Much Much Less
Twenty years ago real journalism had regular airplay on the nation's music station. Today, however, critical commentary has been pushed aside by MuffPuff and MuchMoreFluff
Outside the CHUMCity building on Queen Street West in downtown Toronto, a crowd of people has gathered. They’re eagerly inching closer to the metal barricades that have been set up for the occasion. Wearing wristbands, some have been waiting for hours. Some cluster against the far windows. Hot breath fogs up the glass?a good indication of how cold it is tonight. A hopeful, brown-haired girl leans forward, trying to look through the tinted glass. Eventually, in groups of 15, the anxious crowd is brought inside. They smile and giggle.
It’s about an hour before show time. Manny, the floor director, places them strategically around two elevated white couches. Soft blue clouds hang from the ceiling. The walls are decorated with boards painted in rich shades of orange with tiny white lights. Two tall lamps?looking like giant pipe cleaners glimmering with blue light?cast a faint glow on the walls. Technicians run around setting up camera angles and pulling blue electrical cables. A giant boom camera weightlessly floats through the air. The crowd listens to Manny yell out instructions.
“No frowning! No crossing your arms! Look like you want to be here!” he says, moving an excited couple closer to the stage. “When we come back from commercials, we need long, thorough clapping!” He takes the crowd through six practice entrances. A short blond stands in for the star. Manny directs the crowd, pulling a girl here, shifting a couple here. He demonstrates the art of utilizing small spaces by teaching the crowd to stay to the sides first as the stand-in walks toward the platform, then engulf the absent space. It’s an old trick to make small spaces seem larger. The music is cued up, and the crowd is ordered to yell, scream and clap until the stand-in sits down. Throughout the practice entrances, host Karina Huber goes over her lines and speaks toward the boom mike above. Her words can’t be heard over the applause and catcalls; the mikes are kept low to avoid feedback. Finally, it’s time for the real thing.
The crowd grows quiet as the star waits for her signal to enter. She is dressed in black, and her slender legs resemble twin licorice sticks. Black makeup is smeared around her brown eyes and long blond hair cascades past her shoulders. She stands relatively alone, with only a large man?her assistant, or maybe a bodyguard?nearby. The dark, empty hallway behind her will never be seen in the “building that shoots itself.” Suddenly, it’s 8 o’clock?showtime. The crowd that’s waited for hours in the cold will now participate in an Intimate & Interactive program. Some will stand an arm’s length away from the guest, Faith Hill. It’s probably their first chance to see a star close up.
MuchMusic, or Much, as most call it, features live shows like Intimate & Interactive on a regular basis. Usually it showcases a live artist every month, whether it’s for Live@Much, I&I or a MuchOnDemand appearance. With 10 human VJs and a sock puppet called “Ed,” Much creates about 42 hours of original programming a week. You will see endless variations of the MuchMusic Countdown: MuchTopHookUps,MuchTopAssVideos, MuchTopRocks, as well as Becoming,Gonna Meet a Rock Star, Spotlight and Power Shift, yet another video countdown. All Much programming runs dependably on a nine-hour loop.
Much has no real competition and can legitimately claim to be the Canadian television source for breaking music. Record companies provide a steady stream of video content, and VJs keep the message light and lively. The problem is, although many on-air staff have backgrounds in journalism or broadcasting, Much rarely indulges in the actual production of journalism. Other than The NewMusic, a more serious show that has been reduced to one half-hour per week (Mondays at 9 p.m.), the station rarely ventures into critical territory.
Much may act as if it’s doing music journalism? onducting live interviews, reporting live from various locations, doing research?but almost
everyone agrees the station provides little journalistic content. It is assumed that if teenagers think at all, what they think about is having fun. Much is popular and makes money for its owner, CHUM Ltd., but is it underestimating the intelligence and shortchanging the very audience to which it slavishly caters?
MuchMusic has set its sights on a fairly young demographic, which is reflected in its shows. Employees will tell you the target audience ranges from 18 to 24 years of age, which, depending on the programming, can stretch more widely from 12 to 34. “If your main target is people between the ages of 16 and 20,” says Alan Cross, director of radio station Y108 FM in Hamilton and writer/host of The Ongoing History of NewMusic, “they don’t want ultra hard-hitting journalism.” There is TreeToss, a bizarre annual stunt that has been airing since 1986. “Celebrity Tosser” Rick Campanelli hosts a show where he throws a used Christmas tree?usually in flames?off the CHUMCity building rooftop and tries to land it in a dumpster in the parking lot below. “When you take into account the audience that MuchMusic is going after,” says Cross, “all they really care about is when Britney’s new CD is out and whether Eminem did something naughty again.” Kieran Grant, former Toronto Sun music columnist and current listings editor at eye Weekly, a Toronto news and entertainment tabloid, concurs, saying, “They have obviously tapped the youth market. They’ve got it and they’ve gone after it increasingly.”
