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Call Him Maybe: Jonathan Simkin Celebrates 20 Years of 604 Records and Becoming “Godfathers of a Neo-Grunge Movement”

“I would love to have another ‘Call Me Maybe,’ but you can’t force that — you can only pray for it!”

Call Him Maybe: Jonathan Simkin Celebrates 20 Years of 604 Records and Becoming 'Godfathers of a Neo-Grunge Movement'
Photo courtesy of 604 Records

Look at this photograph: it’s Nickelback frontman Chad Kroeger with his lawyer, Jonathan Simkin. And while that shot was snapped many years ago, the two are still close, as they’re currently celebrating the 20th anniversary of 604 Records, the label they co-founded in 2003.

It’s yet another victory lap for the once-hated Nickelback, who have gradually transformed from Canadian music’s greatest heels into a loveable fixture of the industry — recipients of a star on Vancouver’s Granville Street StarWalk, recent entrants in the BC Entertainment Hall of Fame and subjects of a museum exhibition, inspiring cover songs by DijahSB and Lights.

The label released the vinyl compilation 604/Twenty in June, bringing together 20 songs from the label’s history across four sides. To mark the occasion, Exclaim! caught up with co-founder and president Simkin to discuss the impact of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” on the label, hanging out with Tommy Lee, and how Nickelback’s shifting reputation has affected the label.

How did you and Chad decide to start 604, and what stands out in your memory about those early years?

It was a combination of an opportunity presenting itself, good luck, and circumstance. Initially, we were not intending to start a label. Rather, we were sort of acting as freelance talent scouts and entrepreneurs in Vancouver. Nickelback was constantly touring then. On the rare occasions when he had time off, Chad would look for local bands to work with. I guess that was his idea of taking time off. As his lawyer, I would handle the paperwork. For a while at the beginning, nothing really worked out. I mean, we found some cool bands, Chad produced some cool music, but none of it really led to anything until Default. When we got that deal for Default with TVT Records, it was like the world opened up for us. It was the first real success we had together outside of Nickelback. We had been working so long on trying to get deals for bands that when it finally happened with Default, our world changed forever.

It struck me that, had we structured that deal with Default differently, we could have made that a more lucrative situation for ourselves and the band. I started to think of how I could do it differently if we had an opportunity like that again. So when we met Tyler Connolly of Theory of a Deadman at a party a couple years later, Chad suggested we do something with them like we had done with Default. That is when I told him I had some ideas. Chad gave me his blessing, so I incorporated a numbered company that would eventually become 604. But even then, the idea wasn’t to be a record label. It was to be a production company. I figured, if we have a commitment from Theory for multiple albums, that would put us in a better position to negotiate a deal with a major. So, that was the nature of the original agreement we signed with Theory of a Deadman. It was basically a production deal, and the idea was that we would then try to sell the agreement to a major label.

However, circumstance intervened when Nickelback, Default and Chad’s solo track “Hero” all went Top 10 in the US. Suddenly, everyone was looking at Chad and I like we were the godfathers of a neo-grunge movement happening in Vancouver. I saw an opportunity when that all happened. I was in L.A. with Lillix, the first band I ever managed, and was making the rounds shopping the Theory demos Chad had recorded. An A&R guy at Atlantic Records asked me, “Are you shopping Theory, or are you shopping your label?” I had never really thought about it like that, but it was one of those moments in your life where everything changes. Thank God I had the wherewithal to answer “label.” I remember calling Chad and saying, “Hey, I think I just started a bidding war on our label,” to which he responded, “What label?” Ha ha! We ended up doing the deal with Lyor Cohen of Island Def Jam and Cees Wessels of Roadrunner over a 10-hour negotiation session in a suite in the Pierre Hotel overlooking Central Park. Pretty heady experience for a couple of naïve but ambitious young guys from Vancouver with modest means but huge dreams! We excluded Canada from the deal, and then entered into an agreement with Universal Music Canada for Canada only. The label was born! I think we only had one employee during those first couple of years, and that employee is still with us 20 years later.

