French Music Splits Industry In Quebec

The Quebec music industry is preparing to wage a battle with the province's francophone broadcasters over the percentage of English-language hits these stations are allowed to play.

According to the CRTC there are about a hundred private francophone radio stations in Quebec and another half-dozen in Ontario and New Brunswick that are pushing for their French-language music quotas to be scaled back. The stations, owned by Bell Media, Cogeco and other companies, say they need greater flexibility to keep up with competitors who are online rather than on the AM or FM dials, and who can play the music that best connects their paying advertisers to their listening demographic, be it French or English.

Perhaps sensing this was not going to be a simple regulatory review, the Commission has postponed a public hearing on the issue that was set to get underway this week.

In the Saturday edition of the Toronto Star, Allan Woods notes that current CRTC rules state that 35-percent of all music played on private pop radio stations — both English and French — must be Canadian. But the francophone stations have an additional obligation to ensure that 65-percent of their music is in French. The broadcasters now see this obligation as out of sync with the times, arguing that the percentage was mandated nearly 40 years ago before the Internet and music streaming services. There is also the fact that statistics show younger audiences are migrating to English FMs in urban centres such as Gatineau/Ottawa and Montreal.

According to Woods, private radio stations have promised that if their quotas are reduced they will commit to producing five years’ worth of 30-second profiles featuring emerging francophone Quebecois artists to run three times a day on 65 stations. That’s nearly 200 profiles each day, more than 1,350 a week, or almost 71,000 each year at an annual cost of $4.5 million.

It's a salve the provincial record industry isn't buying. In a global music market, the local advantage has helped propel albums by Quebec French-speaking artists such as Jean Leloup, Marie-Mae, Ariane Moffatt, Fred Pellerin, Pierre Flynn, and Louis-Jean Cormier to sales thresholds few acts in English Canada today enjoy. The paucity of home-grown francophone music available via online streaming services has helped to stay the cannibalization of CD sales so far.

The impending battle isn't unique to Quebec's broadcast and music purveyors. In France, a long list of radio stations have been brazenly ignoring a 21-year-old law that forces them to play a minimum amount of French language music. What upset the status quo there is an amendment made recently to the quota regs that ruled the ten most played French songs on the radio will now only count towards 50-percent of the mandated 40-perecent quota, meaning DJs are being forced to add tracks to make compliance. The amendment was intended to encourage them to add more tracks to their playlists.

But the heads of radio stations have gone on the war path, accusing the minister of culture of lying and defaming them. They say the new amendment is an attack on their liberty.

They also claim the move will simply push music lovers towards streaming channels like Deezer and Spotify, which are not subject to any quotas.

It's a claim that is likely to be aired when the CRTC finally calls stakeholders to the table for a discussion about regulatory mandates. The Commission has been slowly removing itself from overseeing programming issues relating to radio broadcasting and letting consumers choose winners and losers. In a province where culture is hawkishly watched over, the upcoming hearing promises to a difficult call for the CRTC and one that isn't likely to find consensus between two industries with very different expectations.

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