Music

An oral history of Big Shiny Tunes: the CD that defined a Canadian era

Over 13 years and 17 editions, BST became the most popular Canadian compilation of all time.

Over 13 years and 17 editions, BST became the most popular Canadian compilation of all time

The Big Shiny Tunes series featured Canadian artists such as Bif Naked (centre) and Moist (right) alongside international acts like Perry Farrell's Porno for Pyros (left). (Getty Images, Bif Naked, CBC Still Photo Collection; graphic by CBC)

Written by Jesse Locke.

What is the legacy of Big Shiny Tunes? For a generation of listeners weaned on MuchMusic, the compilation series that launched in 1996 acted as both a greatest hits collection and gateway to discover lesser-known acts.

For MuchMusic and its major label partners, the BST CDs were a savvy marketing tool released right before Christmas, packaging the station's most popular songs of each year into a handy stocking stuffer. For emerging Canadian artists included on the track listing, the compilation placed them on the same level as their higher-profile international contemporaries such as Bush X, No Doubt and Radiohead, making homegrown stars and influencing several other generations in the process.

Over 13 years and 17 editions, BST became the most popular Canadian compilation of all time. Though it peaked early with BST 2 — which sold one million copies and earned diamond status — nine of the series' entries were certified platinum, sometimes three times over. Yet none of these numbers would truly matter if it wasn't for the cultural impact the series had as a taste-making platform in an era before streaming. In his 2018 book, Shine: How a MuchMusic Compilation Came to Define Canadian Alternative Music and Sell a Zillion Copies, author Mark Teo writes, "for the hundreds of thousands of people who owned the album, it was a snapshot of us." 

As BST celebrates its 25th anniversary in 2021, and Much relaunches on TikTok, the series has found a place in Canada's cultural fabric that goes beyond enjoyment, irony or even nostalgia. One apt example of its ongoing influence is Big Bonky Tones, a new compilation from Toronto's Tone Bonk Collective, featuring radically reworked covers of songs from the first five editions. Many tracks from BST remain radio staples and the subject of tribute shows, while well-loved copies of the brightly coloured discs can still be found on the floors of countless people's cars.

In this oral history, the MuchMusic staffers behind the series and artists featured prominently attempt to explain how a series of CDs became this big and this shiny.

The wild success of compilations

Susan Arthur (former MuchMusic director of marketing): The idea of partnering with a label to release a compilation started with Quality Records and Dance Mix. They approached us to do an alternative rock compilation like Dance Mix because it was so successful. It turned into a bigger deal because it was a joint venture with all of the big labels at the time — Universal, EMI, Warner — instead of each of them doing their own compilations.

David Kirkwood (former MuchMusic vice president of sales and marketing): Before Big Shiny Tunes, Universal approached us with a compilation they had put together called Absolute 90s. It had a kid on the cover with the band names on his skateboard. When I showed it to my 14-year-old son, Chris, he said it looked like an album designed by a 40-year-old who thinks they're a teenager. Absolute 90s did OK, so the labels decided to try again and do it together. It was an on-air promoter named Scott Greig who came up with the name, which was a bit of a rip on R.E.M.'s "Shiny Happy People." 

Craig Halket (former MuchMusic associate music programmer/producer/VJ): Every year, BST was released by a different record company, but every record company was represented. That way, we included the biggest songs of the year, as well as fresh new tracks. 

John Jones (former MuchMusic senior music programmer): There needed to be a lot of support for Canadian artists on the disc, and not just the first one but each subsequent edition. I had a long personal history with Sloan, so they were a must-have for us.

A glimpse at MuchMusic's heyday. From left: Avi Lewis (Host of MuchMusic's The New Music), Reeves Gabrels (Tin Machine's guitarist), Much VJ Bill Welychka, David Bowie, Denise Donlon (former Director of Music Programming at Much), and John Jones (former senior music programmer at Much). (Courtesy of John Jones)

Chris Murphy (Sloan): At the time we were like, "I don't know, do we want to be on this? It doesn't sound cool." But it ended up selling tons of copies and made us look legitimately big when we weren't. I would say the Killjoys, Pluto and Limblifter are the bands like us who were lucky to be on there. It elevated us to a place where we were listed along with Beck and the Chili Peppers. In reality, we were a mom-and-pop act.

