Ever since issuing a 10th-anniversary CD compilation in 1986, Stony Plain Records has released a new anniversary disc every five years.
But Holger Petersen, who founded the Edmonton roots and blues label, is especially overjoyed to be reaching his 35th anniversary, because these last five years — with a fractured music industry crumbling around him — have been particularly tough.
“We’ve obviously seen a lot of changes,” the personable 61-year-old said on the line from his Alberta office in a recent telephone interview.
“There’s a lot less retailers, independents and otherwise, that would normally be carrying our releases . . . The sales part, really, has been a challenge, no question about it.”
“And also, we’ve had to be more cautious, especially taking chances on new artists . . . You have to be very, very cautious with everything.”
And yet, even as Petersen explains the dire circumstances of a difficult industry, he doesn’t sound particularly concerned — after all, his little imprint has weathered plenty of other storms since its inception in 1976.
Back then, Petersen was a young graduate of the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology who was working part-time at Edmonton’s CKUA radio station. He managed to talk his way into producing for several well-known blues artists — including influential pianist Roosevelt Sykes, harmonica wizard Walter (Shakey) Horton and Memphis guitarist Johnny Shines — and pretty soon it made sense to start his own label to publish those productions.
He was 25 years old at the time and had no idea how long his Stony Plain venture would last. He certainly didn’t expect it to endure this long.
“Not at all, no,” says Petersen, who hosts Saturday Night Blues on CBC Radio One.
Petersen’s guiding principal in searching for talent then was the same as it is now: he was looking for music that excited him. Early acts signed to the label included Paul Hann and Crowcuss (which featured Bill Wallace and Greg Leskiw of the Guess Who), but Stony Plain did struggle in its early years.
The turning point came with the 1987 release of Ian Tyson’s Cowboyography, a surprise hit that wound up earning platinum certification in Canada despite the lack of major-label support.
“That was a landmark record for us,” Petersen recalls.
“It allowed the company to grow and take on other projects. It really stabilized our future, I would say, and I don’t know if Stony Plain would be around if it wasn’t for Ian Tyson.”
Tyson has since released another 13 albums on the label, becoming one of its headline talents. Of course, he’s featured on the recently released two-disc collection 35 Years of Stony Plain, which also includes tracks from Jeff Healey, Corb Lund, Tim Hus, Blue Rodeo, Spirit of the West and Jay McShann.
But Tyson is hardly the only artist who has stuck with Stony Plain.
New York folk-blues crooner Maria Muldaur has been associated with the label for over 15 years, too, with several of her releases earning Grammy nominations. Juno winner Amos Garrett’s relationship with the label dates back to the 1970s, while American blues guitarist Duke Robillard has contributed more than 30 albums for Stony Plain since meeting Petersen back in 1993, including the records he’s produced for other artists.
That sort of loyalty is not exactly common — but neither is Stony Plain, Robillard points out.
“They’re totally different than any other label that I’ve ever encountered,” he said over the phone from his home in Rhode Island.
“Holger himself is just such an incredible music fan . . . You just don’t find people in the industry that are quite as devoted to music as he is.”
Petersen, too, takes pride in nurturing such lasting relationships.
“These are people who are still working with us and not suing us and not bad-mouthing us — I hope — so I think that speaks really highly to everybody involved in the company and our business ethics.”
But of course, a record label can’t survive on goodwill alone, particularly in an industry where many of Stony Plain’s peers have morphed, withered or disappeared entirely over the years.
Petersen attributes his imprint’s survival to a number of factors. First, the label runs with only five core staffers, aided by outside contributions from a few others. Petersen also insists on keeping his artists’ recording budgets low (especially lately) and uses discretion when considering signing new acts, even if it’s difficult to temper his own enthusiasm for music that might not wind up being profitable.
“At various points we made a conscientious decision to actually become a smaller company and cut back on the number of administrative roles we were playing,” he said.
“So I’ve had to make those decisions over the years, in terms of working with less people and being just really careful about not taking on too much. Because there’s so much good stuff out there, there’s no question about it.”