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A Juno Awards sign hangs over the baggage carousels at the John G. Diefenbaker International Airport in Saskatoon on March 12, 2020.Matt Smith/The Canadian Press

On Feb. 22, 1971, Pierre Juneau was the ballyhooed attraction at the Juno Awards, newly nicknamed in his honour. Bestowed the Music Man of the Year Award, the chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) received a standing ovation from a packed audience of roughly 600 Canadian music artists and industry types in the ballroom at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall.

They stood partly because the organizers couldn’t afford to rent tables and chairs. The applause? It was deep appreciation for Juneau, a rock star among the Gordon Lightfoots and Anne Murrays, on nothing less than the occasion of the dawning of the Canadian music industry.

This Sunday, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) will mark what it’s calling the Junos’ 50th anniversary. The annual celebration of Canadian music began as the Gold Leaf Awards, created by RPM Weekly trade magazine founders Walt Grealis and Stan Klees. Postponed twice and originally scheduled for Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, the show will be televised from a variety of music venues throughout Canada.

After many COVID-19 setbacks, Juno Awards producers say show will go on

The more significant milestone this year is the golden anniversary of what is known as Cancon, a set of Juneau-spearheaded CRTC regulations that, among other things, require radio stations to devote at least 35 per cent of their playlists to Canadian music. (New stations are held to a 40-per-cent-standard.)

Before the quota took effect in 1971 – it was 30 per cent originally, initially applied to AM stations only – there was hardly a Canadian record industry to speak of. Though the foreign-owned major labels had branch offices in Toronto, their commitment to Canadian talent was negligible.

“To them, the offices were here just to distribute American and British hits,” says Alexander Mair, who co-launched the independent label Attic Records in 1974.

Mair is one of 24 Canadian music industry pioneers who were honoured last month by the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN) for their efforts in boosting Canadian culture. Thirteen of the 24, including Juneau, received their SOCAN Guardian Awards posthumously.

Performers and presenters at this weekend’s Junos include Justin Bieber, Jann Arden, Jully Black, Shania Twain, Michael Bublé, Alessia Cara and the Tragically Hip with Leslie Feist. It’s easy to say now that we’d listen to those artists regardless of their passport. But without Cancon helping to build the industry over the past 50 years, their careers were anything but inevitable.

Likewise, an international star such as Drake might seem to transcend Cancon. But consider: no Cancon, perhaps no Kardinal Offishall, no Maestro Fresh-Wes and no Michie Mee. Those three will take part in a Juno tribute to Canada’s homegrown hip-hop scene. “Drake grew up in a Canada where they heard Canadian artists,” says Bernie Finkelstein, founder of True North Records and one of the 24 SOCAN Guardian honorees. “Cancon hit the foundations of Canada’s culture, and it hit it hard.”

Although Cancon still stands after a full half-century, terrestrial radio is losing its dominance as the star maker of the music industry. Private radio is steadily losing audience share to streaming platforms such as Spotify, YouTube and Apple Music, which operate in this country without Cancon or expenditure stipulations.

Changes are afoot in that regard. With Bill C-10, the Liberal government is proposing updates to the Broadcasting Act in an effort to regulate online streaming services. At the same time, the CRTC is considering changes to the commercial radio policy framework. Stakeholders including the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (representing big radio) and Music Canada (speaking for record labels) have advocated for adjustments to Cancon requirements to suit their (sometimes conflicting) needs.

Cancon at 50 is not in mid-life crisis and it is not in danger of losing its near sacrosanct status. Still, changes to the regulations are not only being considered, they are inevitable as technology and the music industry evolves.

What exactly is Cancon?

It stands for “Canadian content.” Determining whether music is Canadian is done by the MAPL system, which breaks down songs into four components: music (composition), artist, performance and lyrics. Generally, if at least two of the four acronym parts are fulfilled by Canadians, the musical selection is deemed to be Cancon.

