Much(less) Music -

Much(less) Music

Once an iconic arbiter of teen cool, MuchMusic is now fighting to reinvent itself

Much(less) Music

Schwartz, the general manager of Much MTV Group, looks over the $5-million renovation of MuchMusic’s Toronto studios; Gossip Girl; A Much VJ prepares for a segment | Photography Jessica Darmanin; Giovanni Rufino/Warner Brothers

These days, MuchMusic’s downtown Toronto studios look more like the set of a home improvement channel than a 24-hour music station. On a recent afternoon, construction workers pounded hammers and wired overhead lights as a group of young, hip-looking VJs and producers made a valiant effort to hold a production meeting amid the clatter.

The $5-million renovations will make the space ready for high-definition broadcasting, and include a swanky new green room, a permanent stage for visiting musical acts, and a modern control room that will no longer be located next to the building’s large, street-facing windows, through which fans have peered for decades to watch Much’s unique brand of off-the-cuff television being created. “The control room has been there since they launched in 1984,” says Brad Schwartz, the 39-year-old, shaggy-haired senior vice-president and general manager of Much MTV Group, a division of broadcaster CTV. “And some of the components hadn’t been updated since that time.”

It’s not just a badly needed technological overhaul that’s underway. The station once lauded for its free-flowing style and earnest commitment to music—particularly Canadian music—is struggling to reinvent itself following a seismic shift in the recording industry. MuchMusic’s 18- to 24-year-old audience is now far more likely to stream music videos on the Internet than watch them on their television sets. This is why CTV, which acquired Much in 2007, as part of a deal to buy parent company CHUM, is trying to convince federal broadcast regulators to allow it to become a music-related “lifestyle” channel—a vision that has so far been rebuffed by Ottawa and drawn protest from Canadian singers and songwriters, who fear losing yet another traditional media platform to showcase their talents.

Even so, the transformation has already begun in earnest. Although MuchMusic still plays music videos, as required by its broadcast licence, they tend to be shunted to odd hours while much of its daytime schedule is now occupied by TV shows like Degrassi and Gossip Girl. And even music video programs like Video on Trial are more about the comedians roasting the videos in question than the videos themselves.

Critics have expressed concern that MuchMusic is well on its way to becoming another MTV, which finally scrubbed the “music television” tag line from its logo in the United States—a long-overdue acknowledgement of the station’s current programming, which now consists mostly of brash reality TV programs like Jersey Shore. But Schwartz is unapologetic. “MuchMusic needs to be a brand that constantly evolves along with its audience,” he explains, noting that viewership of music programming on the station dropped more than 70 per cent between 2004 and 2009.

The reality, he says, is there is no longer any demand for TV music videos since they can be watched more easily on YouTube or dedicated music video websites such as Vevo, a joint venture between Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment and the Abu Dhabi Media Company. In fact, Schwartz says, record labels are now just as likely to premiere a new video online, making fresh content for MuchMusic increasingly scarce.

And as viewers disappear, so do advertisers. Documents filed with the Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission earlier this year claim that ad sales fell nearly 20 per cent in 2009, compared to a year earlier, far outpacing recession-related declines in the rest of the industry. As a result, CTV asked the CRTC to approve changes to MuchMusic’s licence that would allow it to halve—to 25 per cent—the amount of its broadcast day currently occupied by music videos. It also asked for MuchMusic’s licence to be rewritten so that it can be considered a “lifestyle” channel with 75 per cent of its schedule merely “music related.” That would include content relating to “fashion, technology, dance and clubs, pop culture and trends,” CTV said.

But the CRTC recently decided against any significant retooling—at least for now. It noted that the flip side of MuchMusic’s strict licence requirements is that it has been protected from direct competition for the past quarter-century (which is why MTV Canada doesn’t play music videos). With the CRTC’s protective shield now hanging like a millstone around its neck, Schwartz says MuchMusic’s owners intend to press the issue further when the station’s licence comes up for renewal later this year.

So what, exactly, is the “music-related” lifestyle programming MuchMusic is proposing? In addition to videos, albeit far fewer of them, it would continue to air interviews with pop stars and spectacles like the annual MuchMusic Video Awards, where shrieking teens pack the streets outside Much’s studios to watch live performances. But it would also include TV shows that have a music component, regardless of how tangential. Gossip Girl, for example, could be included because it features the actress Taylor Momsen, who also fronts the rock band the Pretty Reckless.

Of course, MuchMusic also wants permission to fill 25 per cent of its airtime with shows that have nothing at all to do with music. And that has some concerned that its ultimate goal is to become yet another place on the cable dial stuffed with cheap-to-make reality TV and celebrity gossip. “We think that the teen reality stuff is already served by other stations,” says Bill Skolnik, the vice-president of the Canadian arm of the American Federation of Musicians, noting that CTV already has a youth-oriented lifestyle channel in MTV Canada. “We don’t think that Much should follow that trend. We believe it should stick to what it was.” He adds that the station continues to play an important, although diminished, role when it comes to showcasing Canadian talent at a time when the music industry needs all the help it can get.

