The untold story of MuchMusic.
last year marked the 30th birthday of Much Music, the groundbreaking 24-hour TV station that, for generations, defined youth culture across the country. But, instead of an anniversary that honoured the channel’s distinct heritage, news of cutbacks and layoffs began to emerge. Now, it’s operating with a skeleton staff, its ragtag group of video jockeys (VJs) have grown up (many—like Sook-Yin Lee, George Stroumboulopoulos and Steve Anthony—have gone on to forge impressive careers in Canadian media) and there are whispers that the channel won’t survive much longer. How does a station so influential—a pioneer in reality television and interactive content before the Internet even existed—fall so far? The rise of digital media didn’t do it any favours: No one is going to sit around and wait for their favourite music video to come on with YouTube at their fingertips. It was this, alongside a corporate takeover (which Ed the Sock describes as “one of the best examples of bad corporate rebranding ever”), that systematically changed everything—the programming, the videos, the hosts and, ultimately, the spirit that allowed the channel to stand out in so many ways for so many people. Here, the creator and some of the station’s most successful VJs share why they loved Much Music just as much as we did. The original concept was simple: a 24hour music station hosted by normal, charming, albeit imperfect, people. Moses Znaimer (creator): “When I first started in television, there was an enormous amount of time put into the pretense that everything had to be perfect. Hours would be spent fixing the lights so you wouldn’t see a shadow. The microphones were hidden. I was of the view that the process is sometimes more exciting than the conclusion—that seeing people tousled or losing that perfection gets others involved. So I put the studio at street level and made the sides of the building roll up so that the VJs could step onto the street or the street could step into the building. Our master control—and the desks where people worked—were part of the set. I didn’t care if people made an error as long as they were charming and talented.” Sook-Yin Lee (1995–2001): “Moses was on the vanguard of thinking: this notion of the process being key. He tried to break through the fourth wall and was instrumental in destroying the idea of the studio. He thought ‘We’ll find interesting people who are not necessarily trained for their positions but have a passion for the work.’ His idea was that you throw VJs on, they’ll make lots of mistakes and, in time, the audience will see them grow and become endeared to them. It’s a radical notion now.” Tony “Master T” Young (1990–2001): “Moses did not want a cookie-cutter on-air personality. He said to me, ‘Go up there and shake your locks.’ That gave me the ability to show that I’m a black man sporting my dreadlocks. I could speak about blackness and black culture.” h
Steven “Ed the Sock” Kerzner (1994– 2005): “VJs had to fill three hours of programming at a time. No one said anything about what to do— they just said, ‘Here are the videos you’re going to play; go ahead and fill the shift.’” Steve Anthony (1987–1995): “If we wanted to, we could spend an afternoon eating lead paint and rubbing asbestos on each other. Anything we did—because it hadn’t been done before—was the most brilliant TV ever.” Much Music was passionate about bringing fans close to their favourite artists. Live performances, mixed with Q&As, gave viewers unprecedented access to the biggest names in music. Erica Ehm (1984–1997): “My interview with Kurt Cobain in Seattle was one of the last ones he did before he committed suicide. It was shocking when he killed himself because he was quite happy, although he was uncomfortable in his skin.” Master T: “I did the first Spice Girls interview. Scary Spice was born in Leeds, England—the same city where I was born. We were talking when she came up to me and went ‘I like him! He’s all right!’ and buried my face in her cleavage and shook my head. That got international attention.” Bill Welychka (1992–2000): “I interviewed Gene Simmons in a strip club. At the beginning of the interview, he pulled in a server and a dancer to sit on his lap. The cameraman had to zoom in really close on his face, because he had boobs on either side of him.” George Stroumboulopoulos (2000– 2004): “Any other TV network would zoom out so they could get the strippers’ bodies in there. But Much Music intentionally wouldn’t let him be a misogynist on TV. That’s fucking awesome.” As Much Music gained popularity, so did the VJs: Teens would make the pilgrimage down to the corner of Queen and John in Toronto to hang with the hosts. Ed the Sock: “We were the Kardashians of the time.” Erica: “I think I got the most mail of anyone. At the time, a lot of the letters came from the penitentiary—from inmates who watched Much Music.” Bill: “Giggling girls used to follow me home from the station.” “Rick the Temp” Campanelli (1994– 2005): “If people were going to drive for a couple of hours to come to Much Music, I wanted to hang out with them as much as they wanted to hang out with us. We just opened up the window and brought the people in from outside.” Much Music treated its audience as equals. There was a focus on on-theground reporting, promoting media literacy and programming that was inclusive of all identities. Master T: “I hosted and produced a couple of shows where we looked at the videos: the booty shaking, the scantily clad women—I was able to address those scenarios. I did Black History Month specials. We did a show called The Real Deal; it was a youth-issues talk show where we looked at everything from juvenile crime to sex to jobs—it really touched the audience and the parents.” Ed the Sock: “We started Fromage to make fun of foreign or cheap music videos. Then we thought ‘Let’s stop shooting fish in a barrel. Let’s look for the people who have enough money to do it right but instead made stuff that was cheesy or cloying or manipulative.’ And it was, dollar for dollar, the station’s most successful show.” George: “It’s important to be a good company. And Much Music was the best company. Everybody worked so hard: to make some little girl in Nunavut feel like she wasn’t alone; to let some guy in fucking Grande Prairie come home from school, after he’s had a shit day, to let him flip on that channel and show him ‘Hey, man, you’re not alone.’ This was a h
“We could spend an afternoon eating lead paint and rubbing asbestos on each other.”
