Monday, October 20, 2014

The missing puzzle piece in Canada’s cultural policy

Cultural policy in Canada is complex.  Like a puzzle, many different, sometimes disjointed pieces, come together to make a whole.  The past week-end’s Globe and Mail demonstrated, with clarity, that some of the puzzle pieces are missing.

Elizabeth Renzetti did a wonderful column on how we pay, or more accurately don’t pay, artists, even those who are legendary such as Iggy Pop or the latest Booker Prize winner, novelist Richard Flanagan.  In Ms. Renzetti’s words, “a new reality has tripped him [Iggy Pop] up and it’s the same one shafting artists all across the world:  Namely, that everyone wants to listen, and no one wants to pay.”

Deeper in the paper, Kate Taylor did a profile piece on new Canada Council Director Simon Brault.  For Mr. Brault, the challenge is one of engaging the public, particularly the young.  Ms. Taylor quotes Mr. Brault as saying “Traditional companies need baby boomers as subscribers, yet they have to engage in a new generation or they will die.”  Further he is quoted to say “The last thing we want to do is say we want a little more money to keep doing the same old thing.”

Nowhere in The Globe and Mail, or anywhere else, is there adequate debate about how we sustain and update the operational and organizational infrastructure [not bricks and mortar] for artists and cultural organizations so they can continue developing and attracting audiences and pay the artist.  Put another way, how do we, as a country, monetize the creation, production and interpretation of arts and culture, so those who create and interpret art and culture can put food on their table?

In the cultural sector, this is not a new theme.  Each year the Ontario Media Development Corporation presents Digital Dialogues.  Monetization is a dominant theme.  Last week at the Ontario Museum Association conference, a similar dialogue emerged, where curators and museum professionals noted adequate investment in our institutions is what is required, not shiny new baubles.

Cultural organizational infrastructure is critical to having the ability to pay artists and engage new audiences.

Like the infrastructure in our cities and towns, Canadians have come to count on a rich and diverse cultural sector:  We want clean water, good roads and adequate transit; we also want the ability to go to a play, hear great music, read a good book or be enticed by a great magazine.

There is the rub.  Organizational infrastructure and support for the cultural sector, like infrastructure for cities and communities across the country, is not compelling for Canadians.  In Canada it seems that crumbling community infrastructure only commands the attention of decision-makers and politicians when it’s near the point of collapse.  As citizens, we justifiably moan about the lack of foresight and political will to have addressed it.

It could be said that we’re at a similar place in Canada’s arts and cultural sector.  The sector is contorting itself to secure alternative resources [public and private], offer new programs and engage Canadians in more and different ways.  The missing puzzle piece though is that we haven’t figured out how to keep the lights on so we can pay the artist.

Let’s hope that together we can find the missing puzzle piece.

Monday, October 6, 2014

How Will Online Streaming of Content Change the Arts and Culture Policy Landscape?

It’s the start of a new season, and as the leaves begin to change colour, season premieres of many popular TV shows have been rolling out. In Ottawa, the Let’s Talk TV study is underway, as cable companies, internet giants and broadcasters debate the new realities of online television.  Spotify launched in Canada at the end of September, bringing renewed interest to the policy surrounding online music streaming.

A recent study by the Pew Research Centre found that a majority of arts organizations surveyed agreed “that technology contributes to an expectation that “all digital content should be free”.[1]  A sentiment that many, if not most, consumers of the arts agree with. There are a plethora of legal sites to watch tv and listen to music for free. But how do we ensure a policy framework that supports the creators and artists while also maintaining all of this access to content?


Most of the big television networks stream their shows on their websites.  There are still commercials in most, but far less than you would see on TV.  These Canadian companies still comply with the CRTCs regulations on Canadian content, which is also available to be streamed online. Because revenues for TV shows are not as affected by online streaming as music, this availability is good news for Canadian TV.

Netflix has also become a huge player in streaming content and now has entire series of popular shows like How I Met Your Mother and Star Trek, The Next Generation.  It’s not free, but it’s pretty hard to argue against their very modest fee.   The Let’s Talk hearings regarding Netflix and the CRTC will be interesting to watch unfold, as they begin to battle over the importance of Canadian content.  Regardless of the outcome of these hearings, it could herald a new era of difficulty for Canadian producers.


Online streaming of music has become a sticky issue in the wake of Tarriff 8, a controversial decision by the Copyright Board of Canada last May.  The new rates are quite low, paying artists approximately $102.00 for every million times their song is played through a streaming service.  Put another way, if the entire population of Ontario streamed a song once a month, the artist would still not be making the equivalent of minimum wage. Granted, streaming is not, nor should be, an artist’s sole source of income, but seeing as streaming is becoming more and more popular through sites like Songza, 8tracks, and the much-heralded CBC Music, it does seem a little unfair.  If the average cost of a song on iTunes is $0.99, then, using these rates, you need to listen to that song nine thousand and seven hundred times to be getting your money’s worth.  It’s worth noting also that these rates are 10% of royalties in the US, an especially big blow to artists who haven’t broken into American markets. 

