Steve Kane's 1956 Seeburg Select-O-Matic jukebox clicks, whirs, then delivers a blast of music. The opening riffs of Picture My Face, the explosive 1978 single from first-wave Hamilton punk band Teenage Head, flood Mr. Kane's basement from a seven-inch single. "I'd have to say I'm buying more vinyl than I am CDs," says the president of Warner Music Canada. "Analog, I still buy. Digital I access."
This is made evident by the sheer number of ad hoc vinyl storage units piled around the back room of Mr. Kane's basement. The wall full of sliding shelves containing thousands of plastic CD jewel cases has seen a lot less traffic since Mr. Kane started streaming music online, but he didn't anticipate vinyl's cultural comeback when he built his basement music palace a decade ago. The vinyl collection that once spanned a 7.5-metre-long shelf running the length of the room has overflowed into spare shelves and boxes that spill out into the hallway.
The man in charge of guiding the Canadian arm of one of the world's biggest record labels into an ownership-free age remains an ardent collector of physical music. He is fully aware his industry's desperate need to adapt to the access-over-ownership business model of streaming music and his own digital listening habits have shifted the way of Spotify and Apple Music. But he can't stop collecting, especially with the return of big-splash vinyl records. Since Mr. Kane first started buying albums as a preteen, he estimates he's amassed at least 16,000 pieces of recorded music – CDs, LPs and vinyl singles – and it's all here in his basement shrine.
"I'm not gonna stop," the 54-year-old says. He still spends most Saturdays digging through record stores, bringing the loot back to his basement in Toronto's west-end downtown. "There's still a record out there I haven't heard."
Growing up in Edinburgh, Mr. Kane would go record shopping with his father every couple of weeks. Their house was filled with early rock 'n' roll and country records. When the family emigrated to Canada when Mr. Kane was 6 or 7, his mother took a job at a bank in downtown Oshawa, Ont. – just down the street from the city's famed Star Records. He became a fixture there, loitering after school while he waited for his mom to finish work.
"I needed to walk out of there with something," says Mr. Kane, salt-and-pepper stubbled in jeans and a blue-checked Penguin button-down. He's sitting among his collection and surrounded by signed records, including the Ramones's Bonzo Goes to Bitburg and the Clash's London Calling. Behind him are his son's drum kit and photos with rock giants such as Joey Ramone and Brian Wilson. "My paper route money, my actual job money, it went to records. It went to things that I generally didn't hear on the radio."
So began a lifetime of pursuits that allowed him to acquire new and new-to-him music in increasingly absurd quantities. At Trent University, Mr. Kane published a fanzine and hosted a campus radio show, reaping him plenty of promo copies. After graduation, he took a job at Records on Wheels on Yonge Street in Toronto. And the records were free. "That took a huge dent out of my monthly living expenses. That meant I could afford to eat and buy beer."
The quest for free records kept pulling him in new directions. Labels paid attention to what was selling at Records on Wheels, Mr. Kane says, since it was a haven for collectors. He started to build connections in the record business. "As I watched them, I thought, this looks like it could be a fun job for a little while. Maybe I'll try my hand at that."
Mr. Kane landed at the Canadian wing of I.R.S. Records, an independent label that put out releases from such bands as R.E.M. and Fine Young Cannibals. The small office gave him the chance to touch upon all sides of putting out music, from distribution to radio promotion, and prepared him for many roles in the years ahead. He jumped around to various imprints amid record industry consolidation, climbing ranks and collecting stacks of CDs along the way: to Virgin, where he helped sign the Celtic band Leahy; to A&M, where he took pride in working on Jann Arden's breakthrough album Living Under June; and eventually to vice-president roles with PolyGram Music Canada and Universal Music Canada.
After joining Warner Music Canada as senior vice-president and managing director in late 2001 – soon signing off on a young band named Billy Talent – Mr. Kane became its president in 2004. On top of trying to keep the Canadian roster fresh with signees like Scott Helman and Modern Space, he's also concerned about Warner's legacy. "The fact that Blue Rodeo has been with the label almost 30 years is practically unheard of in this business," he says.
He rushes to the front of the room and snags three vinyl records, all by Blue Rodeo. The first LP is the original 1986 recording of their debut Outskirts, the second, a remixed reissue Warner recently oversaw. "[Blue Rodeo's] Greg Keelor was never crazy about the original mix of the album," Mr. Kane says. "When we reissued the album, Greg went in and did the mix he thought should be on there. So you get the original album, and then on a second piece of vinyl, you get Greg's mix."
Mr. Kane flips to the third record – a live recording, originally broadcast on CFNY, of the same songs, from the same era. "Just for fun," he says. He puts them down and smiles. He likes being a completist. "So it's good. I've got three different listening experiences."
The way people experience music has change drastically in the past two decades, and one of Mr. Kane's biggest jobs is to steer Warner Music Canada through these rough waters. Consumers are moving away from the listening experience that fills Mr. Kane with glee – a tangible, active, ownable experience – into an access model of listening, in which people spend their money on all-you-can-eat streaming services like Deezer, Tidal and Spotify.
"That's the biggest challenge the record business is facing right now," he says. "How does that change how people consume music? What do you have to do to grab their attention and keep it?"
He does not yet know all of the answers to the questions he's been tasked with. People thought switching to downloaded mp3s was tough on the post-Napster music industry. But that still treated music as a product to sell; figuring out how to best monetize fixed-cost subscription services like Spotify is worlds away from that.
It starts, Mr. Kane says, with data. "If somebody walks in to a record store and buys a new record by Modern Space, one of our new bands, and they take it home and unwrap it, I don't know whether they listen to it once, or if they listen to it 100 times. With streaming, I know when Modern Space reaches a million streams that somebody's listening to it over and over again. It gives me an opportunity to go back and market to those people in a way I never have before."
During our conversation, he puts Modern Space's debut album, Before Sunrise, on his turntable. More than ever, he says, record labels are marketing services companies. They just need to tune their marketing to the medium, which, he admits, "is a work in progress," in spite of a few inroads like targeted playlists on streaming services.
Mr. Kane looks around the room, and the thousands of CDs and LPs within. "What I worry about is developing that permanence of relationship with an artist or a record," he says. "It's very different to turn on my Apple Music library and do three other things. That's a very different experience than taking a record out of the sleeve, putting it on and concentrating on it."
Twenty-five years from now, the presidents of Canada's biggest record labels could conceivably own no physical albums at all. Mr. Kane doesn't feel deterred by this; he just chooses to define his relationship with music by the things he can hold. Not everyone has to think that way. "It all starts with a song," he says. "That vibration in the air that makes people say – I need a piece of that. They have to have access to that, whatever it is. That job doesn't change."