Tag Archives: Canadian Songwriters

Wouldn’t it be great if CBC Music/ICI Musique played all-Canadian music for two months?

Published 03/18/2020

By David Myles

Posts on the SOCAN blog Music.People.Connected. offer the opinions of the contributors only, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of SOCAN.

I had just finished sound check, was eating dinner pre-show, when the presenter came to tell us that New Brunswick had just issued a proclamation limiting public gatherings to fewer than 150 people.

Our show was cancelled, as well as every other gig we had planned for the next couple months. I was not alone, every musician I know was in a similar situation. You could see it everywhere.

Touring is our primary source of income. Now, without that revenue stream, the other sources of income become vitally important.

I was thinking about all this, while I was reading everyone’s posts, when it hit me: what would it look like if CBC Music/ICI Musique played all-Canadian/Franco-Canadian content for the next two months? It seemed easy and direct – a simple way to make a big difference.

The infrastructure already exists for SOCAN to collect the royalties and for CBC to program the music 24 hours a day.

CBC Music/Ici Musique’s mandate is already to support Canadian/Franco-Canadian music, their job is already to be engaged with it, and their on-air personalities already love it. And 24-hour Cancon might allow them to expose listeners to Canadian music that they haven’t already heard.

This would benefit Canadian artists, across all scales of the sector. From musicians cancelling a club tour, to Jessie Reyez, who was going to open the biggest tour in the world for Billie Eilish. Imagine how heavily invested she would have been in that tour, “all in,” with all the merch that was manufactured, for example.

CBC Music/Ici Musique taking this kind of action would make a real difference in the lives of all sorts of Canadian/Franco-Canadian musicians. It’s a tremendous opportunity.

Now is the time for them, and us, to rally around our creative community.

About David Myles

Coronavirus cuts into the Canadian music industry

Published 03/13/2020

By Howard Druckman

It’s Friday the 13th, and yesterday Canada launched into its strongest, and unfortunately very necessary,  response yet to the rapidly escalating spread of Covid-19, the coronavirus. The JUNOs were cancelled, the NHL suspended play indefinitely, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went into two weeks of self-isolation because his wife Sophie Grégoire has tested positive for the virus. Ontario shut down all public schools for two weeks after March break, MLB cancelled spring training, the Canadian Folk Music Awards were cancelled, and so on.

The JUNOS cancellation, while necessary, is especially hard for the Canadian music community to bear. The nominee musicians lost their chance, at least for now, to be nationally acknowledged for their work; some of the under-recognized performers on the broadcast awards show lost their opportunity to play on a nationally televised stage; performers in JUNOfest lost access to a broad industry audience in the bars and clubs of the host city. And that doesn’t even consider the huge losses of people who work throughout the entire ecosystem of the event — all of the employees at the airlines, hotels, bars, restaurants, taxi companies, ride-sharing programs, music venues, and so on, throughout Saskatoon.

Worse than that, gatherings of more than 250 people have either been banned or censured, with good reason, to stop the spread. For the next two weeks, this is going to hurt touring musicians playing any venues larger than that capacity. SXSW and Coachella cancelled themselves, while major concert promoters Live Nation and AEG Presents cancelled or postponed all of their tours. Many Canadian acts – from Glorious Sons to The Weeknd to Devin Townsend to Jessie Reyez (opening for Billie Eilish) – have had to postpone or cancel dates, at least through the end of March. This not only hurts the artists, but the venues, and reverberates through all of the ancillary local business ecosystems, as above.

All signs point to large numbers of Canadians staying home for the next few weeks at least, both to protect themselves and to help stop the spread of the virus. But smaller gatherings of people, so long as we  wash our hands and keep our social distance, are still viewed as safe.

So I suggest that, for the next two weeks, we – safely and carefully – go out to the small-scale music venues closest to us and support our local musicians, who are most in need of that patronage right now. In Toronto, where I happen to live, that means places like the Tranzac Club, the 120 Diner, the Cameron House, Drom Taberna, the Dakota Tavern, etc. If you’re reading this, you probably know the smaller venues you can support in your own hometown.

