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Quebec's Superstar Music & Media Exec: Anne Vivien

Born in a small town in the south of France, she is arguably the most powerful woman in the Canadian music business today. As EVP for Music and Development at Quebecor, Vivien's reach plays a pivotal role in promoting music in Pierre Karl Péladeau's sprawling and influential media empire in the province.

Quebec's Superstar Music & Media Exec: Anne Vivien

By Matt Zimbel

When the English Canadian music business thinks about the French-Canadian music business, which isn’t all that often, it often regards it with a sense of curiosity, wonder and envy. A French name pops up at the top of the SoundScan sales chart;  “hey… hang on a sec, who is this and how did they go from not even being on the chart last week, to being number 1 this week, WTF?”.

Pour another coffee and permit me to increase your envy with a tale of horizontal integration and the most powerful woman in the Canadian music business today.

Her name is Anne Vivien; she is from a small town of 1000 people (1500 in the summer!) from outside of Grasse in the south of France, and she is the Executive Vice President for Music and Development at Quebecor. As such she is the head of Distribution Select, the label Musicor and the Musicor show division, all sister companies of the homegrown media empire Quebecor.  

Quebecor owns the most highly rated conventional television station in Quebec  the TVA network, a number of cable channels, a portfolio of the most-read newspapers, one of the most successful book publishers, a catalogue of glossy magazines and oh yeah, almost forgot, one of the leading internet and cable service providers in Quebec, Videotron. So when Anne builds an artist release plan, she has a toolbox most labels could only dream of.

Quebecor was founded in 1965 by Pierre Péladeau father of the current President and CEO Pierre Karl Péladeau. Peladeau le père started off in the newspaper business when workers at La Presse went on strike, and over a weekend he created and published the tabloid Le Journal de Montréal.

Pierre Karl is a celebrity in Quebec known by his initials PKP.  He was recently the leader of the Parti Quebecois until he resigned after 12 mercurial months at the helm during a very public divorce from TV talk show star and producer Julie Snyder.

In 2003 Snyder acquired the TV rights from France of a reality show called Star Académie (imagine American Idol with rehearsals recorded at a chalet in the country and you’ve got a pretty good idea).

The ratings were phenomenal, and at the end of the first season Distribution Select decided to release a CD compilation of the 2003 Star Académie season.  At the time, Anne Vivien, who started her career as an artist, then became a radio program director was heading up French A&R for BMG in Montreal and was chosen to co-lead the newly formed company Musicor with Bill St. Georges.  

Following the release of the first Star Academie compilation which sold exceptionally well, they continued the momentum with the release of a CD by one of the finalists, Marie Élaine Thibert (produced by Stephane Venne).     

Anne checked Soundscan from home at the end of the first week of release and saw 67770 logged.  She immediately called the office;  “Soundscan has made a terrible mistake, they added another zero.”  In fact, Soundscan had not made a mistake and the record went on to sell over 370,000 copies.

Other artists featured in the first season released solo records including Wilfred Le Boutillier, Marie Mai and Annie Villeneuve and Musicor sold more than a million records off the first season of a TV show in a market of only 7.5 million people.  That’s more than Celine Dion was selling in Quebec at the time. Now remember this is 2003, there is still no Facebook, the music industry was just post-Napster and freaking out. The way that Musicor saw the future and employed every media property in their arsenal to promote their growing catalogue attracted music industry attention around the world.   

On a frigid February day at a former schmatta factory in mid-town Montreal, I met with Anne at the music division offices.

MZ: I always thought of you as a “creative,” an artistic person who also dabbled in being a brutally tough negotiator but I never thought of you as an “executive.”  Can you set the table for us, how did you end up in the corner office at Musicor / Select?  

AV: I played keyboards and sang.  I was not so bad. I had all the attitude. My mother worked in law. I always remember a show once where my mother came backstage and said,  ‘that was great, you were so good, I am so proud of you.  But it’s impossible; you have too much structure to be an artist”.  I was like “ouch…”. But she was right; I was managing the band, doing all the marketing, reading all the contracts.

I remember meeting my first A&R person; she was A&R at Barclay in Paris. Now, I’m a country girl and she’s a Parisian so, of course, she treats me like a piece of shit. She makes me feel so small. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as an A&R person, I remember thinking “what is this, what is it you do exactly?" I was like, ‘wow, this is a cool job.’ I realized then that I was on the wrong side of the table.  I started to go to conferences and was more excited about being recognized by people in the industry than by the public.   So, yes, the business side excites me but I love the artistic side too. We all work very hard on content here.  Because you can have the strongest marketing plan in the world, but if the content is not extraordinary you have nothing.

MZ: Do you think that as a Francophone from France you have a different approach to business?

