Song in my head

Does Cancon still retain a raison d’être in 2006?

Prepared 10 April 2006 for Prof. Emily Gilbert (UNI220Y1Y, University of Toronto).

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Canadian pop performers have arguably seen bleaker days. There once was a time when being heard — and to hail from Winnipeg, Toronto, Montréal, or anywhere else in Canada — meant a due south commitment to establish one’s reputation. Otherwise, radio programming directors dismissed 45 RPM singles for new acts if they hinted at having Canadian origins. That Canadian musical talent could not be taken seriously at home suggested both an internalized sense of national embarrassment and perhaps motive for why several Canadian songwriters and acts first found their foothold by moving to America. But by the mid 1960s, a pair of music industry executives from Toronto chose to challenge this exsanguination of talent. Their efforts ultimately provoked a push to recognize Canadian talent and press for Canadian content mandates.

Thirty-five years later, Canadian music is in a less dire place. Canadian performers have balanced the playing field by staying and branding themselves as unapologetically Canadian, sometimes tongue-in-cheek. There are media incubators where Canadian performers are heard. And an influx of what can be asserted as “clearly Canadian” content has joined a growing cultural narrative for Canada. Through the lens of pop music, this milquetoast image of irrelevance that Canada once internalized is now — through cultural institutions like CanCon and the Juno Awards — one less of shame and more of commanding respect. But as broadcast radio, the medium for which CanCon was devised, is becoming less relevant in the face of podcasts, online radio portals, and peer-to-peer distribution, CanCon’s relevance is questionable: how well it can accommodate the polyphony of new Canadian talent today shall determine whether it will ultimately encourage more artists to the fold or smother them with the musical giants who were once CanCon’s inaugural beneficiaries.

In 1964, around when The Beatles first dominated music charts in North America, the sentiment within Canada regarding promotion of its musical talent was dismissed wholesale. The reasoning was a functionalist one: “We have so many good records available to us from the States that there’s really not much point in doing a great deal of recording up here,” wrote Toronto Telegram’s Jerry Ross (Green, ¶1). This reality was not lost on new talent. With noted exception of Winnipeg’s The Guess Who, Canadian songwriters and musicians were moving south: Robbie Robertson to Woodstock, NY; Leonard Cohen, Paul Anka and Joni Mitchell to New York City; Neil Young and members of Steppenwolf to Los Angeles (Whitburn, 16, 30, 249, 398, 553, 644).

Walt Grealis and Stan Klees were both concerned by this. As recording executives from Toronto who met in high school, Grealis and Klees agreed that widespread industry “trash[ing]” of Canadian music before being aired was self-destructive and detrimental to business (Green, ¶8). In 1964, Grealis launched RPM (short for “Records, Promotion, Music”), a trade publication made for voicing Canadian music industry concerns and tracking airplay charts exclusive to national listener markets. Klees joined RPM in 1971 (Green, ¶9). Initially, Grealis posited that voluntary airing of Canadian records would facilitate the “musical nationalism” Canada needed to promote its artists, but after an experimental idea to distinguish Canadian chart singles with a maple leaf icon — the “Maple Leaf System” — failed (since radio stations continued to ignore Canadian artists), Grealis sparked an editorial debate in RPM endorsing pending federal legislation that would require stations to play 25 percent of programming that was “100 percent Canadian” (Green, ¶17).

This ignited the newly-minted CRTC to open a public hearing in 1969 which in turn triggered regulations for radio stations to play a minimum quota of Canadian-originated recordings. To facilitate this enforcement, CRTC chairman Pierre Juneau introduced the MAPL System. The acronym — “M” for music, “A” for artist, “P” for production, and “L” for lyrics — was fashioned into an integrated, highlighted icon identifying those recordings which met at least two of these criteria to qualify as “Canadian content”, or “CanCon” (Canadian Content Rules, §I). In a way, it was a system predicated on the citizenship of the recording, not nationalistic content.

As a consequence, the sound of radio forcibly changed overnight starting in 1971, but not necessarily as Juneau envisioned. Because CanCon did not specify when these records were to be played, many were relegated to overnight time slots derisively referred to as the “beaver hours” (Beaver Hour, ¶2) — in other words, “the most unlikely times of the day for other Canadians to hear them” (Daniel, 214). Moreover, only the most profitable Canadian artists were being heard — those which had already demonstrated their success in the U.S. (Edwardson, 206).

For some, this was to change. Beginning with Bernie Finkelstein’s True North Records in 1969 (Bruce Cockburn as the label’s first and longest-running artist), the Canadianization of recorded music began to take hold at root level (True North, ¶3; Edwardson, 207). This was in part a response for the industry’s need to meet the “P” component of the MAPL System as more studios were being built. Yet, these new artists risked being blacklisted by radio if they publicly supported CanCon quotas. Such was the case with Stopmin’ Tom Connors, who garnered threats from two major Toronto stations that his music would not be aired if he publicly endorsed CanCon. To his knowledge, Connors noted, “They’ve always kept their word” (Edwardson, 196).

