MUSIC

Upbeat sounds for francophone blues

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 15 1986
MUSIC

Upbeat sounds for francophone blues

Anthony Wilson-Smith September 15 1986

Upbeat sounds for francophone blues

MUSIC

Faced with two telephone callers on hold and two visitors at the door one afternoon last week, Moses Znaimer chose to ignore them all and slump into his chair. Three hours before the live nationwide launch of MusiquePlus, the new French-language version of his MuchMusic rock video pay TV network, network president Znaimer appeared calm. But amid the surrounding clutter of the MusiquePlus storefront office in downtown Montreal, he said, “Perhaps I am only relaxed because I know that if anything is wrong with our plans at this point, we are simply dead.” Six hours later, after a raucous launch party for 1,500 guests, featuring entertainment by such performers as The Box and Michel Rivard, Znaimer,

42, was in a more expansive mood. “We are going to make it,” he declared. “There is a motherlode of talent here for us to keep building on.” The industry is hailing the launch of Canada’s first francophone rock video network, currently available only in Quebec, as a savior of the province’s ailing pop industry. But whether it can help is an open question.

Canada’s once-thriving French-language music industry is currently fighting to recover from its worst crisis in two decades, a slump reflected in the statistics. A study conducted for the federal Canadian Radiotelevision and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) last December showed that the number of Frenchlanguage albums released in Canada dropped to 68 last year from a high of 168 in 1979. The influential Quebec performers’ group, l’association du disque et du spectacle québécois (ADISQ), which acts as a watchdog for the province’s music interests, says that the number of singer-songwriter entries in its annual awards competition dropped to 12 in 1985 from 50 in 1979. As well, it estimates that at their peak in 1975 French-language records accounted for half of the albums sold in the province. By last year that figure had shrunk to only 15 per cent.

Angry artists have blamed disc jockeys at Quebec’s French-language radio stations, who convinced the CRTC to reduce the percentage of French-language music that they are required to play. Last December the CRTC dropped the quota on a two-year experimental basis from 65-per-cent French-language music to 55 per cent for selected stations. Malcolm Scott, general manager of the popular rock station CKOI FM, defended that action. Said Scott: “There is very little new music worth mentioning. And golden oldies become mouldy oldies pretty quickly if you play them too often.”

The declining francophone music industry mirrors the weakening of nationalist emotions among young francophone Quebecers over the past 20 years. Although such sovereigntist balladeers as Gilles Vigneault and Félix Leclerc prospered during the 1970s, current chart toppers throughout the province are such imported favorites as the British band Eurythmies and rock ’n’ rollers Huey Lewis and the News. Said Nathalie Petrowski, an entertainment writer with Montreal’s Le Devoir newspaper: “The days when singers wrapped themselves in a Quebec flag and won an automatic following are gone. Kids now look to New York before anywhere else.”

Many francophone artists are turning in the same direction, performing

in English to gain access to a larger market. The Box, an all-francophone rock group, is winning fans across Canada with its records, which are entirely in English. And Franco-Manitoban singer Daniel Lavoie has just recorded his first all-English album, due for a November release. Meanwhile, other stars of Quebec’s pop pantheon are focusing their efforts on the European market. Legendary rocker Robert Charlebois and singers Diane Tell, Diane Dufresne and Fabienne Thibeault even maintain residences in Paris. Said Charlebois: “The market is at least 10 times as big in France, and there are greater possibilities. You cannot conquer the country without going and living there.”

Economies of scale are a major frustration. Record company executives say that the cost of producing an album with top-quality sound costs as much as $500,000. But for a record to make a profit in the small Quebec market, it generally has to be produced for less than $50,000. Rob Braide is program director of the Englishlanguage album-oriented rock station CHOM FM which, like MuchMusic and MusiquePlus, is owned by CHUM Ltd., the Toronto-based radio and TV conglomerate. Said Braide: “We actively seek out French-Quebec music for airplay. But if the record sounds as though it were produced in a garage, you obviously cannot put it on the air.”

Still, there are signs that the state of the Quebec pop industry is becoming more upbeat. Last year, to stimulate French-language music, six Quebec radio stations established the nonprofit corporation Musicaction. With access to nearly $1.5 million annually in federal grants over the next five years, it has already helped many pop acts finance recording contracts. Declared CKOi’s Scott, Musicaction’s current president: “Instead of everyone bitching and moaning, we are finally dealing with the problem.” Now the industry is gambling that Musi-

quePlus will play its part. Said ADISQ director general Yvon Bergeron: “Anything that will give our people more exposure in such lean times is very sorely needed.”

For now MusiquePlus’ contribution is modest: four hours of daily programming, which will be repeated once a day. Some of the cable companies already carrying MuchMusic will simply substitute MusiquePlus when available, while others will run it as a separate service. Because the MusiquePlus library contains only 100 Frenchlanguage videos from both France and Quebec, the CRTC requires it to play only three-per-cent French musical content for the next two years, until its library expands. The service offers all-French commentary by its three “vee-jays,” or video jockeys, Marc Carpentier, Catherine Vachon and Sonia Benezra, which some critics claim will add to the overwhelming predominance of English music. Said Quebec Communications Minister Richard French: “What we really need is a fulltime, full-scale network. What we have here is the new branch plant of a Toronto head office.”

For their part, most industry executives say that any exposure for beleaguered francophone performers is a positive development. Stylish new videos by Quebec pop stars Marie-Claire Séguin and Céline Dion played a steady beat at MusiquePlus’ launch party last week, and both will be on the network’s play list. With $1.5 million in start-up costs and 15 full-time employees in the Montreal office, MusiquePlus also offers regular news reports on local industry happenings and live performance specials. Building on a base of the 150,000 Quebec subscribers already signed up to the MuchMusic network, Znaimer says that he hopes to quickly add 100,000 new subscribers and turn MusiquePlus into a full-time, separate network.

Znaimer grew up in Montreal and counts French among the five languages he speaks. Clearly proud of his network’s arrival in his native province, he declared: “We are saying to people in Quebec that now you can listen to music and people talking about music in your language. How can that be a bad thing?” Other Quebecers say that the invasion of the rock videos is neither positive nor negative—simply inevitable. Said Le Devoir’s Petrowski: “Ultimately, the entertainment business is about giving people what they are asking for.” And now Znaimer, godfather of Canada’s rock video networks, is offering an answer—in both languages.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH