As a record label, there is no better way to celebrate a milestone in your history than with a chart-topping album and a sixth straight Canadian Country Music Award (CCMA) as Record Company of the Year. Open Road Recordings, which has earned that honour consecutively between 2009-2014 and three times as Independent Record Company.
In 2013, Open Road Recordings celebrated its 10th anniversary amplified by the out-of-the-box success of the debut album (Throw Down) by fast-rising Open Road recording artist, Tim Hicks. The album was the sales story of early September in Canada as it held down the #1 spot on the all-genres chart among Canadian artists.
Founded in 2003 by Ron Kitchener (RGK Entertainment), who was first named Manager of the Year at the CCMAs in 1998 and has taken the honours for an unprecedented 12 consecutive years between 2002-2013, Open Road has to date sold over two and a half million albums by artists like Taylor Swift, Johnny Reid, The Road Hammers, Doc Walker, Emerson Drive, Rascal Flatts, Reba McEntire and CCMA Male Artist of the Year Dean Brody, whose latest single (“Bounty”) has just been released in advance of his fourth album, Crop Circles, set for a November 5 launch.
“I had designs on running an independent label,” says Kitchener. “I was already wearing a lot of the hats. Even as a manager, I was very involved in the marketing plans with the team at MCA (Universal), which was the label for Jason McCoy and Doc Walker, the two artists on my management roster at the time. I felt I had a good handle on what country fans were thinking and had a somewhat hands-on role in that area as much as managing the artists. Randy Lennox at Universal was very encouraging and wonderfully supportive of the imprint and a partnership with Maplecore Ltd., led by Grant Dexter, allowed the set up and launch to be seamless.”
In September of 2003, Open Road’s first release was Everyone Aboard by Doc Walker. Sins, Lies and Angels, by Jason McCoy, the 2001 CCMA Male Vocalist of the Year, became the label’s second release in November of the same year. The following year, Open Road signed Johnny Reid, whose three albums for the label: Born To Roll, Kicking Stones and Dance With Me established the Scottish-born singer as a major star in Canada. The latter two records both were certified two-times platinum and named Top-Selling Canadian Album at the CCMAs.
“During that early period, I signed The Wilkinsons for a one-off album, which was released in the spring of 2004,” states Kitchener. “That year, Johnny Reid was also signed to the label and we put him out in 2005, so we were getting going. We were a couple of years in and broke through with The Road Hammers, Jason McCoy’s “side project” that had added momentum with a reality TV show on CMT Canada. So we had launched a pretty good domestic roster within a short period of time, with Doc Walker, The Wilkinsons, Johnny Reid, The Road Hammers and Jason McCoy solo.”
By late 2005, Kitchener had opened an office in Nashville to serve his publishing and management interests and shortly after hooked up with Scott Borchetta who had just founded the Big Machine label and was touting the talents of a 16-year-old singer/songwriter by the name of Taylor Swift. In 2006, Open Road cut a deal to release Big Machine projects in Canada and, in January of 2007, released the self-titled debut Taylor Swift album. By September of that year, Kitchener was handing her a gold album on stage at the John Labatt Centre (now Budweiser Gardens) in London, Ontario. Open Road would also give Swift her first #1 single (“Teardrops On My Guitar”) and sell over one million albums and millions of her singles. Swift went multi-platinum on the albums Fearless and Speak Now.
Open Road enjoyed a period of impressive growth from 2008-2011 but still maintained the boutique label mentality with which it had started. Emerson Drive, High Valley, The Higgins, Prairie Oyster, Ridley Bent, Tara Oram and Dean Brody were signed to Open Road during this period. With Dean, we worked out a multi-level deal where we would manage him, publish his songs and put out his records,” says Kitchener. “That has worked out very well for all involved.”
As much success as Open Road was enjoying, they didn’t overstaff and were able to handle those releases. “By this time I had a team of exclusive people: Carla Palmer did marketing, Brianne Deslippe eventually became head of radio promotions and we had a co-ordinator and myself,” Kitchener explains. “Universal Music Canada handled sales and distribution and Maplecore Ltd has always handled the label accounting and royalties side of things. There was some support from the management company to do some things in some corners as well but we just kind of rolled with it. Denny Carr stayed on the (Roots Three) publishing side but he has also done some A&R work for the label. We both listen to a lot of music together; he has a great creative spirit and energy.