What Cancon changes does commercial radio want?

Historically, private radio has embraced Cancon quotas grudgingly at best. Today the Canadian Association of Broadcasters (CAB) wants the quota cut to 25 per cent, down from 35 to 40 per cent. According to CAB figures, Canadians listen to 10 to 12 per cent Canadian music on streaming services. A reduction in required Canadian music would bring the percentage closer in line with the listening habits of Canadians, the CAB argues. “It’s still substantial airplay,” the group’s president Kevin Desjardins tells The Globe and Mail.

The CAB seeks to tweak the MAPL system by giving heavier weight to the A (artist) criteria. The CAB reasons that Alessia Cara being the artist on Here, for example, should matter more than where it was recorded. As well, the CAB wants to adjust the P (performance) criteria to take in consideration the song’s producer, not just the recording studio or performance stage where it was created. Unlike 50 years ago, today’s music is routinely produced over the internet, independent of international borders and outside traditional production facilities.

In general, terrestrial radio wants less restrictions on its programming. Statistics submitted by the CAB to the CRTC indicate that per capita hours tuned to radio declined to 13.9 per cent in 2019, from 17.6 per cent in 2010. “There was a time when radio was the primary promotion tool for artists,” Desjardins says. “That’s changed significantly over the past decade.”

What about songwriters and music publishers?

No one has benefited more from homegrown quotas than composers, lyricists and music publishers. It’s no surprise that the sector waves the Cancon flag high.

“I think it’s more relevant than ever because of the numerous digital platforms that have developed and the increased competition to gain consumer attention,” says SOCAN board member Jennifer Mitchell, president of Casablanca Media Publishing, the largest independent music publisher in Canada. “Discoverability is key to growing Canadian talent and that’s why modernizing Cancon for the digital era is critical.”

What are the record labels advocating?

Music Canada, a non-profit trade organization that represents Canada’s major record labels (Sony Music Entertainment Canada, Universal Music Canada and Warner Music Canada), supports Cancon. “It built the successful industry we know today,” Music Canada chief executive officer Patrick Rogers says. “We have office buildings in Toronto full of Canadians making Canadian music for the Canadian audience.”

Music Canada seeks to modernize the MAPL system by combining the M (music) and L (lyrics) criteria. Unlike the days of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the functions of composer and lyricist today are typically combined.

Like the CAB, Music Canada proposes giving more weight to the artist criteria and granting extra Cancon credits for emerging artists. As well, Music Canada recommends enhancing requirements for artists belonging to sovereignty-affirming and equity-deserving groups.

“It’s about making sure radio playlists reflect the Canadian community,” Rogers says.

Is the live music industry satisfied with Cancon?

In the rising-tide-lifts-all-boats file, the Canadian live music industry has benefited immensely from the boosted status of domestic artists on Canadian radio. “It’s established a great Canadian star system and it’s been a major contributor to the careers of artists nationally and internationally as far as touring is concerned,” says Riley O’Connor, chairman of Live Nation Canada, the country’s leading live music promoter. “If Cancon gives them a leg up on other artists, so what? You’re in Canada. That’s the way it works.”

Cancon’s legacy

After 50 years, many of the Canadian songs heard on playlists today, particularly beloved classics from legacy artists, are there no longer just by Cancon regulation, but by a sense of pride and community – not to mention the shared love of a memorable guitar riff. (Which one just popped in your head? One from BTO? Tragically Hip, Rush?)

Cancon can be seen as The Grapes of Wrath’s Tom Joad, all around in the dark, everywhere – “everywhere you look.” Wherever there’s a Drake starting from the bottom or a Jann Arden starting from Calgary, Cancon will be there. Whether it’s a Sometimes When We Touch slow dance or a Juno gala on Sunday, it will be there too. Is that romanticism? Sure, but empires have been built on less.

The 2021 Juno Awards will be broadcast June 6 on CBC starting at 8 p.m. EST

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