This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

January-February 2014

Radio star

Mason Wright@thismason

By Timothy King (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

New FM airwaves lack distinct Canadian sound—and that’s a good thing

By the time you read this, the newest entry into Toronto’s FM radio marketplace will be running at full power, armed with a signal boost obtained in November, two months after its launch.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the owners of Indie88 are making their big bet on radio. On-demand subscription services have emerged to challenge mp3 downloads as the music delivery method of the future, but radio remains popular in the present. According to CRTC’s latest annual report, the average Canadian listens to 17.5 hours of radio per week.

Radio also remains the most popular means of music discovery, according to Nielsen, which found that 61 percent of Canadian consumers rely on terrestrial radio for finding something new to love.

For Canadian artists, the coming of Indie88 has to be considered good news. For one thing, the CRTC made it a condition of Indie88’s licence that it must contribute $2-million over seven years to the development of Canadian content, over and above the small percentage of revenue the Broadcasting Act requires any licensee to contribute.

And of course, Indie88 is subject to those infamous Canadian content requirements, also known as CanCon. This means 40 percent of the music the station plays must be Canadian, of which 60 percent must meet the CRTC’s idea of emerging Canadian artists (a lengthy definition based on how much chart success an artist has gained).

The infamy associated with CanCon most commonly stems from the debate over whether the requirements favour foreign broadcasters, most of them broadcasting online, who don’t need CRTC approval to be heard by Canadians. CRTC-regulated broadcasters complain that CanCon requirements restrict their ability to deliver more popular music to their listeners, costing them audience and ad revenue. Every so often, they attempt to get those requirements reduced to a lower threshold than the usual 35 percent.

It’s an argument with no merit from any perspective aside from the profit motive. But Canadian content requirements need to be re-examined nevertheless. Yes, the rules still play an important role in helping artists to break out on the scene, to be heard amid a foreign-dominated landscape and to succeed financially. (Some of the money broadcasters are required to contribute to help Canadian artists develop is no doubt being used to fill gas tanks on cross-country tours.)

Where CanCon falls down, perhaps as a victim of its own past success, is in its cultural impacts. More than ever before, with Canadians thriving in every possible genre, it’s difficult to identify a distinctly Canadian sound.

This is not a bad thing. Think about today’s music landscape in Canada. Unlike in the 1970s, the first full decade of CanCon requirements, we now have a mature scene full of creative artists who tour internationally, boutique labels with influence and full rosters, and a respected, merit-based annual award called the Polaris prize.

All this in a global context where any given artist’s musical influences are as likely to be from across the Atlantic as down the road. Like musicians from anywhere, Canadians today are making music for the world.

Take Vancouver-based 2013 Polaris nominee Young Galaxy. With a synth-based and sophisticated yet upbeat sound, Young Galaxy’s peers are CHVRCHES, Austra, and Sally Shapiro—only one of whom is Canadian. Young Galaxy’s go-to producer, Dan Lissvik, is a Swede whose band Studio was an inspiration on the last two albums.

With a few exceptions who sing about Canadian-ness explicitly—guys like Joel Plaskett and the Tragically Hip—you’d have a hard time explaining what is Canadian about most of today’s Canadian music.

And yet, like most of us, I’ve been known to fall into the trap of local boosterism when it comes to Canadian musicians. Call it the CBC Music complex. In the absence of anything in the music that might reflect my experience of Canada, I fall back on false pride based on the fact that an emerging artist hails from a place I only know from seeing its name on a map.

There’s no use in pretending, as CanCon requirements encourage us to do, that the Canadian sound is something that can be identified, let alone trumpeted as a part of our culture. By all means, let’s foster a system that supports and promotes emerging Canadian talent in a financially brutal industry. But I prefer to enjoy that music in a global context, which is why I’m more likely to switch the dial to Indie88 over CBC Radio 2 and its unquestioned nationalism.

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