confetti, minstrels and maestros, opinement

Music Monday: JUNO Week, Tragically Not Hip

Last night’s ceremony marked the end of this year’s JUNO Awards, Canada’s apogee of annual music industry trophy-giving.  It was a night to remember but not for all the right things.

– – – – –

Mr. Grumpy Pants

The run-up for the JUNO Awards has been the biggest I’ve ever seen and I applaud the ringleaders for that.  One of the critiques I have about Canada is that sometimes its national humility veers into a level of modesty which is stifling and limiting.  The British Columbian mistiness of being so influenced by the United States and yet struggling to remain Canadian sometimes becomes a strange and unpredictable Alberta Clipper of anti-Americanism and Canadian doubt.  It is a phenomenon which baffles me because, in the struggle for Canadian national identity, the greatest antagonist isn’t the culturally colonial United States but Canadians themselves.  Unless we’re talking about international hockey tournaments.

AMERICAN WOMAN, STAY AWAY FROM ME

In many ways, I understand that modesty and jingoism are diametrically opposed forces and, when one confronts the other, a storm is born.  Yet, I expect the final surge to always come from homespun pride and that the collective cultural commonality among the disparate provincial and regional cultures will win the day.  It rarely does, though.  Perhaps this is simply accepted by those born within its borders and perhaps an immigrant like me (even one who began his on-again/off-again Canadian upbringing at an early age) simply cannot understand the paradigm.  Even so, all academia aside, what gives?

It is a perennial debate which, I suppose short of some enormous defining event, will never have a resolution.  Perhaps even some transformative national epiphany won’t change it.  In the United States, the passive cultural agitator in this dilemma, even something as culturally binding as 9/11 didn’t solve their growing divisiveness for very long.  In many ways, the flash of national unity eventually led to a worsening of the ties which once did bind.  In today’s world, where the unity among the fans of Twilight or Lady Gaga offers the most promise of far-reaching family, it is entirely possible the nationalism of yesteryear is an unattainable goal which some would say was folly to begin with.

Before I digress further into the greater question of the value of nationalism as a constructive or destructive ideology, let me bring the debate back to the subject at hand with this statement: Music, true music, holds no passport.  The talent of true musicians, while steeped in one or various cultures, cannot be beholden to a flag and no imaginary line drawn across the landscape can contain it.  Which is why I was glad to see a bevy of media coverage for the JUNOs.  Quite frankly, I appreciate the uphill struggle for local recognition of local arts simply because I don’t think Canadians appreciate Canadian things enough.

[Quick relapse into the national identity debate: In a photo collection of JUNO red carpet arrivals on The Globe & Mail’s website, a few comments derided, “Who are these people?”  I recognize part of that was a dig at the site’s lack of informative captions but I wager most of it comes from the same place as all the disregard for their own recording industry which has plagued Canadian music for as long as I’ve been here.  My response is to answer a question with a question, “Why don’t you already know?”]

In any event, this swell of pre-JUNO press coverage seemed to encompass most major news outlets, and even included the aforementioned United States (with items by The Hollywood Reporter and other granddaddy outlets).  Heck, even competitors were foregoing the usual blackout of ‘enemy’ names with CBC pointing to CTV as the main event broadcaster and CTV pointing back to CBC as the carrier for the smaller JUNO events.  Of course, having the giant Bell Media family to muster didn’t hurt either.  When William “Captain Kirk” Shatner was announced as the host, I was really looking forward to this year’s broadcast.  It was all a breath of fresh air from the stifling national modesty and disparity.

Unfortunately, it was short-lived and filled with disappointment.

HI, I’M ANGELO AND I’M A MEDIA WHORE

As our small JUNO Party prepared the night’s refreshments, the host and I tried to get a handle on all this red carpet, behind-the-scenes, event run-up we’d been promised over and over from all fronts.  And thus we entered the realm of JUNO disappointment.

