Chris Nelson

Chris Nelson
Chris Nelson has been the host of MuchMusic’s Going Coastal for the last eight years, a post he will resign at the end of August. Over the duration of his tenure at the station, he has seen to slow shift from music programming to reality shows, as MuchMusic becomes increasingly similar to its music-free American counterpart, MTV. Still, Much has maintained shows like Nelson’s, along with The New Music, in a television climate that a less sympathetic broadcaster would have done away with long ago. In the middle of a motorcycle trip through Canada’s west coast, Nelson takes some time to chat about his future, and the future of music programming in this country.

Where are you right now?
Well, I know I told you I’d be in Kamloops, but my drive chain needed to be tightened, and because it’s high season for motorcyclists, trying to find someone to do that on short notice is like… There’s a good metaphor here, and it will come to me later in the conversation.

When it comes, feel free to shout it out.
Sounds good.

What is this trip you’re embarking on?
I’m just taking a few days to ride around. I have a motorcycle. I like to ride it. I haven’t had a chance yet this summer because it hasn’t been warm enough. I’m hoping to go down to California for a couple of days, and I will have done about as much highway riding as I’d like to, so I’m just going to blast out west and see some friends.

So you’re leaving Going Coastal?
That’s right.

How soon? Have you filmed your last show yet?
Not yet, but it will probably be in the next couple of weeks. Most of the material for the show has been shot already at this point. I’m going to be leaving at the end of August.

What brought about your decision to leave?
Last year I sat down with my bosses to discuss my last contract. They raised the issue that they were hoping to make some changes in the next little while, which is understandable. I’m old. I’m expensive. [Laughs] Their rational for wanting to make changes is totally understandable. I’ve been doing it for eight years, and I think their feeling is that they want to see something different happening with the program. I think after eight years I’ve probably met as many challenges as I can with that particular program, and done all the interesting things I can with it, and to continue with it would be like being one of the Russian cosmonauts on the space station Mir. You know, I’d be recycling my own urine to breathe. I don’t want to see that happen to the show.

That’s fair. What is the direction you see the show going in?
Are you familiar with the digital channel Razor?

I can’t say that I am.
Well, [CTVglobemedia] own a digital channel called Razor, which has a show called 969, which is produced out of Vancouver. I think their plan is to have those people assume my Going Coastal duties, and my position will effectively be eliminated. My hope is that they will continue Going Coastal’s tradition of predominantly featuring Canadian indie bands. As I’m sure you well know, there are very few places on mainstream television for indie bands to get any exposure. There are very few shows like ours that focus on independent music that are nationally broadcast programs. We had Zed for a time, but CBC seems a little bit whimsical and capricious regarding those types of things. CBC Television — let me clarify. CBC Radio 3 does an excellent job of supporting indie music. Regarding Going Coastal, I hope they retain some commitment to that. I think some people take MuchMusic to task for the shift in the tone of their programming. A lot of people decry the fact that they’re doing more lifestyle programs and reality shows and focusing less on music, but that is a function of simple market pressure. They’re seeing that the audience for music programming is diminishing. So they have to look around and see what programming people are watching, and provide that for them. They are a privately owned broadcaster, and that is their right and their prerogative. Our program doesn’t have the best ratings in the world, but our numbers are consistent. I know they’ve tested out shows that have got better numbers than ours and have been cancelled much faster. I think it’s a testament to their willingness to maintain some commitment to Canadian music that they still do shows like ours, or The New Music. It’s a noble enterprise for them.

I remember seeing an interview with Sook-Yin Lee, when she still worked at Much, where she was asked if it bothered her the direction Much’s programming was taking, and she said it didn’t really, because any other broadcaster would have not even be doing something like The New Music anymore.
That is absolutely right. There are few places that would allow a little show like ours to continue. I think that they’re doing the best that they can under the circumstances that they currently operate. Ten years ago, there was nothing but music programming. But it’s a far more competitive market than it was before, and I think the fact that they choose to do it… You know, I can’t speak for them. I just think the fact that they do it is impressive, especially given there are other places, particularly in the United States, that would shit-can our show in a heartbeat.

