Stony Plain

Holger Petersen grins constantly, but this month, he’s especially sunny because Stony Plain Records is 30 years old. The word "independent” is still thrown around press releases with truth and pride. In the middle of July, Stony Plain threw a party at the Sidetrack not only for their birthday, but to celebrate Order of Canada-recipient Petersen’s latest reason to smile — the success of his modern flagship band. As well as roping Junos, Corb Lund went gold (50,000 units) twice this month for last year’s Hair in My Eyes Like a Highland Steer and 2002’s Five Dollar Bill. After a long conversation with a confident Lund, the label pushed retail hard. It worked. "It’s very unusual for a roots, indie artist to get a gold record,” Petersen beams, "but two at the same time is generally unheard of.”

A young Petersen planted early seeds for Stony Plain around a kitchen table, drinking whiskey with harmonica legend Walter Horton. He already had a blues show on Canada’s oldest public broadcaster CKUA, naturally rubbing shoulders with any of his favourite roots artists who came to Edmonton. Petersen convinced Horton to play with a local band called Hot Cottage, produced the album, and witnessed modest success locally and overseas. Not long after, he formed Stony Plain with his friend Alvin Jahns, an accountant who grew into the label’s business manager. Take note, young labels — get the money straight. But according to Petersen, that’s just part of it. (Though an important part, obviously.)

"It’s always been about faith in the music and people getting you through or ignorance (equalling bliss) of the business getting you through. There were two times when I actually was ready to pack it in. Once I was sitting on my deck having that exact thought when the phone rang and a U.S. company wanted to license five of our titles with the offer of a nice advance. The other time we had invested in a rock/pop band — mistake — and spent more money than we had, but Decca Records in the UK called with a generous licensing proposal. You need faith, luck and timing to get you through.”

Named to capture the rustic rural landscape around Edmonton, Stony Plain has always been immersed in a sense of sonic advocacy. They take taste-based chances with full awareness that those gold records are unlikely. But roots music — folk, country and blues especially — benefits from a triple strike of long-term loyalty, wrinkle-eyed history and, to put it indelicately, publicly self-linking to creative friends. It’s a magic formula that turns old age into asset, slight connection into stage capitol, the reason who played with whom always comes up at folk and blues fests.

It works for business, too. Early on, Petersen began to travel to the MIDEM conference in Cannes and now boasts distribution deals with Warner Music Canada, Navarre in the U.S., Rounder Europe, Elite in New Zealand and Only Blues in Australia, plus digital distributors.

This web allows Petersen to keep away from faddish scrambling. "We release mostly timeless music by committed artists who have a strong sense of direction and are songwriters. We want to help our artists create the best possible records they are capable of and present them in the best way possible. Never fewer than 2000 pressings.”

Exclusive contracts are academic. "I listen to their music, get blown away, get to know them to see if it’s a fit and offer them the fairest deal possible.” Lund, Tyson, David Wilcox, and Gillian Welch all call Stony Plain home now, while Duke Robillard has put out 20 albums with them since 1993. When he started the label, Holger just wanted to have an outlet for his own productions. Looking back at how realistic that was, he’s got just one word: "Very.”