On Saturday, there was the aforementioned Gala Night.  Earlier on Sunday, there was the Songwriters’ Circle.  Also, of course, there was the Red Carpet Arrivals.  At all three events, there was major media present.  And yet, in the hour prior to the main show, none of this was available online in any easily digestible format aside from photos, written coverage, and live blogs?  My remarks on this will begin in a Canadian trope.

I’m sorry?

I know, for a fact, that we live in a country which has full access to (and in fact sometimes leads the way in) modern media capability.  Yet, there I was feeling as though I was bumbling through the internet and unable to find that which should have been readily found not just on the press sites and the broadcast sites but also on the JUNO site itself.  In the pop culture monster of the United States, the biggest issue is choosing which outlet to jack-in and watch for all the day-of run-up coverage.  Here, where we’ve been told umpteen times of all the events going on in and around the JUNOs (which is a plus) we’re on the cusp of the broadcast and none of that is available in YouTube-worthy format (not so much a plus).

What the frick, man?  Look, as a consumer of modern media and a man whom an ex-girlfriend once (lovingly) labeled a media whore, I’m going full Gordon Ramsey hubris here to tell you — the Canadian media and the JUNO powers-that-be — what you should have done.  And like Gordon Ramsey, I’m going bark at you with what is otherwise constructive criticism.  If you can’t stand the heat…

  • The JUNO Train was a quaint idea which was apparently intentionally organized by someone to promote both the show and the City of Ottawa.  Hey, the party train full of beloved musicians is a great idea — one with which I’m not entirely unfamiliar but that’s for another day — and you did eek some coverage out of it.  However, there should have been a much heftier piece than the evening news bites which we ended up seeing.  Apparently, Tom Cochrane was buying shots for people minutes after the train was underway and Stompin’ Tom Connors — Stompin’ Tom Connors! — was playing on a broken guitar.  Oh, man, that’s so great!   But, uh, that was all hearsay.   Where was the footage?  Was there a tasty featurette available online?  Nope.  Not that I saw.
  • The Gala Night, in which more awards are handed out than during the main broadcast.  Footage available online?  Nope.  Speeches from the winners of those pre-awards awards?  Nope.  Okay, maybe they’re holding out on that so they can show the highlights during the broadcast.  That would be sensible.  Actual highlights other than blink-missable sprinkles when Gala Night winners are read on-air?  Nope.
  • Gala Night Party.  See above.
  • The Songwriters Circle was perhaps the best covered event.  It was carried over CBC Radio and, I imagine, was handled nicely since that was their main bit to chew on.  There was a live streamcast on CBC Radio 3 of the entire two-hour event, followed by a rebroadcast a few hours later on CBC Radio 2 and more coverage promised.  At some point, the host told the listeners the event was also being filmed.  Sweet!  Some of our party-goers had missed the event and so I tried to find the inevitable podcast for them to hear prior to the Awards Broadcast.  Couldn’t find one.  Prolly didn’t exist.  All I came across was a video highlight reel on the JUNO site from a previous Songwriters’ Circle.  Well, isn’t that special?
  • Okay, I imagined there would surely be some live online coverage of the Red Carpet Arrivals?  The Red Carpet is another target-rich environment which is a staple of all awards shows.  It’s the gauntlet of press through which the stars, the demi-stars, and their entourage must pass.  And we, the press-hungry masses gobble it up despite its innate banality.  So, y’know, can we see that happening live, please?  And without having to navigate a cacophonous and ultimately unyielding MuchMusic site?
  • As for the Awards Ceremony Broadcast itself: Thunk.  William Shatner: Cringe.  Broadcast production/direction: Yikes.  Performances: Meh — pretty average for an awards show, kudos to the artists, no kudos for the onscreen presentation.  Hey, look, the set design was actually great with clean lines, interesting vistas, great lighting, and well-placed focal points.  Even the camera operation was fantastic.  The camera direction?  Not so much.  I know it’s hard to produce an awards show because even in the grand ole United States they have trouble producing something that isn’t a yawner but for the love of maple syrup, man, follow the ball and learn when to switch angles or cut away entirely.  Oh, and when awarding heavy hardware to winners, maybe something — anything — on which to rest the award would be prudent.  Mind you, several awards shows are guilty of this one so I give you a pass here.  And I do give you, CTV, credit for trying but I have to say the effort exceeded the result and this is usually the fault of planning, leadership, and (in your defense) experience.  As Chef Ramsey would say with frustration, “F***, man, you can do better!”

