It was one of those car rides when we’d forgotten the Bluetooth speaker — a shocking discovery that occurred too late for us to turn back home to get it. Now we had hours ahead of us in the car and conversation would only carry us so far. I turned on the radio, but after nearly two hours none of us could stand it anymore. Three stations playing the same Maroon 5 song at once, various Ariana Grande and Demi Lovato tracks melding into one. And Drake, God bless him, being played on a single station at least three times within an hour. Those hours were as jam-packed with commercials as they were with paint by numbers pop music. It confirmed the reason why I rarely listened to radio. In desperation, we found a store en route and bought a Bluetooth speaker that mercifully provided us with Spotify for the rest of the trip.
We reached for Spotify, but many don’t. Despite the rising popularity of streaming services, according to a 2017 article in Media in Canada entitled “Streaming is on the rise, but radio remains king,” radio continues to be a very powerful platform that Canadian listeners opt into every day, spending “37 per cent of their music-listening time on radio, compared to 19 per cent on a digital music library and 12 per cent on physical copies of music (vinyl and CDs).” In 2018 Nielsen reported an increase in streaming by teens and millennials, primarily for the consumption of playlists. But radio remained strong — both groups were moving between platforms, paying for services as well as tuning into the radio.
For me, streaming opened the musical floodgates, but so did becoming a music journalist in 2013, and, more importantly, a Polaris Music Prize juror in 2016. Via Polaris, I became exposed to a rich, deep body of Canadian music that transformed the stereotypical ideas I had developed, pre-music journalism, in regard to the “Canadian sound.” It changed my focus as a journalist and expanded what I personally listen to. This revelation made me start to wonder why Canadian commercial radio was not better reflecting the many dynamic voices I heard, such as A Tribe Called Red, Maylee Todd, Sate, HanHan, Bonjay and FoxTrott, to name a few that were, and are, making fantastic, exciting music.
“Commercial radio is almost exclusively a showcase for music's ‘one-per centers’ — the Drakes, the Ariana Grandes, the Coldplays,” explains Johan Hultqvist, publicist for JUNO-winning artists like Kobo Town, Kiran Ahluwalia and Jayme Stone. “If that's what you listen to, you'll never know what 99 per cent of the actual music scene looks and sounds like. The culinary equivalent would be living in Toronto or New York and eating at McDonald's every day.”
Derek Andrews, concert organizer and founder of music conference Mundial Montreal, which has showcased artists from A Tribe Called Red to Mélissa Laveaux, agrees. He says that when it comes to helping artists find spaces for their music, he gave up on commercial radio long ago.
“Commercial radio is not a useful resource for my work,” he says. “It is dominated by the American playlist and isn’t connected to community.” Andrews looks to outlets such as CBC Radio, particularly Radio One’s Fresh Air and the drive shows that announce concerts with a track from the artist involved. “I also sample specialty feeds like G98 and [106.5] ELMNT.FM,” he adds. “Campus and community radio remain relevant to my work, whether it be the University of Toronto’s CIUT or the Alberta-wide CKUA.”