Generally, Much programming emphasizes fun, not information. MuchOnDemand, a zany live spectacle that tapes from 5 to 6 p.m. Monday to Thursday, tests video games on-air while guest musicians drop by. Hosted by Jennifer Hollett and Rick Campanelli, MOD represents a trend at MuchMusic to do away with any pretence of practising journalism. Other teen programming includes Becoming, an American show where fans reenact their favourite musicians’ videos, and Gonna Meet a Rock Star, where the rabid faithful compete to see who’s enough of a fan to meet his or her preferred idol. Both shows focus on an immature level of music appreciation. “It defines a lack of direction for MuchMusic in the amount of American programming that they buy,” says Grant. “It’s part of a worrying trend that they should lower themselves to that kind of programming.” But it’s the kind of programming that makes money.
A lot of what Much does is centred on making money?which is what any successful television station must do?but its innocuous programming in no way challenges the viewer. Alan Cross says, “If you offend an artist or label, what do you think your chances of getting access to artists in the future are going to be like?” Much has to answer to the record companies that provide the videos and the artist appearances. It’s a mutual arrangement?Much needs celebrity musicians to appear on its shows, and record companies need Much for the publicity that sells CDs.
Exactly if and how much content is determined by advertising isn’t known. No one at Much would comment on the numbers. Cross says management must “walk that fine line between art and commerce,” but even Much employees?past and present?agree that the true nature of music television is advertising, not journalism.
George Stroumboulopoulos is a popular, nose-pierced VJ at Much. He and I sit down for a chat in the greenroom at Much headquarters. He slips his leg up onto the arm of the soft blue leather couch, slouches back and smiles. He is very comfortable in chatting about his work. He talks a mile a minute and I’m thankful for the tape recorder. “The purpose of music television is to sell soap and to sell records,” he says. “We got 50 channels and all you ever see is entertainment on television?there’s so many different ways to promote this shit.”
Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC’s Play, has viewed Much from two sides of the music business. As front man for the band Moxy Fr?vous he experienced Much’s handling of Canadian artists and arts entertainment first-hand. “I don’t think Much does music journalism,” he says. “MuchMusic operates to a certain extent as a profit-making arm of the marketing department of major record companies,” he says. “Do I think programming over there might be based on what Clearasil wants because they buy the ads? Yeah.”
I’m inside the office of vice-president and general manager of MuchMusic and MuchMoreMusic David Kines, at the CHUMCity building. Much’s top gun is surrounded by the tools of his trade. A giant 36-inch television blares host Richard Cazeau wrapping up a session of MuchMoreMusic’s news show, The Loop. An oversized, red double-M logo sits on top of the TV, a reminder of the station’s past. Two smaller televisions feature other CHUM music channels. An entire wall is crammed with framed pictures of music celebrities. To Kines’s left is a massive print of pop superstar Britney Spears wrapping her arms around Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry. “If someone’s selling two million CDs but they’ve got a shitty video, it can be tough,” observes Kines, reinforcing the relationship between the companies that supply the videos and Much, which broadcasts them. “We want the record music industry to be healthy.”
Kines, who started at Much in 1983 as an editor and worked his way up, looks anxious, almost fidgety. He’s swift to defend Much from the accusation that it doesn’t produce any worthwhile journalism. “We don’t just go off and cover anything just ’cause it’s news,” he says, shifting back and forth in his chair, crossing his legs. “We try to pick issues that are relevant to our audience.” He cups his shoe with his hand as he talks. His eyes dart around the room. His tiny dog, Mitzy, a white bichon frise, lies sleeping in the corner. Kines confesses that Mitzy might ruin his reputation as a hard businessman, but when asked whether he’s concerned about the large amount of teen-oriented fare in rotation, he fires back, “We have MuchLOUD and MuchVibe for people who don’t want pop.” He scratches his short salt-and-pepper hair and looks away?the interview seems to be at an impasse.
Since going on air in ’84, Much has been appealing to a set demographic, respecting its advertisers and turning a profit. “It’s essentially been a licence to print money, and it’s done really well,” says former Much VJ Tony Young, a.k.a. Master T. “Advertisers realize that it’s one of the few stations that really caters to a particular market of youth.” Young left the station in late 2001?his contract expired and he was asked to search elsewhere. He was encouraged to look for work at other CHUM properties, specifically MuchMoreMusic, but says he “didn’t want to be shuffled and placed somewhere else.”
MuchMoreMusic was started in 1998 with the intent to provide an outlet for more serious programming?that, in theory, current Much viewers would gravitate toward after outgrowing the teen product. With its limited VJs, MMM relies heavily on musician biographies and purchased foreign content, usually from MTV or VH1. Shows like Behind the Music and The Story Of? focus on a predictable rise-fall-rise narrative of success, setback, then return to glory. They are designed to delve deeper?but not too deeply?into the careers of popular musicians and recycle old interview snippets.
MMM’s demographic stretches from 24 to 49, but it’s left many viewers wanting, well, much more. Daniel Richler, who worked at Much in the 1980s, hosting and producing The NewMusic, says, “I don’t know what it is, but when people turn 30 they’re suddenly supposed to be listening to easy rock.” When asked whether he watches MMM, Richler says, “That is truly a bland channel. There are no opinions offered?just wallpaper. Rock should not be background, it should be foreground.”
