By MAD STONE
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Success has given KIM MITCHELL a headache. And it's not the kind that will go
away with two aspirins and plenty of rest.
You would think he'd be on top of the world now. After seven years of
struggling through the mire of the Canadian music scene, Max Webster, the band
Mitchell co-founded, now has a platinum album with A MILLION VACATIONS. Three
previous albums have gone gold and a live album is in the works. The band's
future appears rosy, to say the least. Most musicians would sell their own
mothers to be in the same position. So why the long face from
It seems he has discovered, as most recording artists eventually do, that the
music industry is a heartless taskmaster. Mitchell is now aware that in the
eyes of a record company executive, he is just a music machine which will be
kept in use for only as long as it continues to produce. An unproductive
musician is an unprofitable one.
The whole idea of writing for dollars, although it makes perfect sense from
the business point of view, is distasteful to MITCHELL: hence the
Until now, he has been labouring under the delusion that a record company is
like a concerned parent - there to praise you when you're doing well and
comfort you when you're not. While the band continued its seven-year ascent to
the top of the charts, nothing appeared to contradict this rather naive
theory, although MITCHELL admits now that he and lyricist PYE DUBOIS had to
compromise their writing at times.
But the full force of the industry's heartlessness did not really hit home
until MAX returned earlier this year from what is referred to in the business
as a "triumphant" European tour. The band was hot, the crowds were
enthusiastic and the reviews, for the most part, were favourable. On that
tour, MAX had been fronting for Canadian heavy rock masters RUSH (both groups
are managed by Ray Daniels and SRO), but before the 19 English dates were
over, MAX had been asked back to headline their own tour this October.
And that's when the problem really started.
It seems that when a Canadian band tours Europe, or England, they lose money
as a matter of course. The costs of transporting the group, its entourage and
equipment across the sea and back again is prohibitive, so unless the group
was huge before it left, the tour loses money.
There's usually a shortfall (the difference between what they make and what
they spend) of anywhere from $10,000 and up, depending on how extravagant
their stage show is.
The record company usually picks up the shortfall in the belief that a
successful tour will lead to greater album sales (which is where the company
makes all its money anyway). But in this case, for some reason that Capitol
refuses to discuss, the tour was turned down.
"This just doesn't make sense," said MITCHELL in a recent interview at his
Toronto home. "I think there is more to this than what the band was told as an
"We went over to Europe and did great. We did phenomenal. So good that we got
asked back. They flipped out over there. The whole thing when we arrived felt
great... The interviews were together, everything flowed really
"By the end of the English tour, when we were ready to go to the Continent,
they had penciled in our own tour to come back in October. Right? We had it
all figured out, all the advertisements were ready to go up and everything and
then Capitol U.S. said: 'NO. We are not going to give them the money.'
"Now if we bombed, I could understand. If we just went over there and blew it,
they'd say forget it. But we were going over there with our first headline
tour and we've sold three times the albums RUSH had sold when they did it. And
the odds are so good for us to break out of Canada and not be so regional.
And they just say no.
"So that puts a big question mark over my head. Why were we even signed to
RAY DANIELS, the man behind SRO Canada and the managerial mind behind RUSH's
and MAX's success, says despite evidence to the contrary, Capitol U.S. is very
interested in MAX WEBSTER. "They've just picked up the option for two more
albums," he said in a recent interview. "MAX has a very lucrative deal with
DANIELS says that Capitol probably feels they have already made their
commitment to the band by financing the first European tour with Rush. He said
that the next tour is cancelled because EMI, the British arm of Capitol,
doesn't want to put up the money it would take to keep the band in Europe for
a tour. He estimates about $75,000 is involved, and that doesn't include money
for promotion, which would add another $30,000 to that figure. DANIELS says
there is no point in paying for the group's tour unless money is spent on
promotion. DANIELS says that everywhere SRO has control of tour and promotion
budgets, the group has done well, and both MITCHELL and DUBOIS do not hesitate
to agree. "With record sales like we have had in Canada and the success we
have had here, we can go to the States and to Europe if we want," says DUBOIS,
also a MAX co-founder and MITCHELL's cohort and confidant. "We can make enough
money to do that.
"But the contradiction is so apparent - if we are so successful here, why
can't the record company back us in another area?"
SCOOT ERWIN, a spokesman for Capitol in Toronto, refused to comment on why the
tour was stalled. LINDA EMERSON, a spokesman for ANTHEM, MAX's Canadian label
which is distributed by Capitol, says the U.S. record company is waiting for
the band to put out a new album before they agree to finance another tour. But
why the company would want to wait for a new album, the quality of which will
be anyone's guess, when it now has a potential million-seller with MILLION
VACATIONS, is hard to understand.
And if things keep going the way they are for MITCHELL, who says he has a
writer's block brought on by his problems with the industry, there may not be
another album to support.
"As a write, I've always just written," says MITCHELL. "That's the way DUBOIS
and I write. We've actually said:'I don't care what we write, we're just going
to do this.'
As it is now, with the band getting bigger and all these record company people
and pressure coming down on you...they start demanding what kind of tunes
they want to hear written...and that's shutting me down. That's shutting down
my creativity for some reason. That's a problem that's come up.
I'll get through it. It's just that they are all around me and they are so
close, saying: 'We want this kind of tune and you've got to write that kind of
tune or else you're never going to be able to record ever again, or we'll take
your firstborn, or whatever.' It's like that. And I'm really bitter at the
whole industry right now."