“Where we are going in the future has a lot to do with everyone merging abilities and resources. The current success of Tim Hicks is in part a result of the convergence of the record label and the management company. We were so busy with all the success of Taylor and Johnny and then eventually Dean, it felt like we were getting away from artist development. Our mandate has been to be extra attentive on the A&R side, really focusing on songs and developing acts slowly, not rushing them. Over the last 18 months, we’ve had our eyes on three new artists, two males and one female, and Tim Hicks was one of them. We had a very organic plan to develop him; drive a social media story, go to radio and build a fan community around the song ‘Get By.’ The groundswell created between January and the summer led to the release of his album last week. We’re now well over 100,000 paid downloads. Tim is a perfect example of our new thinking as far as our strategy for the company.”
Artist Development has always been a strength at Open Road, says Kitchener. “That development sometimes comes through co-writing and perfecting the songs and sometimes via the road, making the artist a strong touring act. In March, while Tim’s single was on fire, we were able to drop him into a couple of key CMT Hit List tour dates just to play three songs off the top acoustically. Not difficult because I was producing the tour. That was through our Darts Events division and an example in its own right. Doc Walker and Emerson Drive created a tour that fit the CMT Hitlist Tour franchise concept. While it was a vehicle for gaining the attention Emerson Drive needed for their Roll album release, it also allowed two bands used to playing to 800-900 people a night to play to, in some cases, over 2500 in 18 markets over three weeks in cut down arenas, which made for a memorable live experience for the fans and gave their careers a timely boost. We were in a position with our internal team to create and make that happen quickly. A collaborative single, “Let It Roll,” which they wrote together and released pre-tour, was another highlight of the two band union.
“We signed producer Jeff Coplan as a writer to our publishing division, Roots Three Music/ole, because he’s an asset when it comes to our philosophy of development for the progress of the label and management clients. He was a big part of the song development of Tim Hicks. We could make things happen quick and that, more than anything, is key to this. We were able to set the agenda for the Tim plan eight to ten months in advance. We didn’t get stalled. We knew what we had to do. I could manage Jeff’s time a little bit because he’s part of the family and his BlackJack Billy band project is next and off to a great start early.”
Ron Kitchener grew up in the small town of Tottenham, Ontario and went to high school about 15 minutes up the road in Alliston. In those days, these were farm communities located about an hour’s drive northwest of Toronto, but you’d be mistaken to jump to the conclusion that his rural roots had any influence on his musical taste. A huge music fan from the start and still an avid reader of music biographies, he grew up listening to bands like Cheap Trick, Def Leppard and Iron Maiden. If pressed, he’ll admit to being a fan of Charlie Daniels and George Jones on the country side, but his was a hard rock/heavy metal world.
“My Dad had a huge record collection,” recalls Kitchener. “He listened to music all the time, talked about it and knew who the artists were. He didn’t have any musical training; he was a fan just as I am. When I left high school, I took a marketing course at Humber College with the thought in mind that I would get into the marketing of either music or sports, the two things I was most passionate about. Music took the lead when I started booking the bands. I was the entertainment coordinator on behalf of the Student Union when I was 18 and, because it was a school based in Toronto, I got to know a lot of the agents and managers personally because they would often come to the shows or I would drop by their offices.”
During this period, he attended a National Association of Campus Activities (NACA) concert production and promotion workshop that just happened to be in Nashville that year. Kitchener would later joke that if NACA had been slated for Chicago like it had been the previous year, he might never have been involved with country music. The conference dealt with all genres of music but, because it was in Nashville that year, all of the panelists were from the country music business. Kitchener made a point of introducing himself to everyone and one of the panelists said he was going to be in Toronto two or three weeks later with a couple of acts, including the Tennessee River Boys (later to become Diamond Rio), doing an event to promote tourism to Tennessee at the Royal York Hotel. A couple of years later, his Music City contact would urge him to come back to Nashville for a first-hand look at the business with the opportunity to represent some of his artists in Canada. “By the time I got there in the early ‘90s, artists like Garth Brooks, Travis Tritt, Joe Diffie and Collin Raye were big and he represented some of those acts. Country music was booming.”
In the interim, Kitchener got his first practical experience with life on the open road when he left school for a semester to road manage a travelling version of the popular MuchMusic game show Test Pattern hosted by the late Dan Gallagher and sponsored by Labatt Blue. “We played 25 colleges and universities right across the country, from St. John’s to Victoria,” says Kitchener, who reckons he got more marketing experience and training from working that tour than from his two years of college at the time. We toured like a rock band in a van with all the gear and another truck behind us and we played the campus concert venues. I dealt with Labatt and the other sponsors, road managed, and emceed a bit, all of which was a learning experience. We were out there touring the country and bumping into other bands like 54-40 and Blue Rodeo who were doing the same.”
