Tag Archives: Music

COVID-19: This Too Shall Pass

Published 04/2/2020

By Alan Cross

One night in early 1348, a rat scuttled down a street in Florence, Italy. It was a stowaway on a merchant’s cart hauling goods from the port of Livorno. Or perhaps it came with cargo from a ship docked somewhere on the east coast carrying goods from Greece, Crimea, and other points East.

Hitchhiking in the rat’s black fur were fleas infected with the bacterium Yersinia pestis, the trigger for bubonic plague. As a result of Florence’s non-existent sanitation and hygiene practices, the rat population exploded, and with it, cases of the Black Death.

By the end of the year, Florence had become an epicentre of the pandemic. And in just three years, 50,000 people – half the city’s population – had died.

But a strange thing happened. The plague began to change humanity’s view of the world. People began to question their very existence and the reality around them. Instead of being focused only on the church and making it into heaven, people started pondering their current situation as living beings. This new attitude, which we now call humanism, came to dominate the discourse of scholars, intellectuals and artists.

This radical shift in thinking led to the Renaissance, which took stagnant European society from the Middle Ages to the modern age. Florence (and Italy in general) entered a period where much great art was produced, from painting and writing to architecture and poetry. In fact, the term “Black Death” (mors nigra in Latin) first appeared in a poem written in 1350 by a Belgian astronomer named Simon de Covino.

Music, of course, was also greatly affected.

After centuries of creating music based around Pythagorean tuning, a new musical language based on polyphony emerged. The printing press – a Renaissance invention – made it possible to distribute sheet music across the continent. We began to see our first musical stars in the form of composers and performers.

Let’s skip ahead a few hundred years. As the world’s population recovered, Europe was hit with a series of plagues. Henry VIII spent a time in self-isolation as a result from the Sweating Sickness outbreak of 1529. Then a great epidemic hit London in the early 1600s.

Once again, anxious times led to an outbreak of great art. Shakespeare wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra in 1606. And at exactly the same time, composers like Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel began musical experiments that would later be known as the Baroque movement, something that would influence music for centuries to come.

Again, fast-forward a couple of hundred years. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, one of the unhealthiest cities in the world was New Orleans. The heat, humidity, the swamps, and the constant visits by ships from the Gulf, the Caribbean, and beyond, made it a transit point for disease like influenza (a worldwide outbreak in 1889-90 killed at least a million people), cholera, encephalitis, yellow fever, and more bubonic plague. Yet New Orleans found time to invent both ragtime and jazz, the dominant form of North American music during the first half of the 20th Century.

When jazz spread everywhere in the 1920s, was that a joyful reaction to the end of the Great War, or an expression of relief after the Spanish flu of 1918-1920 burned out? Maybe both.

Consider, too, the HIV/AIDs crisis of the late 20th Century. How much great art – music, theatre, novels, film, dance, and so on – was inspired by that terrible time?

Now think about where we are today. It’s dire for the music industry. No one’s touring. Music venues are closed. Music sales have cratered to their lowest level since the 1960s. Even streaming is down, as people look to other sources of entertainment to pass the time while they’re locked down. Musicians, crew, promoters, agents, managers – everyone associated with the art and business of music has been sidelined from their usual ways of working.

But it might not be all bad. Already artists have found creative ways to reach out to the public through various forms of live streaming. Others are inevitably using this time to write, and experiment, and record at home. How many bored young people have finally picked up that guitar, or sat at a piano, only to discover that they have a natural talent for music? Manufacturers have made synth apps available for free so that people can fool around with them. Will that result in something unexpectedly great? I bet it will.

When this is all over, we could find ourselves with more great music than we know what to do with. The fall of 2020 and the early months of 2021 has the potential to be very exciting. And while virtual concerts and live streams will continue, society wants to be physically present when art is on display. The gigs and the tours will come back.

Meanwhile, if you’re an artist, keep a daily diary. Write down everything you’re feeling and any observations you have of the current condition of humanity. Document what’s going on the best way you know how. Who knows what kinds of creative breakthroughs will result?

Above all, hang in there. Stay safe and stay healthy. Concentrate on what you do best. As in the past, these anxious times will inevitably produce great art. And you just might be the person to do it.

About Alan Cross

The “Business of Music”

Published 08/29/2019

By Widney Bonfils

Ever since I started working at SOCAN, I’ve had the opportunity to meet countless emerging songwriters. What all of them have in common is a deep desire to “make it” in the music industry. I’m fascinated by their desire to share their art, and the courage that requires, just as I’m fascinated by their contagious passion.

