The Conversation: How Vancouver record executive Sam Feldman keeps on spinning

Vancouver record exec Sam Feldman talks life, music and tumultuous partnerships in a wide-ranging Q&A

Sam Feldman is one of Vancouver’s preeminent record execs, having managed and represented artists like James Taylor, Elvis Costello, Sarah McLachlan and Diana Krall. Last year, he was given the Order of British Columbia, and with that came many folks wishing him a happy retirement. But the veteran of more than 50 years in the business is far from finished with his career.

You started your career running the door at concerts. When did you know you were going to be able to make it  in the business?

It’s a funny thing: I’m on a plane coming back from Europe, age 20, with a friend of mine. Flat broke. I owed 300 bucks; it felt like a billion. My buddy says, “We gotta make some money, go back to Europe.” I looked at him and said, “No, I’m gonna get into the music business.” I was ridiculously naive. I got a job at a nightclub because I knew bands would be 10 feet from the door. After two weeks there, I told my friend who was in a band, “I know the business, I’ll be your manager.” I didn’t know what I wasn’t supposed to be able to do.

I started working with an agency, booking some things. I didn’t know if I wanted to be a manager, a promoter, an agent—I just knew I wanted to be in the business. I had an affinity for talent. I started managing this band called Uncle Slug. I rented the Pender Auditorium, which was a 900-seat venue on Pender Street in Vancouver. I’m out in Surrey with a staple gun putting up posters—$6 a ticket. It sold out. At that moment, I thought, this is for me. Notwithstanding the fact that some Hells Angels showed up and one threw a beer into my doorman’s face and we had to catch him at the bottom of the stairs and do what people did back then. It was the Wild West.

You say you have an affinity for talent—do you have a natural ear for it, too?

I can honestly say that I do have an ear. I can hear if it’s good; I can sense if it’s got a future. I don’t get it right all the time. But if you get it right enough, you can have a successful career. In the early days we were booking a lot of nightclubs, and it was a lot of, “Is that artist going to work in that venue?” And we got it right a lot.

What was your biggest hit in that sense? Where you saw them in a tiny venue and just knew?

When we started, it was really about booking top 40 bands at the very beginning—recognizing who could replicate the hits of the day, no disco. But no, I’d have to fast-forward all the way to a Norah Jones, or even a Trooper. They were called Apple Jack. Someone told me about them, I went to see them in Point Roberts and just went, Yeah, they have it.

But they have to change their name.

They gotta change their name and they gotta start writing original material. Definitely had to change their name.

Is there one that got away? One that you saw early and maybe missed?

No. Not really.

Wow, no regrets.

You hear about artists, but did I have an actual sit down or an opportunity and went, “I don’t think so,” and then they went on to great glory? Honestly, there was nothing direct like that. Our agency represented Nickelback, but I wasn’t the guy on the ground doing it. In that instance, our business had gravitated to Toronto a bit and the Toronto people didn’t believe in them, so the rest is history.

A lot of the artists you’re currently working with are a little older. Do you have your ear to the ground for new stuff?

We do always have our ears open. We have a lot of young people who work here, and I tell them, “Listen, you keep your ear to the ground.” If someone in here—even if they’re in a different part of the company—believes in someone and wants to work with them, that’s powerful.

How often does that happen?

Rarely. Recently we were lucky enough to find a group called Tiny Habits—one young person from here and two from Brooklyn—they all met at the Berklee College of Music and started singing together just for fun. Lo and behold, the harmonies are so special. They’re selling out everywhere.

When you host people over for dinner, what’s on the playlist?

I get eclectic. I do have a playlist called Dinner Party. It goes from Sinatra to Elvis Costello, to James Taylor to Big Band, John Coltrane, BB King. I’ll have some Post Malone on there, I think he’s pretty cool.

Any other newer artists you’re into?

I’m not crazy about a lot of the new stuff, I’m not really a hip hop or rap guy. I like that music is reverting back to some melody though—take an artist like Noah Kahan, he’s selling out everywhere.

You told BCBusiness 11 years ago that no one gets out alive from the industry. Has that opinion changed? Are you going to get out alive?

Well, I haven’t. But I didn’t mean that at the end of your career you die. What I meant was that it’s a fickle business and you can have artists that you’ve done everything for decide you’re not the right person. Sometimes our business is about managing expectations and sometimes those expectations are above what anyone is capable of doing.

