Much(less) Music - Macleans.ca

Much(less) Music

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

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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.