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Stereo Freeze 8.04

August 5, 2009

The third part in the series, this article continues on looking at music media in Canada, with a focus on everyone’s favourite…Cancon regulations!

35%: The Cancon Debate, Unchanged?

Alright, so this is a huge topic that I don’t have the space or time to pursue here very deeply. It is something that we’ve all had some experience with though, as it significantly affects what we see and hear in this country. Again, it’s such a large issue that one has to choose specific arguments to follow in order to not get lost in any number of other ones. Therefore, pursuing the same thread as the last few articles, we’ll be looking at media representation for new and/or outside artists, and, ultimately, what Cancon regulations are doing in that respect within today’s climate.

At one time (actually, for a long time) playing Canadian music was no doubt a bit of a chore for some broadcasters. There were limited resources, but it was something that had to be done, there were laws that stated so. That’s not to say that there weren’t good artists people wanted to play, but let’s be honest, not everyone played in order to meet the percentages would have been otherwise. Nevertheless, the musical climate has changed a great deal in this country, and that begs the question: where are we with all of this Cancon business now? Since the establishment of CRTC content regulations for Canadian broadcasters at the end of the sixties, the purposed goal has been to ensure that Canadian artists get airtime, to ensure that Canadian cultural statements don’t get left out in favour of American ones, and to foster some manner of national identity in this country’s film and music as well as a Canadian-based industry to support said outlets. Canada isn’t the only country to implement such content legislation, of course, there are many other countries that use similar systems, but our situation was such that the world’s largest entertainment industry was right next door cranking out product and was, as some thought, threatening to swallow Canada’s output and obscure its identity. The thing about that was, Canada’s output was rather small and its industry quite undeveloped in comparison.

Now, there has been criticism of the regulations since their enactment, and it’s not likely that we can add anything new here, but, we don’t really need to, as the same old arguments are still pertinent. We can still ask, for instance, what do the Cancon regulations really do? Do they help expose Canadian artists, or do they just reinforce corporate broadcasting standards and cultivate a small, insular national industry? In adding a contemporary perspective to the issue, we must take into account the state of the industry nowadays, and the fact that corporate broadcasting no longer occupies the same place it once did. With so much happening online now, outside of broadcasting outlets, are the regulations doing much for anyone anymore? Terrestrial broadcasting may not count for much anymore, but even so, if Cancon regulation was ever supposed to help expose Canadian artists, it’s never done that good a job. Many a band has been supported by the regulations, sure, but how many of them ever got recognised outside of Canada, or even had that much success here, for that matter? Canadian music in the eighties is the best example of that I can think of. For, as Elaine Keillor points out a number of times in her text Music in Canada (worth the read if you have the time), this country has had a long history of poor awareness of and interaction with its artistic output, which lead to something of an identity deficiency for many years, despite there being broadcast regulations in place that were intended to prevent that.

In the pop music context, until the early nineties there were a whole lot of bands being played that seemed like they were created by and for Canadian media. They had no relevance outside of Canada, barely any within, and were played because they were there and broadcasters had quotas to fill. Bands like that came and went all throughout the eighties and nineties, actually, most of them just Canadian analogues to American or English trends, but what was happening by 1991 was that Canadian indie was really coming into its own. Whole new sets of groups and labels started coming up largely outside of the mainstream media, receiving only marginal benefit (if any at all) from Cancon regulation. At that point, not much attention was given to the new bands in the media, but, nevertheless, many of them managed to be extremely influential on the generations of bands that followed and are still total fan favourites, even outside of Canada in some cases. Fast forward ten years from there and it’s a whole different game. The internet has completely changed the way things work, and national promotion, distribution, and networking are easier than ever, and there are numerous groups getting attention all over the world. Canadian music is no longer (if it ever even was) in danger of being swallowed up, even though we’re still inundated by American and English acts. Plus, more importantly, there’s more cohesion in a national context now, and we’re getting to hear bands from all over the country, which was totally not the case for a long time. But here’s a question: did Cancon regulation enable that to any extent? Canada’s musical awakening in the last fifteen or so years has gone largely unsupported by mainstream media, and especially now, when some groups are getting kind of big in our industry, others are finding international success on another route altogether, not bothering with the old way of broadcast promotions. It’s all changed, but the regulations haven’t.

In the end, broadcast regulations help those artists who get on broadcasts, and being that for so long there were only a couple of media outlets that broadcasted to the entire country, and their playlists very rarely included anything outside of the industry comfort zone, certain artists benefited much more than others, and many simply went ignored. In some ways, little has changed, but good stuff always finds its way out one way or another, and to say that Cancon regulations have had no positive effect at all would be erroneous. Campus/community broadcasters, for example, undoubtedly helped cultivate something significant as a result of mandates stipulating they play Canadian artists, particularly the new or challenging ones that nobody else was interested in, thereby establishing a network of indie labels, stations and listeners nationwide long before the internet ever came into play. The problem was, though, if you didn’t live in a town that had a community or campus station, or a town where touring bands played, you missed out. For those of us that grew up in small towns, however, there were still options, which Cancon regulations certainly had a hand in, namely, the few CBC programs that highlighted the new and underground, as well as similar programs on Muchmusic. And that, particularly the latter, will be our topic next time.

If you’re interested in how the regulations are laid out officially, it’s worth taking a look at the CRTC website.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. August 5, 2009 9:50 am

    I tend to agree, I think it’s time for the training wheels to come off. Probably not all at once, but I’d like to see SOCAN gradually reduce broadcast quotas with the goal of eventually eliminating them. I also think it behooves CC stations to implement other kinds of unofficial quotas, especially considering the way Radio3 has cornered the market on “independent’ music… for things like local, female, and [legitimately] independent artists. Not to strictly enforce such things (nobody should lose their show if they don’t play any local music), but a situation where programmers who make an effort to play otherwise underrepresented content would get preferential treatment from their station..? I’m talking out of my ass.

    On a related note: as an indie promoter with no money, I live in fear of the day SOCAN comes calling and looking for their fees. I posted about this story a while ago and it’s terrifying to think that regardless of if you already paid artists directly for their performance, SOCAN can still demand thousands of dollars in fees years after the fact.

    • passerine songs permalink*
      August 5, 2009 1:14 pm

      For sure, other quotas. Female, LGBTQ, local, and First Nations content for example, plus any number of music genres that aren’t rock could benefit from more exposure.

      I left satellite radio out of this because I don’t really know how the regulations work there. Do you?

      SOCAN, oi, I have nothing good to say about any of that.

      • August 5, 2009 7:39 pm

        No, I have no idea what the regulations are for satellite radio. Trip has Sirius in his car, and the vast majority of streams are American. There are a couple of CBC ones, but that’s it.

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