AV: When I came to Quebec 30 years ago they called me the “la maudite Française.” Then, after ten years, La Française, then after another 10 years, Anne La Française. Now they call me Anne Vivien. No, I don’t think I have a different approach to business because of my origins. It’s not that I’m French, it’s that I’m my mother’s daughter.  We are a people from the south of France; we are passionate, hot-blooded, we have fire in our bellies, we are in many ways more Mediterranean than French. One of the qualities that I have is that I always look at something from another point of view.  I don’t fit in a box. I think because I am from a small town I still feel I have something to prove.

MZ: There’s no A&R 101 diploma program at University  – how did you get that gig?

AV: After a few years as a Program Director at the indie radio station CIBL in Montreal, BMG asked me to apply for the job of French A&R. I had four interviews. Still not sure how I got hired with only ten English words but I did and then I learned the job under a great Professor, Lisa Zbitnew (President of BMG at the time).   We called her the ‘first lady.’ I spent seven years there, as I think, the only women in A&R with a major at the time.

Then in 2003 Bill St. George and I became co-GM’s of Musicor to release the Star Académie records.  We created a tremendous synergy with those releases and I think it’s fair to say we changed the business. It was kind of a re-birth in Quebec for writers and producers because they now had a stable of performers to write for.  

In  2009 I left Musicor and started a management company to manage Florence K whose career was taking off.  We did so much together, tours, records, books, she hosts a radio show on Radio Canada and I loved working with Florence. I learned a lot as an entrepreneur. Dealing with the all details. But I found I missed the big structure. I missed the synergy of a big team.  I love the big ship.

For example, now if the TVA network has a new TV project we meet and see how we can mix music into the project.  We started this kind of strategy in 2003 and it is wonderful to continue that especially now because everything has changed with globalization. I’m working on a project with a young French artist from Granby who is 11.  She is completely into K-pop, knows nothing about what is going on in France.

MZ:  I’m trying to get a sense as to how synergistic Quebecor is. For example…would you have a voice at the table when casting the judges on TVA’s La Voix?

AV: Of course we discuss La Voix judges with TVA!  The synergy is as strong as this.

MZ:  Would all the judges have to be on your label to get on the show?

AV:  No, not always.  Pierre Karl has a vision that there is a food chain from the beginning to the end. It is not a question of controlling the marketplace; it’s how you use it.  So when I solicit an artist to come to Quebecor, I still have to show that there is a plan, a pipeline.  For example, Lara Fabian is signed to Musicor and is a judge on La Voix. Lara always wanted to write a book, so I called Christian Jetté at the Quebecor publisher Librex.  “Do you have an imprint that would be a good fit for Lara?” Now she has a book deal. As head of the music division, I have to show what is the difference here. For me, Quebecor is a highway.

MZ: In English Canada I often sense that people look at Quebec and are envious of the “star system.” They wonder how they can get that to work in the English territory.

AV: In Quebec we have what we call the “Vedettariat”(star system).  We have a strong culture of People-style magazines, newspapers, etc. I mean look at Marie Mai, when she releases a record she is everywhere, she is a superstar in Quebec. In English Canada, the majority of the references are from the US.

We are so different from any other market in the world. Record sales are stable here, downloading is going down, streaming is going up but not as fast as in other territories.  In our market Spotify is first and then Apple, then Google. There is no Québécois streaming application.  We tried a streaming service called Zik in 2012 and it closed in 2015 because I think it was too soon. We have other ideas for the future. We’re working very hard to ensure that French and Quebec culture has a place in new media.

MZ: In terms of creative and signings how does Musicor differ from other labels in Quebec?

AV: It’s certain that we are a big machine, we have management, publishing, distribution, label, concert production, etc., but we are focused on excellence. I call it “Le Label Premium” we are not underground, we are popular music.  It is a style of music I love and I style I think I know quite a bit about.  To have pop music that is classy, not cheap, that is the mission.

MZ: The boardroom at Quebecor Media is filled with women;  the head of TVA, the head of the Magazine and Newspaper division, the head of the cable and internet business Videotron… all women.  Is there a difference of approach between men and women in a boardroom?

AV: Perhaps. But it depends on the people of course.  I think women work more holistically; we examine the impact of our decisions more globally.  At the end of the day, we ask what will be the common good as opposed to just a personal benefit.  In my opinion, Pierre Karl is a feminist.  He loves working with strong women. He sees these women as the Admirals of the Fleet, he has a real sense of equity and I love his sense of humour. I love working with men… I love working with women… I’m a good sister.

MZ: Over 100 people report to you, what kind of boss are you?

AV: Look, everybody can have a good idea, but it’s all about the execution of these ideas, it has to be well executed. This is the tricky point. Not a lot of people have this talent. So you know I have to motivate people. I think I’m someone who brings people together, I create a team and give them the tools to succeed.

MZ: What are they scared of?

AV:  My silence.

And with that, Vivien was anything but silent as she opened her office door and at the top of her lungs and roared, “Where’s my Mars?  Where’s my Mars? My sugar is dropping!”

Her team laughed and magically two Mars bars appeared.

And then she asked me a question.

AV: Mars bar?


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