MuchMusic Punching Out?

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In the mid-00’s, MuchMusic‘s program directors decided that they needed something to compete with this whole “Internet” thing. Sequestering themselves in a boardroom for a week, when they emerged the result was PunchMuch: A channel that basically mimicked the social Web.

Boasting a programming schedule wholly driven by SMS voting, the channel didn’t exactly set the world on fire – perhaps not surprisingly, given Much had essentially replaced their entire programming team with a legion of ten-year-old Good Charlotte fans. After a few years in cable purgatory, the service was eventually cancelled and replaced by Juicebox.

Why revisit Much’s first failed attempt to stem the bleeding when web-based media began cutting into its viewership, you ask? Because it seems quite relevant in light of recent news that Much will be operating with a “skeleton crew” of staff following the latest round of job cuts by parent company Bell Media.

Numerous media outlets have published excellent pieces on MuchMusic following the announcement, ranging from wistful recollections to outright obituaries for the once-vibrant station. Aside from the common thread of impending doom, all of the posts are connected by an unescapable sense of nostalgia – a clear sign that the kids who learned about music by watching MuchMusic twenty years ago are now the ones writing about it.

The Nation’s Music Station

Like most 90’s and 00’s kids, here at Boom Unit we grew up on MuchMusic. From the cringe-inducing early days where all of the VJs dressed like members of David Lee Roth’s backing band, through the headbanging years where Guns ’N Roses and Faith No More dominated Combat Des Clips, all the way up to the early 2000’s when George Stroumboulopoulos devoted an hour each week to introducing the masses to the Misfits and NOFX – we watched it all (or at least taped the best parts).

With apologies to Tarzan Dan, in the days before YouTube the MuchMusic Countdown was the one yardstick by which a video’s popularity could be measured. Equal parts cultural barometer and trusted companion, throughout our formative years MuchMusic was our morning motivator, our lunchtime serenade, and the saviour of our sanity while toiling in teenage telephone hell. Live Aid, Lollapalooza, Woodstock ‘94, Warped Tour, Woodstock ’99 – MuchMusic brought them home to suburban kids like us in all their lightbulb suit-adorned, mud-slinging glory.

And while we would never claim to have loved everything that Much produced (any of the regional shows come to mind, as does anything involving Sook-Yin Lee), ultimately that was the point: The station opened doors for viewers to discover new music they otherwise wouldn’t find. You weren’t supposed to love every video on “The Wedge”, but for every “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” you suffered through, there was always the hope that a “Say It Ain’t So” or “Salvation” was waiting for you on the other side.

Upon viewing clips of VJ Erica Ehm linked from a recent blogTO post (who along with Teresa Roncon will forever hold a place in our pre-pubescent hearts for hosting the Power Hour), what struck us most was how much she actually seemed to CARE about music. Case in point: In this clip Ehm actually talks about how Dire Straits poached a Nashville session musician, pissing off countless country artists who relied on the guy when recording their albums. Riveting? Perhaps not to everyone, but it was nice to know the people serving you up Soundgarden videos at least knew something about music.

MuchMusic Goes Down The Tubes

This sort of insight is what makes Bell Media President Kevin Crull’s comments in June pretty sad for Canadians that grew up watching MuchMusic. “Kids do not watch music videos on television,” Crull is quoted as saying, “you’re not going to wait for somebody to program a music video when you have a million available on Vevo.”

While largely true, the problem now is that instead of VJs and program directors curating content for viewers, it’s largely done by a YouTube algorithm (age + gender + viewing history = recommended videos – fun!). The unfortunate truth is that relying upon an algorithm to recommend music creates an echo chamber just as resilient as top 40 radio, meaning something like Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” can appear in your YouTube recommendations for weeks simply on the strength of it being recommended to so many people (and thus generating views). In other words: “It must be good because people like it, and people like it so it must be good.”

It’s all perfectly rational, logical, and measured, but what it isn’t is discernibly human.

With viral success becoming the only way to achieve mass exposure outside of the paid media cycle, how much more difficult has it become for an artist to crack the public consciousness? Whereas MuchMusic (and to a lesser extent MTV) had employees whose job it was to discover and program new music, this subjectivity is lost when you rely upon an algorithm to define taste. For better or worse, this sort of aggregation limits the frequency of inspired moments that can push artists like Afroman, Bloodhound Gang, and Gorillaz into the spotlight.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t great places to find new music online, because there certainly are. Sites like AllMusic, Pitchfork, and IMVDb are great resources to find new music and videos, and AUX does a fantastic job of cultivating and sharing content for music lovers. The catch here is that you have to be willing to look for it, as opposed to simply coming home from school, grabbing a Pepsi, and checking out what’s on Videoflow.

MuchMusic Punching Out?

Which brings us back full-circle: PunchMuch largely failed because it tried to compete with the Web on its own terms. The key element that differentiates MuchMusic from the online video platforms is the interviews and live programming that allow them to introduce new artists and trends – original content that viewers can’t get on YouTube (at least right away).

Sadly this type of programming is exactly what was targeted in this round of cuts, as Much continues to move away from music in hopes of re-imagining themselves as a “teen lifestyle brand”. The irony lies in the fact that in moving to become a lifestyle brand a la MTV, Much is vacating the cultural gatekeeper role that they served for generations of Canadian teenagers: The very thing that made them unique, and made so much of their programming so memorable.

Giving It Back To Moses

But perhaps all is not lost. In a recent interview posted on AUX’s website, former VJ Master T laid out a plan to save MuchMusic: Namely by giving it back to Moses Znaimer, the McLuhan-loving architect of the channel’s glory days.

Would it work? Master T certainly thinks so, suggesting that the channel’s function as tastemaker and cultural disseminator remains relevant in the Internet age. In any event, it would certainly be more entertaining than the five year-old Tosh.0 episodes Much now seems content to air (double-rainbow, anyone?).

Then again, they could always just turn the keys back over to Weird Al – he’s been doing pretty alright lately.

So what do you think: Will giving MuchMusic back to Moses work, or has teen culture changed too much? Let us know in the comments, and don’t forget to “Like” the #GiveThemBackToMoses Facebook page.

More on MuchMusic

Master T has a plan to save MuchMusic – AUX.tv
The rise and fall of MuchMusic, from crucial TV to bust – blogTO
Bell Media and the ongoing death of MuchMusic – TV Watercooler
5 Reasons Handing Much to Moses Would Work – Everythingzoomer.com
RIP MuchMusic – NOW Toronto