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Indie Empresario Graham Stairs On The Music Industry, Great Songs And Staring A New Record Label

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Here Odario Williams speaks with Graham Stairs about his new digital label imprint known as the Confidence Emperors, what it's place is in the industry, and what he looks for in a song.

By Odario Williams

Graham Stairs got his start in the business with Intrepid Records where, as their A&R rep, he was responsible for such seminal Canadian artists as National Velvet, Martha and the Muffins and Rheostatics. In addition, Stairs was behind the Bruce Cockburn tribute album that gave Barenaked Ladies their first national hit with “Lovers In A Dangerous Time”. During that time, he also set up Intrepid Management to manage National Velvet and Chalk Circle.

In 1993, Stairs was hired as the VP of A&R for Latitude Records, which was a joint venture deal with EMI Music Canada. He signed Sandbox and Damhnait Doyle with both artists releasing successful debut albums and both artists being nominated for Junos. The Stairs-produced Sandbox album included three Top 40 singles including “Curious” and “Collide”. Damhnait Doyle also had a Top 40 hit with “A List of Things”.

In 1998, he founded Popguru Sound & Vision as a management company whose first client was Damhnait Doyle. Doyle released her sophomore album Hyperdramatic through EMI and had another Top 40 hit with the song “Tattooed”. She then went on to win four East Coast Music Awards. In addition, Stairs continued to co-write and produce songs for such television series as the Hills, Joan of Arcadia, and the Disney film Go Figure.

In 2005, he joined Bernie Finkelstein at True North Records as Vice-President of International & Talent Acquisition. While there, Stairs signed Hunter Valentine, Australian band the Audreys and Catherine MacLellan. He set up distribution deals for True North in the U.S., UK, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Australia. In 2009, Stairs reactivated Popguru Sound & Vision. He currently manages Grand Analog, the Wilderness of Manitoba, Martha and the Muffins, Pyramid Tropic, Ghost Caravan and Lake Forest. He also formed a company called the Shadow Cabinet Music Group with Bernie and Noah Finkelstein to handle the publishing for Grand Analog and a new digital label imprint to release singles, EPS and remixes called the Confidence Emperors. Stairs is on the board of directors of the Music Managers Forum Canada and is a member of CIMA and CMPA.

Odario: Let me start by asking, how did you come up with the name 'The Confidence Emperors' for your new imprint? What's the story behind the name? 

Graham: Once I had decided to move ahead with the imprint, I knew that I needed a name that would make a bold statement. I realize that it probably sounds like a nerdy thing to do, but I have always collected names for bands and companies, and the Confidence Emperors was one that I had been saving for the right situation. I’d actually been listening to a song and thought the singer was singing the phrase “the confidence emperors”, but he wasn’t. I misheard him. So, I immediately thought that it would make a great name for something and stored it away for future use!

Odario: What is the importance of having an imprint, such as The Confidence Emperors, exist in our music industry today? 

Graham: Over the past year or so, I have been having ongoing discussions with the artists that I work with and various people in the industry. The gist of those conversations was whether it was still relevant to be making albums or whether it made more sense to be releasing singles and EPs. It depends on the genre and the artist, of course, but, for me, the motivation was to bring back some of the excitement and spontaneity that I feel has gone out of the “record business”. It takes so long to set up album releases these days. Plus, a lot of my artists have their own studios and are constantly writing and recording. They don’t necessarily want to wait for the next album to release the new song they are excited about. Now they have an outlet. Also, the label can act as a discovery platform. Fans and industry people alike can come to the website and find new music. So, what is the importance of having an imprint like the Confidence Emperors?  To bring a little colour into our lives.

Odario: As a songwriter, I find it difficult to keep up with the rapid changes in our music industry. But does 'the song' remain the same? Please share your thoughts on what you look for in a single these days and what ingredients make a song special in this day and age. 

Graham: It’s difficult to define what makes a great single. It either is or it isn’t! I always say that all the best bands are able to take what makes them great and encapsulate that into a three minute single. For example, all you need to know about the Who is in the single My Generation! When I was in high school, a friend of mine’s dad worked at the local radio station. We would go there every Saturday morning and he’d give us the singles that the station couldn’t play. Not only did I get to take home a lot of great music, but I learned first-hand from the DJ who picked the singles what made a hit. Of course, the ingredients include the lyrics, the vocal melodies, the hooks and the beat, but a great song just gets me excited. I’m a song man and always have been. That’s another reason I started the Confidence Emperors: to celebrate the song.  

Odario: I admire the personal touch displayed on the website. It's quite interactive and provides back stories and quotes from the artists. Why is that important to The Confidence Emperors' visual approach? 

Graham: First of all, if you’re going to make a statement, you need strong branding. That was always going to be an integral part of the Confidence Emperors. Two of my favourite labels were Motown and Island. They both had distinctive logos, and stood for quality in their music and packaging. I also liked how the old Blue Note albums featured a picture of the musician and the label’s logo on the front cover. I wanted to carry that through into the Confidence Emperors artwork and logo along with the distinctive red, black and white colours. Fortunately, my very talented graphics person (and keyboard player with Ghost Caravan), Juliana Iannuzziello, captured the look I had in my head perfectly. The idea behind the back stories and quotes from the artists on the website is a tribute to another lost art, the liner notes. On old vinyl albums, someone would write something about the album or the band or describe the music. Sometimes, it would be pure hype and sometimes it would be poetic. Either way, it would give you some insight into the music you were about to hear. In this era of social media, fans want to know as much as possible about their favourite artists. So, the back stories and quotes serve a dual purpose. The Confidence Emperors is trying to build a community and give people an experience. For me personally and for the imprint, aesthetics are important.  

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