And that’s the overriding “Grrr!” of the day.  You can do better.  Here’s how, from a rank amateur.

MARGO’S GOT THE CARGO

I’m going to read this riot act strictly from a consumer’s point-of-view which is what you media-types should be doing. Let’s start with the online presentation.

The JUNO Awards site should be the major hub of activity.  Yes, CTV, CBC, et al can have their areas of exclusivity but the awards site itself had better be the easy-to-navigate and instantly-updated road map of where to go for what.  For the sake of exclusivity for the JUNO site, some media should be available only there.  Take a cue from the MTV Video Music Awards which, in Big Brother style, had live streaming of social and production areas.  Does CTV want that action?  Cool, then give it to them but either reserve one spot/thing for yourself (like the Academy Awards’ Thank-You Cam) or have the stream simulcast on your site, too.  But the JUNO site was bland, filled with poorly organized lists — some if which weren’t even hyperlinked — and offered little more than numerous looks at the fashion-backward logo design.

Next, the JUNO Train was a wreck.  It was like a legendary ghost train seen only by a few though talked about by many.  Get a camera crew that’s aboard to do more than get talking head interviews.  You’ve got a Canadian legend breaking guitars, another one playing the pushy barman, and I’m sure other hijinks ensuing and all we’re seeing is what amounts to less than what the average person would be recording with their smartphone?  There should be a section on the JUNO site with a juicy recap, quotes, tidbits, anecdotes, links to media coverage, and, most importantly, your own video of the shenanigans which had to happen when you stick Ron Sexsmith on a train with Jully Black.  You have the better part of the weekend to accumulate, edit, and present one lovely JUNO Train web presentation which would intrigue even Dr. Sheldon Cooper.  If you stick a bunch of successful musicians from a variety of genres and eras in a train car with bar service, you better come away with gold and have that treasure on your site by T-minus six hours to showtime.

The Gala Night was constructed, I’m sure, to save time on the broadcast without losing any value to the awards presented there.  That’s cool but — you may sense a pattern here — turn the frickin’ cameras on anyway! Record the thank-yous and performances, capture the chit chat, snag some interviews, and hurry a fast edit of a recap that’s juicier than someone effectively saying “Last night this thing happened which we think is just as important as tonight’s broadcast but we’re not going to show you anything worthwhile from it.”  Put the video online so it’s available prior to the broadcast show.  Key word: video.

The Songwriters’ Circle is the least of my quibbles.  Ninety percent of this was perfectly fine.  Well-staged (or so it sounded), a great collection of artists (although it woulda been nice of Kardy to have just shown up even if he had ‘an acute case of laryngitis’ but that’s not the CBC’s fault), deftly hosted, and available as a live stream and again as a re-broadcast in the early evening.  My quibble: podcast that bad boy and make it available prior to the main show.  We’re in the age of the podcast and if my friend can meet his commitments to yap about video games you, dear CBC, can do it too.  Oh, and to the site builders/admins of both the CBC and the JUNOs: make the navigation to the program easier, whether it was the content you did produce or the content you should have produced.  Speaking of which…

The Red Carpet is another event which should have had more accessible coverage. Now, apparently there was live streaming going on over at MuchMusic but their site was the worst of them all.  It was like trying to get through the Toronto PATH for the first time during rush hour.  All I got was frustrated and the distinct urge to punch everyone from Street Dance 2 in the mouth.  So, I credit MuchMusic with handling that inefficiently on their site but the JUNO site should have had a single-click link to this purported live stream.  I shouldn’t have to decipher its location.

