Ron Kitchener’s Open Road Recordings got its break when it signed country artist Taylor Swift, whose album Fearless has seen double-platinum sales in Canada. (CRAIG GLOVER/OPEN ROAD RECORDINGS)
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail Ron Kitchener had a pretty good thing going, but the Toronto entrepreneur always knew he was one key deal away from expanding his music empire.
His Open Road Recordings country music record label had slowly built its name by signing Canadian acts such as Johnny Reid and the Road Hammers, and he watched with satisfaction as their albums became certified gold – a status bestowed on recordings selling more than 50,000 copies in Canada.
Mr. Kitchener's career was unfolding at a steady, if leisurely, pace when he visited Nashville and struck a licensing deal with another relatively small label called Big Machine Records.
Mr. Kitchener gained access to a roster of up-and-coming talent, and one fresh-faced young woman in particular caught his attention. She was a long way from last week's duet at the Grammy Awards with Miley Cyrus, but right from the start he knew that Taylor Swift was going to change the way his label did business: If he could exploit his licensing deal by marketing Ms. Swift properly in Canada and making sure her records flew off well-stocked shelves, Open Road would be poised for rapid expansion.
“Country music has a hard time selling units in Canada unless you get one or two genuine artists that do truly break through,” he explains. “There are plenty of superstar artists, who I won't name, that don't sell records in Canada. Having Taylor break out was a significant bonus for us.”
It wasn't a matter of incremental growth – before releasing Ms. Swift's Fearless album, Open Road was a one-man shop. Now, the company boasts 11 employees in Toronto and Nashville and has “significantly” more volume and revenues, he says. The album took the No. 1 and No. 2 slots on Billboard's 2008 Country Album Chart (Canada), making the 19-year-old singer from Pennsylvania the seventh-best-selling artist among all genres. The album went double platinum, selling more than 400,000 copies last year in Canada.
“Once people heard of her and saw her and got a sense of what she's all about – with her positive image and her good nature – she just began to shine,” he says.
And while his label has averaged three new releases a year since 2003, Ms. Swift's success and the corresponding bump in revenues for Open Road means it can release nine albums this year.
Mr. Kitchener likes to think he was sure of Ms. Swift's talent, but releasing any album in Canada is a risky proposition. It's a huge country, with divergent musical tastes, and misjudging an artist's appeal could be enough to sink a small label.
“We need to work with our distributors and retailers to make sure the product flow is something we can manage,” he says. “You manufacture thousands of units and ship them across the country and hope that they sell. And if they don't, they come back for a credit. And we certainly can't take a whole bunch of credit back after spending a whole bunch on marketing – we'd be out of business very quickly.”
The flip side of the equation is that if he botched a major release, it could be difficult to sign other big names to the Open Road label.
“There's nothing more frustrating than someone in Saskatoon walking out of a store without what they want, but knowing that in Regina there are 30 pieces that nobody wants,” Mr. Kitchener says. “And when you realize you have a big-selling record, you've suddenly got to have more attention to detail, more eyes on the game.”
While there are few industries that haven't been touched by the global recession, the music business has been facing particularly difficult times over the past five years. Digital piracy has taken a toll on sales, and fewer albums are making their way off store shelves. So while he may be releasing more music this year than ever before, Mr. Kitchener is cautious about his prospects in 2009.
The label isn't his only business – he has others that deal with different aspects of the industry, such as licensing, managing and publishing. The more aspects of the industry he can cover off, the greater the odds of survival.
“The music industry has been in a recession for three times as long as what's happening out there now,” he says. “We've got to be very careful. The reason I have five or six businesses now really is because of the changing landscape of the business. It certainly wasn't my endeavour to go out and do all those things, but it just happens out of necessity.”
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Ron Kitchener joined us for a live discussion about his company and its breakthrough. Click here to read the discussion.
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