And if you’re not comfortable going out at all, or you’ve had to self-isolate, then I highly recommend that you click over to your favourite local band’s website or Bandcamp page and buy a T-shirt, or some limited-edition vinyl, or any other kind of merch that puts a little money in their pocket. Winnipeg musician Leonard Sumner had a great idea that he posted on Facebook – asking followers to hit him up for a Facetime concert. He might have been half-joking, but “virtual concerts” could be another way to actually help see musicians through the current crisis.

If you find yourself at home for an extended period of time, music will soothe your soul and calm your nerves. Everyone streaming and downloading their favourite stuff, all day, every day, will eventually add up to that much more in royalties for songwriters, composers and music publishers.

It’s up to you and me to support our local musicians any way we can, and help them get over the next few weeks, or months, until we can all get back to business as usual.

Rescind the Digital Exemption

Published 10/17/2019

By Ed Henderson

In February 2007, believing that nothing major would ever become of Internet broadcasting, the Canadian Radio and television & Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) announced an exemption order (C-58) – now referred to as the Digital Exemption – for Internet delivered content. This exemption meant the Internet would not be treated as a broadcaster and would pay no taxes. Foreign ownership would be unregulated and there would be no requirement to feature Canadian content nor make financial contributions, as all other broadcasters do, to the creation of Canadian content.

Internet broadcasters have laughed all the way to the bank ever since.

The Canadian government has long recognized our proximity to the USA as a threat to our cultural existence. Since the early 1900s, government sought ways to protect Canada’s unique culture. In 1936, the federal government introduced the Broadcasting Act, which established a place for Canadian voices to be heard in every part of our country. Since 1957 the Canadian government has regulated the allowable percentage of foreign ownership of Canadian broadcasting entities at 20%.

Canadian content regulations in television (enacted in 1961) and radio (enacted in 1970) have helped build our culture, so much so that artists from the 1970s onwards were able to establish their careers in Canada. Before those regulations were created, many aspiring Canadian artists were forced to leave the country to find success.

Today, the presence of an increasingly dominant and unregulated Internet means history is repeating itself. Once again, we are seeing Canadian artists leave Canada to establish their careers in the arts.

The result is that we are losing jobs in all media and arts. We are also losing Canadian content and programming.

Creators, artists and publishers in Canada are not the only sectors affected by the unregulated Internet. As Internet broadcasting has grown, traditional media in Canada have suffered: newspapers, TV, radio and cable have seen their advertising revenue drop year after year. Conventional TV revenue fell from $1.984 billion in 2011 to $1.411 billion in 2018 – nearly 30%. This has resulted in financial losses every year, beginning in 2012, with $7 million to last year with $144 million (total deficit in only seven years is $675 million). Commercial radio revenue peaked in 2013 at $1.6 billion falling to $1.49 billion in 2018 (a loss of 7%).

The result is that we are losing jobs in all media and arts. We are also losing Canadian content and programming.

Such losses of revenue have caused less spending on production. Producers have less to pay creators. Producers increasingly demand creator copyrights and the royalties that are due to them – surely, an unintended side-effect of the Digital Exemption.

Meanwhile, the Internet broadcasters, mostly located in California, are making billions. Over the top (OTT) revenues have gone from $115 million in 2011 to $1.3 billion in 2018 (a 1,130% increase), and projections for 2022 are $2.351 billion. Almost none of this revenue stays in Canada.

Richard Stursberg and Stephen Armstrong in The Tangled Garden (published by James Lorimer & Company Ltd., 2019) provide a simple fix for this problem: rescind the Digital Exemption.

They write: “Culture is an enormous business in Canada. It is worth, by the government’s reckoning, almost $54 billion per year and employs 650,000 people. This makes it almost twice as large as agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries combined. It accounts for double the number of jobs in mining and oil and gas.”

