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Among the various sectors in the Canadian cultural scene, there is something charmingly refreshing about the music industry: it is actually an industry. Canadian television and film are national projects supported by tax dollars, public institutions and government regulations, but the production and performance of popular music in this country has produced a whole sprawling mess of different businesses, most of them well integrated into a continental market. Sure, there were those Canadian content regulations on radio that got the party started back in the 1970s; yeah, you can sometimes get a grant to launch your first recording, but mainly music in Canada is a business.

That's why Canadian Music Week, which wrapped up its 33rd edition on the weekend, always has this hyped-up energy to it. It's not just the fans with wrist bands jostling to get in line at the music venues across Toronto, it's the daytime action as the various industry conferences converge on a downtown hotel where people who engineer sound systems mingle with copyright lobbyists, singer-songwriters and radio DJs. With its determindedly international approach – this year the spotlight was on Australia and New Zealand – and its well-connected speakers from the U.S. and Canada, CMW always feels like a hive of money-making activity.

There's one giant irony to that observation, of course: the music industry was the canary in the coal mine on digital disruption and CMW conferences over the years have been a great way to track the condition of the bird's respiratory system. One year you'd hear how subscription music-streaming services were going to save the business; the next you'd find out they were paying less than a penny a stream.

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And so, not coincidentally, my job at this year's CMW was to moderate a panel on the survival of the creative class. We've all been told the so-called creative class, which would probably include sound engineers, copyright lobbyists and DJs and most definitely includes musicians, is crucial to the economic health and livability of cities. So what happens when those sought-after creatives can't make a living from their work?

Musicians have faced the devaluation of their labour since at least 2000 – remember Napster? – and many now speak sadly of a society that takes a free soundtrack for granted. People refuse to understand not merely why they should pay any significant amount for streaming or downloading, but also why somebody should be paying the pianist who's playing live in a bar or the composer whose melody can be heard over the sound system.

If there is, perhaps, some growing outrage over this state of affairs, it might be because musicians increasingly have a lot of company: digital copying; predatory business models that reward distributors but not producers; and the Cult of Free – all now threaten the livelihoods of filmmakers, actors, designers, authors and journalists. In his book Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class, the American arts journalist Scott Timberg argues this development has disastrous implications for culture itself.

He was one of the panelists; the other two were musician-activists. New York singer-songwriter and independent music producer Blake Morgan started the #IRespectMusic campaign; Canadian-born cellist Zoë Keating, a do-it-yourselfer from northern California, releases her music directly to her fans and electronically samples her own playing live on stage. Morgan has taken on Pandora over the issue of radio royalties in the U.S.; Keating has taken on YouTube over its highly restrictive contracts for its Music Key service.

If this trio had one message it was this: people need to know how ordinary artists make a living. Keating has openly discussed details of her different royalty streams online in hopes her fans will support her by choosing the ones that reward her best. Morgan thinks people believe all musicians are either Beyoncé or that guy tending the bar: the one hardly needs any more money; and the other hasn't got a hope. Timberg agrees that the public needs to understand there's a mid-list out there in every cultural field, a large group of committed professionals who will never be internationally famous or fabulously wealthy but whose work is key to the continuation of the arts.

Morgan, meanwhile, is determined to replace the stereotype of the drug-addled bohemian, who should just grow up and get a real job, with that of the solid citizen who already has one. When talking to politicians in Washington about how he pays the bills as a musician and music producer, he always makes sure to inform them he has a mortgage. Apparently, they're surprised.

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