Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Book Review: Canuck Rock by Ryan Edwardson.

Canuck Rock tells the story of rock 'n' roll, folk, and other popular styles of music in Canada; the Canadian songwriters and musicians who made it big in the U.S.; and the emergence of a domestic music industry within the multinational market. The book is mainly concerned with English-language music, but there are important sections devoted to the rather different musical happenings in Quebec. This book serves as a useful overview of the music industry in Canada that emphasizes how music came to be seen as having important nationalistic purposes when very little in its history, content, or production was particularly Canada-focused.

The book's main argument is that there was no music industry to speak of in English-speaking Canada prior to the Cancon regulations for radio in the early 1970s. The new rules meant that a significant percentage of daytime airtime had to be devoted to playing Canadian music---music that hit upon two quantitative measures of Canadianness: the music was composed by a Canadian, the lyrics were penned by a Canadian, the song was recorded in a Canadian studio, and it was performed primarily by Canadian musicians. Under the regulations, the definition of "Canadian" was not dependent upon citizenship, but referred to artists living and working in Canada: Artists who were actively part of the domestic music industry.

Commercial radio stations in this country come off as the greatest villains in Edwardson's telling. In the 1950s and 1960s they would, with rare exceptions, only play songs already charting on the American Billboard hit-list. There are anecdotes about radio programmers laughing in the face of Canadian arists, and then literally trashing local albums without even listening to them. The musicians and industry-boosters who took it upon themselves to push for Canadian content regulations for radio in the late 1960s and into the 1970s deserve the most credit for the creation of infrastructure that has allowed musicians, studios, and label owners to make a living based in Canada. The advent of MuchMusic at a time when there were few Canadian-made videos was a huge boost to the domestic industry, but only for the station's first decade, after which it changed its programming focus. By the end of the book, which rushes through the great changes in the industry since the mid-1990s, commercial radio stations are once again painted in negative terms. Even though Cancon has remained in place, changes over the years and---ironically---the strength of Canadian music in the past few decades---has meant that the regulations are much less effective than they once were in supporting new and emerging artists. With large backcatalogues of established and internationally-known Canadian artists to turn to, radio stations are once-again risk averse. The internet has changed their importance relative to other forms of media and publicity, but Edwardson's book is too broad---and perhaps too soon---to delve much into recent happenings.

Edwardson convincingly shows how popular music in Canada went from being almost completely un-national in content, influence, location, support, and intent, to being an art-form and entertainment championed as a major component of Canadian culture. The change didn't spur Cancon, he claims, but it did happen concurrently with the growing sense among music types that a domestic music industry ought to exist for reasons unrelated to nationalism.

I enjoyed this book. It is accessible yet intelligent and well-researched---Edwardson had a PhD in history, after all. Some readers may enjoy the earlier chapters that cover the story of Canadian popular music in its proper American or British contexts. Others, like myself, with find more of interest in the latter, more industry-focused, ones. Content-wise, the book is a little disjointed, with the Quebec sections not as well integrated as they might have been. (But then, the story there is so different, and Cancon had little effect because radio in that province was already playing French-Canadian artists.) Anyone interested in the history of music-making in this country, and especially of the emergence of the domestic music-making industry, will find much of interest here. Like all good books should, this one leaves me wanting to know much more.

Canuck Rock is being launched this evening (Tuesday, 22 September) with a panel discussion at Soundscapes. Ryan Edwardson will be joined by True North Records' founder Bernie Finkelstein (who figures prominently in the book as one of the heroes of the Canadian industry) and author Nicholas Jennings (Before the Gold Rush). The free event runs from 7 to 9pm.


Ben said...

An excellent, concise review.

Lauren said...

I found the history and the beginning to very interesting, but I learned more from the last half of the book. I am currently living in Montreal and there are many radio stations dedicated to playing French-Canadian music. Unfortunately there is little in the ways of Anglo-Canadian radio play.

Mechanical Forest Sound said...

But — did it leave you with a hankering to listen to any classic CanCon? (Not, hopefully, like Terry Jacks or anything.)

historyjen said...

Thanks Ben!
I'm with you, Lauren. The language divide continues... I rarely hear French in Toronto.
And Joe... not really, but that says more about me than about the book haha.