Much used to do music journalism. J.D. Roberts (who went on to news broadcasting fame in the United States), Laurie Brown (who later moved to the CBC) and Richler, who is now editor-in-chief and supervising producer of BookTelevision (also launched by CHUM Ltd.), all broke ground working on The NewMusic. Before the birth of MTV, it was the only music television show on air. “The purpose now,” says current host Stroumboulopoulos, “is to examine not just music and musicians but also what musicians feel about other things going on in the world and the environment that they deal with.”
When The NewMusic was one hour long, “You didn’t just slavishly follow whatever some advertising campaign told you to do,” says Richler. “A lot of times people used to yell at me out of pickup trucks on Yonge Street, ‘You asshole!’ because I had asked a critical question of M?tley Cr?e. The fact is, most of the bands enjoyed it because it was so boring for them to answer the same questions over and over again.”
Richler began as a reporter on The NewMusic in 1982. He was immediately assigned grunt jobs. “I was brought on to do the stinky bands in the cockroach-infested hotels,” he says, laughing. In 1984, he took over as host and producer and began to try what he calls “rockumentary” style programming?combining rock music with in-depth journalism. “Record companies were always piling us up with media releases, videos, records and T-shirts, so the real job was to sort out the hype from the groove.”
Richler pushed the limits of rock journalism by purposely asking difficult questions, which often made his subjects uncomfortable. “I never minded conflict. A lot of interviewers tend to shy away from conflict because they won’t be invited back,” says Richler. During an interview with Bryan Adams in 1984, Richler pressed the Vancouver rocker with a line of questioning about Adams’s financial involvement with an antisealing operation. Richler asked Adams if his fans appreciated his political stand on sealing and Adams immediately said, “Oh yeah, everywhere, from coast to coast.” When pressed further as to how fans in the Maritimes felt about Adams’s public boycott of an industry that represents almost half of their economy, Adams tried to back away from his comment. Richler pushed harder, suggesting that the singer hadn’t thought the issue through enough. Adams’s manager, the tempestuous Bruce Allen, stormed into the studio and demanded the tape. The beleaguered host asked, “What is this?the Soviet Union?” but he didn’t give up the tape or his line of questioning. “I wasn’t being belligerent,” he remarks. “I wanted to give musicians respect by asking them honest questions. I didn’t want to just be a handmaiden to the record companies.”
Much has tried to do something other than what Richler calls “press release journalism” on The NewMusic by injecting world affairs into the show. Stroumboulopoulos hosted one program about World AIDS Day, December 1, 2002, in Zambia, Africa. On another, Hollett was sent to Afghanistan, where she did a story on Afghani women and the newfound freedoms they have. But Stuart Berman, music editor at eye Weekly, is critical of Much’s real journalism. “It’s a weird juxtaposition between interesting stories about people who had been tortured for listening to music and this weird section where they take these Afghanistan teenagers around and show them Avril Lavigne videos and are, like, ‘What do you think of that?’ Deep down they know they’re catering to a bunch of teenagers who just want to see an ‘NSync video.”
Today, hardly anyone thinks Much engages in journalism. Certainly not Kines’s predecessor, Denise Donlon, now president of Sony Music Canada. “Much’s mission is to speak to the widest possible audience that it can,” she says. “The Backstreet Boys are selling millions of records around the world and that’s not something they can avoid. Music television is designed to sell advertising. It’s a commercial endeavour designed to capture ratings.”
I talk to the amiable Bill Welychka, host and producer of MuchMoreMusic’s The Story Of?, about it, and he’s troubled by the question of whether he does music journalism. He says, “Just by the mere virtue of the word ‘music,’ it is entertainment. Maybe it’s the connotation that the word ‘journalism’ brings, but I’d be uncomfortable answering that question. Yeah, we can be journalistic, but it’s still entertaining, whereas CNN is journalistic but it’s not entertaining.”
Music journalism “should educate the people as to what the music’s all about,” says the Calgary Herald‘s music critic Heath McCoy. Music journalism should delve past record company PR and inform the audience. If everything Much is programming is in the service of the record companies and advertisers, it’s missing the point of music and music journalism. Even Stroumboulopoulos might agree with that. As he observes, “Music is important because it keeps people company. This is a world filled with lonely people and for a lot of them music is their solace.”
The problem with maintaining a narrow view of what kind of programming young adults want?that kids don’t want to think; they’re only interested in infomercials and fluffy game shows?is that it doesn’t expose them to a critical analysis of music. By pandering to the baser instincts of fandom, Much reduces music coverage to an all-or-nothing approach?either say something nice or don’t say anything at all. Mom’s old adage becomes Much’s motto and its video suppliers’ dream slogan.
Of course, the business view is different. Whether the broadcast is about tossing a burning tree from a roof or attempting an educational program about AIDS, MuchMusic’s ratings are solid and, if we take the company at its word, profits steady. So why challenge the audience by shaking up the status quo? Apparently, failing to ask musicians the tough questions doesn’t seem to matter anymore.