Norah Jones was one of the bigger names to leave your roster, but you’ve had a few go that route.

Yeah, some of them come and go. But we’ve also had a few stay for well over 20 years.

You invested in Kapoose Creek Bio, a biotech firm on northern Vancouver Island doing research on mushrooms. Why that company?

That’s a big one, because I’m one of the founders of that company. I knew anecdotally that some of the mushroom products were helpful to people in a lot of ways. So there was an opportunity to get in at the ground level on this. Again, it turns out it was pretty naive. The plan then was to go public; companies that were similar to what we were thinking about were trading at market caps of $200 million. Then the market went away, and the business stayed private. It was challenging, but we raised a significant amount of money. Now we have a drug discovery at McMaster University led by our CEO Eric Brown—he’s a Harvard-trained drug discovery guy—and an incredible board of directors. It’s full steam ahead.

Any others you want to disclose?

Well… I’m a partner in Il Giardino restaurant. Which is fantastic. I love my partners, love the place. I’m also invested in real estate and other stuff, but the restaurant and Kapoose Creek are more hands-on.

You were given the Order of BC last year, a huge honour. How did that feel?

It is a huge honour. I can’t help but suffer from a bit of imposter syndrome. If you don’t, maybe you should. It came kind of out of the blue. Growing up as a bit of a juvenile delinquent around these parts, the furthest thing from my mind would be an acknowledgement from the province. But it’s cool to have the work you do acknowledged, that it means something to people, as well as the charity work we do. Someone advocated, but it’s more about the fact that the people in charge of it didn’t say no. I snuck under the fence. It’s pretty cool, feel really good about it, and so does my family.

Speaking of which, you have three kids, your wife has two of her own and overall you have six grandkids. What kind of legacy are you hoping to leave behind? How do you hope people remember you?

You just hope that they really love and respect you and the things you’ve done. And hope they learn from some of your mistakes.

Like what?

Oh, I don’t know. When I was growing up, I probably took bigger risks than I should have. Partying, that sort of thing. But my kids are all on the right track. My son Leon produces and writes music and teaches about 40 students. He’s all in on music, passionate about it.

That must be fulfilling for you.

Yeah, I like that. I’m not that person who wanted or needed my kids to be in the business. My oldest daughter does voiceover work out of New York for radio and television, has a really successful career; middle daughter is in film.

Do you envision retirement coming any time soon?

When I started in the business, I remember saying to someone, “If you find me backstage at some concert when I’m 40 years old, take me out and shoot me.” And on my 40th birthday I was in Toronto with my client Art Bergman. Art was going through some issues and I was trying to get him on stage at Lee’s Palace. I think I drove by the exit sign. It’s that old cliché: if you retire, you die. But I think you need to have something to look forward to, something that gives you a little bit of stress. But if I didn’t like what I was doing, I’d get out. Money isn’t for what you’re going to have, it’s for what you’re going to avoid. So I like what I’m doing.

Your relationship with your business partner, Bruce Allen, has been rocky over the years, to the point where you moved offices and he stayed downtown. How’s that relationship now?

We circled back. It’s been the most volatile partnership in the history of mankind, but we stayed together. And now, every Sunday when we’re in town, we do a two-hour hike and review the previous week. We never used to do that. Even though we owned the company, we were competitive. It’s hard—there are ups and downs. But I consider him a very good friend.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Quick Hits

Pet peeve: People mistakenly thinking I’m retired. If this is retirement, I’d hate to think what working full time looks like!

Hobby: Golf—probably more of an obsession at this point.

Recent TV binge: Le Bureau.  No James Bond or Jason Bourne here—just pure suspense based on reality.

Most memorable concert: James Taylor and Carole King’s Troubadour Reunion Tour at Madison Square Garden in 2010. An incredible catalogue of songs from two brilliant artists.

Guilty pleasure: Great smashburgers!

Favourite place in B.C.: Any beach, but if I had to pick just one, it would be Chesterman Beach in Tofino.

Last book I read: The Creative Act: A Way of Being by Rick Rubin. It’s all about creativity and what it means to be an artist. I think he nailed the artistic process and ways to prompt it.