'As my wife likes to tell the story," recounts Donald Tarlton, the Montreal music mogul better known as Donald K. Donald, "I retired on Friday, played golf on Saturday, took a drive in the country with her on Sunday and then went to work on Monday."
When Tarlton announced his retirement from the concert-promotion business in September, 1998, the Canadian music industry was stunned. News that the veteran promoter was leaving the music business set tongues wagging.
"People misunderstood the press release," says a smiling Tarlton as he explains the marketing ploy behind his announcement. "The press made more out of the word 'retirement' than was intended. The communiqué said I was retiring as a concert promoter to focus on my record companies. It didn't say I was checking into an old folks' home. Maybe retirement was a poor choice of words, but 'ceased operations' or 'changed focus' wouldn't have been as dramatic."
The charismatic Tarlton, 57, has always been one for theatrics. For four decades, the fiercely independent entrepreneur practically controlled the major concert business in Quebec and eastern Canada. His company, Donald K. Donald Productions -- later DKD! Universal -- brought every major rock and pop show to Montreal, including the Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Madonna, the Spice Girls and the famed Emerson, Lake and Palmer at the Olympic Stadium in 1978.
Since announcing his "retirement," Tarlton has put his time and energy into expanding his record-company empire. Known as the Donald K. Donald Group of Labels, the company is comprised of five labels: Aquarius Records (English rock), Tacca Musique (Quebec rock and pop), DKD Vibe (R&B, urban and pop), DKD Disques (Quebec rock) and DKD D-Noy (dance).
Aquarius Records is one of Canada's oldest independent labels, founded by Tarlton and several partners in 1969. Over the years, the label has released about 70 albums, including top-sellers by April Wine, Corey Hart and Sass Jordan. By the 1990s, Aquarius was doing little more than rereleasing its catalogue on CD. But the label's outlook has improved with the launching of Serial Joe, a teenage rock-rap band from Newmarket, Ont. The group's 1999 debut, Face Down, has sold 90,000 copies and helped Serial Joe land a $1-million contract with Epic Records for the rights outside Canada.
While business was slow at Aquarius in the 1990s, its French counterpart, Tacca Musique, had all the momentum. Launched in 1991, Tacca has become one of the top three labels in Quebec thanks to the incredible success of superstar Kevin Parent. The singer-songwriter's first two albums have sold more than 670,000 copies and he is now working on his third. Labelmate France D'Amour, a former rocker-turned-chanteuse, landed a lead role in the Notre Dame de Paris musical and star status in Quebec.
Another Tarlton success story is Juno Award-winning La Chicane, whose first album, En Catimini, has sold nearly 200,000 copies and is a runaway hit for DKD Disques.
At present, Tarlton and his staff are busy working on a promotional campaign dubbed "sounds of a new generation that must be heard," to be launched this month. This involves releases by nine English acts, including Serial Joe and Sass Jordan. But the rest of the roster is new and includes Sum41, four skateboard punk-rockers from Ajax, Ont.; Montreal R&B singer Jodie Resther, who released a French-language album last year; 11:30, the talented Sherwood twin-sisters whose infectious dancey-pop single Olé Olé should be a summer hit; McAuley, a smooth R&B outfit à la Boyz to Men, consisting of four brothers from London, Ont.; and rapper Liquid, formerly with Bran Van 3000.
Tarlton's experience as a concert promoter exposed him to every facet of the music business. His years of dealing with artists, managers, agents, record companies, radio stations and publicists have given him an edge in understanding the industry. "I got a good university education from the street by working with the biggest acts and agents in show business. I got a solid grounding about what works, why it works and how you can make it work," he says.
The seasoned Tarlton credits René Angelil, Celine Dion's manager and husband, as an important influence. "I was front-row centre on René's phenomenal adventure with Celine. I watched him operate the record companies and pursue his vision of making Celine the biggest star in the world. The key to their success was the combination of his incredible organizational skills and her great talent.
"That's what I hope to achieve with my company. I want the Donald K. Donald Group of Labels to be known in Canada as the 'career-developing' organization."