Oh, was I wrong about something?  Was any of this available online despite my efforts to find it?  Well, guess whose fault that was?  At our JUNO Party in Toronto, there were two dyed-in-the-wool internet geeks (who both work in or around web design and social media) and neither of us were able to locate any of the above material despite half-an-hour of searching.  And in geek-speak, I must tell you that equals fail.

SLAPSHOT

As for the main ceremony, I’m not even going to get into all the details of how it fell short.  The critique of the broadcast could fill another overlong article.  I’m just going to hit you with some 5-hole practice.

  • Announce The Lineup. Music award shows cover many genres. We need nameplate captions or better intros to identify people. It ain’t the Oscars and the face recognition factor ain’t that high. Tell us why these notable people with microphones are, in fact, notable.
  • Play The Crowd. Some of us are watching for our favourites. Most of them won’t be present nor will they win. So, do some close-ups of them during the blah-blah parts. That’s just standard fare. Split screen during winners’ announcements would be nice but even just those cutaways would have sufficed.
  • Play The Right Lines. At the start of Dallas Green’s paean-filled performance, you had the shot angled with blowout from the high backlight, bathing him in brightness and still letting the background images play through the shafts of light. Then you cut away to a shot which essentially ruined the entire vibe, revealed the blocking of the previous shot, sapped the emotion and offered nothing in return. Why did you do that?! Keep that back-lit shot, keep the close up on the face, frame the backdrop images tight, and maybe some crowd reaction shots (y’know, from other artists — see point #1). Your camera folks were clearly skilled. The show’s director undermined them, the set design, and the lighting design.
  • Update: I remembered that one wrong. It’s online, now. They settled in to the money shot at 1:15, cut away to some other decent shots and then did that crazy crane-cam fly-by at around 1:38. The effect is still as described, though. You draw us in to this intimate and pretty shot and then pull us out of it with pointless Michael Bay shot.
  • Protect Your Star Player. We gave the world John Candy, Mike Meyers, Leslie Nielsen, Catherine O’Hara, Kids in the Hall, Seth Rogen, and Howie Mandel. And William Shatner has knocked it out of the park on Boston Legal and even the frickin’ Priceline ads are five-figure staples on YouTube. Despite all that, you cobble up a lame duck schtick for him all night long. Lorne Michaels wouldn’t have greenlit those sketches. Utilize your host more effectively. Get your Shat together.
  • Take One Good, Clean Shot. Speaking of which, this is the YouTube generation. For the love of poutine, make at least one video piece.  Maybe the JUNO Train or the Gala Night?  Maybe the induction of Blue Rodeo deserved a treatment with a slick lead-in? Or just a retrospective of Canadian music highlights from 2011? Work out the legal, make a shareable piece, preem it during the show, and then put it online for mass digestion. Oh, and make it good. If one person can produce a quality video like this by herself, then maybe you can, too. Get it done.

Bear in mind, I love you, CTV.  I really do.  I like your slate, I like (in general) your online strategies, and I actually like everyone from CTV whom I’ve ever come across in all of the different ways I have had the pleasure.  This criticism is leveled at you because I think — I know — you can do better.   In truth, I know you poured a lot of effort into marketing this event and I think you did do better than previous JUNO telecasts but that’s actually the source of my frustration.  I’m frustrated because you marched marvelously 100 yards down the field and then fumbled the ball at the 10-yard line (if you think I got that analogy wrong, click here).  And it’s possible it happened only because someone on the coaching staff wasn’t ready to call plays when the team was knocking on the door.

You see where I’m coming from?

I STAND ON GUARD FOR THEE

However, as I’ve said before, the ultimate custodians of the overall JUNO experience are the JUNO bosses, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.  And the JUNO Night Broadcast was just one piece of the JUNO Week puzzle mess.  You’ve been doing this for forty years, gang.  I know you’re not enabled with the cashflow of the big shows down south but much of the lapses I’m pointing out have to do with planning, organization, forethought, decision-making, and follow-through.  By and large, that’s all free.  Yeah, I’m not a live show producer and that’s a ginormous machine with a zillion moving parts but when it comes to online content, I may have a small inkling of how to not make a giant sodding mess of things.  So, here’s some more unsolicited advice.

