We live in a potentially wondrous time. The whole of the world’s knowledge is available at our fingertips. We needn’t wonder any more about anything. All of the answers to any question we could possibly have are available at the push of a button on a keyboard. Not only can we learn about anything our little hearts desire, it is now possible to promote ourselves to the world at the push of a button, too. With a little planning and organization, complete nobodies can become internationally known somebodies without the help of multinational marketing campaigns. Many of today’s top musical acts such as Lil Nas X, Ed Sheeran and BTS all let their fans know of their latest musical creations by dropping hints on social media first. By using the power of the internet to connect with their audiences, today’s music stars can have viral hits the moment their songs go public because they have created a demand “behind the scenes” as it were. The old way of putting out a single, having radio stations play your song and then watching as the song moved up the record charts all seems somewhat quaint by today’s standards. Imagine what The Beatles might have been able to accomplish using social media!?
But today’s story takes place at a time just before the internet came along and changed our lives forever. In the 1990s, if a singer or a band wanted to launch their career, they still went about it the way that groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones did…they toured a lot, were “discovered” and signed to a record deal, they toured a lot to support that record, radio stations played their “hit song”, if they were lucky, the singer/band appeared on Canadian TV and then, if all was going really well and the song was a smash hit, they might end up going to the US, touring there and, by doing so, raising their profile back in Canada. This would lead them to putting out a second album which, hopefully, was well-received and maybe the artist/band could carve out a career for themselves in Canada. The one thing about doing this in the 1980s and 90s that made it slightly different for artists was something known as music videos. The early 1980s saw the emergence of a broadcasting phenomenon called Cable TV. Cable TV allowed Canadian homeowners to enjoy a larger selection of television channels that showed regular network programming from Canada and the US. Most homes started out with “Basic” Cable which was composed of the major Canadian network channels of CBC (English and French), CTV, TVO (in Ontario), as well as the major US networks such as ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS. Throw in a channel for local programming, a TV Guide channel and you had your basic cable package. But what really helped artists in Canada and the US to market themselves a little more easily was when the Cable TV providers began offering specialty channels. Some of the most successful channels were dedicated to sports and movies. But one of the most successful of them all concerned music and that was MTV in the US and Much Music/Musique Plus in Canada.
In order to help Canadian artists establish themselves, the government passed a law that mandated all radio and television stations had to include a minimum amount of Canadian content as a condition of maintaining their broadcasting license. What this meant for Much Music was that it now needed to actively acquire and promote as wide a range of Canadian artists and bands as they could manage. The music video industry grew exponentially. Grants were issued that enabled new bands to have a chance to make a half-decent video and have that video showcased on the “nation’s music station”. One example of this that I can clearly remember happened while I was enrolled in the Radio and Television Arts Programme at what was then called Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. Our little section of the university was all agog one day when one of Canada’s hottest new bands, Platinum Blonde, used part of their grant money to film a music video in our studios. Some of the kids at school (not me unfortunately) got a chance to work behind the scenes as volunteers. When the video launched on Much Music, we were understandably proud of our small role in helping to make it happen. The late 1980s and into the 90s was a time of tremendous growth for the Canadian music scene all across the country. The Tragically Hip, Sarah McLachlan, Blue Rodeo, Sloan, Jane Siberry, The Grapes of Wrath, Barenaked Ladies, Crash Test Dummies, The Cowboy Junkies, 54-40 and many more all got their start and were able to launch careers that achieved varying degrees of success. But make no mistake, Cancon rules and organizations such as Much Music played a huge part in helping bring the talent and imagination of many young Canadian musicians into the public spotlight.
