Former Garrison Village resident Mike Denney was golfing the day he should have been collecting his sixth Canadian Country Music Association (CCMA) award, but like so many opportunities missed during the pandemic, he found out about his win online.
As owner of independent record label MDM Recordings, the 58-year-old has been responsible for guiding the careers of successful country artists Chad Brownlee, Jess Moskaluke, David James and many others.
Denney would be the first to admit that during his days attending Niagara District Secondary School, no one would have predicted he would one day be accepting the 2020 CCMA Industry Person of the Year award.
“I barely got out of high school,” Denney says from his Toronto home. “I was working in the morning (with his father, Wilf, at Woodstream Corporation, where they made fiberglass canoes), then I would go to school in the afternoon. But often that meant heading to the parkway to party. I think they pushed me out of school, eventually.”
In his early 20s, Denney began working for Lorne Bjorgan at Design Electronics. As a disc jockey, he was being booked for weddings, ball tournaments, peach festivals and other events. Eventually he was approached by Wayne Cardiff, who asked Denney to take over his DJ business, Mr. Music. Once at the helm of Mr. Music, it wasn’t long before he began to think about a future in the record industry.
“I was looking through the St. Catharines Standard classifieds one day,” he says, “and I saw an ad for a merchandiser rep, to go into all the department stores in the region to make sure the music section was up to speed. That’s when things started to kick into gear.”
He was hired by the Handelman Company, and for a time he juggled that job with running the DJ company. His role as a rack-jobber may not have been the most glamorous in the music industry, but their annual convention brought together representatives from all of the big record labels in the country.
“There were seven major record companies at the time, and they all did presentations over the course of two days,” he explains. “The last presentation of the day was CBS Records/Sony Music. They brought Ronnie Hawkins out, and he blew the transformer, knocking the power out for the whole hotel. I remember seeing the vice-president of sales and marketing, really cool and collected, just scramble, and I said, “I gotta go talk to that guy.”
That guy turned out to be Don Oates, and that moment became a turning point for a young Denney. “I ended up talking to him for about an hour-and-a-half, and I made the decision right then that I wanted to work in the music industry, and I wanted to work for that guy.”
Denney enrolled at the Trebas Institute of Music, followed by a two-year program at the Harris Institute. After many failed interviews, he was hired by Pindoff Record Sales for their One Stop division, where he was responsible for sales to independent record stores.
That job gave him valuable experience and further connections within the industry. In quick succession, Denney was shortlisted for a job with Sony Music, which he didn’t get, was hired by PolyGram Filmed Entertainment to sell VHS tapes, had to turn down an offer from Sony the same day he accepted that job, then four weeks later, left PolyGram when Sony made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
At 32 years old, Denney had his dream job, and he decided to finally move to the Toronto area. Within a year-and-a-half, he was working for that man he met at that Handelman convention. “I ended up reporting to the guy I said I was going to work for, Don Oates. He ended up being my boss, my mentor and a great friend.”
CD sales were flying at the time, says Denney. “My job was kids’ audio and video for Sony Wonder, and non-traditional sales, so getting CDs into drug stores and grocery stores. It was fun and challenging, but I did really well. I moved into a national sales management role within a year-and-a-half.”
Corporate politics edged Denney out of Sony after four-and-a-half years. At the same time, PolyGram was in the process of merging with MCA Records, forming the new Universal Music Group. Denney’s former instructor at the Harris Institute brought him in on a contract basis. That turned into a full-time position, and he worked his way up to national manager for classical and jazz and strategic marketing.
Just under five years later, the internet and MP3 sharing was beginning to affect the music industry. Universal laid off about 1,500 people worldwide, and Denney was caught in that wave. He reached out to another connection, Jim West of Justin Time Records. West flew from Montreal to Toronto to sit down with Denney, who was offered a position as Ontario sales manager for their Fusion 3 distribution arm.
This was another turning point for Denney. As he rose through the ranks, he began to receive artist demo packages from unsigned musicians. Jazz singer Emilie-Claire Barlow caught his ear. He brought her to Montreal, and she signed to Justin Time on a distribution deal.
“When you work for the big labels,” says Denney, “if you’re in the sales department, you’re in the sales department. You talk to the other departments, but you don’t get involved. At an independent (like Justin Time), I was dealing with artists, media and publicity people, agents, radio promotion people, artist managers, all these other things I had never done before. That’s where it all started.”
His first foray into country music occurred while at Justin Time, when he oversaw a distribution deal for Aaron Pritchett. “I just hit it off with these guys,” says Denney, about country music artists in general.
“They were really cool, and fun. They started taking me out on the road with them to various different festivals. It was unlike anything I had ever done in the music industry, and I had worked in all genres. This country thing was fun, the people are real, the fans are engaged.”
As he was thinking of moving on from Justin Time, he incorporated MDM Recordings, with his eye on signing artists on his own. In 2008, he attended his first CCMA awards, and came back with five distribution deals, including for successful artists Melanie Doane and Julian Austin.
Then, in 2009, through a music industry friend named Mitch Merrett, he connected with former Vancouver Canucks draft pick Chad Brownlee, who had begun playing country music. He brought Merrett and Brownlee into the MDM fold, and his independent label was off and running.
His next signing was Bobby Wills, then Denney discovered 19-year-old Jess Moskaluke on Facebook. She signed with MDM, and 11 years later he is still the man behind much of her success (2014, 2015 and 2016 CCMA Female Artist of the Year, 2016 Juno Country Album of the Year, 2018 CCMA Album of the Year).
“There’s something to be said for the success of an artist by who they surround themselves with,” Moskaluke says via email. “Mike has helped and supported both myself, and all of the artists on our MDM roster build the best team in this business, and I believe that’s how you create longevity.”
The hardware has been pretty steady for Denney as well. Besides this year’s award, MDM was named CCMA Record Company of the Year in 2014, 2015 and 2016, and Denney was named CCMA Record Company Person of the Year in 2014 and 2015.
“This one caught me off guard,” says Denney about his latest award. “When Chad left (Brownlee signed with Universal Music Canada in 2017), that was a huge revenue hit. We lost two other artists within nine months. I did not expect to win, because we’re still on the rebound, trying to dig ourselves out of that hole.”
COVID-19 meant the Sept. 27 awards ceremony couldn’t be held in person this year. Denney had been golfing that Sunday, but followed the awards via the CCMA Instagram page. “I was home by myself, and I was watching the announcements come up on my computer,” he says. “I got up to refill my wine and when I sat back down my phone was exploding. Before I saw it myself!”
The pandemic also means he won’t be able to visit mom Gloria and brother Joel back in Virgil this Thanksgiving weekend, or his sister Ginger who lives in Brantford. On the business side of things, Denney fears it’s also forced many young artists to have second thoughts about making a go of it in the music business.
Turning 59 this November, Denney doesn’t yet see a point where he will be ready to walk away from the industry.
He admits in the era of Tik Tok, Twitter and Instagram, he relies a bit more on some of the younger people who work for him for advice. But he has adapted to the streaming delivery format the industry has taken, and continues to look for new talent to bring into the MDM fold.
“The thought of an exit strategy crosses my brain more and more as I do this,” he admits. “Pre-COVID I was in hotel rooms 195 nights a year. It’s hard work, and it takes a lot out of you. I still love what I do. We’ve had back-to-back number ones at country radio this year (with Jess Moskaluke and new signing Tyler Joe Miller). I’ve always said I would do it until I didn’t feel relevant anymore.”
When he eventually is able to physically hold on to that 2020 Industry Person of the Year trophy, it will be even harder to convince anyone he’s lost that relevance.