Canadian music was heard at last - Keith Roulston editorial
Popular music is forever changing, so the sort of music that was celebrated at the Juno Awards, broadcast last Sunday night, is much different than the music of my youth. Thus, I wasn’t watching as I would have years ago, but I’ll bet the program was an education for younger viewers who were.
You see, the program was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Juno Awards, which celebrates the Canadian music industry, and the role that government played in the establishment of a billion-dollar business. While the awards are nominally named for the Roman goddess, they actually honour Pierre Juneau, who set requirements that music produced by Canadian artists must be played on the nation’s radio stations. Until then, it was rare for Canadians to be heard on our own radios, as station managers happily went along with playing the same American or British artists as stations south of the border.
Nobody likes to be told what to do, of course, especially when some government agency tells you how you must run your business. So there was backlash when Juneau, as chair of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), ruled that AM radio stations must devote 30 per cent of their playlists to music by Canadians.
Predictions of doom and gloom filled the airwaves and the business-oriented press. There wasn’t enough Canadian music to meet the content requirement, some argued. Inferior artists would be getting airplay just because of their birth certificate. Listeners would turn the dial to be able to listen to the foreign stars they wanted to hear rather than the Canadian performers stations were forced to play.
But Juneau’s decision created a Canadian music industry. As Brad Wheeler wrote in The Globe and Mail last week, “Before the quota took effect in 1971... there was hardly a Canadian record industry to speak of. Though the foreign-owned major labels had branch offices in Toronto, their commitment to Canadian talent was negligible.”
He quoted Alexander Mair, who co-launched the independent label Attic Records in 1974: “To them, the offices were here just to distribute American and British hits.”
Sunday’s show included performers and presenters who are now international stars: people like Justin Bieber, Jann Arden, Jully Black, Shania Twain, Michael Bublé, Alessia Cara and The Tragically Hip with Leslie Feist. But as Wheeler writes: “It’s easy to say now that we’d listen to those artists regardless of their passport. But without Cancon helping to build the industry over the past 50 years, their careers were anything but inevitable.”
Canada’s music industry may have exploded thanks to Canadian content rulings, but that doesn’t make the regulations any more popular today than they were 50 years ago. Now the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) wants the quota cut to 25 per cent (down from the 35 quota per cent that was adopted 25 years ago). According to the CAB, Canadians listen to 10 to 12 per cent Canadian music on streaming services. A reduction in required Canadian music would bring the percentage closer in line with those listening habits, the CAB argues. “It’s still substantial airplay,” the group’s president Kevin Desjardins told The Globe and Mail.
Technology and consumer preferences have changed over a half-century. Terrestrial radio is losing audience share to streaming platforms such as Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music, which operate in this country without those Canadian content rules. To close that gap, the Liberal government is proposing Bill C-10 to update the Broadcasting Act in an effort to regulate online streaming services.
I grew up in a time when it was almost impossible to buy a record by a Canadian singer or musician. CBC, on both radio and television, did its best to give Canadian performers like The Guess Who, David Foster and Anne Murray an audience, but it could only go so far.
After Canada’s Centennial celebrations raised pride in our country, there was a new hunger for things Canadian, from music to theatre. The emergence of Pierre Trudeau, a young Prime Minister with international star power after what seemed like an eternity of bickering old men, also gave Canadians new confidence. It was the current Prime Minister’s father who encouraged Juneau to set the quota. (Huron County native Harry J. Boyle was Juneau’s vice-chairman at the CRTC.)
Many people have lost faith in government to really change things for the better. Others want government to just get out of the way and let the creativity of business leaders flourish. The 50th anniversary of the Juno Awards, however, shows how smart government decisions can also allow creators like the nation’s musicians also get a chance to prove their worth.