By Keith Sharp
The first thing that should strike you about today’s Music Express edition is our new logo and the retitling of our Museletter weekly blog as Music Nation – there’s a perfectly good reason for these cosmetic changes as Music Express celebrates the 40th anniversary of the debut issue of Alberta Music Express which rolled off the presses at North Hill News in October 1976.
Anyone who has been remotely involved in the history of Canadian music during the past four decades is, I am sure either fully aware or remotely aware of the legacy of Music Express – and if you are not, may I interest you in obtaining a copy of `Music Express – The Rise, Fall and Resurrection of Canada’s Music Magazine (Dundurn) available on Amazon and at discerning book stores. Yes, all the gory details are contained within the pages.
How a young native of Manchester England, working as a junior sports writer for the Calgary Herald, launched Alberta Music Express as a protest against his own newspaper who had rejected a feature story I had written about Calgary band The Stampeders because the paper’s resident music critic, a certain Mr Brian Brennan had slagged off the same band during their concert appearance at the annual Stampede Rodeo.
There wasn’t supposed to be a second issue, but favourable reaction from the then developing Canadian music industry encouraged me to keep the mag alive, even at the expense of my sports gig at the Herald. With support from my partner in crime, Conny Kunz, we evolved the tabloid into Music Express, moved to Toronto in 1980 and began our residency as Canada’s Music Magazine. And what a time we picked to launch our magazine.
By 1976, the Canadian Radio-Television Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) had decreed that all Canadian radio stations had to play at least 30% domestic content, which meant music by Canadian bands and artists were in great demand, forcing major labels to recruit new talent while allowing new labels like Anthem, Aquarius and True North to successfully release domestic indie releases – all great fodder for Music Express to promote in our pages. And as this was before MTV and Much Music,and at a time when local newspapers were still slow on the uptake of publicizing Canadian talent, ME had a virtual monopoly in promoting Canadian music.
Yes, we were there at the beginning with Bryan Adams, Loverboy, Rush, Triumph, Lee Aaron, Platinum Blonde, The Tragically Hip and virtually every other band/artist that was launched during that heady period of the mid-Seventies and early Eighties – but even with a print monopoly, it still wasn’t easy for us.
Securing advertising support from the industry was an on-going battle, radio ads and co-op ads in daily newspapers was still the industry’s preferred spending choice and convincing corporate advertisers to patronize a monthly music magazine was a major arm twist.
And I can’t say CARAS (the music industry’s governing body) were ever that supportive of ME. We pissed them off royally when we rebelled against some of their ridiculous early decisions in handing out their Juno Awards, by staging our own public-voted awards, even going so far as to having our 1983 and 1984 award concerts televised. Even when Music Express became the official instore magazine of the Minneapolis-based Musicland/Sam Goody chain in 1986 which allowed us at one point to distribute 1.3 million copies each issue through over 1,000 outlets throughout North America, I can’t remember CARAS ever getting warm and fuzzy about our achievements – which was fine by us. The reality is that Music Express was the only Canadian music magazine ever to boast international distribution in the United States, Australia and the U.K, and achieved with a tiny but dedicated staff.
Yes Music Express finally lost our deal with Musicland/Sam Goody when chain marketing director, Bruce Jesse, who negotiated our deal, was fired by the company and we were bullied by their executive into rejecting a deal that would have forced us to surrender full financial control to their company, thus setting off a tailspin of events which triggered the demise of ME (read the book!).
And much has happened since, I bounced back with ACCESS magazine in 1994, right at the time that the industry started to go into decline, battled it out until 2008, when it was time to kick the mag into touch and concentrate on writing my book.
Yet, there has always been a sense of completing unfinished business. The advent of social media and digital technology meant I could re-launch Music Express as a digital magazine and that is exactly what I did in October 2012 (which means we have two major anniversaries this month). Thanks to the initial support of Chad Maker and Kirk Comrie at Agency 71 and to the invaluable creative support of Ted Van Boort, Music Express has been reborn as a digital medium which is updated constantly as ME promotes what’s new and what is established in the Canadian music scene.
Yes the current music industry has changed drastically since those heady days of the mid Seventies and early Eighties. Who could have predicted back then that you could store your entire music collection on something called an iPad and that few people would actually buy records anymore but would download their music onto a computer!!
Maybe it is a mega achievement for Music Express to have kept the banner flying for 40 years but we are looking ahead instead of behind. Music Express “Canada’s Digital Magazine” has a fresh mandate and new frontiers to conquer. As the new logo and new initiatives for our Music Nation newsletter are introduced, we at Music Express are as excited as ever about tackling new challenges and making our digital magazine just as influential in 2016 as it was in its print form when it rolled off the presses for the first time in 1976.