MuchMusic looks back at its first 10 years

April 2, 1984 - The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (crtc) approves an application by CHUM/Citytv for a licence to operate a national, 24-hour-a-day specialty television music service to be called MuchMusic.In the months leading up to the end-of-summer launch of...

April 2, 1984 – The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (crtc) approves an application by CHUM/Citytv for a licence to operate a national, 24-hour-a-day specialty television music service to be called MuchMusic.

In the months leading up to the end-of-summer launch of the user-pay service, the sales and marketing team – which consists of two people, plus an assistant – gears up for its first assault on advertising agencies and their clients.

High energy, low budget

David Kirkwood, now vice-president of sales and marketing at the Toronto-based service, but at the time its only sales representative, says the atmosphere that spring and summer was decidedly high energy, but strictly low budget.

‘We were set up in a hallway in the basement of the old building [at 99 Queen St. East],’ Kirkwood says There was a place where the hallway widened and they set up our office ther.,’

‘There was [marketing manager] Ron Waters, me, a cable affiliates manager and an assistant,’ he says. ‘We had to step aside when people were coming through to get makeup done for the Brian Linehan show.’

Kirkwood says the department moved into more sumptuous quarters when MuchMusic added more staff.

Close quarters

‘In a room that would be approximately 12 x 18 ft., we had six desks, and then three or four more in a small, adjoining room – that was the entire advertising sales, marketing, promotion and communications office for the network,’ he says.

‘There was no need for memos. Everyone overheard what everyone else said. It was a great training ground.’

Kirkwood’s advertising sales strategy in the months before the launch was to informally present the MuchMusic ‘environment,’ its key selling point, to the major advertising agencies in Toronto.

‘I remember it being suggested to me by chum senior management that Much wouldn’t be an agency buy, that we would have to go direct to the client, because agencies would not be able to appreciate something that didn’t have measured audiences.

‘My strategy, nonetheless, was to go to the agencies first, to honor that connection, and, much to our delight, the agencies received the news enthusiastically.

Kirkwood believes the MuchMusic concept was met with enthusiasm for several reasons.


‘mtv’s success in the States was well-known here,’ he says. ‘They launched their service back in 1981.

‘Also, it was an economic boom. Television back then was ignoring a youth demographic, and clients were looking for new and innovative ways to market to youth and young adults.

‘So, the timing for MuchMusic was perfect, given all of those things,’ Kirkwood says.

His first sales presentation was to senior media people, including George Semple and Janet Callaghan, at Toronto-based ad agency J. Walter Thompson.

Kirkwood says that Friday morning, he was about as terrified as he has ever been.


‘I had more information than they did, but I was intimidated by such an august group, and the material I had to work with left something to be desired – the information was changing daily,’ he says.

‘We had no glossy sales kits. We had tried to slap together some videotapes, but it was constantly a work-in-progress.’

To Kirkwood’s relief, most of the agencies and clients he met during that first round of presentations were generally forgiving.

‘Just about everybody was really supportive and genuinely interested and really helpful,’ he says. ‘Maybe it was because people saw [specialty services were] the direction for the future and they wanted to be a part of it.

‘Traditional sales and marketing is more confrontational, it’s more antagonistic a model, it’s more polarized.’

‘With all of the specialties, there is a new kind of partnership marketing, which has more to do with finding out what clients’ needs are and working with them in a targetted custom-made way. Rather than saying, `This is my product, buy it.’

‘It’s a very different selling environment.’

May 1984 – Carling O’Keefe signs a three-year deal to sponsor The Big Ticket, MuchMusic’s weekly concert series.

The deal offers Carling O’Keefe weekend exclusivity in the brewery category, plus sponsorship of all Monday-night concerts.

A few weeks later, Coca-Cola signs on as sponsor of The Coca-Cola Countdown. Coke’s sponsorship agreement lasts nine years. (The show is now sponsored by Guess clothing.)

Other advertisers climb on board as the summer progresses, including H.J. Heinz, Molson Breweries, General Motors Co. of Canada, Cadbury and packaged goods giant Procter & Gamble.

‘That was a surprise,’ says Kirkwood, about hearing that p&g had committed media dollars.

‘They have a reputation for being the most traditional [cost-per-thousand]-oriented advertiser around, and buying more on media efficiencies than environment,’ he says.

