By Michele Yeo
Before there was YouTube, before there was streaming, and way before there was TikTok, there was MuchMusic in Canada. And if you were a music or pop culture junkie in the ‘80s, ‘90s, or early 2000s, chances are MuchMusic was how you got your fix.
Now a new documentary about the channel is attempting to provide another kind of fix: a shot of nostalgia celebrating what was once known as “The Nation’s Music Station.” 299 Queen Street West, which premiered earlier this year at South By Southwest, traces MuchMusic’s scrappy origins, its rise to Canadian culture touchstone and concierge of coolness and its eventual demise with the rise of YouTube and the declining popularity of traditional broadcast television.
With access to 30 years of archival footage and input from former VJs like Michael Williams, Erica Ehm, Steve Anthony, Monika Deol, Denise Donlon, Sook-Yin Lee, Rick Campanelli, and George Stroumboulopoulos, director Sean Menard crafted 299 Queen Street West as a love letter to the channel which debuted in August of 1984 as Canada’s answer to MTV which hit the airwaves South of the border almost exactly three years earlier. Experimental and purposely non-glossy, MuchMusic eventually became the destination for the biggest names in music and fans were given an unprecedented front row seat to the goings on in the “Much environment” where anything could and did happen. That unprecedented close connection or “complete accessibility” as one Much exec calls it, where fans could either watch from the window or actually in-studio with their favourite artists was dreamed up after Duran Duran visited the MuchMusic headquarters early on and droves of fans turned up to get a closer look. After that, the action moved from the building’s third floor to its trademark street level studio which gave way to countless moments for the Canadian pop culture history books.
For those who grew up on MuchMusic, the doc will feel like a warm hug as it rips through decades worth of iconic footage from moments like Bon Jovi Day in the 80s, Electric Circus dance parties, visits and interviews from artists like David Bowie, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Kurt Cobain, Jay-Z, Britney Spears, NSYNC, and Gwen Stefani, as well as moments like Much’s annual Tree Toss, a popular tradition which nearly cost Steve Anthony his life one year. But 299 Queen Street West is as much an homage to a bygone era of pop culture and music journalism as it is to MuchMusic itself – before YouTube made it possible to watch any music video you wanted with just a couple of clicks and the rise of social media all but eliminated institutions like Much and MTV’s status as the gatekeepers to fans’ favourite artists. Sure, the immediacy and the direct access to artists through their Instagrams or TikToks is nice, but there’s still something to be said about the anticipation of knowing your favourite singer or band was going to be dropping by the storied building at Queen & John and the vibe of the screaming fans who were lucky enough to be there in person. It’s something that simply cannot be replicated. Another takeaway from the documentary is the sheer diversity of music and artists Much used to showcase back in the day before hip hop and pop became the dominant genres. The times, they certainly have changed.
The director of 299 Queen Street West along with select VJs are touring the country throughout October and November, premiering the documentary coast-to-coast in an intimate and interactive experience with a Q&A following each screening before the doc hits Crave in December.