MITCHELL says the radio arm of the industry is every bit as bad as the record
companies. He says program directors have virtually wiped out a whole middle
segment of bands, the bands who were not huge but who had frequent airplay and
a sizeable following.
"Who's really big is really big. And then there are all these other bands that
used to get airplay but the music industry has totally wiped them out.
"The radio people - they've just taken it and scooped it away. I think we are
in that segment at least on a Canadian level and now on a European level. And
they are really kicking us in the ass. They're telling us either write what's
on the radio, or get out, we don't want to spend money on you. And that's a
drag, because those bands are probably the hardest working.
FM stations are playing stuff that you can hear once and whistle to. They
forget the rest. You turn it on during the day now and all you hear is
acoustic guitars and pretty harmonies.
"There's only one station in Toronto for punters, meaning rock fans who are
kind of interested in hearing some new stuff and hearing the odd of-the-wall
thing; that's CFNY, and it's doing poorly."
MITCHELL says the major advertisers don't like CFNY because its "too noisy or
too weird" so the station attracts only smaller advertisers, and although
their dollars are appreciated, it's not enough to keep the station
"So I have a bad picture of all these program directors. They are just sitting
back controlling this. They come from Tide soap and Ravioli and Kelloggs and
stuff. That's where they come from and they dictate to these record jocks what
songs to play and how to run their shows and what to say, when.
"I find it really funny when I hear stuff like 'Toronto's best rock' - that's
such a stupid slogan. FM radio is very big now and it's making money because
all these assholes are coming in. But before there was a nice contrast. FM
used to be nice to listen to. You could rock out once in a while. Sometimes
they would just drop on cut from an album, as opposed to what they do now
which is just playing special cuts and all the rest of them have a piece of
tape over them. They actually have pieces of tape on albums. The program
directors say: 'You can't play that song and make sure to say "Best Rock" four
times an hour.'
"I won't go into it any more, but I'm very bitter at the scene today."
"It's all so slick and polished," says PYE. "And that's exactly what it
"You can take all the shots at FM radio you want," says DANIELS, "But it has
helped some small bands become big. Groups like BOSTON and FLEETWOOD MAC. At
the same time, FM has destroyed those middle bands but it's reversing its
DANIELS says most of the pressure KIM is feeling to write more commercial
songs is coming from Capitol, not SRO. He says Capitol is in search of the
"almighty hit single". MAX's sales in the U.S. at the moment are
disappointingly low, he admits.
In an effort to boost those sales, the record company is asking the groups for
songs that will sell, songs that in MITCHELL's words "you hear once and
whistle to." For MITCHELL, writing such tunes would mean losing the bands
identity, something he is morbidly afraid of.
Ironically, material being written by the other members of the band - bassist
DAVE MYLES, drummer GARY McCRACKEN and keyboard player TERRY WATKINSON - seems
to better meet the record companies demands for commercial songs.
Let Go the Line, written and sung by Watkinson, received extensive
airplay immeadiately following the release of MILLION VACATIONS. And the title
track on the album was written by MYLES and sung by McCRACKEN.#
With so many writers in the band, selecting material for albums is a
convoluted process, says PYE. And although he says the choice is ultimately a
democratic one, the feeling is left that his and MITCHELL's opinions carry a
bit more weight than the others.
The connections between the five members go back to their high school days in
Sarnia, Ont., but because DUBOIS writes with MITCHELL, he is closest to him.
And although DUBOIS obviously sympathizes with MITCHELL's concerns about the
music industry and the band's identity, he is not as worried about the group's
"MAX is going to be very, very big in the next two or three years, or it's not
going to exist. It depends on KIM and I. I don't care what anybody says. You
can really get screwed up in the head about all these people out there who
seem to be against you and do not seem committed toward a goal. But in the end
I think it's the creative people who win out. You just have to stick with
"It was pretty well raw energy and raw innocence and just a healthy attitude
toward writing that brought MAX to this point. Now, as adult writers, more or
less, we've got a different role to play, only because there are different
"There's more at stake, there's more risks that weren't there before. We have
a responsibility to ourselves, the record company, the manager, and they are
appropriate and realistic responsibilities.
"I don't want to put my foot in my mouth, but to me they don't hold a lot of
water. I would never feel guilty about bumping out there with another really
weird tune. Some people might. Some people might come to grips with those
responsibilities and hold to them. Whereas I wouldn't.
"If the public can't accept what I'm writing now, fine. They'll probably come
back to me later when I come up with a tune that fulfills their expectations
more or less. And I think that's what you have to do - you have to keep
PYE says he also doesn't feel the pressures as strongly as KIM because he
deals infrequently with the record company. "They probably don't deal with me
more because I may be a little more up front. I may say yes or no very
quickly and I don't think they would understand that. It intimidates them. But
I think you have to go by your guts.
I think that if you don't go by your instincts in the arts, you have no
business being in the arts."
PYE says KIM's slump is not affecting his writing. He keeps "Puttering away"
just as he has always done. But without the music, his words cannot become
songs. Both he and KIM seem to feel it's something that KIM will get over, but
how and when remains to be seen.
At the moment MAX is mixing a live album that was recorded this fall at
several one-nighters in Ontario. And there are plans for a fifth studio
But unless Kim gets over his problems before then, there may be a scarcity of
MITCHELL-DUBOIS originals on the album, which again, would change the bands
"We're in a tough position," says PYE. "MAX is in a tough position. KIM is
bummed out and it's appropriate. Again, I'm putting my foot in my mouth, but
it's a pretty good band and we've put out four pretty astounding albums for a
"And to not be more successful is a kick in the nuts."
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