R. Harlan Smith in the studio with Chris Nielsen and Joe Kozak, circa 1974. Photo courtesy of Royalty Records.

Canadian Labels: Behind Canada’s Oldest Country Label, Royalty Records

Label: Royalty Records
Headquarters: Calgary, Alberta
Year founded: 1974
Founder: R. Harlan Smith, Jack Dubasz
Current owners/partners: Rob Smith, Chris Nielsen-Smith
Notable artists: R. Harlan Smith, Jimmy Arthur Ordge, Laura Vinson, Gary Fjellgaard, Chris Nielsen, The Emeralds, Tommy Banks, Joyce Smith, Glory-Anne Carriere, Gil Grand, Aaron Pritchett, Duane Steele, Rick Tippe, Gord Bamford, Hey Romeo,Kenny Hess, Tenille, and Mike Plume
Associated companies: Royalty Music Publishing Inc.

R. (Robert) Harlan Smith was an accomplished singer, songwriter, producer and entertainer when he decided to launch a record label in 1974 with the help of a silent business partner, Jack Dubasz. The first release was Wayne Vold’s Country Dreams. From then on, Royalty Records was always viewed as a country label. Still is.

“We’re always gonna be a country music label and we’ll always sign country acts, but we’ve also always had a depth of catalog that’s in various genres from Tommy Banks in jazz or big band to The Emeralds with ‘The Bird Dance,’” says president and CEO Robert Smith, son of Harlan. “We’ve had albums from artists all the way from adult contemporary when it was like elevator music back in the day. So we’ll always, as a label, be focused on country music, but as a catalog, we always want to expand into any genre.”

Harlan, who was born in Central Butte, Saskatchewan and began his music career under the stage name Bob Smith, produced many of the acts on Royalty’s roster, and was inducted into the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005. Robert officially took over the label in 2007. His son, Mitch, Harlan’s grandson, is signed to the label with his band Orchard Sky. Harlan also used to record and sing with his wife, Chris Nielsen; together they earned the label’s first No. 1 chart hit, on RPM Weekly, with “Stolen Moments.” So Royalty does run in the family (Royalty is also, appropriately, the only label in the world that has got The Queen to sign a recording contract – see below for the story).

A young Rob Smith with the legendary Tommy Banks at a contract signing. Photo courtesy of Royalty Records.

Today, Royalty Records is nationally recognized as Canada’s oldest country label, and the second oldest independent record company.

Karen Bliss spoke with Harlan Smith for NMC Amplify’s series on Canadian indie labels. He released his memoir, Hitch Your Wagon To A Star, in 2018.

How unusual was it back then for an artist to start a record label?

It was fairly unusual. I think there’s always been two ‘me’s’ in my DNA. One of them was I was blessed with a gift of creativity, which a lot of my family members have; the other one was how it came about with the label, my first No. 1 record was [“Ode To Suburbia”] in 1970. And I did all the television shows and was crisscrossing Canada and what hit me is that there was not a lot of attention being paid to any artist west of Manitoba by the multinationals. Basically, there was a pool of talent out here that I felt was totally untapped — people like Gary Fjellgaard, Laura Vinson, Larry Gustafson, and, of course, The Emeralds out here were, and still are, worldwide monstrous.  There was just so many of them out here, [US-born] Russell Thornberry, who was an original member of The New Christy Minstrels and Pozo-Seco Singers. He had moved to Alberta. Glory-Anne Carriere from Saskatchewan. They were as good as any talent you could find in Canada. What I was being told by some of my friends south of the border, “There’s a goldmine in Western Canada; why the hell isn’t somebody doing something about it?”

Typically, artists want to leave the business to other people. How did you have the knowhow to run a label?

My family is very grounded in business going back centuries and I had a lot of help.

In what area of business was your family in?

Business in general — how to construct companies, how to understand legalities. And I had a lot of contacts as a young person when I moved to Edmonton. For some reason, a lot of people in the business community were mentoring me about different things.  A business model [for a label] is no different. You have to have product, which is talent. You have to understand how to market it, which is the same as you sell a house. And I just applied that.  I also had silent business partner for a few years who was an incredibly successful and well connected Western Canadian businessman [Jack Dubasz].

What was Jack’s contribution to Royalty Records?

Massive. He became sick in the later years and it was a tragedy.

You were based in Edmonton, but it’s Calgary that has the reputation as Nashville North or Cowtown or the country music capital of Canada. What was going on in the music scene in Edmonton at that time?

Yeah, Calgary was Cowtown, but I remember when I first moved to Alberta in 1961, I stopped in Calgary for a while, and there wasn’t really much going on in country music at that time. And I moved to Edmonton; It was a hotbed. There were country performers everywhere, good country bands in all areas, great players. There was Ray Griff, who had left Calgary and moved to Nashville, I believe for that very reason, there was very little going on.  Edmonton was, back in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, way ahead of Calgary. Now, there were people who came out of Calgary don’t get me wrong, but there was not the industry activity in Calgary that there was in Edmonton at that time. There was, I think, maybe one recording studio here. CFAC radio was a great station, but CFCW radio was the No. 1 country station in Western Canada that came out of Camrose, Alberta, just outside of Edmonton. So when I moved to Edmonton, I felt like I’d landed in paradise.

