Coalition Music is a music company that has defied industry trends over the past 25 years by not just succeeding but flourishing and expanding in the face of an uncertain landscape. However, if you spend even a little time talking to Coalition Music co-founders Eric Lawrence and Rob Lanni you quickly understand that it was almost impossible for good things not to happen with their business.
Simply put, their singular dedication to the music business is so genuine, there is no mistaking it, there is no faking it. They have, quite literally, lived to create the artistic haven that Coalition Music has become.
Like most good ideas, the seed for Coalition Music was planted out of necessity. In the mid 1980s, Rob’s brother Arnold started the lauded Canadian pop rock band Frōzen Ghōst and when it came time to find a manager, Arnold’s first priority was to pick a partner that he and his band could trust to look out for their best interests. On a leap of faith, Rob was enlisted to take up the mantle and shortly after, when the need for a full-time tour manager became apparent, Rob immediately suggested Eric to fill the bill.
“We basically fell into the music industry. Eric and I were friends first and we always knew we would work together,” explains Rob.
The heart of the company began as earnestly as that — two guys falling into a business they didn’t know much about but working for people they cared a great deal for, wanting to see them succeed at all costs.
“Like a lot of companies, you never know where you’ll end up. You hope to grow, but you start small,” explains Lanni. And so, by 1991, with Eric coming off the road to focus more on artist management with Rob, Coalition Music was officially founded. “There were no mobile phones at the time, we had to be in one place by the phone to do business for our artists, so we proudly began working out of Rob’s mom’s basement,” reflects Lawrence.
As the pair began working with a fledgling performer called Tony Springer a.k.a. Wild T & The Spirit, gradually Lawrence and Lanni saw the incremental building blocks of an artist’s career come together. T’s audience grew steadily, and he earned fans, including David Bowie. For both Eric and Rob, these days were the stepping-stones to becoming better, stronger managers by forging international relationships and dedicating 100 per cent to their artists, 24 hours a day, no matter what.
It was an exhausting schedule, he continues, “To keep money coming in so we could work full-time for our artists, we would work graveyard shift jobs until six in the morning, sleep for three hours and go to our office and put in a full day and then head back to work again at midnight.”
But both Lawrence and Lanni saw it as a necessity to be able to afford the artists they worked with the most opportunity. “I worked overnight shifts loading cargo for Canadian Airlines,” Lawrence reflects, “and after a while I was able to benefit from the employee perk of free flights. I began traveling a lot to take meetings for Coalition Music across the country and around the world. People thought we were a big management company, not one working out of mom’s basement! I remember that I would sometimes sleep in London’s Heathrow airport before a morning flight home as the company couldn’t afford to pay for hotel rooms.”
Eventually, as it often does, fate stepped in to help bring like minds together. When a young musician called Raine Maida met a cousin of Rob’s on a ski trip, a door opened for the two to meet. It instantly became apparent that a great collaboration was about to spark, and for the very first time Coalition Music began working to develop a then completely unknown band called As If. The outfit eventually renamed itself Our Lady Peace, and the rest is history.
To both Lawrence and Lanni, the process of artist development has always been equally about letting musicians have the room they need to grow, as it is about developing the deep-seated trust needed to forge a successful business partnership. “It’s the only way we’ve known to guide ourselves. It is a relationship built on brotherly love and respect that we need to forge with all our artists. We must help them and look out for them. We must encourage them to do what they do best. It is the only way we know how to run our company,” asserts Lawrence.
“We were taught that you answer to the artist. So we are on the phone with them, that’s our job,” says Rob. “We’ve never made a decision that we thought would compromise our service to the artists we work with.”
As Our Lady Peace enlisted the expertise of Arnold Lanni as producer and worked diligently to craft its debut album, the band slowly paid arduous dues by touring through smaller markets with Lawrence and Lanni banging down doors within larger territories. Eventually the sustained effort paid off as the band ascended to having a successful presence within the United States, and Europe. For the first time Coalition Music found itself on the verge of helping an artist break worldwide.
With the need to bring in an assistant to help with day-to-day business, it was finally the right time to move out of the narrow room at Arnold Lanni’s studio that the company had graduated to, and into the first-ever “official” Coalition Music office in Richmond Hill. Slowly and steadily, the Coalition Music we know today was beginning to take shape.
Soon it was apparent that Eric and Rob had become highly sought out as young managers with a keen eye for what was happening within the global music industry. In 1998, Coalition Music became the very first Canadian artist management company to hire a person dedicated to internet marketing with the hiring of the very first full-time employee Devi Ekanand, who brought a digital media savvy to the company. This move began the company’s model of online presence for its artists — a forward-thinking move that was the precursor to the digital social engagement that has become so vital for artists.
It was a move that also attracted a crop of rising new artists to begin to seek out Eric and Rob’s expertise, eventually leading them to add rock band Finger Eleven – still then known as the Rainbow Butt Monkeys – to the Coalition Music (Management) roster.
A few years later, in 2000, Montreal-based pop punk band Simple Plan came along as a cherished artist development project for the company, and it became apparent that the time and attention that Coalition Music gave artists was a recipe for success. “Our success is always based on the success of our artists. We always take a backseat to them and what they need to evolve and grow,” says Lawrence.
In 2005, Coalition Music expanded its office further, adding more permanent staff to help nurture the careers of the artists they were working with. During this time, looking around the morphing landscape of the global music scene, it became apparent that it was not the same industry that Lawrence and Lanni had started their careers in. Overall, the industry was contracting, and with the rise of the digital era, worry was prevalent that everything was looming on the verge of collapse. With 11 major labels working locally within Toronto when Coalition Music opened its doors, by 2010 this had been reduced to just three. This meant that the days of major record labels financing artist development were all but over.
“We realized that we needed to find a new model to help develop artists,” says Lanni. And so gradually, Coalition Music expanded to house a full-service record label to empower artists to have full influence over the music they were creating and distributing.
“We were meeting so many artists that had nowhere to go to build a team or find some financial help to build a career.” adds Lawrence. “The understanding needed to find and retain an audience was elusive to them. Yet, we were finding that they didn’t care, they were not sitting in their mom's basement saying to themselves - ‘hmm, the p&l on the current music business doesn't look so good maybe I'll become a plumber’ - all they cared about was creating; they had something inside them that they wanted to bring out. Great talent kept coming along even though the business had changed so drastically. There came the thing that keeps us up at night......the fear that a great new artist would go unnoticed.”
Then, once again, simply because the needs of the artists dictated it was necessary, the idea for the company grew even bigger. “We started off looking for a space, perhaps an old public school, where artists could come and rehearse and we could help develop them within our own building,” explains Lanni.
In 2010, after much searching, Coalition Music moved its offices to a historic building that was once a convent. It was instantly inspired to be more than just an office, but a haven for musicians to grow and thrive.
Housing not just rehearsal spaces (former nun rooms), a large performance space (the chapel) and a fully appointed recording studio with a vintage Neve console, Coalition Music transformed their environment into a revolutionary artist incubator designed to mentor artists through every stage of their careers.
“We want to keep the industry we love so much alive and thriving. How do we make the industry benefit from everything that we have learned?” posits Lanni. The establishment of Canada’s Music Incubator was the answer.
With all that they have done to make a difference in the lives and careers of some of Canada’s most beloved artists including Our Lady Peace, Simple Plan, Justin Nozuka, Scott Helman and USS. it is telling that, when asked to reflect on the meaning of their career so far, both Lawrence and Lanni always focus on the joy and fulfillment they have got from working with the artists directly.