Al Mair was in his early 20s when he visited the New York’s World Fair in 1964. The exposition was officially dedicated to man’s achievement on a shrinking globe in an expanding universe. As a young man on the fast track in the music business, Mr. Mair later described the fair as “phenomenal.” Not even the skies were limits in the space age.
In 1967, the Torontonian went to Montreal for the Universal and International Exposition – Expo 67, as it was commonly known. Judging it as even better than the New York exhibition that had wowed him not long before, Mr. Mair had an epiphany. “It convinced me that Canadians can do anything that foreigners can,” he said recently, “and they can do it better.”
The Canadian music industry at the time was dominated by foreign-owned record firms and radio was dominated by British and American acts. Mr. Mair himself had worked in sales and promotion with Capitol and London Records. But by 1967 he was with Compo Company, Canada’s first independent record company. Four years later, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) imposed airplay regulations that, among other things, opened the door for more Canadian labels that were owned and operated independent of the majors.
It was in that dawning era that Mr. Mair co-founded Attic Records, which became one of the largest and most successful indie labels in Canadian history. From 1974 to 1999, Attic helped launch the careers of dozens of homegrown artists, including Anvil, Lee Aaron, Maestro Fresh Wes, the Nylons, Teenage Head and Triumph. Mr. Mair’s motto for the label was “think global, act local.”
Mr. Mair, a titan of the Canadian music industry as a savvy entrepreneur and an indefatigable figure in the establishment and growth of independent record companies in this country, died of cancer on Nov. 25 at Toronto’s Sunnybrook Hospital. He was 82.
To friends and family, he was a Facebook enthusiast who believed in Buddhism and Hawaiian shirts. Business associates remember an intuitive, aggressive dealmaker and an advocate for homegrown artists and labels. “He was our leader,” said Holger Petersen, founder of Edmonton-based Stony Plain Records.
The grade-school record store clerk who made it to mogul status was awarded the Order of Canada this summer. Among the achievements that earned him the honour was his role in establishing the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), a non-profit trade association chartered in 1975 to represent the interests of the English-speaking sector of the domestic industry.
When Mr. Mair wasn’t working in a leadership role with a variety of associations or getting Attic Records off the ground, he looked after Gordon Lightfoot’s business affairs. From 1968 to 1976, he was general manager of the star troubadour’s Early Morning Productions. His job description was open-ended.
In 1969, an American record label released Early Lightfoot, a compilation of tracks the then-unknown singer had recorded many years earlier. Because the crooned country songs were now out of fashion, Mr. Lightfoot ordered his business manager to buy up all the albums and destroy them. Mr. Mair complied, taking an axe to the piles of vinyl in a backyard. “Gordon borrowed the axe from me and took a few swings himself,” Mr. Mair told The Globe and Mail shortly before his death.
When Mr. Lightfoot’s friend and business associate Bernie Fiedler owed Revenue Canada a substantial sum, the Sundown hitmaker stepped in and offered to loan Mr. Fiedler the money for the back taxes. When Mr. Mair advised against the transaction, Mr. Lightfoot waved off the concern. “Write the cheque,” he said.
“What about the terms?” Mr. Mair asked his boss. “No terms,” Mr. Lightfoot replied. “Write the cheque.” Mr. Mair then wondered about the rate of interest. “No interest,” Mr. Lightfoot insisted. “Write the cheque.”
To Mr. Mair, a meticulous businessman who began his career as a bookkeeper at Capitol Records, the payment seemed reckless. But he wrote the cheque.
“I never held that against Al,” Mr. Fiedler told The Globe. “He did a good job for Gordon.”
The first office of Attic Records was in a house owned by Mr. Lightfoot, but in the kitchen, not the top floor. The name “Attic” was chosen by Mr. Mair and co-founder Tom Williams because it was a place where unexpected treasures might be found. Indeed, the company made millions of dollars by discovering under-the-radar Canadian acts who sold modestly but steadily. “As long as you didn’t overspend in marketing, you could build a collection of these and do very, very well,” said Kevin Shea, who worked in promotions at Attic.
According to Mr. Shea, his boss was a “chess master,” whose moves included finding international artists who had no distribution deals in Canada. Licensing records by Jennifer Warnes and Weird Al Yankovic, for example, paid off well for Attic. “If you picked up enough of these kinds of projects, hits would emerge,” Mr. Shea said.
The label’s eclecticism was reflected in a 25th-anniversary compilation that included hard-rock bombast (Triumph’s Magic Power), Top 40 gold (Katrina & The Waves’ Walking On Sunshine), a country-crossover hit (the Rovers’ Wasn’t That A Party?), pure novelty (Weird Al’s Amish Paradise) and a hip hop blockbuster (Maestro Fresh-Wes’s Let Your Backbone Slide).
“The secret of survival for any record company is a steady flow of product,” Mr. Mair said this summer on the podcast Toronto Mike’d. “We took shots with what we thought would be fun.”