You launched a sub-label, Light Organ Records, partly because of the association with Chad Kroeger being a cofounder of 604. As Nickelback’s reputation has been shifting in recent years, have you noticed a difference in the way 604 is regarded?

A hundred percent — but it’s not just because of Nickelback’s reputation. I think it’s also because we had some interesting crossover successes that somehow made the distinctions less important. I signed the alternative band the Organ to 604 early on, and that did well. But that was before the most intense period of Nickelback bashing. But I think that Coleman Hell song “2 Heads” really helped too. It started life as an alternative hit and actually went to No. 3, I believe, in the US on the alternative chart. Then it crossed over to pop. But that was a 604 Records artist, and to have success with that in alternative radio really took a weight off of our shoulders in terms of what 604 could or could not do. Similarly, Carly Rae Jepsen went from having the biggest pop song in the world to becoming a bit more of a tastemaker artist, and she is also 604. That really seemed to mark the end of the era of all 604 releases being associated with Nickelback, and really became about the diverse records we were releasing. But by then, Light Organ had taken on its own identity and was doing well, so we decided to maintain them as essentially two separate but related companies under the 604 roof.

What has the success of “Call Me Maybe” meant for the label, both artistically and commercially?

I’m not sure how “Call Me Maybe” has affected the label artistically. We have always had a strict policy that creative control over music is 100 percent with the artist, so we don’t fuck with our artists’ art. My job is to monetize intellectual property, not to make it. So it did not change how we deal with the creation of art by our artists. I suppose we gained some respect for that success, but we’ve always signed artists from a wide variety of genres, so on that level, nothing really changed, either. I would love to have another “Call Me Maybe,” but you can’t force that — you can only pray for it!

Commercially, it’s hard to overstate the financial impact of that song on our company. It was and continues to be massive. Barely a day goes by that there is not some sort of action on that song. It might be a sync license for a toothpaste commercial in Poland, or a featured spot in a major US film. The amount of sync activity is almost shocking, in a good way, especially given that we’re 10 years away now from its release. I don’t think we would have been able to acquire the facility we are located in without that success, or at least not as quickly as we did. And it enabled us to sign more bands, hire staff, etc. Of course, with huge financial successes also come some headaches, but I’ll save that part of the story for my book!

Aside from “Call Me Maybe,” what are some of the other notable releases that have changed the course of 604’s history?

Honestly, all the songs we put on the 604 20th anniversary release, I feel, changed our label in some way or another. But if I had to boil it down, I suppose the releases that come to mind are:

Fix Me by Marianas Trench. We were very sure of ourselves when we put this album out. We felt certain that it was going to have success at radio, but it didn’t. The pop stations found it too rock. The rock stations found it too pop. And all of a sudden, we were two or three singles in without really having had much success at radio. I remember having a number of very frantic meetings at that time. The band meant so much to us — and still do — and we were desperate to figure out a way to move the project forward. So we decided to focus on a couple of aspects that did seem to be impactful for the band. First off, video content. That certainly included official music videos, and MuchMusic deserves a lot of credit for helping to break the band in Canada. But I’m also referring to the goofy clips that the band would post, such as the infamous “hot chocolate” video. Marianas had an understanding of social media and YouTube that was far advanced of most other bands at that time. And secondly, we focused on touring. We sent them out to Ontario for two or three months with the notion that they should simply play as much as possible, meet other bands and film tons of content. It cost us a lot of money, but boy, was it worth it.

That release and its ultimate success were not just a huge victory for us, but really taught us the value of not having a cookie-cutter approach to releasing music. For every release after Fix Me, we took meticulous care in crafting a marketing plan that really did not follow any particular formula other than, “Who is the audience and how can we reach them?” After Fix Me, we never released records the same way ever again, and completely abandoned the typical formula of “make an album, choose a single, make a video, put it out, cross your fingers”.

The song “Dancing in the Sky” by Dani & Lizzy is another one of those songs that really changed things, because it showed how much success a song can have even if it doesn’t get extensive radio play. The amount of streams on that song are massive, as are the views on the videos. It’s a song about death and the afterlife, and it obviously has struck a nerve with the world. But it reinforced the notion that, while radio can really drive the success of a song, it is no longer the only driver.

