Critical Miss

Canadian pop superstars may have international credibility, but the mags covering them are mostly fanzines or slavish industry trade mags

Megan Thow
Spring, 2002 | Comments (0) - Report an Error

 

Blender, Vibe, Spin, Rockgrl, Circus, Mojo, Jockey Slut. At major newsstands and bookstores across the country, a variety of pop music magazines are available to Canadians, covering a wide range of genres, from hip-hop to metal to electronica. It seems as if there's a magazine suited to every music lover out there, but look again. While there are national specialty music publications like Canadian Music Network, Canadian Musician, and Chart, a teen glossy-with the exception of Exclaim!, a controlled circulation, tabloid-style newspaper-there is very little serious journalistic coverage of Canadian music available in magazines.

There are a number of reasons that might account for the absence of more homegrown music magazines. Canada's geography and demographics play a role: there are too few readers and potential advertisers and too many international (especially American) competitors. But there are also factors peculiar to the music industry, including a tendency on the part of publishers to avoid angering the record companies on whom they rely for support.

That is, if and when the record industry does decide to support existing magazines. Amanda Dwyer, associate manager, marketing planning for Sony Music Canada, doesn't see much room for new titles as it stands now. "There are so many magazines out there, and I wouldn't say we necessarily need another music magazine," she says. "You can advertise in music magazines, but it is almost preaching to the converted."

Readers seeking coverage of the domestic industry may find soft coverage, writing quality at the fanzine level, and out and out business promotion, but will look in vain for serious, critical coverage of the kind that has existed in U.S. and British publications for decades. The largest paid-circulation magazine in the country is Chart, a monthly consumer chronicle of teen rock favourites like the Matthew Good Band, which has a press run of more than 40,000.

In the early years of rock 'n' roll, beginning in the mid-1950s, few journalists took the music seriously. It's not that musicians weren't celebrated in print-teen glossies targeted mainly at young girls, like Song Hits, Beat, and Hit Parader, were bursting with foldout posters, brief interviews, and song lyrics-it's just that no one seriously criticized music. Maybe rock 'n' roll was such a new phenomenon that people were caught off guard, unable to comprehend, let alone document, the impact it would have on the world.

By the '60s, British weekly journals like Melody Maker (around since 1926) and the New Musical Express (founded in 1952) turned their attention to the burgeoning phenomena of Merseybeat and a homegrown revved-up version of American rhythm 'n' blues. In America, though, writers remained frustrated with the fluffy teen content until 1967, when a 21-year-old college dropout named Jann Wenner decided there was an untapped market for a biweekly tabloid that took rock music and musicians seriously. The result, Rolling Stone, became so successful that it eventually eclipsed all of its competitors, which over the years included Creem, Crawdaddy!, and Trouser Press. But they all had one thing in common: they targeted a slightly older audience and tried to apply standards of serious journalism to rock music. No longer were music journalists writing glorified press releases on behalf of record companies. Now they were expected to gather extensive research and produce in-depth stories, often with a counterculture dose of personal journalism added.

Around the time music journalism was coming of age in the U.S., a number of small publications were springing up across Canada. Among them was RPM Weekly, founded in 1964 by Walt Grealis and Stan Klees as a trade magazine to provide news to record company executives, radio station employees, record retailers, and others employed in the music industry. In 1968, for example, it published a series of articles advocating government intervention to force radio broadcasters to play Canadian music. Over time, RPM's efforts, with the support of other lobbyists, proved to be instrumental in what would become the Canadian content regulations, which are credited with kick-starting the modern Canadian music industry.

Despite its accomplishments, critics have pointed out that RPM was also a booster of its owners' interests. Klees owned Red Leaf Records in the 1960s and many articles focused on the artists on his label. Veteran music business publicist and journalist Richard Flohil says, "The concept of a balanced story didn't exist."

Two other national music magazines started up in Canada a decade or so after RPM. The first was Alberta Music Express, a tabloid founded by Keith Sharp in 1976, which then became Music Express two years later in 1978 when it expanded its distribution to the rest of western Canada via Kelly's Record Chain. In 1980 it moved its distribution to Toronto. ME primarily focused on rock and pop, with specialty columns addressing jazz, folk, and country music, and plenty of reviews. For the first six or seven years it was heavy on Canadian content, with each issue including reports from all over the country

While ME began as a Canadian music magazine, Sharp broadened its horizons in the mid-'80s. He cut deals with four U.S. record chains (and A&A Records & Tapes in Canada) to carry ME in all their stores. And according to Sharp, at its height in 1987, the largest press run was one million copies. And although the magazine was being distributed in the U.S., it still maintained its Canadian coverage. According to Kerry Doole, a long-time music journalist who wrote for ME: "Even when the big U.S. deal was in place, we published a separate Canadian edition. In the U.S. edition, ME had regional columns from U.S. cities that did not run in the Canadian edition." The Canadian edition usually sported a different cover, with the magazine giving ink to popular Canadian artists of the day like Glass Tiger.

Despite this large circulation number and wide distribution, ME was unable to sustain its initial growth. First, the U.S. distributor decided to put out its own publication, thereby pushing ME out of its stores. Then in 1991, ME's primary Canadian retail distributor, A&A, went bankrupt for the first time, ending the magazine's built-in cross-country distribution. Losing access to both the U.S. and Canadian markets proved deadly. Music Express went under in 1992 and then was revived under a new name, Impact. Doole and many other staff members collaborated on the new publication, which lasted until 1996.

