Francophone songwriters succeeding in a largely Anglophone world

QuebecCanada_CST Published 07/19/2013

By Anne Richard

On one level, I might not be the best person to address this touchy topic as a paid SOCAN employee not being subject to the vagaries of the creative life myself. However, it might just be the opposite precisely because my role in the organization over the past many years has brought me in contact with countless SOCAN members and industry professionals who have described to me their personal reasons to forge ahead in their beloved profession in spite of the comparatively small size of the Francophone music market.

Many Francophone members writing and performing their own songs have achieved critical success internationally, including in France. They often have great drawing power at music festivals or showcases, but why are their radio royalties and album sales often very small?

The answer: language.

English – which I used every day on a recent tour of the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland – is increasingly becoming the international language. As the Faroese people must already learn their own language plus Danish and English, an appreciation of French lyrics is understandably not a priority in that corner of the world.

We have all heard a million times about the woes of the music industry, what with declining record sales, illegal music sharing and so on. Online sales have not been enough to make up for lost revenues, and the application of the Copyright Act comes with its own share of uncertainties. How can these problems be met and, to begin with, why keep trying under such conditions?

The answer lies in the variety of outlets that exist for our musical talents. Let’s look at our Francophone situation right here at home in Quebec. We love our music, and we are mad about our homegrown artists. Concerts and tours remain solid revenue streams in spite of the overall industry downturn. The internet is a proven vehicle for the promotion of artists and the sale of music, tickets and related products. We also seem to have mastered the fine art of song placement in television programs, commercials and video games (Montreal being a world leader in the gaming industry).

Of course, many of our composers (and their publishers) in a variety of genres have long discovered this gold mine, including artists such as Jorane, Daniel Bélanger, Catherine Major, Michel Cusson, Ramachandra Borcar, Guy Bélanger, Benoît Charest and Martin Léon, all of whom have successfully tapped this prestigious (and frequently lucrative) “sideline” as screen composers or by placing some of their existing songs in film soundtracks.

I am thinking here of the veteran screen composer Paul Baillargeon of Star Trek fame (Deep Space Nine, Voyager, Enterprise) and about “Une Colombe”, his song for Céline Dion. Many other composers specialize in audio-visual music, one of them being Raymond Fabi (Arthur), whose soundtracks for young people’s television programs have been performed for a number of years in a staggering 100+ countries.

Then there are jazz musicians such as Alain Caron, winner of this year’s Oscar Peterson Lifetime Achievement Award, and the many international recognitions earned by our concert music composers, a kind of music creators for which Montreal is a recognized breeding ground. But these composers will be the first ones to tell you that the money they make for performances of such works has little to do with their perceived success.

This is fine, some might say, but you are talking about instrumental music and soundtracks, and the thing that really matters here is lyrics – French lyrics. You often hear Francophone success stories even in the notoriously hard-to-crack, but famously lucrative, American market. One example is Malajube’s very successful U.S. tours, but there are also the traditional, neo-traditional, folk, pop, electro, etc., music festivals identified by many members as important revenue streams, and the fact that concert performances sometimes translate into online music sales.

Everyone knows that Malajube is an exception in the North American market and that Céline Dion sings 20 English-language songs for each Francophone song she performs in her Las Vegas shows. Everybody also knows that Cirque du Soleil, while clearly identified as a French-language entertainment in its name, and part of its branding, performs music compositions that their creator, René Dupéré, writes not in French lyrics, but in an “invented language.” Of course, French lyrics continue to be appreciated in French-speaking countries around the world in spite of the strong appeal of English-language songs.

So then, what should Francophone artists do? They need to leave nothing out and take advantage of every opportunity. Artists need to explore all avenues, from live concerts to online distribution to song placement to film and television soundtracks, commercials, album releases, cooperation in other artists’ projects, competitions and music festivals. This is the new recipe for success, and our members already possess the basic ingredients – plenty of talent and a relentless will to succeed.

About Anne Richard

As a public relations officer, journalist, translator and editor, Anne Richard has played many communications and editorial roles in her professional career, and served as editor of SOCAN’s French-language magazine Paroles & Musique and Communications and Marketing Specialist from May of 2000 until October of 2014. Now an author and photographer, Anne loves travelling and being exposed to new cultures.

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