The Junos are back this weekend with their first in-person ceremony since the pandemic. The Canadian live music industry, devastated by COVID-19 lockdowns, is now getting back on its feet. And homegrown international superstars the Weeknd and Drake both recently signed multifaceted megadeals with the world’s largest music conglomerate, Universal Music Group.
At first glance, the Canadian music industry looks well – a sector that prides itself on punching above its weight. But here’s a gut punch you didn’t see coming: Once you get past the few chart-topping phenoms, this country’s song-and-dance system is broken.
“Artists can’t make enough money to survive,” says Paul Brooks, publicist for Take Aim Media, a Toronto-based music public relations firm. Brooks points to the devaluation of recorded music that is distributed free online through streaming platforms. The leading service, Spotify, offers a premium service for $9.99 a month.
“Collectively, as a society, we’ve somehow agreed that $9.99 is how much money we should pay to have all of the music in the world available to us,” Brooks says.
Ahead of the Juno gala at Toronto’s Budweiser Stage amphitheatre on Sunday evening, The Globe and Mail polled musicians and industry insiders on the pressing issues faced by the sector. Concerns included the low royalty rate for songwriters, the rising costs of live music productions, outdated copyright laws and the scarcity of vinyl-pressing plants.
The most frequently mentioned problem, however, had to do with financial support system for the industry. The country’s leading philanthropic body is the Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings (FACTOR), which is funded by the federal government and by Canada’s private radio broadcasters. According to FACTOR’s 2020-21 annual report, the government contributed $21,749,539 through the Canadian Music Fund and an additional $22,585,211 in COVID-related emergency funding from April 1, 2020, through March 31, 2021. Private radio kicked in $11,942,935.
While the country’s system of grants is generally popular within the music industry, that enthusiasm comes with reservations. Adam Fox, the director of programs with the Calgary-based National Music Centre, believes grants could be more strategically applied.
“What would make it better is more accessible funding for tour support for artists in this country, as touring costs can be prohibitive for many emerging Canadian artists,” Fox says.
When FACTOR was initiated in 1982, Canadian recording artists and independent labels actually sold albums. With the growth of online music consumption, album sales have plummeted drastically since. Because artists now make the bulk of their money through live shows, a boost in tour subsidies makes sense.
But the LP format is still encouraged by grant-giving institutions despite negligible albums sales by most independent-label artists and even though streaming platforms incentivize singles instead.
“We should be getting artists away from the concept of recording 10 or more tracks when only one or two of them are going to generate substantial streaming royalties,” says Alexander Mair, co-founder of the defunct Canadian indie label Attic Records. “Albums make for clutter on the streaming services. I really believe there’s far too much crap being posted on Spotify.”
It has long been argued that easy accessibility to grant money has produced a complacency within the indie label scene, resulting in mediocre music. There was a time when Canadian indies had mainstream hits: Rough Trade’s High School Confidential and Bruce Cockburn’s Lovers in a Dangerous Time on True North Records; Chilliwack’s My Girl (Gone, Gone, Gone) on Solid Gold Records; Doucette’s Mama Let Him Play on Mushroom Records.
Today? Not so much. Grants help artists survive rather than thrive.
“I think there isn’t enough talk about getting hits of any kind, in any format,” says Bernie Finkelstein, founder and former president of True North. “There’s too much time spent on saving the Canadian music industry, and not enough time producing hit records.”
While there are Canadian artists producing hits and making a lot of money (the all-encompassing agreements Drake and the Weeknd just signed with Universal are likely in the nine-figure range), on the outside looking in are the musicians and songwriters who used to be considered middle-class in the predigital age. Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan of the indie-pop stalwarts Stars recently began selling songs directly to fans. For $1,000, Campbell, for example, will compose a pop song tailored to the life of a single paying customer.
Millan believes a universal basic income for all Canadian citizens would provide a safety net for musicians. “That’s how to fix the Canadian music industry,” she says. But while Campbell suggests instituting Canadian content regulations across streaming platforms or even “turning off the internet” altogether, he wonders if it is all too late.
“Within 10 years, musicians will be like people who weave or churn butter by hand,” says the singer-actor, half-jokingly envisioning a music world dominated by artificial intelligence. “A few people will pay for real music, but most won’t even know it exists.”
Four problems with the Canadian music industry and how to fix them
Consumers have lost confidence in the live music industry
Two years of perpetual concert postponements have made live music patrons skeptical of tour announcements. The highly infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19 is still shutting down shows and some would-be concertgoers may be hesitant to gather in tight spaces without mask mandates.
Solution: Open-air amphitheatres and festival fields promise safer environments this summer. Tickets for the two-weekend Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in California last month sold out quickly, raising hopes for a strong 2022 summer festival season.
Streaming doesn’t serve Canadian songwriters
Canadian songwriters earn much more when their work runs on television and radio than on streaming services. As well, unlike radio broadcasters, the digital platforms are not required to promote Canadian content.
Solution: Bill C-11, currently under debate, calls for digital platforms to promote Canadian music in the same way as traditional radio stations.
Because there are so few pressing plants to meet the increased demand for records, indie artists and labels typically face turnaround times of at least six months for their vinyl orders to be filled. The delays wreak havoc with release schedules.
Solution: The cassette, an antiquated, oft-maligned format, is enjoying a resurgence. Cassette orders can usually be completed within a month and they’re much cheaper to manufacture than vinyl.
Supply chain and labour issues
The post-lockdown surge in concert scheduling has caused logistical issues for presenters and artists hampered by a scarcity of equipment and skilled personnel. For example, the Vancouver indie-rock band Destroyer was recently stranded after an inexperienced driver crashed their tour bus twice.
Solution: “Time,” said Riley O’Connor, chairman of concert promotion behemoth Live Nation Canada. “Things will work themselves out in six to eight months. I think 2023 will be a very different kind of year for Canadian acts.”
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