Universal Music Canada CEO Jeff Remedios on taking indie mainstream

The new CEO of Universal Music Canada on how to take on bigger markets without losing your edge

Universal Music Canada CEO Jeff Remedios

Jeff Remedios, the new CEO of Universal Music Canada. (Portrait by Lucia Graca)

Jeff Remedios cofounded the independent Arts & Crafts record label in 2003 with Kevin Drew, the frontman for Broken Social Scene. Now Remedios is CEO Of Universal Music Canada. He talks with us about the state of the music industry today, the digital revolution, and keeping your cool in a corporate setting.

In November, for the first time ever, the top four songs on the Billboard 100 were by three Canadians: Drake, Bieber and The Weeknd. I guess that means it’s a good time to be the king of Canadian music?

It’s pretty wild. It’s no secret that I have been championing Canadian musicians and artists for a long time. There are so many examples of Canadians doing well internationally, and definitely this is a particularly amazing time. In many ways, I would question why it didn’t happen 10 years ago, because we also had great artists then. I guess the world is getting smaller and more connected.

Moving from a boutique shop (Arts & Crafts) to a major label, does it feel a bit like you’ve defected from Team David to Team Goliath? Or, rather, Team Broken Social Scene to Team Bieber?

To me it feels like it’s part of a very natural evolution. With Arts & Crafts, we never fully prescribed the DIY indie ethos. We always put our politics behind the needs of whatever artist we were working with. I remember doing panels, and they would ask me how we approached marketing an artist, and I would say, “we cheat.” Our strategy was to take the best ideas from everywhere, whether that was major label or indie label, and try to apply them appropriately to each project. When we did the Feist iPod collaboration, that was something that came from a very large, corporate place but was the best thing for her, and we were happy to be a part of it.

How does having spent more than a decade building an indie label from scratch make you uniquely qualified to run this massive music conglomerate?

Well, first of all, I think the days of the massive music conglomerate aren’t really where we’re at anymore. At one point, the industry got very bloated. In a post-Napster/pre-iTunes world, it was, “hold on to whatever is making the most money.” And then it was like being in the horse-and-buggy industry and the cars have come. You might wish you could block that, but I really believe you need to work in the time you live.

So you don’t spend a lot of time shaking your fist at the sky and wishing the Internet had been a passing fad?

Ha! No, never. It was the changes that empowered me to build a company like Arts & Crafts. Kevin [Drew] and I really had to do everything ourselves. We were this totally nimble and naive independent, and it was about “that seems to make sense” or “that feels fair.” We didn’t get caught up on “we’re a record company” or “we’re a management company” or “we’re a music publisher” or an events company or a promoter. We just did what made sense.

How do current technological realities play into your work?

Technology has been the single biggest agent of change in music, full stop: how it’s made, how it’s distributed, how it’s consumed. We’ve changed formats almost every 10 years since the beginning of the recording industry. This is just the next phase.

Speaking of consumption, lately music-streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music and Tidal are being hailed as the great hope for an industry on life-support. Is that how you see it?

We are still sort of in the frontier town stages of the shift, but I look at it all with optimism. I remember doing a project as a teenager about the music business, and a heavy music consumer was someone who bought three albums a year. Three albums a year! Today you can be kind of a passive music fan, and you can listen to all of these radio stations with content that is far more tailored to you, and you can stream millions of songs without too much barrier to your experience. That’s really exciting.

And then at the opposite end of the spectrum, we are seeing a rise in vinyl sales. Are we all nostalgic for our parents’ crackly records?

I think we are. It’s like hardcover books. People buy them because they’re quote-unquote sentimental artifacts. As a format, there is a magic to vinyl. It has an effect on sound, and there is beauty in the imperfection.

What is the one album that absolutely must by listened to on vinyl?

There’s a Nina Simone record that was recorded live at Carnegie Hall. It’s like you’re there in the hall with her.

Is there one Universal artist you are super excited to work with?

I’ve always had a hard time with lists and singling things out. The thing that has really struck me is the breadth of talent I get to be involved with: bouncing around from genre to genre and being around people at the very height of their talent. On my first week on the job, I got to meet Taylor Swift—now there is a force of nature.

Do you worry you might feel less passionate for promoting pop music than you did promoting artists that you love and listen to?

My North Star is wanting work with culturally relevant, inspiring artists and that goes across genres. I want people who are growing, developing, pushing boundaries. I’m less interested in working with yet another artist who kind of sounds like someone who is really popular.

Clive Davis has said he never signed an artist he didn’t completely believe in—though there is also the philosophy that you sign 10 artists and one makes it big.

I would say I am way more aligned with what Clive is saying as opposed to casting a really wide net.

Can great marketing push a truly crap song?

I don’t think so. You can shine something up as much as you want. If it’s not great, it’s still not going to be great.

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed that Justin Bieber’s new haircut looks a lot like the style you’ve been sporting for some time. Did the Biebs bite your lid?

I don’t know. I think you will have to speak to Justin about that. He’ll be here in a few weeks.

Remedios co-founded Arts & Crafts after Broken Social Scene released its hit album You Forgot It in People. Since then, the label’s artists have won 21 Juno Awards.