So having been a part of the machinery that is a major broadcaster, you don’t feel resentful towards the cutting back of shows like The Wedge?
On the one hand, I think it’s sad that you’re seeing it less on the television, but I think the people who have an appetite for those kinds of shows are turning less to television. They’re turning to the internet. YouTube, MySpace. Places like that. I would love to see MuchMusic make an effort to go out and capture that audience that they lost, but I think the way to do that may be less on television, or without considering the separation between the internet, print, and television. People need to reorient themselves to not think about individual mediums, but multimedia, and that all of the material you create surfs across all of those platforms. They’re sort of doing that already, but it remains to be seen how much emphasis they will place on Canadian indie music.

I guess ultimately you can’t be sure what the people coming in and taking over the show will be covering?
I have hopes, I have aspirations, but the show’s not mine after the end of August. What they chose to do is up to them.

Are you excited about the prospect of finding something else to do? How sentimental do you feel about leaving the show?
I love the idea of change. I’ve been in the same job for eight years. I’m getting up in the same numbers as people like Daniel Richler, or Rick Campanelli, or Denise Donlon. While I was there, who came and left? George, Amanda, Jennifer Hollett, Hannah Sung. I’ve outlasted a lot of people, and that’s because I liked what I was doing. I got to indulge one of my passions, which is music, and I got to do it in one of my favourite cities on earth, which is Vancouver. And I enjoyed a lot of autonomy. I think that’s something the people that follow me may not have, which is the degree of freedom that was granted to me. At the same time, I’ve got a lot of interests outside of music, and I’m a naturally curious person. Have you ever seen High Fidelity?

Of course.
Well, I think John Cusack’s phrase, "professional appreciator,” is the perfect way to describe what I do. You’re very much living vicariously through creative people, and giving some profile to what they’re doing. But you do ask yourself, "How much do I contribute to the world?” I think now I might be at a point where I can add more to the world, like everyone else does.

Do you have any plans for what you’d like to do come August?
I have some plans. There’s some stuff a-cookin’. Pretty soon you’ll get to smell it.

For now you’re just keeping it in the kitchen?
Yup. Me, and the Rock.

Do you think shows like Going Coastal and The New Music will survive as Much continues to evolve?
I can’t say, especially with CTV owning it. I think there was a time with Much in the ’80s, where it created a Canadian star system. There were all these bands that had never been seen on television, and their profile increased dramatically as a result of MuchMusic’s influence. I think something CTV now shares with MuchMusic then is that they’ve really worked to give some profile to Canadians in this country. I hope they use that same spirit with their programming on MuchMusic. And I lost my train of thought. What was the question? I’m sorry.

Do you think those shows will continue to be broadcast?
I would hope so. I like to think that there will always be tastemaker programs. Do you know Tony Wilson? He was the subject of that movie 24-Hour Party People.

Of course.
He started Factory Records. And he started out as a broadcaster in Manchester, England on Grenada Television. His show was very much like ours. It was a regional show, where bands that went on to be incredibly influential — the Sex Pistols, Joy Division — made their first television appearances. It was a groundbreaking show. He was the spirit I hoped to channel with a show like Going Coastal. I don’t know if a show like that could exist as well on TV now, but that’s because TV is limited in its reach. The nice thing about CBC Radio 3 is that their audience is not limited to Canada. People listen to them all over the world. I hope at some point MuchMusic and CTVglobemedia can do the same thing.

So you hold out some hope?
I think the internet provides, for the first time, a true meritocracy. If stuff is great, people will embrace it, and if it’s shit, they’ll ignore it. With television, you could hype up something that was a huge steaming turd and people would tune in. It’s not unlike Hollywood, where they do a huge marketing push for a movie because they’re only interested in that first weekend gross. They put a whole bunch of money into promoting the film, even if that film is of dubious quality, because once everyone’s figured it out they’ve already made their money. With the internet, people can get precisely what they want. The old revenue models for television probably won’t exist anymore. They have recognized that people are going to seek a program out. And by tracking what people seek out, we can glean information about them, and we can create ad content specific to the individual who is downloading that program. That’s an amazing opportunity there, and it may be a bit of liberation in terms of the content of… I’m sorry, I’m kind of getting off topic here, but it’s something I really like discussing. It’s just a very exciting time to be working in broadcasting. Or working in media, let me qualify that.