On guard for thee?

CanCon rules have been protecting our cultural borders since 1971; some music industry insiders say artists no longer need government muscle


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Depending on who you ask in the music industry, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s Canadian Content requirements — a.k.a. CanCon — are either a blessing or a scourge. CanCon is either a fundamental part of our nation’s DNA, or an embarrassing quota system.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/06/2017 (2096 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Depending on who you ask in the music industry, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s Canadian Content requirements — a.k.a. CanCon — are either a blessing or a scourge. CanCon is either a fundamental part of our nation’s DNA, or an embarrassing quota system.

The average music consumer probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about CanCon. But you’d definitely notice if it suddenly disappeared.

The regulations were established in 1971 to ensure, at the most basic level, that Canadian radio stations played Canadian music. Thirty per cent of airplay had to be dedicated to Canadian artists. It got bumped up to 35 per cent in the 1980s, and remained at 35 per cent in 1999. Now, some new stations have a 40 per cent licensing requirement.

In order to determine whether a song qualified as CanCon, it was adjudicated using the MAPL System. Developed by Stan Klees — who also co-created the Juno Award — MAPL stands for Music, Artist, Producer, Label. Content must wear a Maple Leaf in two out of the four to be considered CanCon.

So, why do we even have CanCon, anyway? Blame America. The U.S. was — and is — one of the biggest, most dominant exporters of culture in the world.

“The regulations really came in with one objective in mind, and that was to provide support for the creation of Canadian culture with the view of trying to avoid our creative industries from being drowned in the sea of culture coming from the U.S.,” says Gilles Daigle, general counsel, legal services for the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada, or SOCAN.

“The reality is without these protections and regulations, Canadian content would have been impossible to find. It would have been dwarfed by U.S. content. Those rules have been the basis of the successes that Canadian culture has experienced over the decades.”

Veteran Canadian music journalist Larry LeBlanc doesn’t necessarily agree. He questions the relevance of CanCon today, arguing that the mainstream successes of modern Canadian acts, such as the Weeknd, Drake and Justin Bieber are not owed to CanCon. And he’s not sure it was necessary back in 1971, either.

“I would point out that a lot of artists had made it before CanCon went into effect,” he says. “The Guess Who were already a success in the United States, Anne Murray was already a success in the United States, David Clayton-Thomas — a whole slew of people.”

The government may have been concerned about the preservation of culture, but commercial radio is in the business of hits. CanCon, LeBlanc says, became “a minimum and a maximum at the same time,” and a lot of songs — and careers — were burned out.

Instead of playing one or two singles from a given album, radio programmers were going “three, four, five songs deep” to fulfil their requirements.

“I would argue that CanCon killed Anne Murray’s career in radio, it killed Tom Cochrane’s career in radio and it absolutely killed Jann Arden’s career in radio because they were pulling five singles and only two of them were hits,” he says.

Then there was the matter of the so-called Beaver Bins. When CanCon was first rolled out, some radio stations relegated all their CanCon to off-peak listening hours late at night or very early in the morning. Radio stations are no longer permitted to stack all their Canadian content in Beaver Bins, but LeBlanc points out that today, mandating 35 per cent CanCon doesn’t necessarily result in more Canadian artists receiving airplay. “That’s what radio is, they play the hits. Instead of playing (a single) 10 times, they’ll play it 30 times.”

Daigle, meanwhile, says while CanCon requirements need an update, “not only are those rules still necessary, they are probably more necessary than ever before.”

Back in 1971, our primary competition was America. Now, it’s the world. Last November, SOCAN, along with seven other music industry organizations, submitted a 26-page recommendation to Mélanie Joly, the federal minister of Canadian heritage, who conducted a series of public consultations on modernizing CanCon rules for the digital age.

Like Daigle, Stuart Johnston, the president of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) believes we need CanCon now more than ever. He also sees CanCon as a reminder to Canadians that we do in fact make great music here.

“It reminds me of the old definition of what an expert is: ‘an expert is somebody who is from out of town,’” he says. “I swear to God a Canadian came up with that. It’s sort of what we used to experience with the American invasion of culture — and now we’re seeing with a global invasion of culture — that we naturally tend to ignore our own successes because it’s that expert from out of town. CanCon is a firm reminder that no, we have world-class talent here in Canada.”

Indeed, Canada’s position as an influential musical exporter is undeniable. Let’s pull ourselves out of the proverbial Beaver Bin for a moment to appreciate the fact that Canadian acts are increasingly dominating the charts in the U.S. Weirdo baroque rock bands such as Arcade Fire are winning Grammy Awards.

Johnston has seen the appetite for Canadian music firsthand at festivals and showcases overseas. “Whether it’s industry or it’s the fans themselves, they might not know the band, but as soon as you say it’s Canadian, they pay attention.”

Moving forward, both Daigle and Stuart believe CanCon can be modernized.

“There are various ways (CanCon) could be honoured,” Johnston says. “It could be through the way music is marketed on digital platforms and streaming services, the way playlists are created. It’s not to isolate Canadian music, it’s a way to infuse Canadian music.

“I think there are ways algorithms and marketing tools can be used. I think it behooves those services to at least offer the opportunity to discover Canadian music. As these digital platforms grow, discoverability is a challenge. CanCon is, in a sense, a mechanism that allows for discoverability. It allows Canadians to hear our talent and discover their next favourite band.”

While streaming services tend to pull focus in this conversation, radio also has an important role to play. “I think radio should evolve to reflect what is happening in the digital sphere, where you have such a menu of choice,” Stuart says. “Radio might want to pay attention to that. But it’s not totally lost; there are stations that provide commercial outlets for our artists.”

When it comes to the perception of CanCon, perhaps a fundamental shift in thinking is required. CanCon doesn’t have to be a limitation. It can be an opportunity.

“CanCon is not taking away — it’s an addition to,” Stuart says. “It’s ensuring that Canadian voices are being heard on the airways. It’s an important mechanism that should continue.”

Daigle hopes a modern CanCon can help empower musicians to keep pursuing their art. “If at some point they figure there’s no point in doing so because they can’t compete in this huge universe of content,” he says, “we all lose.”


jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.


Updated on Sunday, July 2, 2017 10:59 AM CDT: Revises info. on percentages

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