The fun stopped in 1999 when Attic was bought by a consortium headed by political pollster and Tragically Hip co-manager Allan Gregg and merged into a company that came to be called the Song Corporation. Mr. Mair still had a role with the Attic label within the new company, but he was soon pushed aside. “He wasn’t included in the meetings they had,” said Mr. Shea, who documented Attic’s history in the liner notes to the label’s 20th-anniversary box set.
Song Corp. filed for bankruptcy in 2001. Master recordings once owned by Attic were sold at auction; warehoused product was destroyed. Though Mr. Mair made out well financially from the sale of Attic, the subsequent collapse of Song was a major blow.
“It wasn’t how he wanted to see it end,” Mr. Shea said.
Mr. Mair’s career in the music business had begun in earnest when he was hired by Capitol Records to keep track of royalty payments. He quickly moved into sales and then over to promotion. Although his bosses recognized his talent, they weren’t quite sure what to make of the high-energy upstart who drove a red convertible with a built-in record player. Any buttoned-down brass who recognized Mr. Mair as the future would not have been wrong.
Alexander Mair was born in Toronto on Sept. 29, 1940, the only son of Donald Mair and Florence Lillian May Mair (née Brobyn). His father worked at the agricultural machinery manufacturer Massey Ferguson; his mother ran a boarding house. At 10 years old he began buying 78 RPM records using his lunch money. The first record the hungry child purchased was (How Much is That) Doggy in the Window? by Patti Page.
Listening to a Philco radio, he discovered clear-channel stations WUFO in Buffalo and WOWO in Ft. Wayne, Ind. “Both stations opened my ears to a lot of music that wasn’t available in Canada, at least on radio but possibly in record stores, if you found the right record store,” Mr. Mair told Cashbox Magazine Canada.
He was soon working at a record store himself and made even more money as DJ at local dances during the earliest days of rock ‘n’ roll. He skipped school to see Blackboard Jungle, a 1955 film that featured the groundbreaking Rock Around the Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets. “That just blew me away,” he later recalled.
Post high school and after a two-year stint at Capitol, he worked at the Ontario branch of London Records for a stingy boss who was bizarrely reluctant to give the label’s records away to radio stations for airplay. In his week-long tenure there, a frustrated Mr. Mair was fired and rehired twice and finally quit.
A stint at Compo Company (which years later became Universal Music) was a much better experience. There he worked with Mr. Lightfoot – the beginning of an eight-year association that ended two years after Mr. Mair co-founded Attic. “Gordon could not handle the competition of one of his people promoting other acts,” Mr. Mair told Maclean’s magazine in an edgy 1978 profile of the singer.
To finance the Attic Records startup, Mr. Mair mortgaged his house and Mr. Williams (who previously ran promotions at Warner Music) sold properties he owned. Further capital from investors raised $300,000 in total. While Mr. Williams was the charismatic public face of the new label, Mr. Mair, with a serious façade and the title of president and chief executive officer, was the brains of the operation and a skilled, diligent networker on an international level.
Attic artists earned gold, platinum and multiplatinum awards from Holland, Japan, Canada and the United States. In 1980, the label won the Canada Export Award from the federal government.
Mr. Mair was a firm boss with a “curious” managerial style, according to Mr. Shea. “He would leave Post-it Notes on computer monitors that read ‘See me.’ We would laugh, but we were terrified. We didn’t know if we had done something wrong or if we were going to be congratulated.”
A receptionist remembers Mr. Mair’s problematic handwriting. “At first I couldn’t make out any of it, not even one letter,” said Velma Barkwell, now a music supervisor with East End Music Productions. “Then I started to move the page around, tilt it to the right, the left, upside down. I was determined to master this language. Eventually, I figured out the letters one by one, and after that it was like being able to read code.”
Over the course of a decades-long career, Mr. Mair played a prominent role in a wide variety of Canadian music industry organizations, volunteering his considerable expertise to the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN); the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR); and the National Aboriginal Music Association.
When Mr. Mair was inducted into the Canadian Music Industry Hall of Fame in 2014, he asked a female label owner to perform the induction speech. “He observed that there were very few women entrepreneurs in our industry, and that was something he wanted to help change,” said Shauna de Cartier, founder and president of Six Shooter Records.
In retirement, Mr. Mair would often meet former business associates for lunch and ice cream at the pub Shenanigans in midtown Toronto. “At some point, they took the chocolate sundae off the menu,” said Steve Waxman, onetime Attic vice-president of radio promotion and publicity. “But he kept ordering it and they kept making it for him and his guests.”
Mr. Mair was presented his Order of Canada medal in his hospital room days before he died by Ontario Lieutenant-Governor Elizabeth Dowdeswell, in recognition of his “visionary and enduring contributions to the Canadian music industry.”
He leaves his partner, Guiling Han, and her daughter, Rachel; his son, Sebastian Mair; daughter, Jennifer Mair; sister, Lillian Richards; granddaughter, Sophie; and former wife, Virginia Mair.