Kirkwood credits Brian Pearman, now executive vice-president at Toronto-based Genesis Media, but, at the time a media executive at Benton & Bowles, with convincing p&g that MuchMusic was a smart media buy.

Incumbency position

Asked what those early converts saw in MuchMusic that other advertisers did not, Kirkwood says apart from the fact that MuchMusic appealed to an underserved target market, advertisers saw a chance to stake out an incumbency position.

As well, there were promotional opportunities through sponsorships and contests, something that was not typically available through conventional television networks.

And, finally, says Kirkwood, they saw the chance to have some fun.

‘It was a chance for all concerned to be creative,’ he says. ‘Buyer and seller can play with the medium, instead of just buying numbers.

‘There’s not a lot of room for creativity in a conventional television buy.’

Aug. 31, 1984 – MuchMusic goes to air.

The service, which has already managed to attract 400,000 paid subscribers, is sold in a pay-tv three pack that consists of MuchMusic, tsn and one of the two movie services, First Choice or SuperChannel.

Kirkwood says the decision to co-operate was a good one because it drove subscriptions much higher than any of the services could have had on a standalone basis.

MuchMusic’s format at the time of the launch consisted of about a dozen music videos, news updates, concert listings, commentary from the service’s ‘vjs,’ plus eight minutes of advertising every hour.

The schedule consisted of a four-hour block, repeated three times.

Programs included The Big Ticket and The Coca-Cola Countdown, but the number and variety of shows were a far cry from the 29 music programs MuchMusic offers today.

Kirkwood says most of the advertising being sold at the time was run-of-schedule or rotation spots.

He says it was not until about a year after the launch that media planners, advertisers and the sales and marketing staff began to better understand and leverage the distinctions between the various groups in MuchMusic’s 12-34 overall target market.

November 1984 – MuchMusic predicts the service will turn a profit in its first year. This is in stark contrast to estimates that the service would lose money for the first three years of its existence.

Asked to what does he attribute the early success of MuchMusic, Kirkwood quips, ‘Apart from my salesmanship? The vision of my clever clients.

‘Distribution was a good part of it, too,’ he says. ‘We enjoyed wider distribution [on cable] than we thought we would originally get.

‘As well, early estimates were considering MuchMusic as a teen property exclusively, and didn’t take into account the 18-34 component. And it is proportionately as strong for 18-34 as it is for teens.

Opened new categories

‘So, that opened up categories such as breweries and automotive products, among other things.’

Kirkwood says advertising sales in those first three months went so well that management decided to put a cap on further longterm sales contracts.

‘We had three-year commitments [by November] for more money than our original first-year projections,’ he says.

‘At that point, we said, `No more three-year contracts’ because we thought we might be limiting our revenue potential.

‘We had a foundation that we could live with and let the rest ride, as it were.’

December 1984 – The number of paid subscribers tops 500,000.

While Kirkwood cannot point to any advertisers that came into the fold upon learning that MuchMusic was reaching half a million households, he says each increase in the number of subscribers brought with it ‘a new state of euphoria,’ for both MuchMusic and its clients.

‘We had pretty heady growth,’ he says. ‘That sort of ascension curve created, if not a buying frenzy, certainly great enthusiasm.’

‘Pretty fun ride’

‘When people’s expectations are for 500,000 households, and then things keep going up, up, up, it’s a pretty fun ride.’

In the months after the launch, but before actual audience numbers were available, Kirkwood says the basis of MuchMusic’s sales pitch boiled down to four major arguments.

‘It was targetted television,’ Kirkwood says. ‘Remember, this is before the Fox network, this is before The Simpsons, this is before Beverly Hills, 90210.

‘We were offering television 24 hours a day that was targetted to youth and young adults,’ he says.

Second was the fact that MuchMusic’s eight minutes of advertising meant less competition for the client’s message than on conventional television networks, which ran 12 minutes an hour.

Third, there were sponsorship and promotional opportunities.

And, finally, Kirkwood referred to u.s. research, which argued that the environment in which a commercial was seen influenced product buying.

The research said that if a program had high qualitative ratings, viewers exposed to advertising in that environment were more likely to remember product claims, believe the product claims, and, more likely to buy the product.