Throughout all of the captivating conversations I’ve had with them, I’ve noticed that many of them had no idea of what they were getting into. I realize that many of them totally ignored the amount of work, and the knowledge, required in order to navigate this industry. Merely saying “All I want to do is make music” is, I believe, totally obsolete and – dare I say it – ludicrous. How can one hope to succeed in an industry one doesn’t understand? Can you imagine a budding banker who doesn’t have a basic understanding of economics or finance? The same goes for music. Making good music is the start, of course, but that alone doesn’t guarantee success.

The first question one should ask when they consider entering this business should be, “Is this just a hobby, or do I want to profit from my art?” The answer to this question is critical, as it will determine the future of people who wish to earn a living in this industry. Believe me, a career in music does indeed require you to have the profile of an entrepreneur. And just as with any start-up, you need to proceed step by step, and not try to go too fast. Here are a few points that I hope will help some of you better understand the basics of the music industry.

The Importance of Being Well Informed

Ignorance never was, is, and never will be sexy. The notion of saying one makes music and doesn’t need to grasp the business side of it is utterly crazy, and borders on irresponsibility. One doesn’t climb a mountain without climbing equipment. Just as, one doesn’t enter the music business without knowing the basics. Here are a few essential pieces of information to have in order to understand this environment:

  • Copyright (mechanical royalties, performance royalties…)
  • Rights management organizations and their responsibilities (SOCAN, Re: Sound…)
  • Financing methods, and the institutions that support the music industry (Musicaction, FACTOR, CALQ, The Canada Council for The Arts…)
  • The various players and their responsibilities (music labels, music publishers, venue bookers…)
  • Broadcast platforms and how they operate

It’s a music entrepreneur’s responsibility to familiarize themselves with these sides of the industry, because once that’s done, they can determine their needs, are and start assembling the right team for themselves.

Picking the Right Crew Mates, While Remaining the Captain of Your Ship

One thing I’ve noticed while interacting with songwriters and composers is their desire to find a manager, a publisher, or a record label – without understanding those roles, and the differences between all of those players, and without having taken the time to properly evaluate what their needs actually are. It’s no surprise that some of them end up in difficult situations down the line. However, if you understand those fields, and your own needs, I believe it’s fundamental to build the right team to support you. No one can do it all by themselves. Being able to count on the right team allows creators to focus on what they prefer – creating music – while knowing the business side of things is in good hands. Obviously, that requires a good understanding of the areas outlined above. The artist is at the heart of their project, but they should also be the CEO of the team supporting it.

Managing Rejection and Chasing Your Dream

Many give up when they realize how harsh this the process can be. Many are called, few are chosen. These people weren’t ready for it, or at the very least, thought their hobby was a profession. The music industry can be just as gratifying as it can be frustrating. One has to be prepared to be rejected often before finding success, and that’s not easy. And once you have reached that success, you need to know how to manage it, and again, this is where a good team is crucial. The mental stress of being constantly solicited can quickly devolve into a problem if it’s not handled properly.

I believe that once you’ve become aware of your talent, and have decided to earn a living with it, you also have the responsibility to share it. I believe in the incredible power of music. It unites us, motivates us, heals us… This integral part of culture is critical for humanity, because it’s an integral part of our lives. I also believe in the importance of artists, and I’m saddened when I see some abandon their career prematurely. It is not an easy trade. As I said, knowing how to deal with the rejection, deception, and financial hardships that are typical when you begin a career is challenging. But hang in there, it’s worth it!

As in any other industry, the music industry operates in tiers. Sure, the big names of this industry like Drake, The Weeknd, and others are successful artists making millions, year after year. But there are tons of artists who earn a very decent living from their art. That, to me, is what being successful means.

 

How to Survive “No”

Published 12/13/2016

By Savannah Leigh Wellman

It’s undeniable the positive impact that artist development programs, grants, and contests have on the Canadian music scene. Artists being educated on the “how-tos” of the industry begin to see their music not just as an art form, or hobby, or crap shoot – but a viable business, in which they can learn the tools to use in building a career. Funding given to artists is in turn invested right back into the industry around them. Programs that include mentorships or professional introductions offer an invaluable “insider” opportunity to make connections that would quite possibly be otherwise ignored. Being selected for any kind of funding or program is almost always a welcomed leg up and boost of confidence for an artist.