George Stroumboulopoulos (former MuchMusic VJ): I'm of that age where, when you grew up, you didn't always hear Canadian music in the same category as powerhouse tunes from the U.S. and U.K. You had your Neils and your Jonis, but there were only a handful. When BST came out, suddenly you had massive international hits from Garbage and Bush X on the same disc as important Canadian songs like Sloan's "The Good in Everyone," which ended up being the theme song for my talk show on CBC.

Mike Trebilcock (the Killjoys): When you toured in the '90s, it was like being sent into space. There was no social media so it was hard to gauge what was going on outside of our van. We were out touring while our managers were wheeling and dealing, so we didn't know much about the inner workings of how we ended up on Absolute 90s or BST

Holly McNarland: BST helped a lot of careers, mine included. We played MuchMusic's Snow Job and I took a limo from Sun Peaks back to Vancouver. The next day was the Junos, so that felt pretty rock star.

Perry Farrell (Jane's Addiction, Porno for Pyros): I thought MuchMusic was fantastic. I love George Stroumboulopoulos. He would interview me every time I was there and I always looked forward to talking to him. 

Stroumboulopoulos: I will always remember how thoughtful and engaged Perry was in interviews. He never bullshitted, and gave us exactly what we needed. I feel like I'm intellectually and emotionally wiser after a conversation with him, but spiritually younger. 

Céline Dion and BST were numbers 1 and 2 on the charts, and sometimes they would even flip so we took the top position. Céline must have been wondering what this thing was.- David Kirkwood

Poe (American artist featured on BST 1): MuchMusic was cool because it gave me this street-level connectivity in Canada. They were unbelievably embracing, more so than the U.S. MTV would only play me after hours, which I always thought was hilarious because they played Marilyn Manson and the edgiest hip hop all day long. But a girl joking about wanting to slay you? No, we can't show that. It was a shock to have the support of anyone, so being on BST was a very big deal.

Kirkwood: It sold something like 30,000 copies in the first week. Céline Dion and BST were numbers 1 and 2 on the charts, and sometimes they would even flip so we took the top position. Céline must have been wondering what this thing was. 

David Kines (former MuchMusic program manager and director of music operations): It built from the first one. When we launched the series it was still pre-Napster, and I think our sales numbers probably peaked around 2002 or 2003. It was a big milestone when Dance Mix hit a million units sold in the early '90s, and BST certainly hit that, too.

[Editor's note: Most of the Big Shiny Tunes compilations were certified platinum, selling over 100,000 units. Big Shiny Tunes 2 is the only release to be certified diamond in Canada, surpassing one million units in 1998.]

Arthur: BST is a success story in terms of marketing, business and revenue generating. We were really just trying to create something that would get MuchMusic into the hands of our viewers. It was as exciting as Much Video Dance coming to your high school. I don't mean to be braggy, but who else's brand could you put on a CD that ends up selling millions of copies over 10 years? It was a real phenomenon.

Murphy: We made our album One Chord to Another for $8,000 and recorded the drums on a four-track cassette player. When you listen to "The Good in Everyone" in comparison to all of the other giant songs on BST, we sound dinky by comparison.

Bif Naked: I was really surprised by how well "I Love Myself Today" was received, because I was worried that the lyrics were too silly. I think it was just the right time for the right song. You can't go wrong if you get a chance to co-write with Desmond Child. He just has such a way with melody.

Trebilcock: I was surprised when we got on TV. Even for the '90s, our first album, Starry, sounds pretty raunchy for that time. It's really buzzy and a little bit obnoxious. I think the sentiment of "Today I Hate Everyone" had a lot to do with it. That song plays a lot around Christmas when people are mad at shopping-mall crowds. 