Stursberg and Armstrong vividly describe the swift pace of the losses to Canadian culture: “Beginning around 2010 . . . much of what had been accomplished began to erode. The once mighty newspaper industry struggled to survive, shedding journalists and closing bureaus across the country. The vastly profitable television business began to lose money. CTV, Global and CityTV, the powerhouses of the private news business and the biggest commissioners of Canadian drama and comedy, were all under water by 2012. The magazine and film businesses were also swept into the downdrafts created by the FAANGS.” (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Google)

Action by government is urgent.

Rescinding the Digital Exemption will likely cost Canadian citizens and government nothing. According to Stursberg and Armstrong, “Extending the sales tax, abolishing the tax credits for foreign offshoots and eliminating the loophole on the application of C-58 will generate sufficient funds” to protect Canadian Content in the digital marketplace.

“The measures are neither novel nor strange. They are, in fact, simply extensions of the rules that have historically governed broadcasting and newspaper businesses. They require that the FAANGs be subject to the same tax regimes as the traditional media, that they make the same contributions to the production of Canadian content and respect the same standards of civility and truthfulness that bind the newspapers and broadcasters.”

Action by government is urgent. The authors warn us: “these changes in policy . . . must be made now. The financial situation of the traditional media is so fragile that they can not wait much longer.”

These simple changes would nearly double the amount of support for our Canadian cultural industries and provide increased tax revenue for Canada. Stursberg and Armstrong hypothesize that, if the Digital Exemption was rescinded and the Internet broadcasters were treated as what they are: broadcasters, – the $100 million that Netflix spent on production in Canada in 2017 would have been $230 million and would rise to $320 million by 2021.

The European Union has taken action. It recently passed legislation to support its thriving cultural economy by applying the same regulations that all non-Internet broadcasters are subject to all Internet broadcasters.

Canada must do the same. Treat the Internet as the broadcaster that it is. Regulate it, require it contribute their fair share of and support and broadcast Canadian content.

Canada’s cultural existence depends on it.

A version of Ed Henderson’s editorial was published in the October 15, 2019, edition of The Globe and Mail.

About Ed Henderson

 

Three Reasons Why SOCAN Members Should Rejoice

Published 09/16/2019

By Diane Tell

1 – Drake is a SOCAN member.
An article titled “Three reasons why,” ending with the name of a superstar is, I admit, a bit of a tease, but I needed to get your precious and sometimes fickle attention. I did it, right? Maybe you know that famous Groucho Marx quotes, “I would never join a club that would have me as a member.” Conversely, I would totally be a member of a society to which Drake would agree to give the management of his copyrights! With an average of 20 million Spotify streams daily, 19 million subscribers, and 7 billion total views on YouTube – to mention just a few metrics of his immense success – the Toronto-based artist could have easily let himself be lured away by the American siren song, but instead, he’s one of us. I’m not privy to secret information, but I gather that means that, at the very least, he’s satisfied with this arrangement. And what’s good for Drake is good for me, and good for our organization as a whole.

2 – SOCAN belongs to us.
I wrote “our organization” because SOCAN belongs to us. SOCAN is not a government agency and doesn’t belong to shareholders: SOCAN is a co-operative, or in other words, a society, that belongs to its members and, more specifically, an economic group based on the principle of co-operation, in which all participants, equal in rights, are associated to carry out activities with the goal of satisfying their work, or consumption needs, by being freeing themselves of the rule of capital.  In 2017, the Blackstone group acquired SESAC, one of the oldest collective rights management organizations in North America, which is itself the owner of the Harry Fox Agency, a mechanical reproduction rights management society founded in 1927. Did you know that? I’m perfectly fine that my modest business capital doesn’t belong to one of the planet’s most powerful investment firms… How about you?

