The times they are a changin’
The Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA) is dominated by Warner Music Canada, Sony BMG Music Canada, EMI Music Canada, and Universal Music Canada. To many people this is “the Canadian Recording Industry”. These companies may technically be Canadian but in reality they are branch plants.
The CRIA companies have long dominated Canadian airwaves. They work hard to fullfill that 35% Canadian Content requirement. After that’s done the remaining 65% of the Canadian radio dial can be filled with recordings conveniently provided by the American mother companies.
Except the nature of the recording industry has changed; more and more Canadian artists are choosing not to sign with CRIA companies, instead opting for Independence.
The Way the Music Biz Was
Although sound recording technology came into existence in the tail end of the 19th Century, it really only became established through the 20th Century. Although the music recording industry began as a wealth of small companies, the competition as they jockeyed for position and power led to mergers, eventually winnowing them down to a mere handful of companies. In this way recording companies achieved a kind of corporate oligarchy based not on wealth or bloodlines but on market domination due to control of the distribution system.
Under the old fashioned music industry regime, a record company would decide to “sign” an Act. The Act would of course be over the moon because they have been “discovered”. They are going to be famous. What’s not to love?
Suddenly, the Act feels like they are at the center of the universe. People are buzzing about them. THEY are the buzz.
Naturally the record company calls the tune, by virtue of their “expertise”. The record company makes all decisions: where to book the Act, how to “package” it. Does the Act need new costumes, or a new look? New wardrobe. Publicity materials. Promotional parties. Press junkets.
You can’t be a recording artist without a recording. The Big record companies don’t stint, it’s first class all the way. When the Act walks into a major recording studio to record that first album they rack up big expenses. This stuff isn’t cheap you know. Maybe re-recording from scratch if the music company exec doesn’t think it’s good enough. Once the mix is right, press it onto disks, print sleeves, ship it out to radio stations and record stores. And of course don’t forget the advertising. Take it on tour. Woo the radio stations with interviews and hand out promotional copies along the way. The Act makes appearances at record stores and shopping malls. Airtime is key, so that people know who the Act is, so the Act’s sound becomes known. That’s how fans are made. Then the Act can sell albums and fill seats in the venues to be played on the Act’s tour.
then came rock video
A whole other media to woo. Suddenly the Act can’t make it without shooting a video. In the early days, a few groups took the bull by the horns and made their own rock videos, putting themselves in the public eye without benefit of the recording Industry. Promote it to the VJs on Canada’s Much Music and MTV. Advertise. Giveaways. Contests. Interviews. Then the tour.
A big part of the deal was that the record company provides the Act wider exposure than they could manage on their own. Initially this meant nationally, but as the distribution networks grew and grew it became global. The Act would have to agree to sign over some or all of their music copyright to the record company. In exchange, the music company would record and promote the Act.
Although all the expenses associated with touring are paid for up front by the record company, in actuality the musical Act is generally contractually obligated to pay it all off out of the proceeds. Even though the music company makes all the decisions, the Act ultimately pays for it all over time.
[And no, I’m not making this stuff up. You can read about singer-songwriter Janis Ian and her gripping article “Internet Debacle” in this week’s Through the Looking Glass (can you say “indentured servitude”) or the incredibly astute number crunching in the transcript “Courtney Love Does the Math” at Salon.com]
And the downside? Well, the record company might decide that the Act isn’t going to make it big after all.
Maybe the fans aren’t into the Act as much as was hoped. (Even if what the fans don’t like is the “new look” dictated by the record company.) Whatever the reason, if there isn’t a big enough turnout at the bookings sometimes “the buzz” just fizzles.
Or the Act’s CD isn’t selling as well as the company wants it too. Big labels sink big bucks into recording and it all has to be recouped.
Or perhaps its just that the exec who signed the band got the axe. The successor certainly won’t want to make the Act into a hit and make the predecessor look good.
So the company decides not to throw good money after bad. The company has sole discretion over promoting the Act. They can stop at any time. Remember, it was their contract, their lawyers. Everything is in the company’s favor because they were in a position of supreme power when the Act signed.
For whatever reason, even if the record company didn’t promote the Act as aggressively as they might have, even if the Act’s recordings are sitting unreleased on a shelf somewhere, the fault can be entirely due to company mismanagement but the recording company continues to own and control the Act’s music.