The first edition of Big Shiny Tunes was released on Dec. 3, 1996. (MuchMusic)

David Usher (Moist): We played with a bunch of big American acts back then, and MuchMusic had a lot of influence in making that happen. I remember a festival in Tuktuyaaqtuuq that we did with Metallica and Hole. Flying up with Courtney Love was pretty crazy because she lived up to her name for the entire trip. She wasn't faking it, and that authenticity is pretty fun to watch.

Poe: I was such a big Radiohead fan, so being sequenced next to them on BST was amazing. I was playing with female identity and the sound of hip hop by embracing an almost masculine swagger. Thom Yorke was doing the opposite of that by being a mess of emotion and rawness, so I really appreciated him as a counterpoint to what I was doing.

MuchMusic's heyday 

Arthur: Sometimes when I'm listening to the radio and they're playing retro '90s songs from BST, I hear the next song that appeared on the compilation in my head. 

Halket: What I love about music is that I can put on a song from 20 years ago and immediately transport myself back to the time when I first heard it. When I put on BST now, it's the same feeling as watching a Friends reunion.

Robin Dann (Bernice, Big Bonky Tones): My older brother was always my north star in terms of how to be cool as a kid. I was 10 when the first BST came out and I remember listening to it through his closed bedroom door and later stealing it for my Discman. Stone Temple Pilots, Foo Fighters and Radiohead were all bands I got angsty to.

Mark Teo (author of Shine): When I got the CD at age 13, seeing these Canadian bands alongside established American acts put them on the same level in my mind. After learning that Pluto was from Vancouver, it was a short jump to learn about their label Mint Records and more underground artists like Rose Melberg. In a pre-internet time, reading liner notes encouraged me to seek out other music.

McNarland: I miss MuchMusic, back when videos cost $90,000 and you hoped they got played. Those years were the height of my career. It was a pretty special time.

Murphy: I'm nostalgic for MuchMusic. I used to watch it. Not so much after I started being on it, but when I was in high school I used to tape videos like "Smalltown Boy" by Bronski Beat off the TV. I liked that Much had to play Canadian content with videos that had smaller budgets so everything looked indie and scrappy. Plus they had Speaker's Corner, where real people got on the air. I think it was cool and ahead of its time.

Usher: That was an era when live music was a really big thing. For us, it helped propel the band that was already doing pretty well by then. Travelling around the world and playing for all of these crazy audiences was amazing. Back then there was no stopping to think about what we were doing, but now we take a lot more stock of how lucky we are.

Poe: I was a fangirl around Sook-Yin Lee. I just thought she was the coolest person ever, and so sweet. I looked up an old interview we did and she asked such good questions. Bill Welychka was also really soulful. He cared a lot about artists and the first question he asked was always, "How are you feeling?" People would just spill their guts to him.

Farrell: I wish MuchMusic would return to their passion for music as opposed to reality shows. Interviews with musicians are always so interesting to me, whether they're talking about their poetry and their art, or sharing their life stories. Music has the ability to transform our world, heal people, and make them dance — nothing else can do that!

The Big Shiny legacy


 

Jones: BST 2 is my personal favourite, and at the time one in every 30 people in Canada had a copy. The first week sales were something like 120,000 copies. It's insane to think that a compilation could do that well, especially one with a fairly narrow focus of alt-rock. I also didn't think it would have this kind of longevity. 

McNarland: I still think number 2 is the best one. I became a household name and many people have told me the first time they heard me was on BST. I think its legacy is turning small artists to bigger artists, because BST itself is a household name.  

Kirkwood: With the measures that I use for success in terms of marketing, getting our name out in a positive way, and generating revenue, BST was huge. Things like Snow Job and Sand Job were fun, but nowhere near as long-lasting and absolutely absorbing.

Halket: Sitting on the board for Much's VideoFACT grant was another great way to discover up-and-coming acts like Metric, Alexisonfire or Nickelback in the beginning of their career. If we gave them money to make a video we would play, that often bled over into them being included on BST.

