Why the War on Musicians Isn't Just about Copyright

Increasingly it's hard for bands to get paid for playing a gig. Blame the free download mentality.

By Darryl Greer 15 Aug 2012 |

Darryl Greer is a Vancouver-based journalist and musician. Find his previous Tyee articles here.

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Guitar man on Vancouver's Commercial Drive in June. Photo by from Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

Have you heard? Stephen Harper is waging war on the music business. No, it has nothing to do with the stodgy Prime Minister's way of playing Beatles tunes, even when he's improbably singing about "getting high with a little help" from his friends. (Then again, might he be implying that his friends in the oil and gas industry have promised him all the gas he can huff?)

In fact, it's the new copyright bill that has companies such as ole, the country's largest music publisher, up in arms. Harper, according to ole, is messing with the autonomy of Canada's copyright board, appeasing large tech companies who are quietly funding the so-called free-culture movement in order to steal food from the cupboards of artists by wiping out their ability to collect digital royalties from public performances of their copyrighted works.

"This whole bizarre incident is further evidence that the Harper Government has declared war on the music industry and will go to extraordinary lengths to, once again, ensure that Canadian artists are not paid for their work. First, they drop the Bill C-11 bomb, which will likely wipe out $30 million a year in digital music royalties, and now they are destroying markets and interfering with the autonomy of the Copyright Board," according to ole president Michael McCarty.

A serious point of contention is the Harper government's refusal to levy a fee on microSD cards used to store digital content on smart phones. Like blank CDs before them, microSD cards are rightly seen as enablers of music pirates to steal and store copyrighted music for which artists and publishers receive no compensation. While blank CDs are subject to a levy, distributed by a copyright collective such as the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (Full disclosure: I'm a member of SOCAN, and it owes me about eight bucks last time I checked), microSD cards are not the subject of a similar levy, nor are iPods because the Conservatives vehemently opposed what they called an "iPod tax."

Surely the protection of intellectual property is important and entrenching that importance by passing laws is arguably the best way to deter theft of that intellectual property, even though technology these days has made theft so easy. Original and creative ideas should be protected so that those who come up with them have incentive to keep striving to come up with original and creative ideas. A well proven incentive is that creative people like to eat and pay their mortgage or rent.

But providing incentives for people to be creative in ways we can all enjoy isn't as simple as granting copyright protection to what they produce.

Royalties, and other dreams

A large chunk of "successful" musicians in this country, in fact, don't even necessarily rely upon sales, tours or royalties to keep their career in motion. They rely on loans and grants from organizations such as the Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Records, which receives money from government and private broadcasters. Just a cursory glance at the FACTOR website's "Approvals" section offers a glimpse into what kind of artists get the real money. For example, the bands Marianas Trench and Faber Drive, both on 604 Records, the label co-founded by Nickelback's Chad Kroeger, each received more than $25,000 towards sound recordings back in February. (While I don't envy them for their music or their cartoon-bubble-gum image, I really envy them for not needing advances on their credit cards to go into the studio, as I've had to in the past.)

And then there are people like me, your basic struggling independent music artist who happens to play bass in a few bands including, for seven years, one called Trophy Wife. Never heard of us? Don't worry, my feelings aren't hurt. But I do offer this first-hand perspective: Tilting copyright legislation in favour of music publishers won't make much difference to a lot of artists like me. Think for a moment how many musicians you know personally or even musicians with whom you're casually acquainted. How many of them are "professional" musicians? By professional, I mean people who rely on income from royalties, performing, recording, writing, teaching and touring and do nothing but music-related activity to make a living. Say you know 100 musicians. Of that 100, how many don't have day jobs? Likely, a very small percentage, and out of all the musicians you know, how many do you think rely upon back-end royalties from SOCAN for a large chunk of their living?

(Music publishers are responsible for "promoting" musical compositions and can take up to 50 per cent of the revenue generated from public performance of copyrighted material. They also administer artists' performance rights by filling out the necessary paperwork with organizations such as SOCAN in Canada or ASCAP or BMI in the United States.)

The reasoning is very simple: a large number of musicians (myself included) have a very limited understanding of music publishing and copyright laws to the point where SOCAN membership is misunderstood and therefore essentially unnecessary. (In the same vein, ask all of your musician friends if they are in the musicians' union.)

Yes, SOCAN membership is important for artists who are very active performers, on tour or otherwise, and in heavy rotation on radio, television and films. But SOCAN pestering bars and festivals to pay up for public performances of copyrighted music doesn't mean they will (or should) pay.

Industry vs. independents

What this brouhaha exposes is the massive gap between the "music industry" and independent musicians who care more about getting heard than paid, as Henry Rollins put it (skip to 10:30 in this video for his views on how musicians can show that they like their fans).

The sad truth of it all is that music, performed live or recorded, has lost its monetary value due to saturation that came with the ease of quality production through technological advancement. As a personal example, one of my bands released a six-song EP in February on CD and on digital platforms such as iTunes and a host of other digital music providers and streaming services. While our first album did okay back in 2009, selling physical copies bolstered by digital sales, both physical and digital sales of our newest release have been noticeably lower. While it's disappointing, it's also difficult to blame people for not caring about a six-song EP since they can carry 10,000 songs in their pocket on their smart phones. (It also doesn't help that we're a wholly unhip, non-fashion-forward band in a rather obscure genre ignored by the indie-rock-hipster-dominated music press.)

Streaming services, meanwhile, have become fan favourites especially in Europe, which enable people to access an untold number of songs for a monthly fee without having to own any physical content, which compensate artists with so-called micro-payments, some of which amount to a fraction of cent for each song streamed.

See you on the battle lines

So what should we really make of whining about the Harper government waging war on the music business when the one complaining is the country's largest music publisher, whose catalogue includes songs by Taylor Swift, the Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears? I think its high time for the country's true music lovers to shed some crocodile tears for ole and wake up to a truly sad reality: the war on the music business is nearly lost and you can't solely blame governments.

Next time you're at a small music venue on Commercial Drive, for example, watch as the musicians pass around a hat looking for donations after their performance. Ask a staff member if the venue is compensating the performers with anything other than "exposure" and maybe an appetizer plate and a pitcher of beer. Next time you're on a torrent website downloading a band's full catalogue for free, stop and think and wonder if you being a "fan" is actually helping the band stay in existence (and keep making the music you love so much that you won't pay for it) by downloading their music for free.

The music business, be it the machine-like industry trying to pump out bona fide stars and hits or the kid plunking away on an acoustic guitar in his parents' basement, is indeed at war. It is at war with the notion that music and the people who create it, no matter how much it costs financially, spiritually or emotionally to do so, are worthless.

For me, it's a war worth fighting, no matter if it means my band's death by a thousand downloads. It's a war worth fighting because, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for and the price of losing this war is our collective soul.

I don't have a sure fire strategy to win this war. But for anyone who wants to enlist on the side of artists, here are some ideas. Be willing to shell out some money to be entertained by aspiring professionals. How about creating a sticker saying "We Pay Our Musicians" that restaurants, cafes and other venues could proudly display to entice patrons wanting some guarantee of quality music to go with their decent drink or food?

Such low-paying gigs are the lifeblood of musicians who someday might just make it big enough to earn royalties -- the back-end compensation over which ole is sounding the alarm. Until then, my bandmates and I are counting on fans and venue owners to realize that we need and deserve to be paid on the front-end if we're going to survive another week of Kraft Dinner and Mr. Noodles, and still be ready to rock out when Friday night rolls around again.  [Tyee]

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