Sick of shania? Sick of Bryan Adams? Then surely you're familiar with a little ditty that goes something like this: Kid is inspired by a tune on the tube and gets a musical instrument. A couple of buddies and a few song-and-shower sessions later, kid has a freshly formed band with a kick-ass song list ready for NXNE, the ACC or Glastonbury.
If you know the song, then you know the record skips right about here. That skip is the sound of a marketing dead end. How to get heard in the vast American-dominated noise out there?
For the past three decades, this problem was supposed to have been solved by government-fostered Canadian content regs. But while local bars overflow with unheard-of talents, radio stations fulfill CanCon requirements by cramming the waves with music by the few Canucks who've gone big internationally.
The legislation fails to stipulate how many artists it takes to make up the minimum 35 per cent, resulting in a watered-down Can-Con that sounds more like Chad KroegerCon or Sarah McLachlanCon, or the worst Con of all, Celine DionCon.
That's what the newly formed Canadian Independent Recording Artists' Association (CIRAA), a lobby group that represents indie artists without major record distributors, is aiming to change. The org recently launched a campaign urging the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to revamp the current requirements by instituting a point system. They're hoping that radio stations - which strum to the tune of a melodious bottom line - will be willing to trade overplayed Shania Twain and Celine Dion numbers for new songs from developing Canadian acts.
But just as the proposal is starting to get a buzz in indieland, many suspect it's way too late to matter. New technologies - Internet broadcasting and downloading and satellite radio - are threatening to finish what music videos started two decades ago, turning analog radio into a bit player. CIRAA's proposed point system revolutionizes the 35 per cent CanCon requirement by giving an extra premium to airplay for new artists. According to the CIRAA code, hits by international megastars (think Avril Lavigne, Rush) would get a .75 CanCon credit for each piece played, those of established artists (Tea Party, Sum 41) would net 1, and those of songsters with national reps, like Kathleen Edwards and Arcade Fire, 1.25. Here's the indie part: the works of developing artists without a major label distributor would score a plum of 1.50.
Sounds good, right? Wouldn't it be cool to hear Masia One or Matt Yorke on the radio instead of Bryan Adams for the 15th time? Byrnes Media radio consultant Greg Diamond thinks so, but says this isn't the way to do it.
"To penalize a station because Sum 41 have an international hit isn't right. [Radio] brought that band from the basement right through to international stardom. Why do they have to be penalized for that? That doesn't make sense to me."
Gregg Terrence of CIRAA disagrees. In the current context, he says, "If you play Sarah McLachlan or Barenaked Ladies or Shania Twain, you get the same credit as playing Ron Sexsmith, so why the hell are you gonna play Ron Sexsmith? There's no incentive to play a lesser-known band."
Sexsmith, however, with eight records and almost zero radio presence except for CBC, says radio lost its appeal long ago. "I've gotten used to not having any radio, so it doesn't really matter to me.' Though he tours constantly, Sexsmith acknowledges it'd be nice to get airplay, and an indie industry bigwig says the truth is this strategy is the new reality.
Many musicians develop their market nowadays "by concerts, word of mouth, the Internet, chat rooms,' says Brian Chater, prez of the Canadian Independent Record Production Association (CIRPA). "On the Internet, you can usually find someone who likes the same music you like, and then you ask, 'Do you like this, do you like that?''
While online musical quests are profoundly personal, radio formats are all about targeting collectivities of listeners. The splintering of broadcast music into specialized formats - rock, classic rock and new rock, easy listening and pop, etc - means advertisers can sell to narrower markets, a marketer's dream. In the business, it's called "selection to perfection.'
How good is business? CRTC figures released in April show that revenues of Canada's 357 FM stations went from $700.3 million in 2003 to $738.7 million in 2004, an increase of 5.5 per cent. But there's no denying that satellite radio, along with podcasting, iPods, MP3 players and Internet radio, are on the verge of breaking up the way radio does business.
According to the Bureau of Broadcast Measurement, which monitors audiences, radio's reach in Canada dropped slightly from 94 per cent of the population in 1999 to 93 per cent in 2000, where it remained until 2003. Average weekly listening hours dropped from 21.8 hours to 21 hours over the same period.
Just last fall, the BBM reported that youths in the 12-to-24 age category spend only 8.5 hours a week listening to the radio, down from 10.5 hours in 1999. This mirrors a similar situation in the U.S., where the National Association of Broadcasters rolled out a $28 million (U.S.) campaign featuring the likes of Alicia Keys and Avril Lavigne to lure back listeners in response to a 13 per cent drop in listening time over the last decade.
Radio Marketing Bureau president John Harding says it's unfair to single out radio, saying it's a trend affecting all broadcast media. "We all have so much opportunity to use so many different media - the Internet, the iPod, movies on demand - that all media are seeing a decline in individual usage. The 0.8 [per cent] drop doesn't bother me with radio. That's still three hours a day we're listening to.'
But Edge 102.1 music director Alan Cross says these non-CanCon-regulated technologies are making it much tougher for radio to risk promoting lesser-known acts rather than the regular stable of popular artists. "You can't handcuff radio broadcasters too much, because they're going to be competing with other broadcasters who have no regulations. It's going to be very tricky.'
Despite the threat to traditional radio, Cross, long at the helm of Edge's indie bent, is all in favour of the new point plan, as is his counterpart across the street, Flow 93.5's Justin Dumont. But while Dumont says he's a fan of anything that can promote new artists, he concedes that changing the system will have little effect on the indie content of Flow's CanCon, which he says is already above 80 per cent.
"We have to play this much indie music because in the urban realm of Canada there are maybe only three or four major-label-signed artists we are able to play. We don't have the luxury - not that we'd want to - of playing the international Canadian superstars.'
Then there's the question of how classic rock stations could benefit. Apart from dime-a-dozen cover acts, one doesn't enter the game as a new "classic rock" act, right?
And formats like jazz and classical music have to repeat the same Canadian acts more often to meet CanCon requirements, a fact not lost on the 600-member Canadian Association of Broadcasters. "Some formats may not have as much material available as others,' says spokesperson Pierre Pontbriand, who also says his organization is generally in favour of any proposal that can promote Canadian music.
Signs point to the adoption of the proposed point system by the CRTC. CIRAA's Terrence says preliminary talks with the regulator have gone extremely well, though a spokesperson, Cindy Ventura, is coy about a commitment. "If it can be shown that the proposal will improve the state of commercial radio, then the CRTC will take it into consideration,' she says.
But Friends of Canadian Broadcasting spokesperson Jim Thompson says it should be a done deal, judging from past CRTC decisions. "The commission is a very flexible organization. If the case can be made that there needs to be a greater diversity for Canadian talent as the next step in promoting Canadian content, then I'm sure the commission can find a way to do that."
If that's the case, then all the best to the next Shanias or Avrils. Let's hope there will still be a radio audience by then to hear them.