.” Unlike his contemporaries, who toiled for years on their craft, occasionally sleeping in their cars waiting for their big break, Kokol pursued a career in music “at a snail’s pace,” he admits. “Mostly as a hobby.” Which was all well and good, until he happened to write one of the most popular Canadian country music songs of all time.
Now a Songwriters Association of Canada Board Member, the award-winning Calgary-based musician, animator, label boss and music publisher recalls his big break as a moment of serendipitous luck. While out at an event in the mid-aughts, he ran into an acquaintance who was an artist manager and label owner. In the course of their catch up, Kokol mentioned he and his partner were writing songs, but the conversation moved on quickly. A few days later, the acquaintance called back asking for those songs Kokol had written.
“They played our demo for Corus, CMT and SOCAN, at the time we had no idea what those acronyms meant,” he laughs. “Next thing we know, Shane Yellowbird had recorded it and it was a hit.”
Kokol’s song, “Pick Up Truck,” as performed by Shane Yellowbird, would go on to become the 6th most played song ever on Canadian country radio, according to Billboard magazine. “That’s not typically how that works,” he explains. “That’s kind of been our career, it was like, “Okay, I guess we’re songwriters.”
Despite this declaration, having started a family and holding onto full-time jobs meant that Kokol and his partner and co-writer, Joni Delaurier, couldn’t exactly hop on the next plane to Nashville. However, as they’d done before, they simply kept writing and moving forward.
In the wake of “Pick Up Truck’s success, Yellowbird asked Kokol to perform, and tour manage him. It’s an experience that bonded the two Indigenous artists for life.
“I grew up in a situation where my mother was subjected to alcohol abuse, and a long history of, you know, indigenous issues. So when I grew up, my parents, my mom especially, shielded me from a lot of that,” Kokol explains. “The interesting thing was when I started touring with Shane, I was thrust back into the Indigenous community. All of a sudden, I’m around all these amazing, creative Indigenous people that are talking about positive things and doing positive things with their art and doing positive things with their gifts. It’s helped me kind of come back to a place where it’s like, oh, this is really important.”
When Yellowbird passed last month, Kokol says it was a reminder that “these moments that we have in our music business are precious.” “We have to remember to be grateful,” he adds, crediting Yellowbird for putting him on the path to success. “All we can do is just be grateful.”
Like his career in songwriting, Kokol became a self-publisher less by will than inertia. Once the first songwriting cheques came in, he says, he started to realize “holy crap, where else is there money?” In studying the role of the publisher, he believed he had the wherewithal to exploit his own catalogue and it was hat ideology which formed the basis of Reluctant Cowboy publishing.
Today, with nearly 300 songs to his name, Reluctant Cowboy, which also serves as the title of Kokol’s record label, is a full-time business.
In thinking back to his early success, the self-publisher says he’s lucky he lived in Calgary at a time when there was no country music infrastructure. “We don’t run into publishers here,” he explains with a chuckle. “I feel like it was a fortunate thing and because someone could have come out and we would have happily given it away.”
Out of such necessity, Kokol has built a small empire in his basement. “Today, I can write, mix and master, I act as radio promotions, I know how to put it up to the DSPs…” he says. “My whole career has been Google and YouTube. It’s a constant learning thing, but I enjoy it.
In order to execute the work of 10 people, Kokol says he’s extremely regimented. “It’s so necessary for me to be disciplined,” he explains. “Go to bed at a good time, wake up early and kick ass.”
Of course, It also helps that country music has become its own Canadian success story. “We benefit from that for sure,” Kokol says, citing his success with acts like Brett Kissel and, recently, down under with Australian artist Hayley Jensen.
“And, of course,’ he adds, “Shane Yellowbird.”
With National Indigenous People’s Day coming up on June 21, Kokol says he’s looking forward to honouring the teachings he learned from touring with Yellowbird and embracing his heritage by finding something positive and meaningful to say with his work. “Right now, I’m at a place where I’m trying to figure out what I can say that’s meaningful,” he explains.
Asked about what he’d like to impart to others who are thinking of becoming self-publishers, Kokol says the key is learning to ask questions from the right sources. “Publishing and the collection of money is the most difficult, least sexy part of the business but I always tell people, lean on the people that are there to help you, like CMRRA,” he says. “CMRRA has been incredible. If I needed help or if I needed guidance, within a day, I’d get a call back.” “It’s so important for people to know that it’s not impossible to collect their money.”
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