3 – SOCAN, the devil’s advocate, is in the details.
In Canada, there’s a small detail worth knowing: copyright falls under the purview of two devilishly opposite federal departments. Heritage Canada and Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED). To avoid any potential faux pas, I’ll quote the official versions of their mission statements, available publicly on the Canadian Government website. Canadian Heritage and its portfolio organizations play a vital role in the cultural, civic and economic life of Canadians. Arts, culture and heritage represent $53.8 billion in the Canadian economy and more than 650,000 jobs in sectors such as film and video, broadcasting, music, publishing, archives, performing arts, heritage institutions, festivals and celebrations. The Copyright and Broadcasting acts, according to this web site, fall under the purview of that federal department. OK, but…  Innovation, Sciences and Economic Development’s portfolio is composed of the following departments and agencies: Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor), Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency (ACOA), Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Copyright Board Canada (CB), etc. That department is also responsible for the regulation of broadcasting and telecommunications – broadcasting, distribution and spectrum licences, telecommunications standards, certification and more. And more? No thanks. I’d like someone to explain to me how Mr. Industry and Ms. Heritage manage to agree on the custody of their children, namely content and creators. But then again, I’ve got other fish to fry. I’ve got songs to write, a show to put together, an Instagram post to publish… I leave the SOCAN experts to deal with this puzzle, that I’d call “the paradox of the Canadian context for copyrights.”

For these reasons and many, many more, I’m incredibly proud to be a member of SOCAN, as well as one of its directors. SOCAN is democratic, has gender parity, it’s innovative, and it’s one of the least expensive rights management organizations in the world. Bold new tools are already in place, or being developed, to achieve the highest possible efficiency when it comes to collecting and distributing our royalties. A new member portal will be live online before year’s end. You won’t believe your eyes when you see it! The music industry, having been completely transformed by the digital revolution, is having a hard time letting go of its old business models. But SOCAN is constantly re-inventing itself, and giving everything it has to offer new and improved services, such as the addition of mechanical reproduction rights – thanks to the acquisition of SODRAC. I’m really happy to be part of the SOCAN family. And you?

About Diane Tell

 

The many unpredictable steps that help a song succeed

Published 08/7/2019

By Patricia Conroy

It isn’t just a great song.

It’s getting that song to the perfect artist, who it was meant to be with.

Then there’s the magic that happens, once in awhile, in that studio, on that Friday afternoon, with a bunch of wonderful, inspired musicians who instantly “get” the song, and how it should sound.

And a producer who knew that would happen when he chose the players.

And the engineer is terrific, and the song sounds just like it should.

Then, by some stroke of luck, it’s the next single, and it gets played on a few radio stations.

And it gets heard by someone driving away from home for good… or someone about to walk into a motel room to meet someone they shouldn’t… or a single mom with nothing left to hold onto but this song.

And it gets to each of them in a different, strange, and powerful way, and next thing you know, it’s catching fire and climbing the charts.

And it becomes a hit.

Then you pick up your guitar and write another song.

Songwriting is a passion, and these days I’m all about creating something with soul.

But some days, the magic just isn’t there, and you can’t just manufacture magic.

Perhaps the key is consistently going to the well.

Listen to music that nurtures your passion.

Ideas can start from anything: A melody, a phrase, a movie, a billboard, a sticker on the pick-up truck in front of you at a red light…

Search for stories. Make one up. Keep looking and listening.

Ralph Murphy told me a story once about Harlan Howard. How almost daily, around happy hour, he’d sit at a local bar and just listen to people’s conversation. That’s where he got a lot of his great song ideas… from real life, real people.

It isn’t just a great song, but  that’s the best place to start. Good Luck, and have fun!

The things we do to make a record

Published 07/29/2019

By Lisa Patterson

Ever do something radical to fund an album? I did. And I’m sharing the story publicly for the first time.

I was offered a three-month contract playing saxophone with a band in Dubai. As a singer-songwriter playing original material, I wouldn’t normally consider this, but I needed funds to make an album of my own. It was also attractive that it would be in a desert climate during the Canadian winter, all expenses paid, playing soul classics with stellar musicians. Sounds ideal, right? It was, until distressing realities set in, culminating with the Canadian consul rescuing the band from jail.