Tarlton points out the biggest problem he faces as an independent record label is defending his top-selling artists from the major record companies. "They aren't willing to get down in the muck and do the dirty work of building careers. They want to pluck artists off the top by offering them more money than anyone else after their contracts lapse.
"Hey, I'm not complaining -- that's the competitive nature of the business. My job is to hold on to my artists. That's why I wear running shoes -- I always have to be faster than the majors," he cracks as he shows off his white sneakers.
What becomes very clear in a conversation with Tarlton is his deep commitment to Canada and its talent. "I believe the majors are only involved with Canadian acts to be politically correct. Governments saw a lot of money leaving the country and told the majors to invest in Canada. I am here because I love Canadian artists and I want to take them to the top."
This spring, Tarlton announced his involvement with QRI Canada Capital Inc. in developing a Web site called Gotahit.com, which will be launched later this year. Tarlton says the site's principal focus will be to find and develop talented artists on-line. "A team of A&R [artists and repertoire]experts will offer a professional service of evaluation for a fee. It will review and critique the material and then respond to the client within 72 hours. If something has commercial potential, then through a joint venture called Gotahit Records and Publishing we will try to develop a market for it."
Tarlton says his main reason for getting involved in Gotahit.com is to give young Canadian artists a chance to be heard. "It depends on who you know or how much clout your manager has to get a hearing with a top A&R person," he explains.
"The tapes musicians send out end up on a desk with 500 others. Will that A&R person listen to all that music? He'll probably listen to a few seconds of each tape, unless someone taps him on the shoulder and says 'Hey, this one is really good.'
"The great thing being Donald K. Donald and having a 35-year history in the music business is that everybody around the world has heard the name. This means I get my phone calls returned. If I think an artist would do well in Germany, I can call an A&R guy over there and tell him I got something he should listen to. I can be the person who taps him on the shoulder."
Tarlton has always loved promoting music and artists. As a child growing up in Montreal in the 1940s, he exhibited an entrepreneurial spirit at a young age. "Great hockey players say they started skating at the age of 3. My mother says I was promoting when I was 5. She caught me singing in front of a mirror, and I turned around and told her I was pretty good and should charge money.
"At 7, I had family members and neighbours pay 10 cents to come to my Christmas carol concert. I stuck up posters around the house advertising the event. I started very early as a promoter, hustler and entrepreneur."
By the time Tarlton was in high school, he was running the school plays and dances. At 19, he took on the persona of Donald K. Donald and worked as a dance-hall MC, radio DJ and band agent. In 1966, the 23-year-old incorporated Donald K. Donald Productions, a booking and concert-promotion company.
Tarlton's first big professional break came with Expo 67, when he and his partners booked acts for the Garden of Stars and ran the discotheque in the Youth Pavilion. After that summer, Tarlton started putting on rock shows featuring such acts as Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
In 1969, Tarlton mounted his first rock show at the Montreal Forum, home of the Canadiens hockey team. "I realized if I was going to bring U.S. acts to town, I had to interest French Canadians in American rock 'n' roll. I was aware that to be successful I had to use a politic of inclusion. So I put together a bicultural rock festival with Steppenwolf, Robert Charlebois, Mashmakhan and Life, and found an audience."
Tarlton went on to produce more than 5,000 concerts locally and nationally. He also co-produced four Broadway shows, including Tony Award-winners Tango Argentino and Black & Blue, and was instrumental in producing Celine Dion's world tour.
Throughout his career, Tarlton remained loyal to Montreal. Even though he worked in Toronto in the early 1990s after selling his company to Michael Cohl's BCL Entertainment Group (which later merged with MCA Canada to become Universal Concerts Canada), Tarlton commuted between the two cities.
"Over the years, I resisted the big offer to move to Toronto, New York or Los Angeles. Montreal is where I wanted to live and develop my career." Then he adds, "Every move I've made, I've never regretted. I'm happy and content where I am -- and I plan to stay that way."