Kirkwood says MuchMusic provided an environment that was targetted to people who liked music and music videos, and while the target group was technically 12-34, it was the viewer’s willingness to buy into the MuchMusic attitude that counted.

‘In the words of one blue jeans manufacturer, if his message was seen on MuchMusic by someone who was 37, he wouldn’t discount them as a customer,’ he says.

‘He considered that anybody who watched Much was a potential consumer of his product.’

March 1985 – MuchMusic declares its intention to launch a French music service for the Quebec market.

September 1985 – Pepsi signs on as sponsor of The Pepsi Power Hour, MuchMusic’s heavy metal music program.

Kirkwood says the decision to sponsor the Power Hour was a strategic one.

‘They were targetting their best customer, males 18-24, and that’s where they thought they could find them,’ he says.

MuchMusic staff created an opening for the show that featured animated guitars and a spinning Pepsi bottle cap.

July 1985 – MuchMusic carries the Live Aid concerts in London and Philadelphia to help raise money to feed the starving in Ethiopia.

The music service successfully petitions the crtc to allow cable companies to unscramble the MuchMusic signal so the concerts can be seen by everyone with basic cable. Most cable companies comply.

Kirkwood says advertising appeared in the special, but it was not sold for revenue.

From a marketing perspective, however, the Live Aid concerts gave the service a much higher profile with the general public.

December 1985 – MuchMusic sales representative Chip James dresses up as a Hostess Munchie.

The circumstances behind the episode were this: the pop group Duran Duran was scheduled to make an appearance at the station and staff were expecting a major turnout.

MuchMusic suggested to Hostess that it might want to supply snacks to sustain the crowd while they waited in the cold.

The company provided chips, plus a Hostess Munchie uniform, but could find no one to wear it. So James was ‘volunteered’ for the task.

Which just goes to prove, Kirkwood says, that MuchMusic will go to all lengths to promote its sponsor’s products.

In later years, James went on to make appearances as Tequito the Taco Chip Mouse, and the Pillsbury Doughboy. He also spent a few months as a weekly MuchMusic fill-in vj.

March 1986 – MuchMusic starts producing eight hours of French-language programming in two, four-hour blocks, for the Quebec market.

The programming is carried there by MuchMusic from 8 p.m. until midnight, and then repeated once until 4 a.m.

September 1986 – MusiquePlus, the French-language counterpart to MuchMusic, goes to air in Quebec. The service is a joint venture between Much and Montreal-based Mutuelcom.

‘We felt that we could combine their local market savvy with our experience with Much, and produce the best possible francophone music network possible,’ says Kirkwood, who describes MusiquePlus as very much like Much, but francophone in every sense of the word.

December 1986 – MuchMusic opens a Vancouver bureau, giving the service an increased profile in Western Canada.

Jan. 10, 1987 – MuchMusic and Sky Channel in the u.k. present the first World Music Video Awards.

The program, which included live acts from around the world, involved the linkup of 17 satellites.

February 1987 – MuchMusic reaches one million subscribers.

Thinking the service had really arrived, management commissioned a poster with the headline ‘MuchMusic, The Vision of a Million.’

Unfortunately, the poster contained a typo.

The tagline reads, ‘The nation’s music station now has over one million subsribers.’

‘We produced 10,000 of these posters, and it wasn’t until they were produced, and everyone had proofed it, that they noticed it,’ Kirkwood says.

‘So, I put it [up on my wall] just to humble us,’ he says. ‘I mean, there was a time when we thought a million households was nirvana, but we were so bush that we actually misspelled subscribers.’

March 1987 – MuchMusic moves from 99 Queen St. East to its current address at 299 Queen St. West.

December 1987 – MuchMusic gets permission from the crtc to move to basic cable as of Sept. 1, 1989.

In the meantime, cable operators are allowed to move the service to extended basic cable under what is known as the ‘negative option,’ in which cable subscribers get the service automatically unless they say they do not want it.

24-hour schedule

In Quebec, MusiquePlus moves to a 24-hour schedule, supplanting Much on basic cable in the Quebec market. (MuchMusic moves back to a discretionary service in that province.)

In anticipation of the move to basic cable, advertising sales continue to rise.

‘[Advertisers] saw obvious gain,’ Kirkwood says. ‘When you can be assured the market is going to get bigger, it’s a good time to buy in.’

