You would be right to think that Toronto is the center of the Canadian pop music industry. Of course it is. All the big labels are there.
But Hamilton, yes Hamilton, is arguably the center of Canadian roots music – a genre that includes blues, folk, traditional country and old-world rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s because of a dozen labels based under the aegis of the True North Records and Linus Entertainment group in a well-appointed office building/gallery/warehouse in downtown Waterdown that once housed an interior design firm.
True North/Linus is owned by Geoff Kulawick and his wife Brooke, who live near Carlisle. Kulawick has a long history in the industry, having held senior positions at Virgin/EMI Music and Warner Chappel Music before launching Linus as an independent label in 2001 with Gordon Lightfoot among its artists.
He has continued to expand it ever since, most notably in 2007 with the purchase of True North, a respected independent label established in 1969 to promote Canadian folk artists such as Bruce Cockburn.
The power of the True North/Linus brand is evident every year around this time when the Juno Appointments are announced. This year, the company’s labels have seven nominations, including three of the five contenders for blues album of the year and two in the traditional roots category.
Their nominated artists in the blues category are Colin James for “Open Road”, Steve Marriner for “Hope Dies Last” and Sue Foley for “Pinky’s Blues”. All three record on the Stony Plain label, which was bought by True North/Linus by Kulawick in 2018 from founder Holger Petersen who still works as an executive producer for many of his artists.
In the traditional roots Juno category, Kulawick has nominations from Over the Moon, an Alberta-based folk duo, and The Fugitives, a Vancouver-based collective that has also been nominated for two Canadian Folk Awards. Both Over the Moon and The Fugitives record on the Borealis label which was also recently purchased by True North/Linus. The Borealis catalog includes the recordings of legendary Hamilton folk singer Stan Rogers.
Additionally, Toronto blues-rock singer SATE received a Juno nomination for Best Alternative Album of the Year. Although SATE records on independent label CLK, its music is released through IDLA, the international distribution arm of True North/Linus. Hill Kourkoutis, who recorded SATE’s song “Howler,” is also nominated for Sound Engineer of the Year.
“We usually do about half a dozen nominations each year, mostly in the root categories,” Kulawick said in an interview with The Spectator. “We feel pretty good with our catalog and our collection of labels.”
Kulawick didn’t count all the nominations associated with his various labels, but it’s an impressive number. The True North label alone has 37 gold and platinum records to its credit as well as 43 Juno awards. Besides Cockburn, his list includes Randy Bachman, Matt Andersen, Downchild, The Canadian Brass, Buffy Sainte Marie, Ashley MacIsaac, Jimmy Rankin and Natalie MacMaster.
Kulawick estimates that his labels – which also include Solid Gold Records, The Children’s Group, Mushroom, DVRGNT and Spring Hill Music – control a catalog approaching 2,000 albums or around 30,000 titles.
Kulawick looks forward to upcoming releases from artists including Juno-winning Hamilton blues guitarist Steve Strongman, who signed with Stony Plain last year, and the blues veteran-led HOROJO Trio. Canadian JW-Jones.
After more than 20 years running his own labels, Kulawick has no regrets about quitting his career with major labels.
“The whole major label system is not artist-friendly,” says Kulawick. “It no longer develops artists. It’s more about gaining market share.
“It’s fine but I prefer making music with people I like and I’m lucky to be in a position where I don’t have to work with people I don’t like.”
Hamilton-based bands also dominate the Juno rock category this year. Seven-time Juno award-winning Dundas trio The Dirty Nil and Arkells are both nominated for Rock Album of the Year this year. Arkells is also nominated for Group of the Year.
Additionally, Burlington pop-rock group Walk Off The Earth is nominated for Children’s Album of the Year for “Romeo Eats, Vol. 1″