The decline and demise of music television in Canada

I am generation MuchMusic.

How could I not be? I came of age in the late 1990s CanRock boom, an era where bands like The Tragically Hip and Our Lady Peace could pack outdoor shows and when a bill of Moist and the Matthew Good Band could justify an arena tour. Without a modern rock radio station in Halifax – our local “classic rock” station only played new music occasionally as a token gesture of sorts – I lived and breathed by MuchMusic. I would cheer when my favourite bands reached the top of the MuchMusic Countdown. Each Intimate & Interactive was a genuine event, a uniquely Canadian concert featuring some of the biggest names in alternative music. And every Friday night I could manage, I would stay up late to catch The Wedge, where all the weirdest and wonderful videos ended up.

All of this seems charmingly antiquated a decade later. Once a venerable institution that arguably did more to build a Canadian music industry than commercial radio ever did, today Much – it’s long dropped the “Music” moniker in the brand name – appears exhausted, tired of being on the front lines of the music industry’s battle for relevancy. Much (and its sister station, MuchMore), seem as inessential to today’s youth as it was essential to me when I was their age, a sad echo of what once was.

And it’s about to get a whole lot sadder.

As reported by the Torontoist, CTV Globemedia – which now owns MuchMusic and its related stations – has applied to the CRTC for a number of dramatic changes to their broadcasting license. The key asks:

  • Drop the minimum airing time of music videos from 50% of airtime to 25%
  • Count “music video programs” (like the abhorrent Video on Trial) towards that requirement
  • Increase airtime allotted for dramatic series and cartoons from 15% to 20%
  • Increase airtime allotted for movies from six hours to 10% (approximately 16 hours)
  • Decrease Canadian content requirement from 60% to 55%, and abolish the requirement that half of prime time (6 p.m. to midnight) be Canadian content
  • Cut by half the amount of money the network is required to contribute to MuchFACT, a fund used to support the production of Canadian music videos.

The headline-grabbing request – halving the amount of time spent for music videos – isn’t surprising given the state of the network today. With the exception of MuchonDemand, there are no music video programs in prime time anymore. Taking their place are reruns of teen shows like The O.C. and Secret Life of the American Teenager, or cheap-to-produce custom shows like Video on Trial. MuchMore has actually created a program called The Daily Fix as their one-stop shop for music videos – that way, the rest of their primetime lineup can be spent on reality-based shows like Sober House, Gene Simmons Family Jewels and the like.

The fact is that Much hasn’t been in the music video business for a long time. Now they’re asking the CRTC to officially sanction their abandonment of the format.

CTV’s argument is two-fold. The first is that because videos are available through other sources – ie. the Internet – they no longer distinguish the service. The second is that there simply aren’t as many music videos being made anymore. And on the surface, it’s easy to sympathize with both arguments. After all, music video arrived just at the dawn of an industry golden age, with the rise of the CD creating a new cash flow for major labels and MTV/MuchMusic providing a hip, new – and monopolistic – format to reach an entire generation hungry for image and style. Now, instead of waiting on the couch for their favourite music video to come on, today’s teens can simply sit down at their computer and cue it up on YouTube.

But there’s also something distressingly disingenuous about CTV’s assertions. The company is acting as if it’s entirely at the mercy of external forces beyond its control, when the reality is decidedly more complicated.

After all, it’s not like there has always been audience demand for music video. When they launched in the early 1980s, both MTV and MuchMusic couldn’t afford to just sit back and hope that viewers would be interested in a 24-hour music video station. They had to make an argument for why music video mattered. They had to demonstrate that they were cool. They had to push boundaries. They had to fight for their relevancy.

They did so, at first, with whatever they could. Part of the appeal of the early days of MuchMusic is that the network was so desperate for Canadian content that pretty much any band that could put together a video was likely to get airplay. Books such as Ryan Edwardson’s Canuck Rock and Michael Barclay, Ian Jack and Jason Schneider’s Have Not Been the Same – the definitive text on the rise of Canadian alternative music – explore just how important the station was in the rise of artists like Blue Rodeo, k.d. lang and the Pursuit of Happiness.* Less burdened by the collusion and payola that has always crippled radio, MuchMusic was crucial in building national identity for Canadian musicians, breaking down local barriers and allowing artists to tour the country and play to audiences from St. John’s to Victoria.

* Quick aside: I neglect to mention Kip Pegley’s Coming to You From Wherever You Are – which looks at the role that MuchMusic and MTV played in forming youth identities – because I haven’t read it yet, but it’s near the top of my summer reading list.

Yes, the station’s success is owed in no small part to its monopoly on the format. And no 21st century kid is going to sit in front of their television for hours waiting for their favourite video to air. But that’s hardly the only reason we watched MuchMusic, just as that wasn’t the only reason we listened to radio (when it wasn’t shite). We watched MuchMusic because the bands we loved were there, and because our friends were watching for the same reason. We wanted to be part of something collective, something shared.

MuchMusic mattered because music video mattered. And music video only mattered because MuchMusic convinced us that it mattered.