June 15, 1988 – Rogers Cablesystems, which at the time served 25% of all cable households, announces its decision to move the service to extended basic, meaning MuchMusic will be seen by 1.5 million Rogers subscribers.

August 1988 – Tara Ferguson, second MuchMusic rep, is hired.

April 1989 – MuchMusic/ MusiquePlus are the Canadian co-partners in the worldwide broadcast of the World Music Video Awards.

While the special attracted a lot of advertisers, including principal sponsor Pepsi, MuchMusic decided it could no longer justify the expense or risk associated with the project.

‘The timing was so precise [in the satellite linkups] that if there was one glitch, we would have lost the whole show,’ Kirkwood says.

‘Not willing to pay’

‘The pressure and the stress and the expense were such that advertisers wouldn’t be willing to pay for it,’ he says. ‘To a viewer, the fact that it’s live has some cachet, but probably not enough to pay to do it in that fashion.’

Kirkwood says the event needed stronger distribution and a history to really build something.

‘It needed a few more sponsors to buy into it before it could become an institution,’ he says.

August 1989 – MuchMusic reaches four million households.

Sept. 1, 1989 – MuchMusic and MusiquePlus move to basic cable. This boosts the number of households receiving MuchMusic to 3.5 million.

Kirkwood says while the new viewers might not have been considered by advertisers as as valuable as those who were willing to pay for the service, if given a choice, he would rather have wider distribution.

‘More likely to be watched’

‘If we are in the household, we are more likely to be watched, if only on a casual basis, than if we are not there at all,’ he says.

‘So, the distribution on basic cable assured us of the heavy viewing quintiles – the need-to-watch viewers – and the occasional viewer as well.’

October 1989 – MuchMusic ushers SmithKline Beecham, the maker of Oxy, an over-the-counter acne medication, into television.

Much creates a promotional spot in-house, and, soon, Oxy becomes a television-wide advertiser.

January 1990 – MuchMusic reaches five million households.

June 1990 – MuchMusic vjs and their musical guests take the Diet Pepsi Taste Train across Canada.

The two-week cross-country concert tour, which generates lots of live programming from the train and stops en route, culminates in the first Canadian Music Video Awards, sponsored by Much.

Kirkwood says he wishes he could take credit for the cross-country concert idea, but it was the brainchild of John Martin, then director of music programming.

June 25, 1990 – The first annual Canadian Music Video Awards are held in Halifax. The event, which attracts a live audience of 4,500 people, is carried live.

Since its inception, the cmvas have become somewhat of an institution, attracting a broad range of sponsors, including Levi-Strauss, General Motors and Pepsi.

This year, Clearly Canadian sent 10 contest winners backstage to socialize with the celebrities. The contest was promoted in-store.

As well, Nintendo lent its name to the 1-800 voting line.

‘There are a lot of marketing extensions that grow out of these things, if we just give them time to evolve,’ Kirkwood says.

February 1991 – MuchMusic travels with Canadian musical talent to Daytona, Fla. for its first annual ‘spring break’ event.

The idea is to tie in with the long-established practice of university students to congregate in Daytona for the spring break, jam themselves eight to a room and spend the week partying.

‘It was time to leverage MuchMusic as an entity, and we wanted to do something exciting that would be relevant to a core audience,’ Kirkwood says.

‘And, if we could get that subsidized by advertisers, all the better,’ he says.

‘We thought it would be a good idea for us to take down some great Canadian talent, do concerts on the pool deck, and go live [on air] over the weekend.’

Advertisers such as Maple Leaf Foods and Hawaiian Tropic sponsored events such as the belly flop contest and the human sundae event, in which participants were given whipped cream, maraschino cherries, chocolate sauce and marshmallows and challenged to create the best human sundae.

Kirkwood says the first spring break promotion was a tough sell.

‘It’s not something that [advertisers] had been used to hearing from us,’ he says. ‘It was a new venture, and just exactly how it was going to look was unknown.’

Still, the event has turned into an annual event, with more sponsors, including Neilson’s Crispy Crunch, Mountain Dew and Wrigley’s Extra gum signing on in subsequent years.

September 1991 – Much hosts the second annual Canadian Music Video Awards at its building on Queen St. West.

