a look at major labels from inside and out
Interview with Louise Burns by Louis Rastelli
From Vol. 3 No. 1, 2004
Louise Burns has been active in the local music scene in Montreal since the early ‘80s, and has been a fixture in the management of CKUT 90.3, the main Anglophone university radio station in town, since the early ‘90s. I spoke with her one afternoon about her experience working at Polygram Canada in the ‘80s, the state of the major labels today, college radio and independent labels in general.
FP: So how did you end up working at Polygram in the 80s?
Louise Burns: I answered an ad in the newspaper, believe it or not. This was in 1983. It didn’t say in the ad that it was for Polygram. I went off to Cote-de-Liesse for an interview, and got the job right away. That day, I came back home with a box full of promo albums. What happened was that I knew more music than the person who was interviewing me, especially alternative music.
I was in what they called the National Promotion and Publicity office. I would generate work that didn’t have any point that I could see. It just was a lot of show–there were different levels of management, a lot of vice-presidents and upper-echelon people, who basically had make-work projects to show off to each other. And they’d throw fake temper tantrums to show off how stressed-out and hard-working they were. It was really gross.
FP: I assume they wanted to hire someone who seemed to be in the know on the up-and-coming bands…
FP: …and could serve as a guide for where to plug this new music?
LB: Well, you’d think, right? Their standing joke ended up being that if I hated it, it was going to be a hit. I had my boss lock me in an office once, and play this frickin’ band for me, and say “You’re going to love it, you’re going to love it!” Because they had sunk all their money in it, and it was a Canadian band.
One of the wars I had with them was that they never signed anything Canadian, because it was too expensive, they had to do everything for the band at that point, rather than just do a licensing and distribution deal for some American or British artist. And so they signed this god-awful band called Prototype, which, you know, nobody’s ever ever heard from since, because it was a complete disaster. It was a bunch of old farts from Winnipeg or something. There was just nothing there, nothing, and I told them it wasn’t going to work.
FP: I guess that somewhere before you in the chain, there are all kinds of connections of people who managed to convince other people about this band and return favours or whatever…
LB: It was an old boys’ club that never got over that Genesis concert that they first lost their virginity at or something. That’s what it was like there.
There was definitely a lot of gender dynamics, the boys’ club thing. Being a younger woman, I was somewhat of a challenge to that. I had a lot to prove. I was very argumentative, and willing to compete with any one-upmanship of music knowledge. And I was totally excited about the bands that I was totally excited about.
I also didn’t exactly have this attitude of “I hate all commercial music,” I liked some of the more commercial stuff. I could have conversations about great rhythm sections or whatever, you know. My revulsion at the whole machinery of commercial music came later– in fact, it was developed at Polygram.
What we spent most of the day doing there was following every music magazine and newspaper, NME and all the press, and clipping anything that had to do with anything related to artists that had anything to do with Polygram. Which was ridiculous. It was called Promo Info, and it was all “Confidential! Top Secret!” The whole week was built around these industry charts. It was all about who got added to a playlist, whether it was going up or going down, the whole tracking industry thing, all the press that was generated on all the new releases, what the “strategy” for the week was, what we were working on promoting and what we were no longer working on, blah blah blah.
FP: Isn’t so much of that useless? Seems to me these things will happen anyway, people will buy whatever’s there. Granted, a large amount of the crap that’s on the airwaves would never have made it there if it weren’t for some of these “connected” people having some motive to try to push this or that thing.
LB: Well, it’s the same system now, they push whatever they’ve got, and that’s what Alex [music director at CKUT] goes through.
What was interesting when I was at Polygram, I was talking to Martin Siberok, who was at the McGill Daily or something like that. And I’d say, “Well, I’ll talk to these people, because those are the kinds of people who might be listening to this music, and I’ll be able to see what’s going on,” and that was never done before. They didn’t bother talking to alternative media, but now, “alternative” media is a huge thing. Alex isn’t talking to people from Montreal or even Canada, he’s got these U.S. or UK labels tracking, which is asking whether there’s heavy rotation, medium rotation or light rotation of their artists.
FP: Do they ever threaten to stop sending promos if there’s too little airplay?
LB: You’d have to ask him, I’m not sure.
FP: I remember in ’86 or so, back at CRSG, Polygram cut us off from all promos because of an incident involving RearGarde [see interview with Paul Gott in FP #2 or at www.fishpiss.com]. The main loss was the crappy promos the station would never play but would exchange at Cheap Thrills for cooler records for our record library. I’m sure that never happens at CKUT…
LB: Never– and I can assure you a record company would immediately cut you off from promos if they found out you were doing that.
FP: CKUT must still get a lot more promos than you can play, though.
LB: Yeah, although we’re getting better at saying, “No, don’t send us that.” And they’re being more particular, since their budgets aren’t as fat. We have a space problem, and we have to process 150 to 200 CDs every freakin’ week. That’s a hell of a lot of music, and we listen to everything. The amount of energy just in preparing stacks, dividing into basic styles so you can get this or that person who covers that to listen to them– and then also trying to make your DJs aware of it all, it’s a huge job.
FP: When you sent out promo packs at Polygram, would you have to follow up with radio stations, ask them for their charts?
FP: Would these charts be prepared especially for the record companies?
LB: Yeah, that’s what they’re all about. At CKUT, we generate 5 or 6 different charts for them. There’s also CMJ, the College Music Journal, it has all the charts for Canada. And then you’ve got certain classifications for each radio station, whether you’re giving feedback that is useful to the record companies or not. When I was at Polygram, tracking was done more by regional reps, who had to establish good relationships with the music directors at all the stations. They would also deal with retail outlets, to vie for space for promotional and publicity stuff for the stores. I was doing a lot of things like coordinating interviews, writing a lot of bios on different bands, often pungent bands.
FP: At the time, you weren’t working with college stations, though, right?
LB: Well, I started to do that– nobody was representing college or alternative media at all. That stuff was just starting to happen at the time.