Our venue  – one of dozens in Dubai – was in the Ramada Continental Hotel. Patrons were a mix of ex-pat businesspeople, nationals, tourists, and female sex workers. Each musician had a large private room in the hotel – our homes for the next three months. There was an in-room safe where I stashed my passport, plane ticket home, and American cash wages.

After a month, difficulties had emerged. The hotel started placing limits on food, charging for soda pop during performances, disrupting in-room phone service. I received regular offers of cars and jewelry in exchange for sex. Among show patrons, there were open displays of racism and wealth bias. And our sets were long and unchanging, six nights a week.

With rising hotel/band tension, we asked the booking agent to negotiate a new venue for the last month of our contract, and a new club was arranged. But contractually, we were still entitled to live at the hotel. The new club was a 20-minute drive away, so every evening passenger vans whisked us to our new venue, then back again later.

One night the hotel called the new venue, as our show was ending at 2:00 a.m., saying we should wait at the venue, that all our belongings from our rooms would be brought to us, and we’d be escorted to an apartment. What a shock! How could they dismantle our rooms so quickly? And without us present? We were worried about our safe-locked valuables, so we took taxis back to the hotel.

Security was positioned in the lobby, but we were peaceful. After a long wait the hotel owner appeared, and said they’d over-booked the hotel for the Dubai Shopping Festival (which draws hordes of wealthy tourists to, um, shop), so they needed our rooms for other guests.

When the bandleader demanded our valuables and was dismissed, their exchange became heated. A couple of us snuck off to see if our room key cards still worked. Mine didn’t but the drummer walked in on a man asleep in his bed. Now I was really worried: What happened to all the cash I was saving for my album? My plane ticket home? My passport?

Back in the lobby, while the arguing continued, I approached the front desk, and asked if they had the phone numbers of local consulates. They did. It was about 3:00 a.m. when I dialed the number. A live voice answered – in Ottawa, where it was eight hours later than Dubai. It turned out this was an emergency direct line to our capital, for Canadians abroad. I summarized the situation, and the official said he’d alert the Canadian Consul in Dubai in the morning. I wrote the phone number on a piece of paper and hid it in my shoe.

The hotel announced that the dispute would be resolved at the police station. Vans zoomed up in front of the hotel. At first, we refused to get in, but it became clear there was no choice. That van ride was a weird mixture of outrage, fear, and jokes about Alcatraz.

My five male bandmates were put in a holding cell together, and I was taken to a women’s holding cell. It was about 10 feet square, cement floor, bench along one side, a large bucket in the middle to pee in. There were about five sex workers there.

I was sweaty, exhausted, hungry, and freaked out, but I had that phone number. As if in a vintage film noir, there was an old-school telephone hooked on the wall. I dialed the number, it was again picked up in Ottawa. The same official was startled by this escalation, and told me to hold tight, that he was going to wake up the Dubai consul and get us out.

Around 6:00 a.m., I saw our consular saviour pass by. Voices bounced down the hall in both English and Arabic.  Around 8:00 a.m., we were led to a waiting room, disheveled, and stressed. The Canadian Consul presented us each with a sheet of paper that we had to sign. We were told it said in Arabic that we “agree to not misbehave in Dubai ever again.” We hesitated briefly, then signed. All we wanted was to get out of there – and bathe, eat, sleep. We still had to perform that night.

The consul chaperoned us to the hotel’s underground parking garage. A hotel official handed us each a garbage bag that contained our personal belongings from our rooms, and one envelope each with our documents and cash. We had to count it, verify documents, then sign a release.

The six of us were driven to a run-down apartment complex and given keys to a dirty two-bedroom suite with one bathroom. As the guys argued about the beds, I passed out on the couch. When we arrived at the venue that evening, I went to its accommodations people and feigned gender modesty requirements that I knew would get me sympathy, based on cultural traditions. I pleaded that a woman in an apartment with men “who are not my husband” put my reputation in jeopardy. Of course, I’d toured in original bands with guys for years. Survival makes you do odd things. They arranged a private room for me.