The Record, a second music industry trade bible was launched in 1981, shortly after ME made its Toronto debut. It was a joint venture spearheaded by editor and publisher David Farrell, and assisted by Richard Flohil and another veteran music journalist, Larry LeBlanc. The threesome wanted to publish what they felt would be more than a compendium of press releases. Like RPM, the new publication contained radio charts, news, record reviews, and information relevant to those working in the industry. But, Flohil maintains, it wasn't "a repository of press releases run without editing or investigation."

By the late '90s, Farrell, like so many Canadian publishers, concluded that insufficient advertisers and rising printing costs made publishing a print magazine daunting. After a brief stint as an online publication, Farrell closed The Record in March 2001.

What's telling about these failed ventures is that while the creators of early American publications were motivated by the desire to document a counterculture movement, their Canadian counterparts were principally designed-to one degree or another-to serve the interests of the music industry. This uneasy relationship continues today.

Like any worthwhile publication, Chart aspires to maintain a firewall between advertisers and editorial content. Brian Eaton, the magazine's advertising sales executive, sizes up his business dilemma this way: "We do work cooperatively [with the major labels], but we take the risk to offend them if we want. We want to get advance copies, we want access to the artist. All of this requires much interaction. So in return we are not going to upset them too much."

Publisher and editor Edward Skira-who has been with Chart since its inception in 1990-understands that labels could pull their money at any time. "Your fortunes are tied to the music industry and if they're not advertising, you have problems," he says. He goes on to say that he believes that many people in the Canadian music industry often remain tight-lipped about controversial issues and being critical of one another. "There is stuff like that we could conceivably publish, but then the labels would be all over our asses. You have to walk a fine line."

No kidding. Five major conglomerates (BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal, and Warner) dominate the Canadian music industry. LeBlanc, now Canadian editor for Billboard magazine, the U.S.-based record industry trade weekly, has covered the music scene for over 35 years. He says the number of labels has been "shrinking, shrinking, shrinking" in recent years as the multinationals have been both swallowing each other and acquiring independents. "Ten or 15 years ago, independent companies probably would have advertised," LeBlanc says. "Each one of the majors right now probably has about 15 subsidiaries that used to be independent companies," he says. "Under a major, they're not likely to advertise, or if they do, it's part of the overall limit of ads that majors would put in the publication."

This means that if music magazines in Canada print something that annoys a major player to the point where it stops advertising, a publisher doesn't have many options to make up lost revenue. How likely is this to happen? Major label executives offer different answers. David MacMillan, a marketing manager at EMI Music Canada, says his company doesn't drop ads because of critical content. "Obviously we want them to have their own control over what they put out. It's not like we dictate to them or pull money from them."

Sony's Amanda Dwyer isn't as definitive about the difference between church and state. "I can't say yes we would or no we wouldn't. It really depends on the circumstances." She suggested Sony would deal with this type of situation on a "case-by-case" basis.

Ivar Hamilton, marketing director for Universal/Island/Def Jam, makes it clear that his company would retaliate if he thought his artists weren't being treated well. "If you spend good money and you get a constant knocking of your product, it's like, each to his own," he says. "If that's something those publications want to do, we have options and we can go wherever we want."

Editors are understandably wary of naming names when it comes to their own experiences with angry record companies. Steve McLean is managing editor and associate publisher of Canadian Music Network, a weekly magazine with a circulation of 1,000. When asked if he's had run-ins with the record companies, he responds enigmatically: "Well, I'm not going to come out and say things verging on slander; I'm not going to tiptoe around it either. It's obviously a balance you've got to reach."

Richard Flohil, who spent nearly 19 years at The Record, is more forthright. When asked whether or not he has heard about labels threatening to pull their ads if something critical was published, he simply says, "Oh, yes."

Another long-time music journalist, who asks not to be identified, is equally direct: "Small music magazines cannot bite the hand that feeds if they expect to get fed. No one will go on record with that because of the financial repercussions."

Another, less confrontational way for magazines to deal with friction over editorial content and the potential loss of advertising revenue is to either amend or add pieces to keep the labels happy. Liisa Ladouceur, who was a music editor at Chart and is now a freelance music writer, says, "It's more common for editorial to be added because of advertising pressure. I won't mention any specific mags, but just take a look at the ads and ask yourself if there are any articles that are pretty lame and seem to have no other reason for existing than an ad connection." LeBlanc, meanwhile, recalls an occasion when an editor at another publication changed a critical record review he had written. LeBlanc is still indignant about the incident: "He hadn't even listened to the record!"

Canadian music magazines also have to contend with market penetration from international publications. Some advertisers may be more likely to spend their money in Spin and Rolling Stone, say, because they will assume that those ads will reach Canadian readers too. Ian Danzig, publisher of Exclaim!, a tabloid that distributes more than 100,000 copies per month, says, "A typical scenario would be if a major label has a release that's coming out. They are going to say, 'Let's see how that [American] advertising does for us first' before they'll make a decision to go into a Canadian publication."

Actually, having survived and grown over its 10-year existence, Exclaim! has to be considered a success story of the industry. It's now a cross-country, monthly tabloid, but Danzig envisions an upgrade from its current format. "We've looked at different formats for the publication so that it is less confused with a regional weekly," says Danzig. "Glossy would be one of those potential formats."

While Exclaim! may get a facelift in the next couple of years, chances are it will remain one of the few music magazines in Canada. Journalist Nicholas Jennings says, "It's just a question of, is it viable right now for another publication to come into the game? I think it's dubious and probably doubtful, at least for the near future."

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