But what happens when being left on the outside of these opportunities creates the opposite effect – a discouragement, a seed of doubt in an already self-critical mind?  It can create divides amongst the very community the programs are aiming to support, or lead to viewpoints of entitlement and judgement.  Not that these programs shouldn’t exist – they’re crucial for building the careers of emerging artists, in a way that record labels generally can’t any more. But how can we help artists come away from such experiences stronger than when they began, instead of defeated?

Anyone who’s ever worked with an artist understands that the creative mind is usually also a sensitive one – that sensitivity is what makes an artist compelling to the public, and what provides a unique insight into the human experience. When your product is so innately personal, criticisms can feel extra severe, and artists in the early stages of their career don’t have the same defense mechanisms as more established acts. They don’t have dedicated fans sending positive messages of support, or successes they can look back on for reassurance, or managers and team members to keep them focused on the positive. To someone who is still trying to make it on their own, blows to your confidence can be real setbacks.

But why is not being selected for something taken as a criticism? Why can’t an artist simply shrug off a “no” and apply for the next opportunity? I think it comes down to the fact that when putting your music on the line to be judged, to be critiqued and evaluated, it’s close to impossible to not take the results personally. It feels like someone is reviewing everything you’ve poured your heart into, and deciding it’s not worthy – when in reality, there’s just not enough funds, or showcase slots, or prizes to give away to everyone who is worthy.

The most important thing to remember when putting your music in a situation where it will be judged in one way or another is that art is subjective. Even though guidelines can be created to try to best measure the tangible components (strong melody, professional production, interesting lyrics), at the end of the day, it still comes down to an individual’s opinion. And when has the music industry ever been unanimous on an opinion of what’s good?! Just because the small sample group of people who had the fate of your application in their hands didn’t think it was better than the one they heard before it, doesn’t mean someone else won’t.

Also, some programs offer feedback for applicants, and if you’re up for taking it in, it can provide great opportunities for growth. Again, the key is to take them with a grain of salt, and if there are suggestions you agree with, then consider following those.

In some cases, instead of spawning insecurities, a “no” will raise feelings of anger, and defensiveness. But I did this, and I have earned that!  Or perhaps a comparative outlook is taken on – but I did this and they didn’t! These mind frames breed negativity and competitiveness within a scene, and can harbour jealousy and resentment towards acts for which there’s no other reason to withdraw support. It’s important to remember that everyone’s working hard, and that someone else’s success does not actually take away from your own.

If the concern is about procedure or policy, making sure that certain standards are being upheld, or that processes are transparent and accessible, then those are fair points to make with whoever is running the program. However, it’s important to bring it up in an un-biased, rational discussion, rather than as an emotional defence. Don’t focus on why your own application wasn’t selected, but rather on the guideline or policy that seems to be counter-productive for a number of artists (for example).

We are so lucky to live in a country that supports arts and culture the way Canada does – it’s unique on a worldwide scale.  While it can be disheartening to apply for various support programs and not be selected, it’s important to remember the real reasons you started making music – chances are it wasn’t to win contests, or record albums only if someone else paid for them.

Every successful musician has their own novel of rejection stories – it’s the ones who persevere through them who have a chance at a successful career.

 

Savannah Leigh Wellman was the program manager at Music BC Industry Association for eight years, performs under the artist name SAVVIE, and is a co-founder of Tiny Kingdom Management & Artist Services.

Noble Work

Published 10/28/2016

By Andrew Berthoff

Since the Nobel people announced that the brilliant songwriter Bob Dylan is the recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, not a few people have asked me what I think. Friends know my background in and love of literature as well as, of course, my professional life in communications and marketing in the music industry, so I guess it’s a logical question.

What do I think?

I think it’s great for the noble and honourable craft and art of songwriting and music creation. I love that it elevates SOCAN’s noble and honourable calling to fight for the rights of music creators and publishers. For that reason alone, I love it.

But, I suspect like Bob Dylan himself believes, the award is inappropriate – mainly because he likes to keep his craft and work simple. It is what it is. He insists “Blowin’ in the Wind” was written in 20 minutes. It flowed forth naturally, the muse striking with urgency and ease, as it miraculously, magically and rarely can.

Songwriting and music composition is almost always hard, hard work. There are the rare examples of instant classics, just as some Picasso masterpieces might have been made in minutes. But the vast majority of songs and compositions take figurative blood, sweat and tears – and measurable time.