After the final month of the gig, back in Canada, I was eager to work on my album. Doing pre-production on my songs was soul medicine. But it took three months of vocal coaching to locate my natural singing voice again.

And I filed the experience under: Things not to do to fund an album.

Music venues need to provide non-alcoholic drink options

Published 07/11/2019

By Damhnait Doyle

A shorter, abridged version of this SOCAN blog post, written by SOCAN Board of Directors member Damhnait Doyle, was uploaded to The Toronto Star website on July 10, 2019, and printed in the newspaper on July 11, 2019. Following is the original, full-length version.

I really began drinking when I started in the music industry.

I was a blisteringly shy and introverted girl from Newfoundland, not long out of Catholic high school, finding my feet in downtown Toronto. I was young, scared, and surrounded by people I had admired and idolized my whole life. I felt like a fraud, an imposter.

Straightaway, I had a hit with my first single; suddenly, my video was on MuchMusic several times a day. Anxiety was coursing through my veins at lightning speed. This happens when your greatest fear is people looking at you, and you have to go on stage for a living. I was so nervous, I threw up in a bucket, stage side, before my first headlining gig (no booze was involved). Shortly afterward, someone bought me a shot of tequila before I went onstage, and boom! I had my liquid courage. I could go out there, and the fear turned into adrenalin. It felt like the answer.

Musicians don’t drink like normal people. You drink before gigs, during gigs, after gigs, on your day off, on a travel day, at the airport bar, the hotel bar, in the bus, the back of the van, when the show sucks, when the show is off the hook, when your song is on the radio, when no one’s playing your single, when you can’t get arrested, when you get arrested. In music circles, alcohol is both the journey and the destination.

When you’re doing it, you don’t realize that alcohol is putting a blanket over your intuition. Your body could be screaming out, “What the hell are you doing? Stop drinking!” and you’d be all, “Wow, my blanket is really loving this Rioja.” It creates a lack of communication between your brain and your physical body and spirit. When you suffer from depression and anxiety, as so many creative people do, the alcohol that you think is taking the edge off of anxiety, is actually building a fire around your body, stacking it with kindling, paper, and logs, and setting it ablaze. Add on the logs of a 4:00 a.m. lobby call, a nine-hour drive to the gig, and nothing but Tim Hortons for three weeks, and you have an issue.

I woke up almost a year ago and realized alcohol wasn’t serving me anymore. I was done. I hadn’t even considered it as an option before that. On paper, I didn’t have a problem. People asked , “Why would you stop drinking, I drink way more than you.” It’s as if society says the only legitimate reason to quit drinking is if you get thrown in jail, or you get a DUI. Now, sobriety is catching on. People are having a collective awakening, that they don’t have to drink just because they always did, and because everybody still does.

I’m writing this because I didn’t see many stories of people in my sphere talking about it, and when I did, I rejoiced. Listen, there are some cool-ass sober musicians. I know this because I’ve Googled that exact phrase 100 times since last August. That really helps – knowing you’re not alone is an incredible gift, so I’m adding my voice, and passing it on.

Next to having my family, quitting drinking was, hands down, the single best thing I’ve ever done. This includes getting up to sing “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” with Willie Nelson, every night for two weeks, with my band Shaye, on tour. Not drinking is the bomb.

I won’t lie, it was hard to stop.

I had to re-wire all the neural/social pathways in my brain. The first gig not drinking, the first conference (CCMAs), the first writing trip, the first time in the studio, etc. It takes a lot of work and determination to counteract the mindless habit of drinking. I can’t even begin to fathom the struggle that musicians who are in hard-core recovery from hardcore drug and alcohol use have to go through every day. They have to go to work surrounded by the very thing that threatens their lives.