The first self-titled Theory of a Deadman album also should be mentioned, because it’s our first release, and it’s really the record that taught us about how to release records. We really didn’t know what we were doing at the time, and so we really were sucking up as much information and knowledge as we could from working with Universal Music Canada. Also, I was able to exclude digital rights from our deal with Universal so that 604 owns them. In 2002, digital did not mean what it means in 2023. And that really impacted our label, because it forced us to learn digital, from the actual delivery to the DSPs, to forging relationships with the streaming services.

The Dallas Smith records from 2012’s Jumped Right In to 2020’s Timeless have also been very impactful on us as a label, because it enabled us to have a lot of success in the country genre.

How did you select which songs to include on your 20th anniversary compilation?

Obviously there were some songs that we simply had to include because of the success, “Call Me Maybe” being the most obvious example. But we also tried to go with songs that really did change our course in some way, or were notable for more than just being commercially successful.

Aside from the label’s commercial successes, what are some of your personal favourite releases in the label catalogue?

I never like talking about my personal taste when it comes to the label because it’s like asking a person to choose their favourite child! But I’ll focus on one that maybe I wish had gotten a little more traction. Armchair Cynics are a band that I absolutely adore and really felt they made music that was both artistically powerful and catchy as hell! That one was a disappointment, because I really felt they had all the ingredients necessary to have big success. It didn’t happen, and all these years later, that still pisses me off.

What’s the strangest or most uncharacteristic release in your catalogue?

I would have to say the strangest release is probably the Tommy Lee album Tommyland: The Ride. It’s a bit of a story about why we ended up acquiring that record for Canada — but, basically, Chad produced and appeared on a track, but Tommy also ended up using some previously unreleased tracks we owned by a band that we signed to a demo deal, but did not end up working with. We approached the band and got their consent, and two or three of the songs on that Tommy album actually had their basis in demos that Chad had produced for this band. The songs got reworked for Tommy, and that gave us some leverage to ask for rights in the album for Canada. The album was a flop, but I did get to hang out with Tommy a couple of times and that was definitely memorable! But yeah, that’s just a weird one, because it’s something that sort of fell on our plate and doesn’t really match anything else on the label. Having said that, it contains a song produced and written by one of my absolute favourite artists, Andrew McMahon of Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate fame, so that’s pretty cool.

What has been the most memorable moment in the label’s history?

I would have to say everything that happened with “Call Me Maybe.” So many milestones were broken by that song in terms of sales, in terms of revenue, and even the fact that it was nominated for a couple of Grammys. It’s hard to describe how it feels to have a success of that nature, to have the biggest song in the world, and it’s hard to compare that experience to anything else really. It was surreal, truly.

What’s next up for the label?

So many things! 604 Records continues to sign bands and release records by our great artists. Same with Light Organ. Our comedy division, Comedy Here Often?, has also had great success with extensive airplay on SiriusXM and even a JUNO Award win for Andrea Jin’s album Grandma’s Girl. Most recently, we’ve started a podcast network under the name 604 Podcast Network, and also the ambient label INTRASET, which we’re starting to put some real attention to. Our studio 604 Studios is very active, and we have lots of plans for keeping it that way and expanding on our studio and content-creation facilities.

We’re also starting a new imprint or series which will focus on releases by Vancouver bands from years ago who I feel never really got their just due. That would also include some rereleases. I don’t even have a name yet for that imprint, but we do have a couple of records scheduled. We have some music coming out from Movieland. For those who don’t remember, Movieland were a great Vancouver band who morphed into the band Pluto and had some success with Mint Records and, ultimately, Virgin Records. But before Pluto, there was Movieland, and I’m so excited to be releasing that music. 604 didn’t exist when I fell in love with them, and they were one of those bands I always felt deserved so much more. We’re also going to be putting out previously unreleased music from the band Pure. I’m working with Jordy Birch from the band to figure that out, and we’re incredibly excited by that as well. And I have a few other bands from Vancouver who I want to give a similar treatment to. I love this city so much, and I want to give back to the artists who inspired me early in my career.