Perhaps if Dylan took himself super-seriously and was precious about his work he might have a different opinion about receiving – never mind accepting – the Lit Nobel. That he’s so self-effacing and elusive about his art makes the honour that much more complicated.

I tend to think that giving the Nobel Prize for Literature to a songwriter is a brilliant and probably calculated PR stunt. It surprises and delights. It gets people talking. Like great art itself, it elicits a reaction, which doesn’t have to be positive in order to be successful. The controversy raises interest and awareness. By selecting the elusive and capricious Dylan, they must have anticipated that his response (or lack of one) would add intrigue and controversy to their choice.

But the stunt might come at a cost to the Nobel “brand.” There are not a few acknowledged literary masters who have taken umbrage, even more strident than what was seen following the debatable Peace Nobel awarded to Barack Obama after his relatively few years of work. In subjective prize-giving like this, inevitably it’s the list of who has not received the award that makes it questionable. The inference drawn is that Bob Dylan achieved more in literature than, say, Joyce, Proust or Nabokov.

While the credibility of the Nobel Prize might have taken a reputational hit that I don’t much like, I love the fact that the credibility of songwriting as an esteemed literary art-form has been elevated.

Just as they added a prize for Economic Sciences in 1969, perhaps a better solution might be for the 115-year-old Nobel organization to add a new category: Music. That makes sense, and would allow the prize to expand. As with novelists, playwrights and poets in contention for the Lit Nobel, all genres of music creation could be in line for the music prize.

And I would fully expect that future Nobel Prizes in Music will go to SOCAN members like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell.

Streaming requires new business model for record companies

Published 11/5/2014

By Terry McBride

Streaming is the future of music consumption.

In Nielsen and Billboard’s sales numbers for 2013, streaming music increased 32 percent over the previous year, to 118.1-billion track streams. Overall music sales dropped 6.3 percent to about 1.5-billion tracks, albums, and videos. Digital music sales (downloads) dropped too, by 6 percent, about the same rate.

The Recording Industry Association of America recently announced that revenue from streaming-music services overtook that from the sale of physical CDs, and came in just a hair behind total physical sales. The RIAA also said that streaming now accounts for 27 per cent of recording industry revenues in the first half of 2014, versus 20 per cent the year prior.

About 35 percent of the revenues of my record company, Nettwerk Records, already come from streaming, and that amount is only going to grow in the coming years.

When music is streamed online, songwriters in North America are currently being vastly underpaid for the music they create, some thousandth fraction of a penny for each streaming play (though, as SOCAN CEO Eric Baptiste pointed out in his last SOCAN blog, there are reasons for this).The same is generally true for the artists, and the non-major record companies whose music is being streamed, which is why streaming is not yet offsetting the decline in physical sales and downloads in North America.

The solution to this problem is for record companies to seek a percentage of the revenue earned by the streaming companies, rather than a penny rate “per play” (or in this case, “per stream”). The solution must also create equitable deals between the labels and their artists to ensure that the artists are fairly compensated after such negotiations.

There’s a great deal of generational resistance to this idea. Past generations are strongly invested in the attitude that rates of remuneration for recordings have to be set by a governmental regulatory body. But in the online world, where borders are becoming more and more meaningless, where a song streams to one person at a time rather being played to hundreds of thousands of people via a spin on radio, and where streaming companies’ revenues are dwarfed by many orders of magnitude when compared with traditional media such as TV and radio, the only practical way forward is to abandon penny-rate regulations and negotiate percentage deals directly with the streaming companies. In addition to payment for access to their music, major labels are already obtaining equity in music streaming companies.

This approach can work. In fact, it already has. Nordic European countries are seeing growth from streaming music, and their artists are earning a significant portion of their living from it. The Norwegian recording industry reported that streaming revenue was up 66 percent in the first half of 2013. Streaming revenue accounted for two-thirds of total music revenues in Norway. It’s been a similar story in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Sweden’s music industry is now back to double-digit growth, even though about 90 percent of the music consumed there occurs via streaming.

By comparison, if the penny-rate mentality doesn’t disappear sooner rather than later, the North American record industry will continue to shrink annually at a rate of five to six percent. In fact, one of the reasons Nettwerk has been able to prosper in the face of this continuing decline is that 90 percent of our income comes from outside of Canada.

The writing is on the wall. The old way needs to go. The record industry has got to get moving, and moving fast, to adapt to the new reality of music streaming.


Views expressed in this and all posts on this blog are not necessarily those of SOCAN.