October 1991 – Susan Arthur, manager of client marketing services, is hired to market special events and client promotions.

January 1992 – Hershey sponsors Saturday RSVP, MuchMusic’s music video request program.

Shortly afterwards, Health Minister Perrin Beatty appears on air with MuchMusic host Erica Ehm.

More attention

After the appearance, Beatty sends MuchMusic a handwritten note saying he had more attention from his MuchMusic appearance than any other.

He says everyone, from a page in the House of Commons, to then External Affairs minister Joe Clark had seen him on the show. He also related a story in which someone in a Mac’s Milk store asked him what Erica Ehm was really like.

Insists on MuchMusic

Beatty later insists that a press conference announcing a Health & Welfare promotion be held at MuchMusic.

‘It was obvious he thought we were a conduit to an audience that was important,’ says Kirkwood, who credits Beatty, along with mtv’s efforts in the u.s., for leading politicians to the MuchMusic environment.

February 1992 – Canadian university students head down to Daytona Beach for the second annual MuchMusic spring break event.

Banner exposure and sampling opportunities abound, with the group Barenaked Ladies wearing Crispy Crunch T-shirts during their on-air concert.

‘That kind of exposure is impossible to buy,’ Kirkwood says.

July 1, 1992 – MuchMusic hosts the Great Canadian Party to celebrate Canada’s 125th birthday.

The one-day event, sponsored by Molson Breweries, features nearly 30 Canadian bands and a series of cross-country concerts by the ‘mock rockumentary’ band Spinal Tap, which touches down in four cities.

September 1992 – The third annual Canadian Music Video Awards are held at MuchMusic headquarters on Queen St. West.

Anna Carbonne, MuchMusic’s third sales rep, is hired.

Also in September, MuchMusic adds its name to a dance mix cd issued by Quality Special Products.

The cd, which had sold 90,000 copies the previous year, goes gold, then double gold, triple gold, quadruple gold, and then five times gold, or platinum.

The cd, called X-tenda DanceMix, after the MuchMusic show X-tendamix, is heavily promoted by host Master T and sold in record stores everywhere.

December 1992 – Denise Donlon takes over from John Martin as director of music programming.

MuchMusic reaches 5.6 million households.

February 1993 – MuchMusic holds its third annual spring break party, this time in Jamaica. The event is called ‘Jammin’ in Jamaica’ and is sponsored by Hawaiian Tropic and Western Union.

The week’s activities include concerts by The Doughboys and The Waltons, a live taping of X-tendamix, and plenty of poolside and beachside activities.

March 1993 – MuchMusic holds its first annual Snow Job, at a ski resort in Whistler, b.c. The event is timed to tie in with the high school March break.

Sponsors include Mountain Dew (‘Very appropriate,’ Kirkwood says), Ortho Shields contraceptives (‘Condoms should be present at every March break’), Crispy Crunch, Labatt, Nintendo and Wilkinson Sword.

May 1993 – MuchMusic runs its first annual ‘temp’ promotion, using the Paramount Pictures film The Temp as a platform.

Viewers are asked to demonstrate, in as creative a manner as possible, why they would make the perfect MuchMusic temp.

The prize, a summer job, goes to a laid-off schoolteacher from Edmonton.

Viewer response to the contest is so great, MuchMusic decides to continue the promotion the next year.

June 1993 – MuchMusic covers the leadership convention of the Progressive Conservative party in Ottawa under the banner ‘Take Me to Your Leader.’

Among other things, MuchMusic talent Ziggy Lorenc bonds with Kim Campbell and Master T has a conversation with Michael Wilson concerning the lunch Wilson had with the Rolling Stones.

‘Do a lot well’

While the event did not result in any new advertising contracts, Kirkwood says ‘it showed our viewing audience and the advertising market and the cable companies, and, maybe, the crtc, that we can do a lot of things well – that we are not just a music video faucet.’

Rick Salutin, media critic for The Globe and Mail, gives the coverage a glowing review.

September 1993 – MuchMusic hosts the fourth annual Canadian Music Video Awards.

Also in September, Citytv applies for two additional music specialty licences, one a country music service to be called MuchCountry, and the other a middle-of-the-road service to be called MuchMoreMusic.