Still, the 1970s emergence of Gino Vannelli, Anne Murray, Chilliwack and Gordon Lightfoot on Canadian radio stations lent direct evidence that quotas were helping new Canadian performers be heard and popularized. Once this first wave of CanCon were established as money-makers for advertisers, however, it became harder for newer artists to make it to the air. Radio stations, by their conservative nature of profit motive, were only playing these “safe-bet” artists in heavy rotation as required by CanCon, while ignoring fledgling new artists (Edwardson, 206). This practice was so pervasive that “if you listened to pop radio in the early seventies, it was easy to believe that Burton Cummings [n.b., lead singer of The Guess Who and later solo hit maker with “Fine State of Affairs” in 1980] was the voice of Canada” (Pevere and Dymond, 71). In effect, this unintended consequence of CanCon quotas hurt both new blood while praising the old, and it failed to stop the exodus of new talent heading elsewhere (Daniel, 236).

The 1980s charts were dominated by Rush, Bryan Adams and Corey Hart, but changing musical trends in punk, post-disco dance, and metal meant demand for CanCon on top 40 stations had to be filled by a new wave of talent. The results were mixed. Some, like Loverboy, Glass Tiger and Aldo Nova, were successful in Canada and the U.S., while others — Rough Trade, Chalk Circle, Martha + The Muffins and Parachute Club — were generally limited to Canadian airwaves, arguably because some of their lyrics brushed against subjects that were regarded as too touchy for American audiences (e.g., queer sexuality, racism, misogyny, criticism of U.S. drug war policy, and so on) (Whitburn, 226, 238, 353–354, 422). Once again, this bias toward established artists over new talent meant that airwaves were generally hostile to newly-signed Canadian artists, especially those who were neither as polished nor as stylistically accessible to mainstream listeners.

By the 1990s, a new generation of artists, the first raised on CanCon radio, stepped forward. But it was a key incident in 1991 which thrust CanCon into the forefront of public consciousness. Bryan Adams released an album which failed to meet the 2-out-of-4 MAPL threshold for CanCon, because only the “A” was represented: Waking Up the Neighbours was produced by a Briton in London, while the lyrics came from non-Canadian songwriters. Adams was outraged, as were broadcasters and record industry executives (LeBlanc [1991], 74). Fledgling artists, however, were and continue to be far less sanguine: “(CanCon) has no effect on me or anyone in my peer group . . . it just means that Bryan Adams will be played twice as much . . . a few people get lucky, but in essence it will make the rich richer and have no effect on the rest of us here,” noted Paul Bellous, Edmontonian singer/songwriter, in 1999 (Kroeker, 50). Nevertheless, CanCon opened a broadcast stage for a lucky few within this newer generation: Barenaked Ladies, Alanis Morissette, Odds, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, k.d. lang, Sarah McLachlan, Len, Prozzäk, Crash Test Dummies, the New Pornographers, Tegan & Sara, Our Lady Peace, and Blue Rodeo are just some.

One name notably absent from this list is Celine Dion. Her situation is a bit different.

While English Canada competed in vain against U.S. performers before CanCon, French Canada was already providing “ample domestic programming to an eager audience” (Edwardson, 210). Further, the matter of relying heavily on CanCon from Québec performers for meeting quotas in English Canada, as well as the promotion of Canadian cultural nationalism through the MAPL System, was stymied by the content itself: it was unabashedly nationalistic, but Québécois- nationalist, not pan-Canadian (Edwardson, 210). This was further supported by the installation of CBC’s Québec studios in Montréal during the 1950s, whose intent was to provide bi-lingual content in the province and to build national unity. What happened instead was CBC’s French programming presence, Radio-Canada, did more to unify Québeckers with a sense of the province- as-nation, rather than Canada-as-nation (Balthazar, 72–73).

The arc of CanCon quotas in Québec, thus, reflected a different cultural reality. Rather than working to unify Canada through its programming content, then-PM Pierre Trudeau considered Radio-Canada’s separatist overtones a failure in CBC’s mandate for programming unity (Edwardson, 211). CanCon, so long as the content was central to either Québec nationalist values or the French language, retained a captive audience, whereas English Canada struggled with apathy to the policy. Considering that Québec required French-language stations to play 65 percent French vocal music aside the then-30 percent CanCon quota, it was inevitable that listeners were presented with a substantially larger share of Canadian artists (both French and English) and more likely to prefer listening to Canadian content over their Anglo counterparts (Mulcahy, 194–195).