Bif Naked: I always felt honoured to be the only woman on a compilation or nominated for an award. Of course Nickelback won every time, because they're Nickelback. But for me, being on BST was a win in itself. There was no social pressure back then for them to be inclusive. It was uplifting because it told me I was able to compete and thrive in a world dominated by guys. 

Poe: It was such a testosterone-driven time, so being a woman on that compilation was a big deal. That in particular felt like such an accomplishment, because all of the alternative stations in the U.S. were like that too. After that it ushered in the period of Lilith Fair, when women were everywhere. 

The stretch from 1995 to 2000 was when MuchMusic was at the height of its powers and influence. Not only was it able to break artists so they could sell music and tour, but people were actually buying CDs at that time.- John Jones

Dann: By asking an eclectic variety of folks to make covers of songs from BST [for Big Bonky Tunes] and giving them full artistic freedom, we're making a comment about how so much of pop music sounded the same back then. White men were responsible for so much of pop music, and it was totally controlled by these huge labels that defined what we heard. I love that our compilation is truly all over the map musically, and people are coming to it with all different kinds of life perspectives.

Teo: At this point, we're 25 years removed from BST, and a lot of those songs are basically classic rock. To see experimental artists take something that is a really common frame of reference and interpret it in different ways is as good as a legacy can get. It pulls the music away from nostalgia into something new and contemporary. I think that's the highest compliment you can give something made for explicitly commercial purposes.


 

Halket: By the mid-2000s, Much Dance had overtaken BST as the stronger brand in terms of what we were selling for compilations. There was just more pop stuff happening.

Arthur: It was great while it was great, and then it wasn't so great anymore. Eventually it became a business decision in terms of resources versus revenue, and branding for that matter. But man, it lasted a long time! I was at Much until 2008, but I can tell you that by 2006, it was like, "Really? Are we just doing this because we still work here?"

Jones: The stretch from 1995 to 2000 was when MuchMusic was at the height of its powers and influence. Not only was it able to break artists so they could sell music and tour, but people were actually buying CDs at that time. Much was incredibly influential, just in terms of selling volumes of shiny discs. That all stopped when Napster and file sharing became prevalent.

Trebilcock: These days, with playlists, everyone can make their own BST. Back then it actually meant something for a record company to put together a compilation, instead of just some person. 

Arthur: The market demand dwindled, and that's fair. The way people were getting their music was changing, and the station itself was, too. The formula wasn't broken, but the product just wasn't relevant anymore.

Kines: At the end of the day, the mechanical royalty rate for BST was fixed. I suspect the pay was very meaningful for Pluto, but not so much for Smashing Pumpkins.

Kirkwood: The most amazing thing about BST is that nobody felt burned. The lesser known artists who made their way on experienced all of the benefits of that, while the better known artists just increased their sales. The labels who had been battling each other with their own compilations dropped the fight. There wasn't much difficulty as far as I understand it in terms of getting tracks cleared by the other labels, because they knew the following year they would be in charge of the compilation and nothing would be refused. 


 

Bif Naked: The Canadian music industry was a well-oiled machine back then with the way everyone worked together. There wasn't anything like it in a lot of other countries. I feel bad for artists today who don't have the same opportunities.

Stroumboulopoulos: BST was the ultimate vouch. It was a really important validation for Canadian artists to be seen alongside these international juggernauts in a way that no one had done before. It wouldn't work as a compilation without MuchMusic because they were doing that as well. With their bright CD covers and commercials, it was easy to think BST was just a compilation of hits, but describing it that way does it a disservice. It was about letting the whole country know that the artist from your town belongs here with these global superstars.

Dann: BST produced us — a generation of musicians who came up listening to those songs. If you listen to Canadian pop bands making music now, you can hear the influence. In that way, there's a kind of legacy.

Kirkwood: It's exciting that MuchMusic is coming back in different forms, but at the end of the day their moment has passed. It's not their fault, but nobody can revive that to what it once was. Big Shiny Tunes, on the other hand, can still play on.

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