The Crtc's Cancon: Canadian Content Rule Gone Wrong

by Pat Boardman - Date: 2007-07-19 - Word Count: 1016 Share This!

There was a day when Rock bands, Folksingers, Actors, and virtually everyone in show business had to make their names in the USA. The film and music businesses were dominated by the Americans, who had total control of what was going to be produced and promoted. The Top 40 was determined by American music consultants who relied on US magazines such as Variety Billboard. In the late Sixties Canadian newspapers began to run stories about legislating Canadian content. After The Globe & Mail ran a full-page feature with the headline "Can a Law Put Canada on the Hit Parade?" a group of Rock radio stations got together to address the building movement for less Americanization as Canada strove to establish a stronger national identity. They formed the Maple Leaf System in 1969 to develop and encourage Canadian talent. It was voluntary and subject to the whims of its members in the area of carrying out the foggy definitions of who and what to promote. The Canadian Radio & Television Commission (CRTC) saw this as a sneaky attempt to avoid legislation. The general public, especially young people, was passionate and well-informed on the subject so there was well-founded skepticism of the intentions of the record industry. In 1970 the CRTC introduced a song classification system known by the acronym MAPL (Music written by Canadian, Artist is Canadian, Produced in Canada, Lyrics by Canadian) and deemed songs that matched at least two of these criteria were to make up 30% of AM airplay, not including overnight play lists.

As CRTC Chairman Pierre Juneau announced phased-in percentage increases during 1971 and 1972, there was a requirement for 60% Canadian content on Television, but no rules were given to FM Radio and there were no guidelines for assuring quality and variety of programming. There was no mention of how (or if) the guidelines would be enforced. Moreover, the implied assistance that would be given to develop Canadian talent by way of grants simply disappeared into established arts such as classical music, orchestras, and other upper-class endeavors that were already visible and known to the issuers of government grants. Songwriters, musicians, film directors, and actors were resigned to the fact that the USA would still be their ultimate destination.

From the time of its inception to the present day the CRTC has consistently failed in its mandate. The apologists point to success stories like The Guess Who, Gordon Lightfoot, April Wine, Joni Mitchell, Ian & Sylvia, and the like as proof that Canadian content worked, but those acts were already established in the States. The Guess Who had no luck at all getting on the airwaves in Canada when they first recorded; they had to beg and plead repeatedly to the program director of a big Detroit radio station to get their first single "These Eyes" played on the air. Almost everybody had to go to New York City to be signed to a major record deal. Musicians still live in a world where Los Angeles and New York are the only places where they can stand a chance at being signed to a record deal.

Sadly, the Canadian Content rules came out at a time when the Baby Boom generation was around the college years and decisions had to be made regarding career choices. They felt that it would be entirely possible to succeed substantially in the arts for the long run. The rulings of the CRTC had too many loopholes and no sense of urgency, and so people gradually forgot about it.

Now that the Web has erased borders and fragmented the control of broadcast programming for the most part, there is no motivation on the part of the government to expend resources policing Canadian Content rules and the original goal of enriching the culture, promoting good work, and providing employment to those who produce film and music. The best talent must still be resigned to the fact that they will eventually head south in order to compete in their respective industries.

It is not enough for the purpose of this article merely to criticize the failings of this initial effort. Anyone would be remiss to point out flaws without offering a solution for this forgotten promise; the CanCon movement needs to be resurrected with an injection of new energy from the grass roots up. The current generation of rock, folk, and country music needs to be reminded to lean on (and market to) the powers that be in both the government and the record labels, film production companies, radio stations, and television networks and heat up the debate that started CanCon in the first place. The successful established artists have no reason to change things, but the other 99% have to be informed and given resources by the government to create a market where the content can be offered.

Imitating American culture is common in most countries, so whether Canadian identity can be seen as unique remains to be seen. If, hypothetically, the government can actually get something done besides agreeing to vote themselves a 25% raise before taking a ten-week vacation, they could at least agree that a fresh approach to the content in media might include more than mathematics and percentages. It would be relatively easy to run numerous music and film festivals across the country and to assign qualified people to act as concert promoters to make sure a music boom grew up not for mere profit, but to bring the earphones out of the iPods and get people interacting as human beings once again instead of tuned-out robots sitting around text-messaging, cell-phoning, and X-Boxing while their best years pass them by. Live music could be made affordable once again, and a concert ticket wouldn't have to cost $120 for one night's entertainment. National identity can be established once Canadians get together and insist on promoting the culture that represents life in Canada. It's a lofty goal to bring these feelings to the public in the same way that the 1970 breakthroughs brought a short-lived feeling of relief to impoverished creative people, but anything that's worth doing is worth doing right.

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Pat Boardman is a musician and a former radio show host who experienced the Canadian Content rulings first-hand. The program director never logged the content of songs played on air, and the CanCon rules were simply ignored. The Top Ten consisted primarily of British and American Rock music. He pursues music via his site Rock Music Records and CDs with no connections to traditional media.

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