Will Page is the author of Tarzan Economics and the former chief economist of Spotify and PRS for Music.
There’s an age-old expression in economics: an ill-thought out government policy risks becoming “a solution in search of a problem.” Canada’s recently passed Bill C-11, which seeks to protect and promote the country’s musical cultural heritage, risks falling into this trap.
Bill C-11, otherwise known as the Online Streaming Act, requires streaming platforms to fund and promote Canadian content, just like traditional broadcasters. But what’s clear to me after my recent trip to Canadian Music Week is that there’s little consensus on defining the problem Canada is trying to solve, if indeed there is one in this case. We need to avoid this trap.
As a Scotsman who can appreciate the talent-drain risk of having a much larger neighbour south of my border, I want to help.
First, don’t let Bill C-11 become a domestic (and linear) square peg that struggles to fit inside a global (and interactive) round hole. The world has changed, and policies need to keep up.
Bill C-11 evolved from an era in which regulating a finite number of radio and television stations would determine what consumers were exposed to. You got what you were given. Quotas, in this instance, made sense. Ensuring 35 per cent of radio airtime was “Canadian content” meant there was a pretty good chance that Canadian audiences would get more exposure to local artists. This policy was not without shortcomings: radio stations could game the system by playing Canadian content at night when there were fewer listeners to fulfill their quotas. But there’s also a bigger issue with it.
That was then and this is now. We’re no longer dealing with domestic linear radio stations, rather we’re wrestling with global non-linear streaming platforms where the consumer is empowered with choice and votes with their attention. That means we’re not regulating a radio’s play list of 1,000 unique songs each month. Instead we’re asking if we can even regulate global streaming platforms that put a total of 120,000 new songs on their digital shelves every single day. That’s more music than was released in the entirety of 1989!
Second, there is a disconnect between how Canadian artists are performing on global streaming platforms and how well the intervention of Bill C-11 will succeed in its aims.
Take the classic narrow MAPL definition of what is Canadian. To qualify as Canadian content, a musical selection must generally fulfill at least two of the following conditions: M (music): the music is composed entirely by a Canadian; A (artist): performed principally by a Canadian; P (performance): recorded or performed in Canada and; and L (lyrics): the lyrics are written entirely by a Canadian.
We need to loosen up on the word “entirely.” The international industry body IFPI reports that since 2017, when Stratford, Ont., local Justin Bieber featured on the Spanish-language hit Despacito, “bilingual collaborations have become a regular feature in national charts around the world.” However, that song would not have qualified as Canadian content under the MAPL rules.
So if a Canadian artist is to succeed through cross-border collaboration, her work shouldn’t be considered to not meet the conditions of Canadian content.
Last, I want to introduce to new a word that Scots struggle to pronounce: “glocalization.” In a recent paper for London School of Economics, I uncovered surprising evidence of local music thriving in European markets on global streaming platforms – a dynamic that didn’t exist when neighbourhood record shops and radio stations controlled what grabbed our attention. British artists may have dominated the U.K. charts last year, but the Germans, French and Italians reigned in their home markets – and did so in their mother tongues.
This, of course, is a double-edged sword. It’s great to learn that the world isn’t flat, but what does that mean for the export advantage that English-language countries like Britain and Canada have been so used to over the years? Glocalisation means the English-speaking world isn’t going to have it so easy any more.
The shrinking market for Canadian productions is a serious problem that the government needs to confront but hasn’t yet done. Bill C-11 may need to think beyond its borders.
Streaming has been a success for many Canadian creators and consumers alike. Revenues flowing back to labels and their artists have doubled since Spotify launched.
My ask is that the industry professionals and policy experts alike roll up their sleeves and put in the hard work to ensure that Bill C-11 doesn’t become the problem they were trying to solve.