Of course the record company doesn’t do anything so foolish as give the copyright back. If the Act decides to tour on their own, or just take a regular gig at a local blues bar, they still owe a piece of the action to the record company. If the Act decides to put up a web page, they have to get permission from the company before they can give their own music away for free.
The Act will be paying the record company back, no matter how long it takes, for out-of pocket expenses.
After signing with the record company, all decision making power has traditionally been with the record company. They hold all the cards going in to the initial negotiation. If the Act didn’t agree with the contract terms, they didn’t get a contract. The record company had total discretion in how long or how hard they will promote the act. Even if it’s a matter of hours, they still hold the copyright.
Why would musicians sign up for this?
The music companies held all the marbles. Especially as the media companies became more and more centralized, the reality is that they controlled distribution.
And, well, musicians are artists. Very few artists want to do business. Mostly artists want to create art. A record contract was the holy grail. The company would handle all the annoying details and let the artists get on with making music. And in fact that’s how it worked… at least for the headliners.
If you were a musician and wanted to cut a record and get it played on the radio and distributed in record stores, you had to be aligned with a music company. If they didn’t take you on, you were out of luck. It was just about the only way to be successful (ie. to be able to make music without having a day job).
The only Canadian musician I know of who became a star without a record company in the fifty years before the Internet was Canada’s Stompin’ Tom Connors.
It wasn’t easy. A single man with low expenses, Stompin’ Tom worked hard, and paid to make his own recordings while traveling the length and breadth of Canada gathering experiences and regional tidbits from which to fashion his music. Constantly touring he sold his own records wherever he performed. Stompin’ Tom built up a following across Canada one record at a time. Eventually he became a star in spite of the big music companies. And today Stompin’ Tom Connors is enough of a Canadian Icon to have graced the face of a Canadian stamp.
Now, if music was just an ordinary career, like, say, ditch digging, once the Act plateaued or plummeted, the act would get career counseling, maybe go to college, or become a landscape architect and move on.
But music, like any art, is not so easily shirked.
If you’re an artist, you create art
Artists want their art to be out there… they want to be heard.
Just because the record company you signed with holds all the marbles, it doesn’t mean you stop making music. And the record company that holds the copyright continues to make money from the Act, long past the point where they are actually doing anything to promote or distribute the Act. Musicians make music. You keep on keeping on. The Act continues plugging away, performing. Maybe even recording on their own nickel. It may take decades but a following can be built.
Copyright law is different depending on where you are. Sometimes there have even been cases in this modern world where acts have gotten free of the record companies. American copyright law provides for the return of music rights to the actual creators or heirs starting in 2013. I’ve not heard of anything similar for Canadian artists. Still, the record companies continue to wield an extraordinary amount of power.
Scottish performer Edwyn Collins never gave up control over the copyright to his own music. As an Indie musician he set up a MySpace page where he was making his music available for his fans to download. Or at least he was until suddenly an erroneous take-down order resulted in MySpace taking down Edwyn’s music, preventing him from sharing his hit song A Girl Like You. Yet Edwyn Collins was the rights holder, the record company was not. Because of the traditional power invested in the major recording companies, MySpace did what they were told by the record company even though the record company had no legitimate claim to Edwyn’s music. (One of the bad things about the DMCA; no proof is required.)
Edwyn Collins had to fight to get the right to put his own music on his own MySpace page.
“[We are] aware of who the biggest bootleggers are … It’s not the filesharers.”
~ Grace Maxwell, Edwyn Collins wife/Manager, Guardian: Edwyn Collins stopped from sharing his music online
The 21st Century
Advances in modern technology means that it no longer costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up a professional recording studio. Even more important, the advent of the Internet has brought economical and easy global music distribution. Suddenly, within the last 15 years, it has become possible for musical acts to get out there and create their own music and distribute it themselves– without having to sell their souls to the record company.
Sure, it isn’t free. It still costs money to cut an album, but it’s doable. A major label thinks nothing of sinking twenty or thirty thousand dollars into recording an album. Thing is, it no longer has to cost that much. Professional musicians can record an album in a commercial studio these days for around one thousand dollars. If you possess the home equipment and recording/editing software along with a bit of technical expertise it is more than possible to record your album at home for next to nothing.
Yes, you’ll probably still need your day job. You are unlikely to become a star overnight. Marketing and promotion is a very big job, even with the power of the Internet. But if an act chooses to record their music Independently, first and foremost, they retain title to their music.
An Independent does not have to give up their copyright.