One person who is familiar with both sides of the equation is Christopher Ward. A Canadian songwriter who has worked with artists ranging from Diana Ross to Hillary Duff and the Backstreet Boys, he was among the first MuchMusic VJs when the station launched in 1984. While he recognizes that MuchMusic’s original broadcast model no longer makes much sense, he says the challenge is finding inventive ways to continue promoting Canadian artists. He recalls, for example, the role he and his MuchMusic peers once played in launching the Toronto band the Pursuit of Happiness, whose song I’m an Adult Now became a smash Canadian hit after the video aired on MuchMusic in 1986. “It was really street,” he says of the unpolished video. “But we wanted to play it. It was just us standing in a room, saying ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

At the same time, however, Ward stresses that MuchMusic has a responsibility to its viewers. “They’re not programming it for you or me,” he says. “It’s for young people. And they want something different.” Ward, who is a judge on YTV’s The Next Star (a friendly take on the American Idol concept for the under-15 set), is optimistic there’s a path forward, arguing that many of today’s youth-oriented TV shows often have a significant music component—including songs by Canadian artists. He cites Degrassi as an example. “I’ve written songs for it. They have a ton of new Canadian music.”

For his part, Schwartz stresses that MuchMusic has no intention of abandoning its music roots. “It’s our unique brand,” he says. “Why else would we spend $5 million to build a brand-new studio if we weren’t serious about it?” However, he warns that without more programming flexibility, MuchMusic risks becoming irrelevant, which doesn’t serve anybody’s interests. He compares the franchise to a high school, complete with its ever-changing kaleidoscope of trends and fashions. “Kids go through us,” he says. “But while they’re here, we should be really, really important to them.”

Thanks in part to broadcast rules crafted when puffy hair and boxy suit jackets were the epitome of street fashion, MuchMusic and its vast storehouse of music videos are already dangerously close to appearing outdated and uncool in the Internet age. And with their young audience, that’s the kiss of death.


Much(less) Music

  1. As a 24-year-old girl who grew up on videoFACT music (remember Edwin? Bass is Base? Len? Holly McNarland? Electric Circus? I do), this article depresses the sh*t out of me. I may be part of the soon-to-be irrelevant demographic and now working for the man, but if the kids today would rather watch "Jersey Shore" then god help us all.

  2. Lol Lady, that's precisely what those of us that grew up in the 60s said about MTV and MuchMusic…
    Video didn't just kill the radio star, it killed the musician. All that's left is lame midi tracks that kewl people read poetry to and one chord freak show bands. It is hard to find anything encouraging in new music, very few new artists have something to say, it is mainly something to show now, thanks to MTV and MuchMusic.
    The sooner that stuff is buried the better for the music industry, lets hear some real musicians actually play a real instrument and really sing the songs they really wrote… I mean really…

    • That stuff is already being buried, by P2P file sharing and Youtube. Thank god.

      Access to new interesting music far surpasses anything MuchMusic or MTV or going back farther even the radio could ever hope to achieve even if that was their goal. Larry Lessig has some pretty interesting analysis on User Generated Content and copyright if you care to look him up (on youtube :). Not to mention purely original content people are now exposed to without the interference of bureaucratic managers and middlemen.

      MuchMusic is reasonably simply trying to avoid a demise after being replaced by mechanisms that far surpass it at its original purpose.

  3. The people who run Much Music don't have a clue. They've been running away from the quirky, distinctly Canadian programming that once made them popular, and they've been doing it for years. They do little or nothing in helping Canadian artists and entertainers. The focus on sameness within the musical acts they do promote is nauseating, and defeating. Something changed drastically when Denise Donlon left her post as program director and the people who made the decision to go in the direction they've chosen since Donlons departure are the ones to blame for Much's continuing irrelevance. The programming geniuses who believe in more American style programming and the catering to the dictates of a corrupt music industry are the ones who will continue this self inflicted irrelevance. Much Music has lost it's way, and if they were smart they would stop running away from doing the things that made them popular in the first place.

  4. Bravo plays some amazing music videos of artist I would never find otherwise — most recently discovered Florence and the Machine there, and that voice, that video! CD will be in husband's stocking this year!

    MuchMusic used to have VJs with distinctive personalities, and thematic shows (Nathalie Richard and French Kiss; Ziggy and whatever she was doing, Steve Anthony — you may not have liked them all, but you do remember their personalities).

    Agree they should stay Canadian much of the time, introduce us to some new artists, and ffs, turn off that horrible rhianna stuff — all that auto-generated stuff that's really just strip music, at least according to the vids. And lose those awful "shows" — esp the one where lame comedians make fun of old videos. Just not entertainment.

    More Hawksley! Less Kanye!

  5. The problem with the current Much Music is that it has lost its connection with the live audience. Obviously, viewers are getting their music from other sources. The reality shows just make the viewers passive spectators. Much Music needs to return to including their live and viewing audience into their shows. Perhaps they can show music videos between segments of pop studio shows. Maybe viewers can rate the videos. Much Music needs to connect with its audience.

    • As a former employee of both Much & MTV, I can say that each station did everything to connect with their audience and bring music back to the channel — this is still on-going and the rebranded MuchOnDemand to New.Music.Live will be a reflection of that.

      Both channels are run by a bunch of people who grew up with MuchMusic and are passionate music fans today that would like nothing but to program music on the channel all day…however when they did or do, nobody watches…this includes live music and music videos.

      So until MuchMusic becomes a public broadcaster they will continue to air programming that people watch, in order to run their business — in the meantime, AUX TV exists to satisfy all the music fans who which there was still music videos on TV, however, last time a checked that channel wasn't long for this world as a result of poor ratings (in this case subscriptions) as well.

      Us pre-millenials watched music videos on TV as there wasn't a lot of competing programming targeted at young adults at the time — now this audience is a booming industry that has several genres of programming being fed at them for the purposes of selling products to their disposable incomes. They are also doing a better job at reaching them where they are: online and on their phones.

  6. 18-24? I'm pretty sure most people stop watching Much Music at 14.