I don’t know of many other careers where you’re not only allowed to drink all the (free, Free, FREE!) booze you want, but you’re expected to do so, to some degree. Still, I was shocked, when I stopped drinking, by the lack of non-alcoholic beverage options (and, no, water and colas don’t count) at bars and venues in Canada. I believe everywhere a musician goes to work (and yes, even though it’s nighttime, and it’s fun, and it’s your favourite band, it’s still work for the musicians and crew), there should be a proper non-alcoholic option. Sometimes, you just want to have something in your hand, something that lets you blend in, without having to explain why you’re not drinking. Not to mention, non-alcoholic (NA) beers are delicious, taste just like regular beer, have only 30 calories, and won’t give you a hangover or a gut.

For bars and concert venues, the profit margin for NA beer could be just as high as their alcoholic counterparts, or higher. They just need to stock one row, one measly row. I’m not saying they should charge as much as they do for real beer, but I’m gonna be so happy for the option, I’m not gonna complain.

So we’ve got the mental health/addiction component, but we’ve also got the #metoo component. #Metoo demonstrated that silently sitting with something awful causes rot – and if you don’t catch it in time, you disintegrate. Thankfully, our industry is having the necessary conversations: How do we fix, how do we prevent, how does this never happen again? We have to look at the facts, which tell the story, with a running theme throughout: Alcohol. Almost 50 percent of all sexual assaults involve excessive amounts of alcohol. You can’t make up someone’s mind about how much to drink, or how to behave; but if you don’t at least offer up non-alcoholic options, sexual assault statistics will stay the same.

I want to thank Allan Reid at CARAS and the team at SOCAN for making sure that non-alcoholic beverage options were available at this year’s JUNO awards, and at the SOCAN Awards Gala. It may seem like a small thing, but it creates a ripple effect. I’d like to see us band together as an industry and make sure that every festival, every club, every bar, everywhere that musicians go to work, has a non-alcoholic option. Until then, I’ll keep on sneaking my NA beer into bars, and having way more fun than I ever did.

Digital revolution fosters more hurried, less skillful creative process

Published 10/12/2017

By Miranda Mulholland

Classically trained on violin and in voice, Miranda Mulholland is in high demand as a fiddler and singer covering a wide range of styles. She’s a member of the duo Harrow Fair, and the fiddle trio Belle Starr, and makes select appearances in the violin show Bowfire. She runs a music label, Roaring Girl Records; founded the new Sawdust City Music Festival in Gravenhurst, ON; is a member of the Board of Governors of Massey Hall/Roy Thomson Hall; and sits on the board of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA).

I love looking at drafts of artwork. I love early versions of novels, songs and poems. I love sketches of paintings. I recently saw an early oil sketch of John Constable’s “The Haywain” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

You can see the skill, of course, but comparing it with the final version that hangs in the National Gallery, you can clearly see the thought, decision and composition that he worked through to arrive at the end result. I almost prefer the sketch.

There’s an art economist, David Galenson, who talks about the process of creation. He differentiates between the flash of lightning versus the arduous creative process. We hear a lot about the first type, what he calls “conceptual innovators”. The songwriters who wrote a song in minutes and it went to number one. The painters who sat at a canvas and with deft strokes completed a masterpiece. This idea goes back to ancient Greece, and the muse visiting with ideas of brilliance. But the notion that this is how it always transpires pays short shrift to the actual grueling and painstaking work and revisions that most artists’ work undergoes. These are the “experimental innovators”.

Leonard Cohen took six years to write “Hallelujah.” Bruce Springsteen took six months to work on the lyrics to “Born to Run.” Margaret Mitchell took 10 years to write Gone with the Wind and our own Alistair Macleod wrote his stunner No Great Mischief in 13 years.

Creating art is the use of skepticism for what’s come before, and the application of curiosity, which leads to the imagination arriving at something utterly new, through skill. In an increasingly hurried world, it’s important to use long-term thinking. Governments, funders, publishers and labels need to remember that most artists need time to develop, grow and realize their visions.

