Artists struggle to make a living wage in internet era

Gone are the days when the path to success was fairly direct. Graham Henderson, president of Music Canada recalls the way it used to be:

“In 1999, if you’ve got a record deal, and were lots of record deals large and small, you had a legitimate shot at a career. You’d sell 50,000 records, get a gold record. And then you’ve got a lot of touring. And then there’s radio play. It all added up to an opportunity (Globe and Mail, September 22, 2019).”

Country musician Mike Plume recalls his 15-year deal at a Nashville record label and the regular touring opportunities. Back then he was able to earn a decent living. Royalties from the use of his music on TV shows such as Dawson’s Creek further supplemented his income. “It was a nifty little chunk of change that came in. It made life a little easier for a couple of months,” Plume said.

After his deal expired in 2015, Plume returned to his hometown of Edmonton. He earned a bit from voice-over and narration work. The contrast between before and after the internet became obvious.

The new reality is one of rags or riches. “It almost feels like there’s no such thing as a middle-class musician,” says Plume. “You’re either making $25,000 a year or you’re making north of a hundred grand.”

Breaking into recognition is difficult and once you get a break, wages are still in the poverty range.

Internet streaming and creative theft is making entry into the creative middle class harder than ever. A 2018 survey of music industry professionals in British Columbia showed that 24 per cent of respondents are considering leaving the industry primarily due to concerns about wages.

Music Canada, a non-profit trade organization advocating for the rights of creative professionals, found that the biggest offenders were from free streaming services such as YouTube.

It’s difficult but can be done. Talented Kamloops singer Madison Olds is navigating the complex path to success. This year she made top 10 in CBC Searchlight and launched her debut album. She has a more than a million cumulative streams on Spotify.

Madison Olds , mage: Indie Week

Artists need to be both talented and media savvy, Madison’s mom Ronda told me:

“Artists are assessed so many ways today because of the accessibility to artists and music today.  Artists need to be creating and stockpiling new music for which they have to pay for production, distribution, promotion, radio push.  One song, if going to radio, by the time all is said and done, can cost upwards of 18k. The greater the number of followers/fans, the greater the perceived ability to market music and merchandise and for the potential to make money. It is a difficult industry to navigate and to gain traction when there is so much accessible music now. The days of slipping a CD under a radio programmer’s door are gone as that poor programmer may be filtering through 400+ submissions a week.

Ronda has advice for music fans:

“The best things that supporters can do is any of the following: engage with their favourite artists on social media, stream their music actively or passively, buy music/merchandise, share their content, tell them you are hearing their music and that it resonates for you.”

The rise and fall of Michael Jackson

I’m a fan of pop music that spans decades: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Michael Jackson.

image: Amazon

I cringe at admitting the latter -Michael Jackson, the accused child-abuser. How can I possibly like his music when his actions were so abhorrent? Or does art transcend the artist?

It’s been ten years since the death the “King of Pop” and unlike other artist of his stature, there’s been no celebration. One grim commemoration of his life is the release of a documentary Leaving Neverland in which two men in their thirties, once boys in Jackson’s thrall, describe their childhood years in which they were abused by Jackson.

There were more than the two. In 1993, he was accused of sexually abusing the child of a family friend and the case was settled out of court. In 2005, he was tried and acquitted of further child sexual abuse allegations and several other charges.

Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson, says:

“Supporters insisted that the financial settlements were his only way to avoid exploitation by families eager for money and willing to put up with notoriety. Doubters and opponents pointed out that surely more investigation was needed: after all, there had been previous accusations, multiple rumors, and Jackson’s unabashed admission that he shared his bed with boys.”

Jackson’s frank admission that he shared his bed with boys is a testament to how much he was out of touch with the real world. It’s like he was two people, one that connected to millions through his art and another that repulsed millions through his actions. He lived on both a global stage and in a vacuum.

Maybe he was an amorphous figure such that his limits were boundless -a continuum of the outrageous and the creative.  Jefferson writes:

“When I wrote my book, I was grieving for Michael Jackson the artist. The uncanny little boy; the charismatic, slightly mournful young man; the shape-shifting child-man-woman-cyborg-extraterrestrial. The cultural polygot who studied –mastered, gloried in- so many styles and traditions, one to whom no form of popular music and dance was alien”

The stain on his reputation marred his illustrious career. Jackson is one of the most significant cultural figures of the 20th century and one of the greatest entertainers. Jackson’s contributions to music, dance, and fashion, made him a global figure in popular culture for over four decades.

I still remember the launch of the video, Thriller, more of a short film than a video with an unheard-of budget. In it, Jackson references numerous horror films and performs a dance routine with a horde of the undead. The Library of Congress described it as “the most famous music video of all time”, and it has been named the greatest video of all time by various publications and readers’ polls. In 2009, it became the first music video inducted into the National Film Registry as “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant.

But the inertia of his fame ground to a halt in 2009 as he was preparing for a series of comeback concerts. Jackson died from an overdose of sedatives administered by his personal physician.

To say I’m ambivalent about Jackson is an understatement.

 

 

Failure of NAFTA could be good for our creativity

It’s a toss-up on whether the North America Free Trade Agreement will survive. The fifth round of discussions has concluded in Mexico and Foreign Affairs Minister Christie Freeland is not optimistic. “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst and Canada is prepared for every eventuality,” she said.

     image: AgWeb.com

Failure of NAFTA will have only a slight negative economic impact. If the U.S. terminates NAFTA, as the unpredictable President Trump has threatened to do, trade would revert back to rules of the World Trade Organization. Under those rules, the added tariffs would only add 1.5 per cent of the cost of goods exported to the U.S. according to a study from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

With “trade” in the title, you could think that’s what NAFTA about. And since Canada is a trading nation, you could conclude that NAFTA is vital to our economy. While NAFTA offers some advantages, it has a number of disadvantages such as the investor-state dispute settlement provisions that allows foreign firms to sue governments. And exports of Canadian softwood aren’t even covered.

However, trade deals like NAFTA are not primarily about trade. Trade takes place without them. These trade deals are actually about protection of corporate interests such as “intellectual property” which is not property in the usual sense. It’s a means of commodifying artistic and technological creations such as brands, music, movies, patents, and software.

America normally supports trade deals because they benefit most. The deals enforce corporate interests, and in the U.S. corporate interests = government interests. The reason that the U.S. is so interested in intellectual property is because it’s one of their biggest exports. Culture, what the U.S. calls entertainment, makes up one-third of American exports. American movies are seen in theatres around the world. U.S. pop songs are heard in the streets. Kids play American-made video games. American inventions such as the iPhone are ubiquitous.

An indication of how poorly President Trump understands the American economy is his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It was a license for U.S. corporate giants to impose protection of intellectual property. I celebrated its demise after Trump cancelled the TPP but I had to wonder what (if) the president was thinking.

The demise of NAFTA would lift a weight off of Canadian creativity and allow it to flourish.

Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-Commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, was asked to advise a Senate Open Caucus meeting on modernizing NAFTA.

“To my surprise, the shift in focus to a post-NAFTA world was liberating, opening the door to considering Canadian policies that have previously been viewed as unattainable given intense U.S. pressure on intellectual property policy that favours ‘Americanization’ of global rules,” he said (Globe and Mail, October 20, 2017).

By loosening the grip of the U.S. on creativity, Canadians can market their innovations globally; innovations such as software developed by Blackberry for self-driving cars and recently sold to the Chinese firm Baidu.

Of course, our intellectual property needs protection. With the U.S. out of the way, international agreements can be struck that encourage innovation while protecting creators without one player holding a big stick.