How Big Shiny Tunes Defined CanRock
On its 20th anniversary, we talked to artists about how the compilation series changed their careers.
Alexisonfire's Wade MacNeil remembers when you only bought music at record stores. It was the mid-90s, and if you liked distorted guitars (which, during the grunge era, was a lot of people) the way you consumed music as a Canadian was fairly straightforward. You heard new music on MuchMusic or your local rock station and you then bought said music at a store that sold CDs, or, if you were truly old-school, cassettes.
There was risk involved: the album you were buying for $19.99 could be a life-changing soundtrack for your teenhood, or it could be one great single surrounded by a bunch of unlistenable crap.
But luckily, MacNeil and his generation had a cheat available.
"I really loved [compilations] because you could get all these different songs and you knew they were kinda going to be a little bit better," says MacNeil. "The thing is, it's so easy to listen to so much music but when I was like 12 or something like that, I was probably buying Big Shiny Tunes."
If you liked alternative rock and lived in Canada between 1996 and 2009, odds were solid that the only compilation you owned was from the Big Shiny Tunes series.
2016 marks the 20th anniversary of the debut of a MuchMusic-produced series that spanned 14 editions, selling more than 4 million copies (that's a lot for Canada). CDs have long been obsolete and much of the music included in the series has aged horribly (Smash Mouth, we're looking in your general direction), but for at least two generations of Canadian music fans, the Big Shiny Tunes albums were more than just a collection of songs. They were the lynchpin of a cross-Canada rock scene that industry insiders remember as unprecedented in creative scope and popularity.
The discs are a glimpse into an era of Canadian music when there was synergy and cooperation between artists, major record labels, and Much, seemingly utterly impossible to recreate now.
The story of Big Shiny Tunes is the story of what many who were involved recall as a golden era of Canadian music and how changing tastes, new technology, and an industry in decline tore it all apart.
In 1993, Chris Harrs was working as a general council for Universal Music Canada, working on licensing out the rights to songs by the label's stable of artists to companies like K-Tel, home of cheesy infomercials for compilations promising the biggest hits in genres stretching from classic rock to polka. The idea: Universal was home to a lot of great country artists—certainly enough to put out a pretty killer album of just hit singles. Why not cut out the middleman and put out the compilation themselves?
The result, dubbed Untamed and True, was released in 1994 and featured hits by artists like Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, and Vince Gill. It sold 100,000 copies in Canada, making it a reasonable success in a country one tenth the size of the United States.
"They said, 'Oh geez, maybe we got something here. Chris, go ahead and dream up something else,'" Harrs told VICE.
While Canada has always appreciated a little bit of country (see Twain, Shania), in the mid-90s, rock and roll was at the height of its powers. Individual pop artists would sell more albums in the decade that produced Celine Dion and Alanis Morisette but the alternative rock scene was the dominant cultural force: Our Lady Peace, The Tragically Hip, Moist, The Tea Party, I Mother Earth, Big Wreck, and Matthew Good Band would all chart at least one multi-platinum album before the new millennium.
"At that time, more so perhaps than any other period that I can remember up until now, it genuinely felt like an enforced sense of CanCon was not at play and that the country and the media genuinely were embracing Canadian rock bands, not because they had to, but because fans were and media followed along in line," says Graeme McDonald, a long-time road manager for Moist.
In short, in 1994, the rock scene was thriving. The next step for Harrs was logical: Collect a bunch of hit alt-rock singles, package them together and wait for the money to roll in.
Universal would release the result of that brainstorm, dubbed Absolute 90's in 1995. The album, which contained hits by American groups like Filter, Weezer, and Canadian bands like The Gandharvas, was a small success. In the period between the demise of vinyl singles and the rise of iTunes, it was obvious there was a hunger for compilations of rock songs among fans who couldn't imagine themselves shelling out for a full CD of Better Than Ezra songs. But Absolute 90's, made up solely of Universal artists, was not the panacea of hits Harrs had envisioned.
A partnership would form among the three major labels with the best alternative rosters—Universal, EMI, and Warners. Rather than sell the rights to their catalogue to a third party like the infamous infomercial-sold K-Tel compilations of the 60s, the three would collaborate on their own line of rock compilations, featuring a mishmash of hits and upcoming artists.
While Harrs swears some bands had actually rejected inclusion of their songs on Absolute 90's, not wanting to be seen as sellouts (he declined to name names), the introduction of a fourth partner would become key in attracting top Canadian acts to the project: MuchMusic.
East Coast power-pop act Sloan appeared on the first Big Shiny Tunes based solely on their positive experiences with Much.
"We didn't know who else was on it at the time until it came out, probably," says guitarist Jay Ferguson. "But we probably said yes because MuchMusic was behind us."
Those early Big Shiny CDs were often a hodgepodge of whatever passed for "alt-rock." Ferguson's mind boggles at the idea his band ever had anything in common with noted sex-god Lenny Kravitz. The first album alone had straight ahead Canadian alt-rock like Moist and I Mother Earth pushed up against metal in Marilyn Manson, as well as one-hit wonders (Fun Lovin' Criminals) and no-hit obscurities (who the fuck is Poe?).
That toss-some-hits-into-a-blender method didn't always mean timeless music was making the cut. Big Shiny Tunes 2 sold over a million copies, making it one of the top-selling albums in Canadian history, but still included songs by Sugar Ray, Matchbox 20, and Collective Soul. Still, the albums exist as time capsules of what was popular, and if it took Rob Thomas to boost the profile of Canadian songstress Holly McNarland—and open a new revenue stream for her—so be it.