For instance, The Tipping Point author Malcolm Gladwell, when asked about the pressure the publishing industry puts on writers to write quickly, said, “Quality work takes time. As a writer, my principal observation about why other writers fail is that they are in too much of a hurry. I don’t think the problem with writing in America right now is a failure of output. I think it’s a failure of quality.”
Our current social climate has been moving further away from time and skill. The notion that anyone can record an album in their bedroom and upload it for free is in theory a democratizing one, but it begs the question: Just because you can, should you? There’s a whole “amateurizing” movement which is exactly the same concept – a democratizing idea, but put into practice, what does it amount to and how does it translate to the consumer?

When I was in Grade 7, I was in a string quartet that would play for weddings. The cellist had put the group together and managed the bookings. She was the most inexperienced member of the quartet musically, and didn’t practice enough. For the last wedding I played with that quartet, the bride had requested Pachelbel’s Canon – which is right at the top of the Wedding “hits package”; I’m sure you’ve heard it many times. The cello part has eight notes in it – the same pattern, over and over. She didn’t ever get through the sequence without a mistake, and the piece came off as pretty amateur affair. I tried to be diplomatic after the wedding and suggested that perhaps “we,” as a quartet, should practice more before we accepted any further payment for our services.

Her response was that the bridal party seemed perfectly fine with it and didn’t notice the mistakes. But this is my problem with that: we were hired to notice. We were hired to be the experts, the arbiters of taste and skill. When this contract gets fuzzy, quality suffers. Trusted tastemakers have been eradicated by shrinking budgets and replaced with algorithms.

I’ve had some wildly sub-par service with Uber and Airbnb, and read some pretty poorly written “news stories” and blogs that just regurgitate press releases – or what’s known as “citizen journalism” – and I wonder when we got so afraid of skill and expertise.

True tastemakers are becoming endangered. There has been a vast and exponential growth in output and content in the last 20 years. While reviewers and consumers are drowning in choice, paid arbiters of taste are being laid off and replaced by amateurs.

One of the purported benefits of the digital revolution, that we’re all by now very aware of, is targeting. Because of the vast amount of data collected from all of us, we can target our exact audiences. We can be precise, allowing niche-market music to find its consumers.
The trouble is, niche isn’t easy. Because the streaming system is built on market share, the miniscule fraction of a cent you get per stream decreases wildly if your music isn’t in the mainstream. The less it’s streamed, the less it finds its way into the playlist algorithms, and then the less it’s ever played again. Niche becomes an ourobouros, a worm swallowing its own tail. Not only that, but because it’s financially such a small part of the market, it’s sometimes erased altogether.

But fostering niche is important. Why? When you look at language, there are words that are rarely used. They’re not mainstream words. They are able, however, to capture a sentiment absolutely and completely. Did you know that the word groak means staring silently at someone while they eat? That’s not a word you use on a regular basis, but I’m glad it exists.

When we limit and hinder access to these words we actually limit thought. Remember Winston Smith in 1984, a novel that gets more timely by the day. His job was to get rid of words from the dictionary to limit and control thought, creating “newspeak.” Things like spell check and text predictors are speeding up this process.

I believe algorithms threaten to limit and control as well. The calculations are based on decisions you, and those with similar taste profiles, have already made. This is limiting to imagination, and to those surprise discoveries, and against-type choices, that radically change thoughts. And changing thought patterns is one of the most powerful things about art.

So, what key piece are we missing here? We can find it in the artistic process. It’s the key to creativity: imagination. Imagination leads to skepticism, not in doubt but in curiosity. It allows us to not accept absolutes and givens, and to envision new perspectives, solutions and realities. We can employ the tools “skepticism” and “curiosity” to take ownership of our decisions, and unlock new and exciting thoughts, discoveries and inspiration.

News, music, book suggestions, products we might like popping up in our targeted ads is easy. But easy isn’t always good. We need to be more skeptical than ever, and reclaim the power of being our own tastemakers.