RIP: Former PolyGram Canada President Peter Erdmann
Peter Erdmann (far right), president of PolyGram Records Canada from 1981 through 1992, died of heart failure at his home in Hemmingford, QC on October 20. He was 88. Pictured here with the McGarrigle sisters.
By David Farrell
Peter Erdmann, president of PolyGram Records Canada from 1981 through 1992, died of heart failure at his home in Hemmingford, QC on October 20. He was 88.
During his professional career, he held increasingly senior financial positions with the company in Berlin, Paris, Tokyo, Vienna, and London, joining the Canadian division in Montreal in 1976 as VP, Finance. He was named President in 1981.
Although his background was in finance, his motivational drive was in licensing and acquisitions and his international background allowed him to acquire a rich trove of friendships that would pay in dividends when he took over the reins of the Canadian operations.
Born in Germany, Peter's father Ernst Richard was a violoncellist with an established orchestra in Oldenburg who was successful in protecting his family during the war years by hiding the fact that there was Jewish blood in his ancestry.
Growing up in the shadow of war-torn Germany as a boy, Peter Erdmann was first hired as an accounting apprentice with German manufacturing giant Siemens in 1952, moved to Deutsche Grammophon in 1955 and then to PolyGram in 1960. He accelerated through the ranks to senior executive level and his first post in Canada was as VP Finance in 19767, under the gaze of then-president, Tim Harrold.
One of the many attributes that helped power his career was a gift of leadership and empowering people to make decisions for themselves. Former rack-jobber Leonard Kennedy remembers two occasions in dealing with Erdmann and being surprised by his unconventional style in not pushing him about his dealings with the company, preferring instead that those details be discussed with his VP of Marketing & Sales, Dieter Radecki, and Ontario branch manager Ken Graydon.
Former VP Bob Ansell praises Erdmann’s unconventional style in giving him a lot of autonomy – and, importantly for green-lighting a deal to bring Beggars Banquet to the Canadian label’s sales and marketing arm. The then-nascent Beggars group of labels came just as Virgin Records became a standalone operation in Canada under Bob Muir in 1983. Erdmann’s relationship with Virgin owner Richard Branson allowed them to keep distribution for the label. Ansell went on to run Beggars operations in Canada, a deal that has achieved well in excess of 3-million album sales just with premier artist Adele.
During his tenure, ably assisted by Ansell, the company arguably became the front-runner in what is now called the “new music” with an enviable roster of acts from distributed or company affiliated-labels that included Billy Bragg, Human League, XTC, PIL, The Motors, Simple Minds, Dexys Midnight Runners, Tears For Fears, OMD, the Pixies, Dire Straits (whose 1985 album Brothers In Arms would become a million-seller in Canada), Soft Cell, Martha and the Muffins (Echo Beach), The Box (through Alert Records) and Gino Vannelli (Black Cars).
The company was also a powerhouse in the rock field with successive hits from acts such as the Cult, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, John Mellencamp and Kiss.
Erdmann was on the ball in acquiring the first two Harmonium albums when Quality Records ceased operation. Those two recordings (Harmonium and Les Cinq Saisons) continue to sell briskly 40-plus years later.
There was also a very successful relationship with Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, Diane Tell and the McGarrigle Sisters, who Erdmann courted and signed.
Through his tenure, he saw the company evolve from being a music company that was overly reliant on classical and MOR repertoire to a hit-driven powerhouse, from an era when skid loads of LPs were being shipped to the reinvention of music sales with the reconfiguration of the format from vinyl to CD and the digital cassette.
He retired rather than move to Toronto when the company was bought by Universal Music in 1990 and settled comfortably into his “paradise," an acreage in Hemmingford where he kept horses, developed an interest in woodworking, and took joy in playing classical pieces on piano, violin and bass.
He was anything but conventional. He could play the part when needed but was oftentimes seen in the Montreal head-office wearing a well-worn cardigan and his favourite pair of corduroys that had shrunk above the ankles. He was a big picture executive who once told his daughter Florence that he considered his gift for finance to be “utterly dull”.
He relished his associations with creatives. Bob Ansell remembers coming into Erdmann’s office one day and finding Dave Clark (of the Dave Clark Five) in conversation with him. He was friends with famed impresario and manager Giorgio Gomelsky and tells of protracted negotiations with the Who’s manager Kit Lambert to keep the group with Polydor in the UK after their contract elapsed. He was successful. The story and many others are contained in a private memoir he had published for his family, entitled For the Record.
Ansell describes him as “a very special person… creative and a rebel within the PolyGram Group. And he took PolyGram Canada through some pretty tough times."
Radecki, too, acknowledges that he was drawn to the creative A&R side of the business. Daughter Florence acknowledges this too, but notes that he was uncomfortable with some of the excesses that headlining groups affiliated with the company expected when they came to town.
On a humorous side, peer Ross Reynolds, himself president of what was then known as MCA Records (Canada), recalls a time when he and his wife Jane joined the Erdmanns’ (wife Bruni and their children) on a summer vacation.
”Jane and I got to know Peter and his family well when they joined us (as guests) at a dude ranch owned by some relatives of mine in Wyoming. I was met with some very strange looks when I was telling a transplanted English music journalist about what a wonderful time my then-teenage son had with Peter’s two very attractive daughters. It was years later that I found out that the journalist thought I had said 'nude' ranch and not 'dude' ranch. That vacation led to some lovely times together at their farm and our cottage in Maine.”
Peter Erdmann was anything but a by-the-book finance executive and he will be sorely missed by family and his many friends.
He is survived by his wife Bruni and daughters Florence and Joanna. Due to current restrictions, the family has no immediate plan for a remembrance gathering.
For the Record: Peter Erdmann replaced Tim Harrold who went on to become PolyGram Classics chairman and a PolyGram group executive VP; Dieter Radecki became VP for catalogue and marketing development with PolyGram International, and Erdmann’s replacement was Tim Rooney who took over as president of PolyGram Canada after serving in a similar position with the company’s Brazilian division.