When challenged by the Internet’s paradigm shift, MuchMusic didn’t change its argument for why it mattered; it simply stopped arguing. I used to visit the station’s website to see what videos were breaking into rotation; over time, the weekly flood became a trickle to the point where it simply didn’t matter anymore. As Internet blogs and websites like Pitchfork demonstrated an increasing audience interest in alternative sounds, MuchMusic’s playlists became even more conservative. It responded to an increasingly demassified world by continuing to restrict its music programming to the most massified sounds. And, of course, it eventually began filling its schedule with non-music programming.

And that’s the greatest irony of all, isn’t it? CTV is arguing that the Internet has made it so that music videos no longer distinguish MuchMusic, which begs the question: what DOES distinguish MuchMusic? Reruns of other stations’ series? Lifestyle programs? Reality shows? Much has no identity – it’s an amalgam of programming ostensibly for teens that doesn’t even speak to the generation it claims to speak for.

But as much as I would relish the CRTC’s denial of the application, I’m not really sure they can do so. CTV has already done such a good job making music video television irrelevant within the existing framework that the harms in allowing them to go further really aren’t much greater (aside from the cuts to MuchFACT, which is a point where I hope the CRTC does stand up to CTV). The damage is already done, the strategic direction already decided. Music television is already dead in Canada. The CRTC is not being asked to assist in the suicide but to declare the subject – generation MuchMusic – deceased.

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8 responses to “The decline and demise of music television in Canada

  1. Great read, Ryan.

    In the same way that I used to get excited about hearing songs whose albums I already owned on the radio, MuchMusic validated my tastes by playing videos of songs I loved. I found there was something subtly uniting about having someone else — someone in charge of something — choose to play your favourite video.

    This slow death by questionably-categorized-as-music and outright non-music programming makes me wonder what will become of Much in the end.

  2. An excellent piece, Ryan – and I like the Age of Electric at the end, too.

    What are your thoughts on the Canadian alternative artist’s current relationship with MM today? i.e., Has it got to the point where today’s artists will naturally to overlook Much when it comes to nurturing a product for a “local”/”national” audience (don’t mind the scarequotes)? Is there any redeeming value for the Canadian artist at Much any more? (I would suggest there isn’t..)

  3. This represents the end of the line for music video in North America, as it’s already long gone on my side of the border. The “back when MTV played music videos” is an amusing meme I’ve used before, but also a sad one. Then MTV2 was supposed to play music, until it stopped (with the exception of a rap countdown in which, I once checked, 18 of the 20 videos used women as merely scantily clad decorative objects, like so many lampshades). When I first got digital cable, VH1 Classic briefly offered a wonderful reprieve, but now they specialize in low-grade movies with a vague music connection. And Fuse, which long taunted MTV for its move away from music videos, now is no better. A maddening cycle.

    I’d thought Much was a holdout until last year when, in Toronto for a Matt Good show, I switched on the station to see it had become the Canadian version of MTV Lame. It was like that final passage in Animal Farm where one looks from pig to man and man to pig and realized I could no longer tell which was which. They are all in the mud now.

  4. Michael, I’m struggling to think of a band that has been “broken” by music video in Canada in the past few years. The closest I can think of is Marianas Trench, and even then I’d suggest that its an open question how much of an impact video had on that process. There’s so little airtime devoted to video that the likelihood of a band’s getting into Much’s rotation making a huge impact on their career is much less than it was in the past.

    Tim, I concur…I’ve started to read the book that I mentioned (Coming to You From Wherever You Are) and it mostly consists of a comparison of Much and MTV circa 1995. Reading over the author’s interpretation of the differences, it’s amazing how many of them have been erased, to my mind, over the 15 years since.

  5. Great stuff. Like you, I spent a good part of my teen years following MuchMusic to find out about new music (Edmonton had 2 classic rock stations that played new music that sounded old, and a Top 40 station, but nothing in between at the time). Though the predominance of Much in shaping my music tastest started to decline in high school as I discovered things like streaming radio on the internet and MP3s, it was still, into the early 2000s the best place to find out about new Canadian music, and where I discovered many of my favourite bands.

    I stopped watching eventually, a combination of time constraints, and the spread of options on the internet. I have no doubt that poses a challenge for MuchMusic, but like with decline of newspapers, for example, I feel they’re too quick to blame a new medium and not accept responsibility for putting forward a lesser product. People will pay attention to a good quality product, regardless of the medium, and it would still be possibly to run a successful music video channel.

    Your point at the end is right on the money – the MuchMusic many of us knew and loved in our youth has been a relic for many years.

    One final point – let’s not forget about its role in launching the career of on-air talent like Erica Ehm (admittedly before my time) and George Stromboulopoulos, who got their first big exposure as VJs on the station.

  6. A number of good points. Much was really THE music source for so long, but it’s been in such a steady (and readily apparent) decline that I wouldn’t mourn it even more officially not being a music station.

    These days, it’s rather abhorrent as a platform for Canadian artists. Their Canadian content tends to be the most bland, mainstream fare they can peddle–or artists they’ve taken an active interest in promoting and starmaking, like those featured in disBand–even if there are popular artists (some alternative, some not) in Canada with marketable sounds and notable popularity. If Much today was still the MuchMusic of yore, I would imagine you would be able to see a lot more Metric, etc.

    Also, I find it ironic that, with all their efforts to shift away from music, they still support quite possibly the most antiquated music format remaining, the compilation CD…

  7. Pingback: …in which McNutt liveblogs the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards « McNutt Against the Music·

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