A Former Hater Comes Clean - The JUNO Awards

First, a confession: I am a former CanCon hater. Not of the music or the acts but of the CRTC rules forced on us radio types. The idea of quotas taking precedence over quality art — that’s how many of us viewed CanCon — was anathema to broadcasting sensibilities. “You’re forcing us to play music our audience doesn’t want to hear!” we cried. “This is a recipe for ratings disasters!”

And since I’m coming clean, I’ll admit to giving presentations during which I compared CanCon to having to devote a big portion of every dinner plate to broccoli. “But I don’t like broccoli!” “Quiet. It’s good for you. If you have enough, you might even learn to like it. Besides, we need to help broccoli farmers. It’s your patriotic duty to eat it.”

Now, though, I fully and completely acknowledge my errors and lack of faith.

When the CanCon rules for radio came into effect on January 18, 1971, they not only constituted a cultural strategy but also laid out a long-term vision for the future. Back then, Canada barely had a functioning music industry: too few recording studios; a lack of promoters, managers and producers; a tiny collection of domestic record labels; a steady brain drain of talent to the United States; and a general (if unfair) sense that Canadian music was inferior to that from other countries. 

Canadian musicians had a hard time making it onto radio because they lacked the tools and resources to hone their craft. And because radio balked at playing Canadian material, there was no opportunity to compete with the best in the world. All the attention given to American and British music was smothering Canadian music in the crib.

But from that day fifty years ago, radio stations were required to devote 30 percent of their playlists to domestic artists, with a song’s Canadian-ness determined by the CRTC’s new MAPL (Music, Artist, Lyrics, Performance) system. As a result of this instant demand for new product, the infrastructure of a modern recorded music industry needed to be built. 

Pierre Juneau, chairman of the Canadian Radio-Television Commission, addressed regulations to increase Canadian content in programs (Frank Lennon/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Such bold endeavours take time and will also inevitably encounter resistance as well as subtle attempts at sabotage. Old-time radio people will remember “beaver hours” — usually between 11 pm and midnight — when radio stations played severe edits of Canadian songs, cramming 20 to 30 tracks into those 60 minutes, thereby going a long way towards meeting daily and weekly CanCon quotas without having to play this music during primetime hours. (The CRTC quickly got wise to the practice and eventually modified the rules to prevent such shenanigans.)

And let’s be honest. As we were figuring things out back in the ’70s and even into the early ’80s, a lot of substandard stuff made it to air only because of the quotas. There were plenty of exceptions, of course, but a stigma surrounded Canadian music.

But then a strange thing began to happen. The long-term vision of a strong domestic music industry started to be realized. As we moved into the ’80s, CanCon was still viewed by many radio types as a necessary evil, but the music was definitely getting better. In 1982, FACTOR was established, giving domestic artists a leg-up financially. VideoFACT followed with the debut of MuchMusic in 1984, which had its own CanCon rules to follow.

The one-two punch of radio and MuchMusic brought more Canadian music into the lives of Canadians. Artists were able to establish solid domestic careers and, in some cases, even find international success without having to move to the U.S. Fans started embracing our artists not because they were Canadian but because they were talented. And radio recognized that playing CanCon could actually be good for business.

Then came the ’90s with a flood of new acts that not only flourished from coast-to-coast, but also found traction outside the country. Big props to Generation X for supporting the CanRock revolution (The Tragically Hip, Our Lady Peace, the Tea Party and dozens of others), a new domestic hip-hop scene (Maestro Fresh Wes, Snow), a strong country music community (hello, Shania Twain!), some monster pop stars (Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion) and former alternative outliers (Sarah McLachlan) who were embraced by everyone. 

By the end of the ’90s, Canadians were not just tolerating Canadian music but demanding it. Acceptance was so strong that when the CanCon quota was raised to 35 percent on January 3, 1999, almost no one noticed. Since 2000, most new station applications have promised to take that to 40 percent. No one would make such a pledge if they didn’t think such a mix of music would work.

We now punch far, far, above our weight class when it comes to exporting superstar acts to the rest of the planet. Canada is consistently the fifth or sixth biggest music market in the world, battling it out with Australia — which, by the way, is another country that has benefited from domestic music quotas. 

Are there still problems with our CanCon rules? Absolutely. Because the quotas stretch across all formats, it’s been difficult for oldies radio to gain traction in the country. There just aren’t enough great Canadian oldies to meet a 35 percent quota, so oldies stations, like classic rock outlets, end up playing Neil Young and Bachman-Turner Overdrive one more time, burning out title after title with audiences. And what do we do about the Internet, especially foreign-based streaming music services, which only siphon money out of the country without making the same investments in Canadian talent as domestic media companies?

And the robustness of our system is also its weakness. With so many institutions and organizations sustained and empowered by the CanCon system, there is always going to be plenty of resistance to change because no one is going to agree to put themselves out of a job. Any mention of modifying the rules for radio — say, a slight decrease for stations that focus on older music or additional credit for taking risks by playing unfamiliar emerging artists —immediately becomes a white-hot political and cultural potato. 

But we’ll figure it out. We’ve become too good at making music not to. 

Featured Image: The Tragically Hip perform at The 2005 JUNO Awards, after being inducted into The Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Credit: CARAS/iPhoto.