At the outer limits of product branding, just about anything can be used to refer to whatever you're selling. Consider the splashing fountains, potted tulips and herb garden installed in a vast display hall at Toronto's Exhibition Place to get the city's green-thumb set to have warm feelings about the Juno Awards.
Yes, even rhododendrons have been recruited to hype the latest edition of Canada's biggest annual music awards. The winners get their trophies this weekend (at a closed-door event tonight or during a nationally broadcast concert tomorrow), but the custodians of the Juno brand have been busy softening up the host city for months.
Even before the nominations were out for the 40th awards, Juno's flag was waving over exhibitions at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Bata Shoe Museum, through four decade-oriented shows at the venerable Horseshoe Tavern, and at Juno-themed events at the Ontario Science Centre.
This week, Canadian music films filled up screens at the Bell Lightbox, musicians and sports figures contested the Juno Cup (hockey) and the new Juno Hoops game (basketball), classical Juno winners sang and played at Roy Thomson Hall, and horticultural types at the Canada Blooms garden show peered at backyard gardens designed to reflect the personalities of Juno winners such as Sarah Harmer, Ben Heppner and Oscar Peterson. A lavish 40th-anniversary book is also in bookstores; and CTV, the Juno broadcaster, is blanketing the airwaves with Juno-related programming that will eventually run to almost 90 hours.
Why this intense courtship, especially at the local level? Does it really matter whether Toronto takes notice of the Junos, so long as the country tunes in to the broadcast?
Those questions have several answers, some of them simple and practical, such as the need to fill up the cavernous Air Canada Centre with people willing to spend up to $230 for a ticket (the cheap seats go for $128, about double the lowest price for Lady Gaga's Montreal show at the Bell Centre next month). Tickets to this year's event have in fact been slower to sell than arenas in smaller centres, and Juno-related concerts at RTH and Massey Hall (where a Songwriters's Circle event was held on Wednesday) didn't fill up.
"Most of the other markets that we've been to tend to sell out very quickly," noted Ed Robinson, chairman of the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, on Thursday. "And I think that's a reflection of all the concerts that come through town in Toronto and/or Vancouver, where there's lots of choice."
But a more complicated reason for Juno's need for Toronto's attention has to do with the Junos' long and sometimes tortuous evolution from a pure fan event to a largely corporate shindig to a populist road show.
For its first couple decades, Juno always happened in Toronto, usually in a hotel ballroom or theatre filled with music-industry types. In those days, Toronto didn't care about the Junos because the Junos were indifferent to the city. "There was a time when the Junos were in a soft-seat theatre, and the whole audience was in the industry, sitting on their hands," says John Brunton, producer (for Insight Productions) of the Junos stage show. "And you went, 'Where are the fans?' "
The fans had been in charge in the late sixties, when RPM Magazine conducted an annual readers' poll of the best of the year in Canadian music and gave prizes on paper only. Once a public ceremony for the awards (named the Junos in 1971) got going, the music industry, through its stalking horse the Canadian Recording Industry Association, began to jockey for control of the show and of the broadcasts that began on the CBC in 1975.
CRIA begat the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences; the purely merit-based categories of the initial awards gave way, in key categories, to nominations based on sales; and the Junos became largely a celebration of commercial success. The awards acquired "a negative connotation" in some quarters, admits Susanne Boyce, who brought the Junos to CTV in 2002 (and who is about to leave the project and CTV after a management shuffle).
The first year CTV broadcast the awards also put Toronto-centric Juno on the road, first to St. John's, where a novel approach was tried. The event's producers got in touch in advance with the local music community (chiefly Great Big Sea, the island's leading roots-music band), invented a week-long club festival, laid on fan-oriented events, and created a broadcast that celebrated Newfoundland's contributions to Canadian music.
The results galvanized the town and gave the broadcast a fresh, site-specific feeling. Every year since, in Halifax, Ottawa, Edmonton, Winnipeg and other cities, the Junos have refined and extended the local-is-beautiful idea, while highlighting musicians with national or international appeal.
"It was really an expansion of the idea of taking the music to the fans," says Brunton. "Music comes out of where you are and where you grew up, and what influences you were exposed to. People are proud of their hometown, but they also like to feel like they're part of it all. It's not, 'Hey, I'm in Rubber Boot, Saskatchewan' - it's 'I'm in the land of Joni Mitchell and the Guess Who.' "
It didn't hurt that local communities and their governments were willing to pay for a visit from Juno and the expanding hoopla that went with it. Melanie Berry, head of CARAS, says that Juno got $1-million for setting up in Toronto this year, and is looking at multiple bids for the next three years from cities prepared to set up their own program committees to help energize the populace. The local economic benefits are real: St. John's got a $5.4-million boost in economic activity in 2002, and the last two Juno shindigs stirred up over $10-million in business in both Calgary and Vancouver.
"Coming back to Toronto now feels like another stop along the way," says Brunton, who figures a decade away was long enough. Toronto is still the biggest music market in the country, and Juno's producers decided it was time to see whether the buzz-generating ancillary events developed in smaller cities would work in Hogtown.
That the grass-roots strategy has worked everywhere else probably helped save the Juno broadcasts from the long ratings decline suffered by the Grammy Awards, which have been gradually losing viewers since the late eighties. Juno ratings have remained pretty stable over the past decade, which may count as success when TV audiences are fragmenting and declining globally.
Like the Grammys, the Juno broadcast includes few actual awards: Only eight of the 40 will be given out during this year's two-and-a-half hour broadcast. It's essentially a national music variety show with a few prizes and victory speeches.
Brunton says that the Toronto edition will unfold on a very big, very wired set that reflects the city's scale and architecture, though "not in ways that you would think of as obviously defining the place." (In other words, no CN Tower.) The host is Toronto hip-hop star Drake, and there'll be an all-star tribute to Toronto's pop-music history, and a performance by Toronto indie fixtures Broken Social Scene. Other performers include Arcade Fire, Sarah McLachlan, Hedley, Johnny Reid, Down With Webster, Chromeo and Tokyo Police Club.
In short, a decade into its roving populist phase, the Juno Awards look a lot healthier than the industry they still celebrate. You have to wonder whether the industry might have spared itself some pain had it concentrated more on forging grass-root connections with fans instead of mainly lobbing product into record stores. It's harder to see how it could match the Junos' intense yearly focus on a different Canadian centre. That's what has given a heart to this formerly cold, now puppy-dog-friendly celebration.
"We've always tried to connect the country," says CTV's Boyce. "It sounds corny, but it's about nation-building."
That's the ultimate in branding: when you get your product in tight not just with the rhododendrons, but with your flag. True patriot love in all thy fans' command.
With files from Canadian Press