Jonathan Simkin was touring Marianas Trench lead singer Josh Ramsay around his new state-of-the-art, custom-built music production facility when he realized Ramsay was being uncharacteristically quiet. Finally, as they capped off the tour, Simkin – a little rattled by the silence – asked him what he thought.
"I said it was a bold move to invest so much money in such a big place during a time when it seems like the music industry is in the throes of death," Ramsay recalls. "People don't buy records any more and here he is dumping a whole bunch of money into it."
Simkin (who remembers Ramsay's comments more like: "The music business is falling apart and you build this palace of music?") froze. Did Ramsay think he was making a mistake?
No, Ramsay said. "I think it's admirable when people go for broke."
"That was kind of the moment where I got a little scared," Simkin says now. "Where I suddenly went, 'What … am I doing? Is this a completely insane thing to do?' And to be completely frank about it, I still have moments where I wonder."
Simkin is talking about 604 Studios, his new creative infrastructure venture in Vancouver's Railtown – and his answer to the extreme disruption wrought by the digital age. For years, Simkin – a bedraggled and brilliant entertainment lawyer, artist manager, president and co-founder (with Nickelback's Chad Kroeger) of 604 Records – has, like everyone else in the business, been trying to navigate the intense downturn in his industry, once known for its many excesses.
"I became very obsessed with figuring out all those various ways that we could continue to create amazing content but do it without going broke. You can still make money in the recorded music business. I absolutely believe that," he says. "You just can't do it the way we've been doing it for the last 20 years."
"It's become a business of pennies," he adds. "But there are a lot of pennies."
Simkin had a vision to spend fewer of them – and maybe earn more, too, by harnessing and monetizing the technology that has rocked the industry. He thought about building a recording facility that would encompass studios, offices for his various businesses and a sound stage for music video production, photo shoots and even live events – all interconnected with livestreaming capacity at the flick of a switch. A place his artists could use at reduced rates – and that he could rent out to supplement that income.
Not exactly an inexpensive proposition – but throw your wish in the well and you never know what might happen. Three years ago, one of his artists had a monster hit that became the song of the summer – and the catalyst for building his new studio.
"Call Me Maybe was the tipping point," says Simkin, who began managing Carly Rae Jepsen after her 2007 Canadian Idol run (among his contributions to her career: hooking her up creatively with Ramsay, who co-wrote Call Me Maybe). "And because this sort of facility had been on my mind for so long, when I saw that window there … to go, 'Jeez, could we maybe actually?' – I seized the moment."
Simkin has made a career of seizing moments – and falling into the music business without intention or ambition. After drug-fuelled troubles with the law back in the late 1970s and early 80s, Simkin got court-ordered help. He later moved to Toronto to go to law school, eventually returning to Vancouver to practise criminal law.
He moved into an apartment that happened to be next door to a band signed to Nettwerk Records. He attended some of their parties, where he was often approached for contractual legal advice. "And I'd always be like, 'Dude, I can't help you. I have no idea. I'm a criminal lawyer. If you get busted for pot, here's my card.'"
But Simkin became disillusioned with criminal law, and finally took on a music client – Matthew Good – in earnest. The legal work opened the door to artist management.
When a new rock band from Hanna, Alta., moved to Vancouver, looking for a lawyer who charged less than $300 an hour, they were recommended to Simkin by the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada.
"It was kind of bro-love at first sight," says Simkin, who has been Nickelback's lawyer since – for nearly 20 years. In 2001, he and Kroeger co-founded 604 Records, signing Theory of a Deadman early on. Simkin added an indie arm to the company, Light Organ.
At the same time, disruption was wreaking havoc in the music industry. Simkin, with a small, nimble operation, looked for ways to navigate through it.
"I just didn't want to be another one of these … guys running around scared shitless saying, 'The sky's falling, what do I do?'" he says.
He developed his idea for a facility where the entire trajectory of a piece of music could play out. And when he hit the pop music jackpot with Jepsen, he went looking for a piece of real estate to fit his vision.
"Call Me Maybe did so well … it seemed like a no-brainer," says Simkin, who landed on a former clothing factory on the fringes of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside. "We're finally going to be able to do this thing that I've been dreaming of for all these years. And we just kind of – boom – launched into it."
Simkin is telling the story in his office, with its high-end playback equipment and large music-industry-related toy collection displayed on custom shelves. The multimillion-dollar facility that Call Me Maybe built is just about complete, minus the new website (due to launch in September) and the streaming capacity. He shares plans for a launch event in October: Marianas Trench, with a new record coming out, is planning to livestream a pay-per-view event from the sound stage, maybe with a few superfans forming a live audience (for a price), record the show in a studio next door, and offer it as a download and a video on demand the next day. "So I've monetized that four ways? Five ways? And none of it involves making a record," Simkin says
"The ability to stream performances out of the place really was for me, in a way, the coup de grâce," he continues. "That was the cherry on top. Not only can we make music, not only can we make videos here, but we can actually blast the stuff into the world from here."
The building has probably already paid for itself – just in terms of resale potential in a red-hot Vancouver market. Not that Simkin has any such plans, though.
Aside from a few pieces of art and some photos, there is nothing on the walls – no gold or platinum records. "I said to everybody, 'The studio's got to earn its gold records,'" Simkin says.
Late on a Friday earlier this summer, the place is buzzing. The Vancouver-based band the Matinée is recording in the large studio now home to the recording console that was used for Nickelback's monster hit How You Remind Me. In a smaller studio next door, producer Colin Janz is working with new 604 signing Tonye Aganaba. In a third studio, Fake Shark's Kevin (Kevvy) Maher is working with Emily Rowed. He takes a break to play the video Steve Bays (of Hot Hot Heat) directed for Cheap Thrills, which was shot a couple of metres away on the more-than-800-square-foot sound stage.
"They hung me upside-down for half an hour for this and they didn't even use the shot," Maher says.
That indignity aside, Maher says he loved the experience of having everything under one roof – both from a financial standpoint (no need to rent studio space) and an artistic one (he was able to hop into a studio next door to deal with any audio problems).
Jepsen, who no longer lives in British Columbia, has not seen the place – and she and Simkin are transitioning out of their management relationship (she's still with 604 Records, though). Scooter Braun – Justin Bieber's manager – is actively handling her career.
But Simkin would rather talk about a hot new act of his, Toronto-based Coleman Hell, whose genre-defying 2 Heads is having a good summer on Billboard, currently at the No. 23 slot on the "hot rock songs" chart. The banjo on the track was one of the first things recorded on the refurbished How You Remind Me console in the big studio here – and it may just provide the first plaque for its wall.
At the end of the day (which, as Simkin keeps odd hours, can be around 5 a.m.), Simkin remains enchanted by the business that chose him, and excited – even optimistic – about its prospects.
"There are so many people whining about the Internet and whining about everything in the music business," he says. "You know for me, it's like the wild, wild West. I don't think I've ever enjoyed it as much as I enjoy it now. It's scarier in a way, but so what? Life's scary sometimes. I really love coming into work and sort of going, 'Okay, how are we going to sell music today? Anybody got any ideas?'"