TORONTO — Before his retirement, Bernie Finkelstein was a legendary figure in the Canadian music industry, a man whose contributions are still keenly felt in Canada.
Now 67, Finkelstein was a record-label owner, manager and promoter of Canadian talent. He established True North Records, managed the careers of Bruce Cockburn, Murray McLauchlan and Dan Hill, among others, and co-founded MuchFact, a fund that was instrumental in launching the likes of Sarah McLachlan, Celine Dion, Great Big Sea and Arcade Fire.
Five years ago, after about 40 decades in this frenetic and challenging business, he decided to retire, feeling burned out.
“I’d been thinking of retiring for a couple of years,” he said. “I wasn’t enjoying it enough. The business was changing rapidly, and I didn’t want to relearn it.”
“There was no way I could hit the ball hard enough,” added Finkelstein, an ardent baseball fan. “I didn’t want to hang on. I saw my due date. I found a good buyer for my business.”
Pausing in self-reflection, he murmured, “I never wake up in the morning and say, ‘I wish I hadn’t retired.’”
Retirement gave Finkelstein – a member of the Order of Canada since 2007 – an opportunity to write his memoirs, True North: A Life Inside the Music Business (McClelland & Stewart), which was officially launched last month in Toronto.
A high school dropout, he wrote the book himself, not having farmed it out to a ghost writer. Snapped up by one of Canada’s oldest publishing houses, it was fleshed out by an editor. “But I’m the author and take full responsibility for it,” he noted.
Finkelstein completed much of True North in the old country home in Ontario’s Prince Edward County he shares with his wife, Elizabeth Blomme, a former publicist and the mother of his two grown boys, Noah and Edan, both of whom have followed in their father’s footsteps.
Although he’s officially retired, he’s still gainfully employed. “Right now, I’ve got more on my plate than I can handle,” he said. ”There are always things going on.”
He no longer maintains an office at True North, one of Canada’s oldest independent labels, but he’s still its honorary chair.
Since bursting on to the scene in 1969, True North has released more than 500 recordings, 37 of which were gold and platinum releases and 40 of which won Juno Awards. Clearly, True North has played an important role. As he put it, “Our songs are woven into the cultural fabric of Canadian culture.”
By now, McLauchlan’s Down by the Henry Moore, Cockburn’s Wondering Where the Lions Are and Hill’s Sometimes When We Touch are beloved made-in-Canada standards.
Finkelstein continues to manage Cockburn’s career. “Bruce keeps me busy, but it’s not like it was when I was juggling a thousand balls in the air.”
One of the founders of the Canadian Independent Music Association, he was born in the old Mount Sinai Hospital in Toronto on Aug. 12, 1944, the only son of Harold and Eve Finkelstein, who were respectively from Ottawa and Winnipeg.
Harold, a non-commissioned officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force until his retirement in 1969, was posted at bases across Canada and in Britain, forcing Finkelstein to attend 13 different schools. Before a heart ailment forced his father to take early retirement, he lived in northern Toronto, where he attended Downsview Collegiate.
Describing himself as “an air-force brat,” he had a happy childhood. But since the Finkelsteins were usually the only Jewish family where they were stationed, Finkelstein was sometimes called upon to physically defend himself.
“There were times when I had to fight, but I don’t remember whether the fights were over my surname or my Jewish background. In places where names like Smith and McCleod were common, some people thought I had a funny name. I don’t recall being called a ‘dirty Jew,’ but it may have happened.”
Drawn to music at a tender age, Finkelstein could not get enough of it. “My parents had a record player, and I played music, everything from Elvis and Little Richard to Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland. The big event of my day was turning on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand after getting home from school.”
Much to his parents’ disappointment, he left home at 17, drawn to the bohemian ambience of Toronto’s Yorkville district. And though he did not have a master plan, he gradually drifted into the business that would soon define him.
When he was 24, he landed on the cover of Saturday Night magazine in recognition of his association with two bands, The Paupers and Kensington Market.
As time went on, he discovered Cockburn, hooked up with partner Bernie Fiedler for almost a decade, managed groups like Rough Trade and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and created the Finkelstein Management Company.
In 1969, he founded True North, whose mandate was to promote Canadians. Its first release was by an unknown, Cockburn.
Finkelstein co-founded MuchFact, originally known as VideoFact, in 1984. Dedicated to assisting talented but struggling Canadian recording artists, it was backed by MuchMusic.
MuchFact, having distributed more than $60 million in grants since its inception, has been a force for good. “We were extremely important in the development of the Canadian music business,” said Finkelstein, who left the organization in 2011 after a 26-year run.
By his reckoning, MuchFact was a factor in encouraging the federal government to introduce Canadian content rules in broadcasting. “We lobbied for it,” he said. “It was a very controversial topic in its day. Canadian broadcasters opposed it. I supported it and thought it was a great thing.”
As he looks back, Finkelstein recalls a number of key moments: The Paupers opening for Jefferson Airplane in the mid-1960s and setting off a chain reaction that changed his life; recruiting Hill to True North; steering McLauchlan to a gold single in 1972, and basking in the glory of Cockburn’s 1979 hit, Wandering Where the Lions Are.
Yet there is a dark side to the business he so loves.
“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he observed. “You shouldn’t go into it to make a lot of money, though you can. It’s a very, very tough and difficult business, full of traps. You may as well take your money to a Las Vegas casino. It moves very fast and doesn’t always breed loyalty. There are safer things to do, but I fell into it.”
Finkelstein, however, did not fall through the cracks. “I did very, very well,” he acknowledged. “When I sold my company, I deposited a seven-figure check in my bank account. I’m satisfied with the results.”