One of those musicians who benefited from it all was a band out of Montreal called The Sam Roberts Band. This band was led by a charismatic and handsome lead singer named Sam Roberts. They began in the late 1990s and were able to release their debut album called, We Are Born In A Flame in 2002. This album spawned several big hits such as “Don’t Walk Away Eileen”, “Brother Down”, “Hard Road” and “Where Have All The Good People Gone?” The band dutifully made music videos to accompany these songs and soon Sam Roberts’ face was appearing all across the nation on a regular basis. The band’s music was Canadian tuxedo-style rock n’ roll and was well-received by audiences. In fact, when the big SARs benefit concert was held in Toronto in 2003 (a concert that included Rush, The Guess Who, AC/DC, The Rolling Stones and Justin Timberlake), Sam Roberts Band opened the concert, playing for fifteen precious minutes in front of the largest crowd of their career. But, a decade or so prior to this, Much Music and the major record labels of the day came up with a unique and clever idea. Working in a rare spirit of cooperation and partnership, a new way to market Canadian artists was discussed and agreed upon that would help Canadian artists compete alongside their more successful American counterparts (who were still selling well in all Canadian markets). The plan that these executives came up with was to create their own special music compilation CD. That CD would feature songs that were popular on Much Music. It would include some of the top US hits of the day but it had to also carry just as many Canadian hits, too. In this way, if you bought this CD because you liked The Red Hot Chili Peppers, for example, you would also be getting music by Canadian bands and artists, too. The compilation CD was to be sold under the banner of Much Music and became known as Big Shiny Tunes.
As I have mentioned in previous posts, I really was able to develop an appreciation for a broad swath of music in the 1980s. By the time the 1990s rolled around, I was now working as a teacher and had more disposable income to spend on my hobby. Thus, the Big Shiny Tunes series (of which there ended up being seventeen), arrived in the marketplace at around the same time as I arrived in the marketplace. Thus, these compilation CDs were one of the ways that I was able to quickly and affordably expand my own musical collection. It is a series that is still bearing fruit for me in weird ways even today. On Twitter, I follow a Canadian music site that features 1990s music. The site is called “Rave and Drool”, which was the name of a hit song by The Killjoys which, tying it all in, was one of the Canadian tracks that made it onto the very first Big Shiny Tunes CD which was released in 1996. Overall, the 17 Big Shiny Tunes CDs that were released have gone on to become Canada’s biggest selling music series with sales of over 5 million CDs. My first BST purchase was Big Shiny Tunes 2 which included Canadian bands such as Tea Party, Holly McNarland, Age of Electric, Wide Mouth Mason and Bran Van 3000, alongside such international heavyweights at the time as The Prodigy, Blur, Radiohead, Marilyn Manson and Collective Soul. The Sam Roberts Band appeared on Big Shiny Tunes 7 which was released in 2002 and just preceded the SARs benefit concert by a year. “Where Have All The Good People Gone?” appeared on Big Shiny Tunes 8 which was released the following year.
Like all good things, Big Shiny Tunes ran its course. By the time the final Big Shiny Tunes CD was assembled and released, the internet was becoming a bigger and more functional way for audiences to access their music. Eventually, the decision to end making new Big Shiny Tunes CDs was a simple case of the times changing and the series no longer making financial sense. To be honest, I cannot remember the last time I actually purchased a real CD. So, the decision to end Big Shiny Tunes was probably the correct one. However, having said that, Much Music helped change the way that Canadian artists and bands marketed themselves before the arrival of social media and the internet. For that reason, we all owe a big debt of gratitude to those imaginative folks who worked at Much Music and believed that, as a country, we had a music industry worth supporting. I don’t know about you but I love Canadian music and I say that without a hint of patriotism involved. I think that there is an awful lot of talent in our homeland and I enjoy listening to the music our artists are able to create. One of the bands I like most is The Sam Roberts Band. I hope that you like them, too. If you have any comments about Sam Roberts, Much Music, Big Shiny Tunes or any other Canadian acts that do it for you then please feel free to tell me all about it in the comments section below. Thanks for reading. It is a pleasure to have you here.
The link to the music video for the song, “Where Have All The Good People Gone?” by Sam Roberts Band can be found here. ***The lyrics version can be found here.
The link to The Sam Roberts Band’s full set at SARs fest can be found here.
The link to the official website for Sam Roberts Band can be found here.
The link to the official website for Much Music can be found here.
The link for the history of the Big Shiny Tunes series can be found here.
In today’s song, Sam RIberts namedrops his hometown of Montreal. The link to the official website for Montreal can be found here.
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