The un­told story of MuchMu­sic.

ELLE (Canada) - - Contents - By Alan­nah O’Neill

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.”

Erica Ehm Master T with the Spice Girls

Moses Znaimer (above) and Ed the Sock (right)

Steve An­thony

Steve An­thony in­ter­view­ing rock­ers Möt­ley Crüe

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