Application rejected

The application for the m-o-r service is rejected and the country music licence is awarded to a competitor, the New Country Network. Citytv comes away with a licence to operate Bravo! a performing arts specialty service targetted to viewers 35-64.

Kirkwood says the crtc decision with respect to the New Country Network means MuchMusic will have to focus more sharply than ever on its 12-34 target audience.

‘Whether we have [the licence,] or someone else has it, it doesn’t make a lot of difference – you can’t all be doing the same thing,’ he says.


Kirkwood takes some consolation from the fact that, in the u.s., advertiser revenue for mtv is much higher than it is for sub-segment music video services such as VH-1 or cmt.

‘The people who have the time and inclination to `watch’ their music are younger people,’ he says. ‘That doesn’t mean that 25-54 year olds don’t watch music, but they are more inclined to get it from the radio.

‘So, I am happy to spend a little more time and effort on our best customer, mainly 12-34 year olds.’

Keeps him young

While Kirkwood admits he has been out of the Much target market for some time now, he says the music video service keeps him young and immature.

‘We call it rock ‘n’ roll high school,’ he says.

At the same time, MuchMusic and Quality Special Products issue the third annual X-tenda DanceMix CD.

Sales eventually top 600,000, making the cd North America’s best-selling compilation.

October 1993 – MuchMusic invites leaders of political parties fielding candidates in the Oct. 25 federal election to participate in ‘intimate and interactive’ interviews in front of a live audience.

The series, under the banner ‘Vote with a Vengeance,’ pairs Canadian musicians and MuchMusic personalities with 14 party leaders, including Kim Campbell, Audrey McLaughlin, Jean Chretien, Mel Hurtig and Doug Henning.

The only party leader to decline the invitation is Reform Party head Preston Manning.

Kirkwood says the idea was not to be outrageous for no practical purpose, but to bring a fresh and different perspective to the political table.

‘We didn’t want the candidates to come on and have them be able to say the same thing as they would if they were on ctv,’ he says.

May 1994 – MuchMusic announces its second annual summer ‘temp’ contest with a humorous on-air spot that shows the abuse a station temp would have to undergo.

Response to the promotion is overwhelming, with 8,000 entrants sending in shiploads of videotapes, sculptures, photographs, paintings and other non-traditional job applications.

The winner, from Hamilton, is put up in a furnished apartment and given $5,000.

General Motors sponsors the contest and provides the winner with a Geo Tracker.

‘It seems to have captured the imagination of our viewers,’ says Kirkwood, who adds next year he hopes to get more sponsors contributing, to make it an even more indulgent reward.

Aug. 13-14,1994 – MuchMusic and pay-per-view service Viewer’s Choice work out a deal to cover Woodstock ’94.

Viewer’s Choice has the exclusive Canadian rights to provide the live concert performance coverage, while MuchMusic covers the background stuff, including backstage interviews, a retrospective on the first Woodstock and music videos by the performers, then and now.

MuchMusic also promotes the pay-per-view coverage on air.

‘We got a very good audience on the Woodstock weekend, even though we weren’t doing the actual concert,’ says Kirkwood, who adds he has no doubt that, at some point, MuchMusic will carry the concert, or at least an edited version of it.

Aug. 31, 1994 – MuchMusic celebrates its 10th anniversary.

Asked when he knew the service had really made it, Kirkwood says he worried in the summer leading up to the launch that people in the production department were having too much fun to be taking their role seriously.

‘I really wondered if they realized that what they were producing wasn’t just another music program, that it was a whole network, and it wasn’t going to be just in Toronto, it was going to be national,’ he says.

First video

‘And I wondered if they had considered what video they were going to use to launch the network – I remember Michael Jackson’s Thriller was popular at the time, and if they opened with that they would be making a statement about what the network was.

‘When they launched, the very first video they played was an Ubi Blake video, a 1929 film called Snappy Tunes, that was purported to be the very first music video ever made.

A different kind of network

‘When I saw that, I realized that they did know what they were doing, and that MuchMusic was going to be a very different kind of music network, and very different than mtv.

‘We had a good financial base when we launched, things were going along swimmingly in that department, so the only question was, `Will this product deliver?’

‘But when I saw the opening video, and saw the enthusiasm at the launch party later that night, I could tell that the product was going to deliver.

‘And I began to relax.’