By John Kendle
Most MARIA members know Kevin Walters through his day job. To musicians, he’s the manager of sound recording programs at Manitoba Film & Sound. In the last couple of years, however, Walters has taken on a larger profile in this city and province. As chair of the Winnipeg Host Committee of the 2004 Juno Awards, Walters has been the public face of the effort to bring the annual celebration of Canadian music to the new MTS Centre.
And now it seems more than half the city knows him as “the Juno guy.” Walters laughs whenever he hears himself described this way. But if you’ve spent any time with him since Christmas you know that his mobile phone never stops ringing. He is the Winnipeg Juno guy, acting as liaison between the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) as well as point man and troubleshooter for the myriad of logistical problems that come with doing an awards show of this nature.
Walters wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s passionately committed to the provincial music scene, he’s a fiercely proud Winnipegger and he has long held to the dream of showing off this city and its musical wares in the best light possible.
So now it’s happening and Kevin Walters figures that holding the Juno Awards at the MTS Centre on April 3 will be another way of showing the country what this city can do.
“Absolutely I think it shows that we can do things like this,” he says. “This project fits in well with what’s going on the city right now, if you look at the redevelopment downtown.
“And if you look at the music industry in general in Manitoba, a lot of the artists we are working with are on their way up and have been on their way up for a while. This is the right time to do this.”
That may be so, but Walters admits he never really imagined that he’d be working on a Junos show in Winnipeg when he was growing up in Norwood in the 1960s and ‘70s. With older siblings in the house, he remembers that there was always a lot of music around, and even though he was hockey-crazed as a young teen, he was also booking bands at high school dances.
“I did think that I wanted to be involved in the music industry someday, somehow,” he says. ‘If I wasn’t going to be a schoolteacher, I wanted to be involved in the music industry.”
Walters was indeed a schoolteacher at one time. After graduating with an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg he worked in a bank for a while, then took an education degree at the U of M.
But he kept his hand in at music, working as a deejay with a number of Winnipeg sound companies, then as a teacher before he took a leap of faith with some friends and went to help run a bar in Thunder Bay.
“I think I finished teaching on a Wednesday and was a bar manager on a Friday or something crazy like that,” he laughs.
A manager’s gig at the old Windsorian Hotel turned into a job managing Night Moves Cabaret, and then Walters became a booking agent with the Hungry I Agency as the ‘80s became the 1990s.
“By then I was sure I was going to work in the music business,” he says.
Walters then formed an artist management and production company called Twin Productions which handled the affairs of performers such as Lenita Erickson while also promoting concerts and club acts around town.
A gig as merchandising manager for Barenaked Ladies took Kevin on the road for a couple of years just as the Canadian band was breaking in the States.
Then the Manitoba Film & Sound job came up.
“It’s hard to believe I’ve doing that job for this long,” Walters says. “It’s also hard to believe the growth that we’ve witnessed in this city and province in that time.
In his tenure at MFS, Walters has seen the sound recording program’s budget double. He’s watched and helped the rise of Manitoba performers such as Chantal Kreviazuk, Remy Shand, Amanda Stott and Doc Walker and, most important, he’s also witnessed the growth of the industry.
“When I started there were no real independent record companies in the city. There were very few artist managers. People were only just beginning to realize that they could record here, produce their records here, make them here and distribute them from here.
“Now they’re doing all of those things. It’s just incredible when you think about it.”
In addition to running an album loan program, a demo grant program, a touring support program and a marketing support program right here at home,Walters has also involved himself in being an avid ambassador for the province and its music.
The Manitoba barbecues, co-hosted by MFS and MARIA, at Toronto’s North By Northeast festival are now legendary, and the province has a similarly high profile at South By Southwest, at the Folk Alliance Conference and at MIDEM in Cannes, France -- all due largely to the efforts of Walters, Sam Baardman and the outreach work of MFS and MARIA.
Though he won’t say it himself, it is this kind of ambassadorial presence which has helped make this year’s Junos a hotly anticipated event.
He will admit that he has noticed the excitement in the national music industry.
“The other thing that really gives us a sense of satisfaction is the number of people who are excited that it’s coming,” he says. “Locally, obviously, the city is buzzing but even in the rest of the country people are saying they want to come here. The Canadian music industry is dominated by former Winnipeggers and they’re all excited about coming home and showing off their city. I think it’s a chance for us to show off and show why we’re here, and why we stayed -- why it’s great to be from here.”
The drive to land the Junos for Winnipeg began in 2002, Walters says. He recalls a lunch meeting at which he, MFS CEO Carole Vivier and True North Centre vice-president Kevin Donnelly agreed that the Juno Awards would be a great event for the then-planned new arena in downtown Winnipeg.
“We just thought ‘We should do this.’ So we did,” he says.
After interesting the province, the mayor’s office, the Western Diversification Fund and agencies such as Destination Winnipeg in the idea, Walters and a then-informal committee of music industry people and backers decided to host a Winnipeg 2005 party during Juno Weekend in Ottawa in 2003.
“We had it at a restaurant in downtown Ottawa and we invited the whole CARAS board, and they all showed up,” he recalls.
“And I would say that an hour after that party was over, we basically had the Junos. We started a whole momentum going that just kept steamrolling. At the Gala Awards that night Fred Penner won the best children’s award and in his acceptance speech said ‘We’ll see you in Winnipeg in 2005.’ Then Remy Shand won an award that weekend and said ‘We’ll see you in Winnipeg in ‘05.’”
“A buzz began that weekend that we were going to get it. Obviously we had to go through the process with CARAS and ensure a contract was in place, but it was amazing. Our pitch was what really hooked them.”
By June 2003, Walters and the informal bid committee had lodged a formal bid to host the Awards at the MTS Centre this year. After the usual to and fro that goes with such negotiations, an agreement was in place by that September and an official announcement was made at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in December 2003.
“It was a new thing for CARAS. They had never made an announcement so far out from the awards before. Everybody involved had to adjust a little weekend.”
All the adjustments have been made now. At this point it is Walters’ to strap himself in, oversee preparations and prepare himself for the weekend of March 31 to April 3, which will be a whirlwind.
And how will he feel on April 4, when all is said and done?
“Hopefully we’ll all put our feet up and be smiling and saying: ‘Wow, did we put on a great party.’
“The city will have one hell of a hangover.”
For more information on the Winnipeg Host Committee and Juno events, please visit www.winnipegjunos2005.com.
Article by John Kendle, originally appeared in the Spring 2005 issue of the MARIATALK newsletter