CBC champions new medium for Canadian music

Brendan Kergin, Arts & Entertainment Editor Ω

CBC may be the grandfather of broadcasters in Canada, but it’s not quite ready to yell at kids to get off its damn lawn. In fact, with CBC Music, it seems to be inviting kids over to its lawn to sit around and listen to music.

What is it?

The online music service launched in February, though its roots go back further. In that short period of time it has integrated its past incarnations into a much more varied and vibrant online music scene.

Steve Pratt, director of digital music for CBC and Radio 3, said the goal of the site and service is to connect Canadian fans with the music in a unique way – moving away from traditional broadcasting to something only the internet can deliver.

“We have 48 web radio stations on there, whereas we have one [CBC] Radio 2,” Pratt said. “So we can’t please everybody with one radio station. We have Radio 3, which is another really terrific music service, which is designed to focus around Canadian independent music.

“For lots of people that’s wonderful, but if that’s not your thing we haven’t been able to do anything else about it. There’s been a whole bunch of music that’s important to Canadians that we haven’t been able to showcase until we had CBC Music for it.”

While CBC Music is relatively new, it’s had a strong start with musicians uploading music. The website hosts 30,000 artists and 150,000 songs, according to Pratt. What makes CBC Music different than something like MySpace is not the amount, quality or genres of those uploading music, it’s that there is curation.

“I think we saw a pretty unique spot for ourselves in the marketplace,” Pratt said. Something we feel CBC has had a core strength at, in a lot of different areas throughout our history, is context and curation.”

He added that if you look at where the music universe is going, the services that are developing are simply unlimited jukeboxes.

“One of the biggest challenges with that is figuring out what to listen to and what music is good… It’s our job as CBC to help Canadians make sense of that and find the good stuff and provide some context to it.”

Radio 3 is the central stream to the station with hosts like Craig Norris or Grant Lawrence playing bigger artists in the bigger indie music genres, which includes singer-songwriters and guitar, bass and drum-based bands. There are nearly 50 additional streams covering less popular styles such as baroque, classic soul and aboriginal.

“The rest of [the online services] are music-only channels, but there are experts in those genres of music who are choosing all the songs and scheduling them,” Pratt said. “It’s not a random mix of songs; it’s very much a curated and programmed station.”

Radio 3

Radio 3 is still a big part of CBC Music. Started in 2000 as a web-only broadcaster, it has been constantly evolving. Now broadcasting on SiriusXM and podcasting, it had been the preferred a site where artists uploaded their music. Now it plays a more auditory role with shows and hosts. Craig Norris is one of those on-air personalities, and has a band of his own.

“When something new comes along, people worry about new things, you know? ‘Oh, I don’t understand this.’ Like when CBC Music came along and everyone thought it was swallowing Radio 3, but that wasn’t really the case,” Norris said. “There wouldn’t be a CBC Music without Radio 3.”

Pratt agreed, describing Radio 3 as a place for CBC to figure out how to be relevant as a public broadcaster online.

“Radio 3 has been a huge, huge part of the backbone of CBC Music. Radio 3 has had quite a long history now: it’s over 10 years of reinventing itself over and over,” he said.

Norris said, as a musician, he sees Radio 3 in a different way.

“I think about my band, and I think ‘Holy sh*t, if Radio 3 had existed when we were starting 22 years ago, oh my god, things would have been so much different,’” Norris said.

“We will never take credit for anyone’s success, but there are bands that will tell you, like Two Hours Traffic, or even guys like Dan Mangan, who no one was playing outside of campus radio. Campus radio is great regionally, but we’re like a campus radio station that is on steroids, in a good way.”

R3-30 is a weekly countdown show hosted by Norris that includes the most popular songs on CBC Music using internal metrics,  some interview clips and a second countdown discussed online the week before.

“A chart show is a pretty great concept because you know you’re getting the best, the top 30 songs,” Pratt said. “If you want an entry point coming into a world of music that you may not be familiar with, being able to hear a top-30 is a great way to bring people in the door.”

Norris agreed, suggesting that the concept of a countdown is something that is easier for new listeners to get into.

“The format of a countdown is very mainstream FM radio. To that end it’s really accessible. People go ‘Oh, I know what this is,’ even though they may not necessarily know any of these artists or songs, at least it feels like they get it,” Norris said. “The music we play on the R3-30, by and large now, it’s the music that is more accessible. It’s a really good gateway to getting into maybe some more adventurous music.

“And to that end it has been gangbusters.”

Music now

Neither man takes credit for the music that’s being produced right now. Both admit CBC Music wouldn’t have good songs to play were it not for the people creating that auditory art.

“It starts with … the advent of high-quality home recording and the fact that now bands can record pretty kickass sound and records with amp simulators and mike simulators and they can record those in their rehearsal hall,” Norris said. “That alone is going to keep this sort of flow of creativity. It’s so much easier to work.”

“Personally, I feel like we are in really nice golden age of Canadian music where there is just a ton of great stuff coming out from all over Canada in really wide variety of genres and a lot of it even defies being able to put it in a traditional genre,” Pratt said. “It’s just really creative work and amazing music.”