Register Tuesday | June 18 | 2019

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.

(From McNutt Against the Music. Follow McNutt on Twitter.)

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