A father’s advice and a passion to help Western Canadian songwriters get their music to a wider audience. These were the keys to Edmonton-based, indie, country label Royalty Records’ success. Don’t forget to add a wee bit of “Scottish stubbornness,” says 75-year-old founder R. Harlan Smith.
Royalty not only celebrated 40 years in the business in 2014, but signed a new distribution deal with Sony Music Canada. They’ve been the longtime home to high-profile country star Gord Bamford, as well as Hey Romeo, Tenille and Jay Sparrow. In 40 years at Royalty, Smith claims to have written more than 200 songs, and produced more than 40 albums and 200-plus singles.
“I got up every morning wanting to do something. I couldn’t wait to see what I could do that day.” – R. Harlan Smith of Royalty Records
Flash back to 1974, when the humble entrepreneur had a vision. Smith wanted to give country musicians and songwriters from West of Manitoba a home. “There was a tremendous amount of talent not getting recognized,” he says.
When Smith founded the label, designing Royalty Records’ first logo on a beer napkin, the multinationals said he wouldn’t last two years. Forty years on, Smith is proud he proved them wrong.
As he grew up in rural Saskatchewan, Smith’s mom – a piano teacher – fostered his love of music. As a 1950s Prairie boy, there were two musts on Saturday night: listening to the Country Hit Parade on local radio and listening to the hockey game. “If you didn’t do either of these, you just weren’t living!” he laughs.
Smith’s father was also an early influence. “When I was a young teen, preparing to leave the nest, he had some words for me I’ve never forgotten,” says Smith. “He said, ‘No matter what people tell you, do what your soul tells you. If you have a passion for something, just do it.’ He also said, ‘Always do something to better the community where you live.’”
Once he left home, Smith took this fatherly advice to heart. He moved to Edmonton, which he calls “one of best music scenes I had ever encountered,” and began a career as a musician and songwriter.
But despite some early success, Smith decided to heed his dad’s other advice to give back, by starting his label. Gary Fjellgaard was one of Royalty Records’ first signings. Smith heard the B.C. songwriter – now inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame – while eating in a small-town diner. “I heard this record in the jukebox and my jaw dropped,” Smith recalls. “First, at the song; second, at the voice.”
For Smith, his life in music has been a labour of love. For the past decade, son Rob has taken up this passion. He runs the entire Royalty Music Group of companies, which includes publishing house Helping Hand Music Ltd.
“When I was in the music business, I don’t think I worked a day in my life,” Smith concludes. “I got up every morning wanting to do something. I couldn’t wait to see what I could do that day. What a wonderful way to spend your life.”