"When you have a song on a million-selling record, you're making a lot of money, sometimes a lot more than they're making on their own record," says Craig Halket, a former head of programming at MuchMusic. "That's another way we benefitted Canadian artists."
There was a charm to the way various genres bounced off each other, too— Big Shiny Tunes 3's middle section was comprised of the unlikely quartet of Scarborough jokesters Barenaked Ladies, Beastie Boys, horror-metalhead Rob Zombie, and pop-rockers Third Eye Blind.
There was also a guilelessness to how the Canadian acts were put right next to the largest international stars—Matthew Good Band sandwiched between Coldplay and Jimmy Eat World, Finger 11 getting equal respect as Jet or Blink 182.
"The names kind of look funny now in the context of history, but at the time those were all popular songs with our audience and it didn't matter whether it was Marilyn Manson and Collective Soul or Matchbox 20," says Halket.
American or European acts tended not to know they were even on something called Big Shiny Tunes—to them, it was just yet another in a long line of compilations their managers and record companies were hooking them up with around the world. But for the Canadians, getting a song on the annual release became a badge of honour and a way of cementing themselves in history—even if they only realized that in retrospect.
"I don't think we realized it until after the fact. Frankly, we weren't paying that much attention to it," said Safwan Javed, drummer for Saskatchewan blues-rock unit Wide Mouth Mason, whose song "My Old Self" was featured on BST 2. "It was just one of our songs was on a compilation. It's only after, ten years later, that people still roll up. 'Yeah, i remember you were on Big Shiny Tunes.' That album definitely had a major impact on the country."
Looking back on the track listings of the whole series now, it's interesting to see how long alternative rock managed to stick around as a force, even while sitting next to songs from the genres that would ultimately replace it as the go-to for angry teens with a taste for distortion pedals. On BST 5, Matthew Good sits near Limp Bizkit, Disturbed and the Deftones. A year later, David Usher and Our Lady Peace were somehow lumped in with Linkin Park. Soon, the alt-rock sound that had been the inspiration behind Big Shiny Tunes would be wholly replaced by both angrier and poppier bands as nu-metal, post-hardcore like Alexisonfire and Billy Talent and pop-punk acts such as Sum 41, Gob and Yellowcard ascended. The nu-garage wave of The Strokes, The White Stripes, and Jet further muddied the waters. While that schism could be seen as an indicator of a healthy diversity in the sound of rock, a less charitable translation would be that MuchMusic and the record companies were frantically searching for whatever it was that would replace grunge and alt-rock as the next big thing in rock.
It left some of the bands featured on later editions with some mixed feelings.
"I don't think we could be in a further direction from any of all those bands," says MacNeil. "Those are all rock bands that want to be rock stars and are rock stars. At that time, we were touring in a van and selling our own t-shirts."
With five appearances, Alexisonfire holds the record for most songs on the series. Diluted though the track listings might have been, being a Big Shiny artist still meant something.
"I think mainstream media was forced to embrace it. I kind of feel that was us somehow getting a foot in the door with Big Shiny Tunes," says MacNeil.
The genres on Big Shiny Tunes might have been evolving; the music business as a whole was going in the opposite direction. By the time Napster hit in 1999, the grunge stars were either dead, disbanded, or Pearl Jam. Rap, which long sat second to rock as a cultural force, had now surpassed it and bubblegum pop like the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears were at the height of their powers.
Sales of Big Shiny Tunes over time would reflect that transition: BST 2 went diamond. BST 5 was certified six times platinum. BST 9 was down to just 100,000 copies sold. By the time BST 12 was released in 2007, it would sell just half of that. While two more editions would be put out, the writing was on the wall— Big Shiny Tunes would not survive, just one more victim of a shift that would monumentally change how music was made, marketed and released in Canada.
"The music business in Canada just didn't have the money to compete. I found that there was a real hard time for Canadian artists in the early 2000s," says Halket. "It became really about Nickelback and Three Days Grace, those kinds of things. Those bands had big international success but there was a lot fewer of them at the top. There were a lot more bands that were just kind of sitting and had minor Canadian success."
Big Shiny Tunes would be just one of the many, many, many victims of the biggest change to recorded music since the invention of the phonograph. Among the people present at the meeting where the decision to end the series was made was Justin Stockman, currently the VP of business and channel strategy of Bell Media, MuchMusic's parent company.
"It was gradual," says Stockman. "You can see the record sales. Alternative music is still prominent, it's not like it's gone away, but it's just not in the same space as it was during that core period… When we do things, we go big, so for us to put all our marketing muscle behind it and really promote it, we didn't think it was probably the best decision anymore."
Though Stockman insists Big Shiny Tunes could be revived under the right conditions, it's hard to imagine that ever happening. Though it should be noted that somewhat amazingly, Much Dance, essentially the BST of pop music that was established in the same era, is still going strong as a physical CD sold in actual record stores, a fact even Stockman expresses mild shock at. ("I'm with you. I'd be surprised sales are what they are.")
Compilations are mostly dead and Canada's music industry has changed in a fundamental way. But for those of us who grew up on CanCon, who remember when a new Matthew Good Band album was as anticipated as new Green Day, we still have our souvenirs. Every now and again, we can pull out an obsolete piece of plastic and remember a day when Canadian rock was big and it was shiny and most of all, it was ours.
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