Saturday, November 27, 2010

Getting Started, or Why the Canadian Music Industry Annoys Me at Times

So, several members of my family have started blogging, so I figured I'd give it a shot. However, rather than be self-absorbed and just talk about me, I thought I'd discuss certain current events, particularly those that involve the changing media landscape. I will reveal certain details about myself in this blog, but just enough to keep things interesting.

First off, I am a lawyer, but because of the type of law I practice, I'm not going to regale you with witty stories about the law unless they serve a purpose. That's your tidbit for this entry.

What has captured my interest this week is a story I heard on the radio driving to work this week. It seems that a group of Canadian recording artists has banded together and presented a petition to the government to have them institute a levy on digital music players. You can read the whole story here: This is not exactly a ground-breaking idea, and the fact that such a levy was shot down by the courts back in 2004 tells you something about the kind of traction this idea is going to gain. The ideas, as I understand it, is to replace the previous revenue stream generated from levies on the sale of blank cassettes and CDs. What makes me laugh about this particular petition are the signatories: Anne Murray, Nickelback (who would annoy me anyway, but now just annoy me even more), The Tragically Hip (see Nickelback), and some independent artists.

To understand where I'm coming from, a brief primer on Canadian copyright law: it's currently a mess, and while the government is trying to fix it, they are doing so from a 20 year-old model. Copyright as it was originally intended is an antiquated notion, designed to assist an author, artist, musician, etc., in collecting monies for the use of his work and help him not to get cheated by the distributors of that work. It didn't always work that way (look up John Fogerty or Creedence Clearwater Revival as examples of how not to negotiate with a record label), but things have changed dramatically in the last 15 or so years. Most people buy their music online, eschewing conventional record stores and CDs, simply because it's less of a hassle to get what they want, and they are not constrained as much by what a given store has to offer. Look around at the various digital e-tailers: if you can't find an item on iTunes, there's a good chance Napster, Rhapsody, eMusic or any number of websites will have it. Some artists sell their music direct from their own websites with varying degrees of success. The world has changed, and copyright law is struggling to catch up.

Back to Canada. The music royalty organization for our beloved Great White North is called SOCAN (Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada). This group distributes royalties to Canadian recording artists based on CD sales, airplay on radio stations, online sales of digital music and (you guessed it) levies collected from blank cassette and CD sales. Everything but the blanks is pretty straightforward: every time your song gets played or sold, you get a percentage. With the blank media, the percentage of that levy an artists gets is based on their percentage of music sales. Simply put, who gains the most out of these levies? The Nickelbacks and Tragically Hips of the Canadian music scene. Bryan Adams, who hasn't put out a hit record in years, will collect a substantial amount of blank media levy simply because his back catalogue sells well. As for the independent artists, some of whom signed the petition, their percentage of the levy will amount to a drop in the bucket, while someone like Celine Dion may collect as much as $5 out of every $50 digital player levy. It's wrongheaded, much like CanCon rules are wrongheaded, but that's a topic for another entry.

Look around the world. What have artists outside of Canada done to supplement their revenue in the face of dwindling record sales? They went on tour. Why? Because an artist can make more on a well-planned tour than he can from a multi-million selling CD. Headlining acts make obscene amounts of money from tour dates before you even factor in merchandise sales, and it's because there is a lot more room to negotiate with a promoter than there is with a record label. This is why acts like OK Go, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have gone independent and tour like crazy. They have changed their view of recorded music to that of a loss leader: a promotional item to get people to come and see them on tour. Because they are in complete control of that product, they also control how it is marketed, and can provide added incentives to get their music into people's hands.

As an example, take the band Stamps, an indie band based in California (which features Bob Morris of The Hush Sound, one of my favourite indie bands of all time). They are using all of the current methods to promote their music (Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, etc.) and selling their album from their own website. Here's where it gets interesting: they sell the album for $10, which includes a digital download, a CD, stickers and a guitar pick. If you click on the link above, you can see that their are other "added value" packages, which go all the way up to a gag $10,000 offer, but the $1,000 offer is the most intriguing. They send you everything in the other offers, plus the next time they play a show near you (which with a $1,000 price tag pretty much guarantees the show will be near you), you and 20 of your closest friends get to attend. They're selling the idea of investing in something you believe in. It's venture capitalism at the ground level. When you contrast that with a bunch of sniveling, groveling cash cows who want to tax your iPod, I know where my money would be better spent, even if I can't afford the $1,000 package. The other acts I referred to above offer similar incentives for buying directly from them, if not quite as adventurous, but give Stamps points for creativity, which isn't restricted to their marketing; the songs I've heard so far make Nickelback and The Tragically Hip sound like the tired retreads they are.

I would encourage anyone reading this (especially those from Canada) to make their opinions heard on this latest development however you see fit. Blog, contact your MP, write a letter to the editor. At this point, the government isn't taking this proposal seriously, but we need to make sure they don't.

Next time: Is censorship really a bad thing?

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