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Making his own scene

Michael Burke has carved out a small but effective niche in the music business

By his own estimation, Michael Burke was not half-bad on the clarinet and saxophone. But half-bad wasn't going to cut it in the Toronto suburb of Don Mills -- not with players like jazz bassist Roberto Occhipinti, songwriter Dan Hill and Geddy Lee of rock band Rush cutting their teeth around the neighbourhood.

Despite his lack of natural ability, Burke still wanted to be part of the vibrant local music scene.

"By that point, I had realized I was not going to be a professional musician by any stretch," Burke said. "I enjoyed playing -- I loved it, actually -- but my friends were all so much better."

Burke charted a course for himself as an informal artist manager and record label honcho, a decision that would pay long-term dividends. Last week, Burke and his Victoria-based company, Cordova Bay Entertainment Group, which houses Cordova Bay Records and Cordova Bay Publishing, celebrated its 10th anniversary.

In addition to his local companies, the native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, also owns pieces of other labels -- 50 per cent of U.K. label Fierce Panda and 12.5 per cent of Toronto's Maplecore Ltd., under which Open Road Recordings, Fontana North distribution and Maple Music Recordings are housed.

Among the acts currently on these labels and their associated imprints are Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire, Joel Plaskett and the Walkmen.

In the grand scheme of things, his role of music biz impresario is a relatively new development, made possible by earnings from Burke's other career, which brought him and Gabi, his wife of 23 years, west to Victoria in 1994.

"I did quite well in the computer world," he said, choosing not to expand further.

In 1964, when he was 13, Burke started programming computers, eventually earning an invitation from the head office of the North York Board of Education to program its mainframe. When he was still in high school, Burke often skipped class and headed to Waterloo University, then one of the leaders in computer studies.

At 17, Burke was teaching Grade 10 data processing -- at his own high school. "They didn't pay me, but they gave me a parking space in the teachers' parking lot," he said, "which was worth more than getting paid."

I asked Burke if he was ever considered a genius, or at least a prodigy of some stripe. He laughed off such a suggestion.

"I know so many people who are so much better than me [with computers]. But I had the technical wherewithal and the ability to translate the technology to layman's terms, and to turn that into marketing and sales."

With his computer career progressing nicely, the musical acts he was managing became of greater interest to Burke.

In 1972, he began booking his acts for sessions in an Ancaster, Ont., studio in the basement of the family home of Bob and Daniel Lanois. The two brothers were quietly amassing production credits, and Burke liked what they were doing.

"I used to go in and request Bob to be the engineer," Burke said with a laugh, now realizing the folly of not choosing Daniel, who went on to produce Bob Dylan, U2 and Willie Nelson. "Hey, in those days, Bob was better."

The Lanois brothers ran into money trouble when they were building a new studio on Grant Avenue in Hamilton, Ont., and it was Burke who bailed them out. "We were trying to buy some more equipment, and Mike was already a customer," Lanois said, reciting the story to me in 2003.

"We said to him, 'We'll sell you 300 hours of studio time at 10 bucks and hour.' And he bought that. We were recording him for years. He just kept turning up at the door with acts."

Those hours of studio time led to numerous recordings featuring writer Paul Quarrington, including ones by Joe Hall and the Continental Drift (he was the bassist) and the Quarrington/Worthy duo, which scored a No. 1 single in 1979 with the Lanois-engineered Baby and the Blues.

Burke remains good friends with Quarrington. In fact, Porkbelly Futures, a new band featuring the Toronto writer (whose book, Whale Music, won the Governor General's Award for Fiction in 1989), is one of nine acts currently signed to Cordova Bay Records.

The others on the label are locals David Gogo, Acres of Lions, Vince Vacarro and Wyckham Porteous, and Vancouver artists Bill Bourne, State of Shock (whose hit single, Money Honey, earned double-platinum sales certification from the Canadian music industry), and Bop Ensemble.

Cordova Bay's lone East Coast act is a name from Burke's past: Bob Lanois, whose new recording was produced by none other than his brother, Daniel.

He never says it, but I know Burke feels a tremendous sense of pride having friends by his side as Cordova Bay navigates the ever-changing music world. He has managed to carve a niche for the imprint, which has earned six Juno Award nominations this decade.

But every once in a while, real life intervenes and the party comes crashing to a halt.

In May, Quarrington was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. In his honour, Burke created the Quarrington Arts Society, which will honour each year an outstanding multidisciplinary artist, who, like Quarrington, excels in film, writing and music.

The diagnosis caught Burke off-guard. But it also brought everything he's done, and everyone he has met, into sharp focus.

"I've been quite blessed with all the people that I've known."

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