Vancouver, circa 1983. The 16-year-old son of a sculptor glimpses the world of radio. He’s hooked. There’s only one problem: he’s too young to work as a DJ. The solution: care for the lawns until you’re old enough to get on-air.
A fairy tale? Perhaps for some, but not for Allan Reid; this is the true story of how he entered the music industry. Thirty-six years later, the soft-spoken Reid heads up CARAS (the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), the organization behind the JUNOs, as its President and CEO.
Growing up in Kelowna, BC, Reid loved vinyl and making mixed tapes. The thought of working somewhere with a library filled from floor to ceiling with records is all the teen needed to have his “aha” moment of knowing where his vocation lay. A shy kid, music was Reid’s language.
“I made mixed tapes for girlfriends, and played in high school bands, but was a frustrated musician,” says the 52-year-old. “Music, for me, was a way to convey my emotions that I otherwise couldn’t do.”
By the time Reid was 18, he’d done every job at the local radio station, and was appointed the music director – while spinning records at a nightclub on the side. “I had just graduated from high school, and was picking music for the station,” he recalls. “Slowly, I got to know all of the music company reps, and thought that that would be a cool gig.”
Reid’s first A&R signing
At 24, Reid met an artist who, nearly 30 years later, he counts as one of his good friends. It all started with a demo tape and a recommendation from Doug Chappell, the head of Virgin Records at the time. Doug told Reid that his roster was full and couldn’t sign this singer-songwriter, but the potential was there, and urged his fellow music industry mate to give the songs a listen. Reid’s initial reaction: “utterly depressing” songs. “All I wanted to do was a sign a rock band,” he recalls. “I was trying to find the next Tragically Hip!”
Out of courtesy to Chappell, he soldiered on and listened to all 14 songs over the week. The voice was nice, but Reid was ready to give it a pass. Once again, something outside his control happened that shaped his journey. “That night I had a blowout fight with my girlfriend,” he recalls. “As I was driving up Warden Avenue to the office the next morning, I put the tape back on and the song, ‘I Don’t Love You Any More’ came on, and it just ripped my heart out! It was a grey day and I arrived at the office with an immediate need to call my girlfriend and apologize.
“This song spoke to me, so went into my office and turned it up loud,” Reid continues. “A few colleagues stopped in asking, ‘Who is that?! What a voice!’ I replied, ‘It’s Jann Arden.’ All of a sudden, the other songs on that album all made sense… I was a 24-year-old rock dude and this music was speaking to me, so I knew it would speak to a lot of other people.”
Fate answered Reid’s dreams; he received a call from A&M Records offering him a job as a promotions rep in Vancouver. Of course he took it, continuing the rapid rise of this record man, from landscaper to music shaper. It didn’t take long for the head honchos in Toronto to see Reid’s potential. His next stop was promo work for Polygram Records (who had just bought A&M) in Ontario’s capital.
“This was the start of big business in the late ‘80s and early’ 90s and all of the consolidation/conglomeration,” Reid recalls. “My boss, Joe Summers, called me in to his office and said, we’re making changes, and you are the new head of A&R. I was like, ‘I don’t know how to make records.’ Joe replied, ‘That may be true, but you have an uncanny ability to pick the hit single on a record, so go find me artists who can make great music.’”
Reid didn’t believe he could do A&R, but Summers was a master motivator; he accepted the job. “I inherited a roster, and one of my first challenges was deciding what to do with it,” Reid continues. “Summers told me I had to drop half of the artists. That was the most horrifying part of my life, but taught me a lot about this business, where you have to say no 99 percent of the time.”
After his first signing (see sidebar), from Polygram to his days with Universal Music, Reid had the chance to work many great artists, like Sam Roberts, The Doughboys, Matthew Good and Jully Black. “I’ve had the incredible good fortune to help artists navigate waters and be their champion, inside and outside the company,” Reid says. “Many of them have remained friends.”
In 2011, Reid was named Director of CARAS’ charity MusiCounts; three years later he was promoted to President/CEO of the not-for-profit. He notes with pride CARAS’ four pillars: to educate, develop, celebrate, and honor. “We’re with artists from birth to myth,” he explains. “We give them their first instrument, and see them through their career until they are in the Hall of Fame.”
During his tenure at the helm of CARAS, he’s seen an explosion in the quality and quantity of homegrown talent. This year there were more than 2,800 JUNO submissions – an amount that’s doubled in just seven years.
“I have the best job in the world,” he says. “The old adage, ‘If you love what you do, you won’t work a day in your life,’ certainly applies. I feel I’ve had a lifetime of that. I’m an ambassador of Canadian music. From a kid growing up mowing lawns, to where I am now, I couldn’t be happier.
“There’s been an explosion in the creation of music, people seeking recognition for that music, and artists just looking for their music to be heard and noticed,” Reid adds. “What I love more than anything – the A&R guy in me – is discovering new music! It fuels me. I listen to all the nominees and figure out ways to put them into opportunities throughout JUNO week.”