The Independent gets to make all the decisions about how their money will be spent on promotion and distribution. The Indie decides where to perform. One new way of marketing many artists are following is to distribute their music free under Creative Commons Licenses. Artists give away their art because they need exposure to grow an audience. Art must be out there.
Adding the Internet to the mix makes it possible for artists to distribute their work for next to nothing. They can make their music available for free in online venues like MySpace or allow downloads through the Pirate Party of Canada Tracker or ideally on their own webpage.
When independent artists begin to make a name for themselves, they don’t want to spend time they could be spending on their music selling and promoting the act.
It would have been really clever for the “traditional” record labels to alter their business models to embrace these new successful independents. But that would mean giving up absolute power and dealing with them equitably. Instead they are pretending nothing has changed and attempting to legislate anti-progress (with laws like the American DMCA, and the even worse Canadian version currently misleadingly titled “Bill C-32 The Copyright Modernization Act”). Since the “dinosaur” companies aren’t able or willing to serve the needs of the next generation of musicians, new independent record labels are coming into existence to fill the need.
the new music business
Before the Internet, pretty much the only distribution channel open to musicians who cut their own records was to sell them at their performances. Or through mail order. Last November I was surprised and impressed to read an article in This Magazine that 30% of Canadian recording artists are recording Independently. Before the existence of the Internet, that number was closer to zero. It’s especially amazing when you consider the Internet has been been publicly accessible for less than twenty years.
Even more interesting to me is that Canadians are leading the world in this exodus away from the established record labels. Why would our musicians be turning their back on the traditional recording companies in such numbers? Could it be for the freedom?
Some acts like Canadian musical comedy group The Arrogant Worms have a Music Page on their website so you can listen to their music, and choose to download a single song, an individual album, or their entire catalogue. They also have a video page, where they feature fan videos of their music, a clear indicator that they support fan remixes and understand the importance of the internet.
You can also purchase Arrogant Worms material
direct from their label Maple Music, whose website provides an internet presence or a virtual home for a large number of Independent Canadian recording artists.
Alert Music Inc. provides management or a label, or both. Labels like this one are coming to exist and thriving with a small roster of clients. This young company makes use of internet tools to promote their clients: you can find many Michael Kaeshammer clips on YouTube, for instance.
record label replacement companies?
As more performers opt for independence and become established the need for flexible support is increasingly provided by start ups offering the kind of support available to name artists from labels in the last century.
This shift has been made necessary by the big record labels inability to adapt to 21st century conditions.
Thorny Bleeder Records is an online label that makes music available for download — music that is free and legal, as well as DRM free — from their site. If you like it, you have the option of paying what you choose into the “tip jar” to support the artists of your choice. They also offer compilation albums for download through the Pirate Party of Canada’s “Pirate Tracker”.
Thorny Bleeder Records has also launched an Artist Services division. “We’re a new kind of ‘Record Label Replacement Company’,” Brian Thompson jokes, “offering a range of services to replace the old-fashioned style of a record deal. We’re here to help new bands have their music heard by the public, without having to wait and be discovered by the increasingly tight and inward looking circles of the music industry.”
Although originally signed to a major label, Julie Crochetière has chosen Independence. Going out on her own Julie Crochetière began with an EP which she followed up with her exquisite debut album “A Better Place,” both available through Maple Music. Her first album produced the hit single “Precious Love”, and she’s bringing out her new album Steady Ground this fall. She’s just released the first single, “Tomorrow” which can be heard on Julie C’s MySpace page pr purchased at iTunes. Crochetière is making good use of the Internet for both promotion and distribution, using the name @juliecmusic on Twitter and MySpace.
- Julie Crochetière’s Official Site
- Maple Music
- My Space Page
- Facebook Page
- Julie Crochetière Wikipedia Page
Allison Crowe is another Independent artist who has been recording and distributing music with her own Rubenesque Records label starting in 2001. Her music has been available through increasingly open Creative Commons Licenses, and probably accounts at least in part for the wealth of fan made videos available online. Allison Crowe’s utilization of the new technology and distribution models available is quite comprehensive. She is making very good use of the Internet:
- Allison Crowe official site
- Allison Crowe at MySpace
- Allison Crowe @ Last.fm
- Allison Crowe on Youtube
- Allison Crowe blog
- Podsafe Music Network
- Allison Crowe at Pandora
- Allison Crowe discography MusicBrainz
- Allison Crowe official UK site
- Allison Crowe at Jamendo
- Allison Crowe on Whole Wheat Radio
- The Ruckus – Audio Interview with Allison Crowe from October 2008
- Allison Crowe Wikipedia Page
Clearly the Canadian Music business is entering a golden age. More Canadian music s being made, recorded, shared and sold than ever before. Canadians are having no trouble marketing ourselves– and our culture– around the world.