Before Kitchener got back to Nashville for a serious reconnaissance of the business there, he was doing anything and everything to keep the dream alive. He organized a fishing derby in Kincardine, Ontario at a time when he was commuting back and forth to Toronto to work behind the scenes on music videos and commercials as a learning experience while delivering pizzas at night. He was also going to Ottawa every couple of weeks to work in a small office there booking a local dance/R&B band. He made enough money through his various enterprises to rent his own tiny office in Barrie, a place he could go everyday and work.
During this period, Kitchener’s friend in Nashville began working with a rock band from Los Angeles called The PipeFitters fronted by actor Diamond Lou Phillips. “My Nashville agent contact called me and asked, ‘You want these guys for Canada?’ I said, ‘Absolutely!’ So, I went and booked them on a 28-date tour across Canada to clubs and universities using my past experience. I promoted the dates, booked them and tour managed the whole cross-country excursion. It was an eye-opening experience working with a band featuring a movie star because of the press. All of a sudden I was deflecting and scheduling media and really building another level of experience.”
It was following that tour that Kitchener ran into a young country singer/songwriter by the name of Jason McCoy, whose hometown of Minesing, Ontario was not far from Kitchener’s old stomping grounds. McCoy was his real entree into the country music business. Kitchener took him to Nashville a couple of times and attended his first CCMA Awards in 1993. He also began attending industry events in Nashville, like the Country Radio Seminar (CRS), where he met some of the most influential people in country radio. He really immersed himself in country music at all levels and wherever it could be found.
“We didn’t put Jason’s first single out until 1994 and we didn’t put his first album out until 1995,” says Kitchener. “It wasn’t until his 1997 album Playing For Keeps that he kind of broke through with the single ‘Born Again in Dixieland.’ Jason was, for the most part through the period of 1994-2000, my only management client and main source of income. I dabbled in some other things, even starting a booking agency. I added Doc Walker to my management roster in 2000 and then, in 2004, I added Corb Lund, who is a management client rather than an Open Road recording artist.”
Kitchener, who has never let distances get in the way of promoting his artists, first travelled to Australia in 2001. “It was, again, much like paying for your education. They had the Tamworth Music Festival and I knew a couple of the key contacts in Australia and I wanted to open that door. We were struggling getting things going in the U.S. for Jason and we needed to open up another market. The U.K. was a big challenge for country music, but Australia had a heartbeat. I stayed there for a week and got to understand the Australian music scene by being at Tamworth. I hung out in Sydney and got to know some of the local managers and artists. This resulted in Jason going down to do a songwriters event in 2002. He went back to Tamworth the following year. In 2004, I created this event called Canadian Artists On Show in Australia and I had Jason, The Wilkinsons, Michelle Wright and Fred Eaglesmith on the all-Canadian bill. We used one band and, with government support, we were able to make it fly. More recently, we’ve taken Dean Brody and Emerson Drive down for the big festivals. I’ve built a relationship with promoter Rob Potts and it’s almost an exclusive deal. He will work with me on the projects that I feel will work there. He trusts me and the artists that we develop out of Canada for his market and he’s been wonderful.”
In the end, Kitchener figures that a lot of this business is about relationships, trust and artists that have a touch of uniqueness about them. “It’s very important that you have those cornerstone elements. I think people can trust that when we get behind a project or artist we’re going to see it through to the end and that we’re going to be visible. As for our roster, I think we’re always trying to find that niche thing that leads rather than the follows. From time to time, we find somebody that is more straight down the middle but for the most part all of our artists, if you really look at their artistry, have something that is unique to them whether it’s their music or their personality, how they perform, the songs, the lyrics. There were a lot of challenges with Johnny Reid at the start because his vocal stood out so much but I think radio kind of trusted us; the same with The Road Hammers and even with Doc Walker. I had people at the top tell me immediately, ‘Oh this band’s gonna kick ass live but they’ll never get on radio with that aggressive country rock sound.’ Other than maybe two singles in 30 releases we have never not been Top 10. Dean Brody is a unique storyteller. He has a way with lyrics and he also writes the majority of his music on his own, which is very rare in country music. He’s a guy who’s able to weave strong lyrics with great melodies and have enough of a contemporary sound to have success at radio and success as a touring artist. That’s a rarity. You don’t see that too often. We are definitely seeking the odd duck from time to time that will stand out. I love it because when they get played and they get a chance and they’re recognized then you usually have ten-fold success.
“We are positioned and excited for the future, the merging of team roles and additions to the staff are based on how we see the marketing of our clients’ music and brand going forward. We prioritize A&R, talent development and marketing and have a great team to administer our creative efforts”