Enter Dion. Unlike most Canadian performers, she was “chosen early in her career to be the recipient of a large amount of Federal Canadian money in order to record a ‘high quality’ product which would then be marketed on an international scale” (Kroeker, 51). The money originated from a federal program to help identify emerging Canadian talent. But because she was already hugely successful with her French lyric songs in Québec, the talent program intended to distribute the seed money to several new artists was instead given completely to Dion (Kroeker, 52).

Given her global superstar distinction, one could reliably argue that playing certain Celine Dion songs to fill CanCon quotas may be perfectly within MAPL System provisions, but this defeats wholesale the purpose of playing her domestically — either in Québec or English Canada — when CanCon was devised to give airtime to artists who were being crowded from the radio by non- Canadian acts. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, this perception of Dion monopolizing the radio dial is why concert attendees for Live 8’s Barrie stage in 2005 raucously booed her when she made a pre- recorded, satellite-feed appearance from Las Vegas (CBC Arts, ¶1–11). The perception that she profits from CanCon while having in heavy rotation on her albums American songwriters (Jim Steinman, Diane Warren) and producers who record her in the U.S. could explain the audience’s hostility and, interestingly, may hint at a sense of pride in what it means for them to be Canadian.

CanCon today, for purposes of radio (and television following close behind), may seem endangered, even irrelevant, to some who have been monitoring new modes of music distribution and presentation. Each are replacing the centralized model of bringing audiences together by FM or AM signals with a far more decentralized one. No longer must a listener be bound to what a local program director decides to play on the radio when one today can download podcasts, listen to streaming webcasts, subscribe to satellite radio service, and even file share through means that are less-than-welcomed by powerful recording industry moguls. What has resulted is, according to CBC producer Mark Starowicz, an “atomization” of the audience, as countless niches in programming and offering are now at the listener’s disposal (Taras, 195).

Broadcast radio, however, isn’t dead. One can still find some variety in programming within any given market centre in Canada. At the time this essay was drafted, the CRTC were reviewing CanCon policy, last having done so in 1998 when they increased the quota for English stations from 30 to 35 percent (LeBlanc [2006], 12). Many are predicting an increase to 40 percent this time around, which would reflect the fact that the CRTC have issued a majority of new licences since 1998 requiring those stations to play at least 40 percent (LeBlanc [2006], 12). Like with all previous quota increases, broadcasters are bristling at the prospect. SOCAN, the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, meanwhile, are going a step further, petitioning for a quota minimum of 51 percent (LeBlanc [2006], 12). The aim to preserve diversity in programming variety and ownership is another concern of CRTC this time around, given the rapid de-regulation, consolidation and flattening of variety in American radio over the last 15 years. Also, the reality that CanCon must consider satellite radio and podcasting into its equation make this review a particularly important one for the policy’s future relevance as a cultural “protector”.

As well, the CBC are having to adapt. Acknowledging that traditional radio popularity is waning, the CBC are somewhat hesitantly venturing into new media programming. Their first effort, now six years old, is CBC Radio 3 (Gill, R1). Radio 3 is an interactive spin-off from CBC Radio Two’s popular Saturday night programming, renowned for introducing new music heard previously nowhere else. Radio 3 is unique in that it brings together a sense of “Canadianness” online by recruiting talented web designers from Vancouver, where Radio 3 is produced, while attracting both Canadian listeners abroad and non-Canadian audiences who want to discover the latest currents in this country’s music scene (Gill, R1). Radio 3 is offering a way for people to connect with Canadian content on their own accord, rather than having it chosen for them.

With Nickelback and Avril Lavigne seemingly around every station corner today, the four- point MAPL System could benefit from trebling its scale to twelve points, where six points (instead of two) would be the minimum criteria for CanCon-qualified airplay. As a Canadian performer’s success increases, the value of their points dilute proportionate to record sales. For example, if an artist/writer with six points (three per category) sells 50,000 copies of an album, then this threshold may trigger a single-point loss to each of the two MAPL categories, reducing the weight to four. If the album hits 100,000, another point for each is lost. And if the album hits one million copies (only a select few have done this), then all points are stripped. This isn’t to penalize a Canadian performer. Rather, it bequeaths the very air time which helped their success to promote new generations of talent. This, however, is a highly controversial proposition, given that it works against the entire premise for commercial radio stations to “play it safe” with the familiar.

CanCon, as it is, may be an endangered species. By the same token, its impact is undeniable: where once Canadian talent was next to mute on Canadian radio, it is now impossible to avoid running into Canadian music when scanning the dial. This is, on its face, a step in the right direction for incubating domestic talent (some would still derisively call this “protectionist” in a globalized entertainment industry). But if such policy is to continue, then a way must be found to give new artists a place to be heard. How this is will happen is something around which there is no widespread consensus, and without the CRTC continuing to promulgate further CanCon policy, this is not liable to change.


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