02/22/2012 05:19 EST | Updated 04/23/2012 05:12 EDT

The Man Who Put the "Can" in CanCon

Pierre Juneau, the civil servant who pushed for Canadian Content regulations on the radio, died yesterday. When Canadian music does well now, we give the credit to Montreal's cheap rents or the star-making power of YouTube. It might be argued, though, that Juneau exercised more influence on Canadian culture from the 1960s through the 1980s than anyone else.

I met Pierre Juneau -- the prominent Canadian civil servant who died this week -- only once or twice, but was struck on those occasions by the grace and generosity he showed towards researchers and students interested in his legacy. Juneau is best known, of course, for having presided over the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in 1971, when that Federal body imposed Canadian Content regulations on radio broadcasters in order to promote Canadian music.

The Juno Awards -- our Grammys -- are named after Juneau, and it's easy to joke about a country that borrows the name of a career civil servant for one of its leading entertainment awards. It might be argued, though, that Juneau -- who at different points in his life ran the CRTC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the French division of the National Film Board and Federal Department of Communications -- exercised more influence on Canadian culture from the 1960s through the 1980s than anyone else.

When the idea of "Canadian Content" regulations for radio was first raised, outrage and resistance came from several quarters. Radio broadcasters claimed that Canadian recordings were of low technical quality and would turn off listeners, or that there simply weren't enough of them. Others wondered how regulators could possibly measure the "Canadianness" of music in order to determine a record's eligibility.

To its credit, the CRTC resisted the temptation to identify Canadian themes or an essential Canadian sound in order to judge which songs or records might qualify as "CanCon." Instead, the much more mechanical MAPL system broke a recording down into four elements (its Music, Artist, place of Performance/Production, and Lyrics) and required that at least two of these be identified as Canadian.

As Canadian Content regulations were implemented and refined, in the early 1970s, the Commission was able to head off certain criticisms. "Oldies" radio stations, for example, were granted lower CanCon quotas, for the simple reason that Canadian recordings of the 1940s or 1950s were relatively scarce, and Canadian hits from this period even rarer. Jazz and classical stations were encouraged to play Canadian recordings representing these genres, but at lower levels than was the case for contemporary pop.

The most heated controversy surrounding CanCon came in 1991, when Bryan Adams' album Waking Up The Neighbours was judged ineligible as CanCon because Adams' collaboration with British producer/composer "Mutt" Lange was seen to dilute the album's MAPL score.

The CRTC loosened up its rules about collaboration as a result, but I've long felt it gave in too easily, rocked as it was by a public shocked that someone as clearly "Canadian" as Bryan Adams did not qualify as CanCon. A disciplined enforcement of CanCon regulations meant that someone like the American Jennifer Warnes, who recorded an album of Leonard Cohen songs (Famous Blue Raincoat), could go platinum north of the border because Cohen's authorship of the album's lyrics and music gave Warnes' album easy access to Canadian airwaves. In this case, it seems to me, CanCon regulations were doing one of the things they were meant to do -- enticing artists around the world to record Canadian music by giving them easier access to Canadian radio if they did.

After he left the CRTC, Pierre Juneau told the U.S. music industry magazine Billboard that CanCon regulations alone were not enough to ensure the health of the Canadian recording industry. He called for direct government support, of the sort that would be implemented in the 1980s with the introduction of the Sound Recording Development Program (now the Canadian Music Fund) in 1986.

Even as the record industry itself has shrunk and been transformed, public support for music runs all through the system, from grants to specialized festivals through worker-training programs that sustain the workforces of small labels.

The most radical move to support Canadian musicians since the introduction of CanCon has also been one of the least well known or understood. In 1997, copyright legislation in Canada enshrined the principle of "neighbouring rights," under which musicians and their record companies receive revenues when their music is played on the radio.

Previously, under a copyright regime born when sheet music sales ruled the music industries, only the writers of lyrics and composers of music received payments for radio airplay. (This is still the case in the U.S., where the broadcasting lobby has successfully resisted any legislation that would make them pay performers too.)

When Canadian music does well now, we give the credit to Montreal's cheap rents or the star-making power of YouTube. Accustomed as we are to hearing and seeing Canadian music all around us, we should nevertheless remember that this was not always the case. The figure of Pierre Juneau stands high among those who worked to change things.