Best of all, no one is bemoaning the lack of a ‘Canadian Identity’
as they did in days gone by, because Canadian voices are raised and our culture is flourishing in this digital age.
I haven’t seen the MAPL designation any any CD in quite some time. Have you? In the same way that CRTC CanCon regulations have made Canadian music an undesirable brand on the radio, the TV CanCon regulations have ensured that:
the absolute least “Canadian content” possible makes it to Canadian TV.
Because you can be sure that although the quotas may be met they will never be exceeded. The excellent Canadian series Less Than Kind took years to get on air. So although home grown Canadian programs are good, getting them financed can be a herculean task which is not helped by CanCon.
Canadian Content regulations are essentially a quota system.
If there MUST be a quota system…
… the only way it might benefit Canadian culture would be is if the quota is very high.
Which is not what we have in Canada.
90% should be the absolute minimum, although 95% would be better still. This would eliminate airplay for all foreign recordings except for the very best.
Once the merely average foreign content is removed from our airways, there would be much more air time available to a much wider range of Canadian artists. This would give Canadian artists a better forum from which to reach their audience. At least domestically.
The result of having low quotas for radio airplay has actually suppressed the Canadian recording industry. It was a message to Canadians that Canadians were simply not good enough to compete, which is ridiculous. In practice, one the quotas were filled the other 65% of Canadian airwaves were populated by anything else. It didn’t have to be particularly good, it just had to be not Canadian. The result was a ghettoisation of Canadian recording artists.
If we are going to have Canadian Content regulations, they need to be applicable in every cultural area, not just radio and television. If we regulate some, we must regulate all. Otherwise it has all the effectiveness of a partial embargo. Canadian Content would have to apply to everything: books, magazines and movie theaters. Not to mention public education.
Of course it would be really difficult at first. There would certainly be growing pains. The first few years would be dismal, sure, but eventually we would be left with enough of a percentage of good CanCon to make it worth it. After all, a guaranteed market would keep our best and brightest creators home.
What we’d be is isolated. Our best and brightest would be denied access to the best and brightest from around the world. And if we close our gates on the world, most of the world will surely reciprocate.
The thing is:
Everything is a remix.
Mushrooms may grow well when isolated but the best art does not come out of a vacuum. In many ways the Internet has been breaking down the artificial barriers people put up to isolate ourselves. More than ever before we are reaching out and offering our culture to the world, while at the same time having the opportunity to experience the best the rest of the world has to share.
The very idea of extending CanCon to the Internet was roundly dismissed by those in the front lines because it would not help. It would be bad for Canadian culture venyures. And Canadian culture is doing quite well at present, thanks in no small part to the Internet.
You can’t legislate culture.
The most any government can do is to support culture.
Traditionally investment and tax breaks encouraging investment have been important ways government has supported culture. Making sure that CBC and the NFB are properly funded would go a long way. But those aren’t the only ways our government could help our culture flourish.
Equally important to protect the Internet environment. Net Neutrality is crucial because it allows the Canadian arts a level playing field. Our government needs to take care to prevent the Internet carriers from gouging consumers (which will be made worse with the introduction of Usage Based Billing) because equal Internet access to all Canadians is important for Canada’s full participation in the global digital economy.
And of course, it would be good if our government doesn’t make life worse for Canadian creators with the introduction of bad copyright law.
CanCon isn’t helping anymore (if it ever did)
Clearly at this point CanCon regulations and designations are more of a liability than an advantage.
The thing is, you can make a law saying there has to be X amount of Canadian Content, but nothing will guarantee that it is good Canadian Content.
It’s long past time we dropped the CanCon regulations.
Canadian artists are plenty good enough to succeed without them.
“Hanging out with Stompin’ Tom” used with permission from Lynn Russwurm
Courtney Love photo by whittlz
under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial No Derivs 2.0 License (cc by-nc-nd)
Edwyn Collins photo © Guillaume Sautereau / POPnews
under a Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial No Derivs 2.0 License (by-nc-nd)