What was your first office like?

It was a little office over a meat shop on 124th Street.

R. Harlan Smith with Alberta Premier, Peter Lougheed. Harlan is a recipient of the Alberta Achiever Award of Excellence. Photo courtesy of Royalty Records.

Was it the fact that you were an artist and a songwriter and a producer with business acumen make it attractive for other artists to sign with Royalty?

I was a very handsome little guy, come on [laughs]. I’m just having fun.

Of course, your good looks drew artists to your label.

I think they recognized that you could only do so much on your own. My mantra was always — because I’d been taught this in business — you can’t do everything, and it’s a philosophy that Rob still tries to embed with his artists. There’s so many things that go on behind the scenes and if you’re going to be a successful artist, it’s a 24-hour-day learning curve; it’s hard work. You have to learn how to craft songs. You have to learn what the industry likes and doesn’t like. You have to continuously hone your talent.

How were you able to do both, be an artist and run a label?

It was 16-hour days. I never thought of it as work. I sometimes got a bit overtired, and I know I could have been a much better producer if I hadn’t spent rehearsal time and then playing till 12 or one o’clock at night, and then being in the studio six hours and doing the same thing over and over again, six days a week and sometimes seven. So that’s a failure of mine, but, basically, I never thought of it as work.

But what did you enjoy about the label side?

What I enjoyed about the label side was I could then take something that was like a basic intellectual piece of property that someone had created out of their mind and their efforts and hard work and turn and monetize that through a business model, where basically the people who were participating in that particular song copyright or that musical production could all benefit, which would help everyone if they stayed in their disciplines, to go on to bigger and better things. And I think that was the success of a lot of our artists and they understood that.

R. Harlan Smith signing Sharon Anderson to a licensing deal. Photo courtesy of Royalty Records.

Your biggest signing?

That has made money and continue to earn, well, you have to look at The Emeralds catalog worldwide. It’s huge. You must have heard of “The Bird Dance”.  (In July 2021, “The Bird Dance” hit 1 million streams via a TikTok campaign.)

Royalty is almost 50.  Most Canadian labels from that area have long since folded.

I was very fortunate having a son like Rob, who is a very solid businessperson. He was around the business of music a long time before most people knew it, even though he was doing other things. He was at the NAMM [National Association of Music Merchants] convention; he was touring with us in Europe, as a schlepper equipment guy. He learned it from the ground up. He also, to his credit, just wanted to understand the legalities and the intricacies of the music business, as he had done in real estate and in several other ventures.

How did you adapt to the digital world?

My mind does not work well in the digital world. Rob has an extreme advantage there. He understood the new technologies. The transition from taking something and putting it from a CD to a disc or going backwards to vinyl, that was just a simple process. But the digital world, it’s a worldwide business now too because of the digital world.

Let’s be very brutally honest, Royalty would not have lasted if Rob hadn’t stepped in. He understood all kinds of things about it. When I listened to him talk, I said, ‘I’m outta here, son, if you want it, it’s yours.’ And he said, ‘Great.’ It would not be here without Rob Smith in the last 25 years. That simple. I get sometimes too much credit. But, yes, I did set the table and, yes, we built a tremendous catalog.

R. Harlan Smith (centre) with Gene Zwozdesky (left, Alberta Speaker of the House) and Rob Smith (right) after being inducted into the Country Music Alberta Hall of Fame in 2013. Photo courtesy of Royalty Records.

And, of course, can’t let you go without explain how and why you got Queen Elizabeth II to sign a recording contract.

The Commonwealth Games, which were in Edmonton in 1978, the first step of the promotion was they wanted to put together a group out of Edmonton to tour the Commonwealth countries. The people who were involved with that group were yours truly as a performer, and Chris Nielsen, my wife, as an artist and headline performer. The Emeralds and Hank Smith were also principal performers. We did 10 countries worldwide in 17 days.

 In the meantime, and Jack Dubasz was responsible for this, not yours truly, all the music of the Games was composed by people in Edmonton and all the stuff that was presented at Commonwealth Stadium was produced and played by Edmonton musicians with the exception of two or three things from Quebec. Jack was well connected, politically provincially, then protocol is you go to the federal government to get their blessing. Then the next step was him going to the British parliament, which he did. The next step was Buckingham Palace. Everybody said it couldn’t be done.

The deal — we recorded all the music of the Games with two backups to systems. So that was part of her agreement, ‘I’m only going to give the opening address once. So you better have two systems there.’ But the contract, in simplicity, called for her to allow us to use her speech within the album, as a principal performer and all the music. We were only allowed to produce 20,000 copies, and then the dye had to be broken of the 20,000 copies. The first one, of course, is in Buckingham Palace. It’s hers. There’s three in there.

The special limited-edition album, Queen Elizabeth II – The XI Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremonies, was released in 1978 on Royalty Records.

I personally have a limited copy with a seal on it: Number 13. The copies sold out in about a matter of, two or three days, but the first 2000 copies, we also gave freely to all of the participants of the Games as a present. No one has ever done this. Yes, she did sign the contract and yes, we did it.