Get your media strategy right from the get-go, negotiate the rights needed to pull all of this off, organize the roll-out, capture the content and, most importantly, tell the people where to go to get the content.  Now, take a deep breath before you read the next sentence.  If your link from a slide on the front page of your main site takes me to a section of an event listing with a hyperlink which takes me to a blog about the event which points me to a media page which requires I type in a search to find the content I’m seeking which then proves to be a paltry photo collection which is insufficiently captioned then you’re not just doing something wrong, you’re doing everything wrong.  See how that’s a run-on sentence?  Then why are you forcing your online visitors to run a virtual marathon to maybe see the artist they love?  That’s why your audience is there.  They don’t care about who wins or who is on the JUNO Train unless it’s the artist they love and adore.

Look, give me the list of events and in one day I will write out a media strategy which will cover your UX, information architecture, SM strategy, and brand initiatives.  And if you, dear JUNO and media coverage organizers, don’t know what any of that means then whoever is guiding your online ship needs a wake-up call.  Albeit still evolving, the online medium is becoming an ever-increasing revenue factor of both the music and television industries.  In fact, some say it will become the prime revenue platform of both before this decade is out.  Maybe it already is for music?  And maybe, just maybe, the JUNO Media Train should have been on those tracks instead of the route which took it through areas of bad signal coverage and arrived at Disappointment Station.

I’m ranting because I saw all the pieces on the table for what could have been a great awards show production which exemplified all the great things of which the Canadian media is capable only to realize, in abject frustration, that those pieces remained just that: pieces.  It never came together and remained a scattered collection which illustrated no big picture.  From fun run-up events (which were never given full life for the audience) to a penny-short broadcast (which was so close to enjoyable and yet excruciatingly far), it was an effort to enjoy JUNO Week.

if your audience has to exert this much effort to (try to) enjoy your offering then clearly there is a disconnect.  I imagine that folks at CTV, CBC, MuchMusic, E!, and CARAS had a lot of hurdles to leap and many of them were magnificently overcome.  Furthermore, by all accounts, the artists and other participants had a great time during JUNO Week.  Yet, somewhere in the ruttin’ chain of command, someone forgot to take a step back and imagine what it would be like for the average viewer to find the perfectly legal and sponsor-driven online content with which to enhance their viewing pleasure.

The audience lost out, the sponsors lost out, the artists lost out, and the prestige of the JUNO tradition suffered for it.  And we’re once more left with the feeling that our recording industry is minor league at best and, at worst, not worth the interest. The biggest concern of all is that many Canadians will take it in stride because that’s what they expect of our music industry.

Please understand (and I cannot stress this enough) that this rant is not meant to knock people down.  So many people put so much effort in doing a good job and some of those individual efforts were remarkable.  However, I try to live by this statement: “If you don’t tell me what I did wrong then how do you expect me to fix the mistake?”  The telecast was unsatisfying and the online content was unnecessarily sparse and poorly presented but it is all fixable.

It’s not even about measuring up to our American cousins.  In fact, that comparative stigma has nothing to do with it.  In this instance, like many other issues which bring about that Alberta Clipper of Canadian self-image, the real problem is us.

We’re good enough to get the job done but, to paraphrase something said during the JUNO Songwriters’ Circle, we just have to learn to get out of our own way.

– – – – –

Angelo Barovier has enjoyed a recording career which spans a few drunken sessions in a basement in 1988 and which exist only on audio cassette if they still exist at all.  Other than that, he quit learning to play the piano at a Grade 2 level and learned enough chords on guitar to kinda sorta play the opening of the Top Gun theme.  He also appeared once on stage as a back-up singer of a disastrous karaoke performance but even then only mouthed the words.  He has, however, watched countless award shows spanning more than thirty years, attended one at the stage level, and has an internet connection which qualifies him as an expert on the subject.

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About Angelo Barovier

I was born. I'll be around for a while. Then I won't.

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