network that treated gay and trans people as equals long before any other network did. Our network was about inclusivity from the get-go. Do you know how many kids grew up watching MuchMusic thinking ‘Maybe my neighbourhood, or my dad, doesn’t get it, but there is a place where everybody is accepted.’” Sook-Yin: “I often hear from marginalized kids, kids who were dealing with a lot of questions and confusion in the suburbs, and I think that MuchMusic and shows like The Wedge were a lifeline that introduced alternative and independent music.” Every summer since 1990, the MuchMusic Video Awards (MMVAs) has been held in Toronto. It attracts boldfaced names like U2, Britney Spears and the Beastie Boys, and streets are cordoned off to accommodate the screaming music fans. Erica: “The [original] MuchMusic Video Awards were a testament to our ability to navigate insanity on live TV. They were loosely scripted; anything could happen. It was such a fantastic show, because it was loose and edgy. The [Much] show today is a huge professional production, which was not what we were about.” George: “That was the best weekend of the year in the whole city. The entire building—every other network marshalled resources to help make the MMVAs work. Then the stars would come—fucking David Bowie was there. Crazy, man.” Ed the Sock: “Moses had this thing about not wanting a roof on the stage. That went on until the Smashing Pumpkins did a live performance [a couple months before the MMVAs] and there was a thunderstorm, and everyone was worried they were going to get electrocuted.” Moses: “When you put the roof on, you can be in Zanzibar or Glastonbury or Woodstock. If it’s a stage with an overhang and lots of lights, that’s the shot and you can be anywhere. When the roof comes off, you see the CN Tower. So a couple of musicians get electrocuted—can’t anyone take a joke?” When MuchMusic was sold to Bell Globemedia in 2006, it spelled the beginning of the end for the music channel. After Znaimer left to pursue other interests, reality and teen-oriented programming replaced original content. Master T: “When Moses left, that was huge. Everything became very corporate. I remember a bunch of guys who were like ‘CEO of this, CEO of that, CEO of the washroom.’ Everyone got a title; it took the personal connection away.” Moses: “After I left, the garage doors on the side of the building got locked. They put drapes up. They took away everything that made it different.” Sook-Yin: “The supermodels were brought in [as VJs], and it became scripted and controlled.” Rick the Temp: “They stopped playing music 24-7 and started bringing in reality shows and pop-culture shows that didn’t fit. More and more restrictions were put on what we could do.” George: “Much stopped caring about music. It was no longer unique; it was just another voice in a chorus already filled with voices doing the same thing.” Ed the Sock: “It used to be that MuchMusic was very egalitarian. You showed up, you lined up outside, you got to go in and be seen on camera. You could get close to the celebrities, depending on when you got there. They changed it so that it was no longer about when people got there. They went through the audience determining who was better looking, and they pulled the better-looking people to the front; when they didn’t like the looks of someone so much, they put them behind pillars. It became about shallow surface nonsense. That was when they lost their audience.” Even though YouTube ultimately had a hand in MuchMusic’s demise, the network is widely viewed as a precursor to the Internet. Rick the Temp: “With YouTube and social media, you didn’t have to watch Much anymore if you wanted to see a music video. The viewership dropped because people could surf whatever they were looking for. In a way, that was the beginning of the end.” Erica: “Much was the precursor to social media, because Moses understood the audience was just as important as the host and the artist. Moses brought the audience into the show.” George: “Much invented YouTube, dude. Speakers’ Corner WAS YouTube. People would come in and say and do unbelievable shit on the corner of Queen and John. And then it would air on a TV show.” Erica: “All the different things: Speakers’ Corner, the window that opened and let fans come in, and also the letters—when people would write letters at the time, because they couldn’t email yet, we would hold them up. It was social media: the connection between the audience and the show. It created such loyalty to the brand that was MuchMusic. It was an amazing place to work.” Rick the Temp: “It was a magical time. We were lucky—we really created something different, something unique... all those years ago.” n
“The MuchMusic Video Awards were a testament
to our ability to navigate insanity on live TV.”