But it’s still better than illegal downloading. While the policy on online streaming does little to benefit artists, there are things we can do as their audience to support them. If you’ve enjoyed an artists’ music, consider purchasing their album.  Purchasing directly from the artist is best because they receive a much larger share of the profit, but purchasing in general will always be more of a benefit than streaming or illegally downloading.  Many record stores allow you to buy and download digital music, and likely give a higher portion to the artist than iTunes.

The online world is rapidly changing the face of the arts and culture industry.  If online arts policy is something you feel strongly about, be sure to let your MP know, or get involved with an organization like Music Canada. They have all kinds of information about the recent Tarriff 8  and a long list of other legal ways to access or download digital music.

By Michela Comparey, The Arts Advocate Researcher (and frequent user of the web).  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Canada Council for the Arts:  Martin Lipman

As Robert Sirman, Director of the Canada Council for the Arts, prepared to bring his eight-year term at the helm of the agency to conclusion, The Arts Advocate Report sat down with him to reflect on his accomplishments and challenges, as well as the current cultural policy context in Canada.  He discussed the mandate of the Council, as he saw it, and the impact it makes.

What follows is an excerpt of the conversation, the full version of which will be published in The Arts Advocate Report later this week.  We sincerely thank Mr. Sirman for his generosity and insight in granting this interview.

The Canada Council also shared this video, where Mr. Sirman shares his perspective on the mandate of the Council. 

TAA:  You came to the Canada Council for the Arts directly from National Ballet School.  Before that you’d been at the Ontario Arts Council and the Ministry of Culture.  You also came at an interesting time in Ottawa.  What surprised you the most? 

The question is so big, I’ll just be literal.  When I first came here, what surprised me first was where we worked …. the total anonymity, compartmentalization, distancing and isolation of the Canada Council’s physical form. 

Another thing (was that) I couldn’t get my hands on the (new Canada Council) money (first announced in 2006-07) because that is not how it works in Ottawa. It doesn’t matter what is announced -- freeing that money up is another process all together and it’s very rigorous.  In my first year, that was the most important process I was engaged in. We succeeded in not only freeing the money up, but getting it made permanent.  

The third (discovery was around) how we were going to spend the one time money. My third day on the job was the board meeting where the members approved how (the Council) was going to spend the one-time money… I believed that if there was something taken by senior management to the board, it had buy-in from all parts of the organization. … Then, when we started rolling the program out, all kinds of voices surfaced asking “what is this?” and how (are we) to we explain it to the community? …  At the time that I arrived, there was a management culture in the organization, which was not a collaborative model.  That’s why I focus so much on building collaborative participatory, shared responsibilities. There is nothing easier to deliver than something where people have had a voice in generating it. There is nothing harder to deliver than giving someone direction to do something that they haven’t been party to. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Do artists say thank you enough?

Thanks and acknowledgment of government investment in the arts is a big topic for the federal government.  Just how big was reinforced when one of the first questions posed recently at the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage pointedly suggested artists don’t do it.

This is what Conservative MP John Weston had to say on the topic as the Committee’s current study on the music industry got underway:

I am very interested in this topic because I am not very familiar with it. If we compare musicians to athletes, we can say that many athletes thank Canadians and our country for their support. In my riding of West Vancouver—Sunshine Coast, there are a lot of famous musicians, including Joni Mitchell, Sarah McLachlan, Randy Bachman, Shari Ulrich and Diana Krall. I am not sure whether I have heard them thank the government for its support. … Is that because musicians don’t think about it?  (Canadian Heritage Committee Hansard, 4 March 2014)

Canadian Heritage Minister Shelly Glover was more subtle and nuanced in her comments about this topic at the public Annual General Meeting of the Canada Council for the Arts:

We are the only G7 country that did not cut arts funding during the global recession and recovery. People forget that. You’re doing such a good job implicating the public and making sure people know there is no political influence when these choices are made that they forget that the Government of Canada is actually part of this. So, good on you, keep doing what you’re doing. Every once in a while, mention us.

As federal politicians ramp up to the 2015 election, it looks like this issue will become an increasingly important concern.  There is a clear perception and belief that the Government of Canada is not adequately or sufficiently acknowledged for its investment in culture, which is undeniably significant.

So, do artists and arts organizations say thank you enough?

Monday, April 28, 2014

Connecting the dots - demonstrating the importance of public arts funding

Saturday night, Miranda Mulholland was the featured artist at Soulpepper’s Cabaret series.  I had the good fortune to be among the sold out audience.

Beyond the fabulous music, what intrigued me was the conversation with Miranda, a young indie artist.  She shared stories about her career, her artistic goals and her gutsy move to start her own record label in the volatile music industry.  She embodies the entrepreneurial spirit that is increasingly evident in many young artists. 

And out of the blue, Miranda recognized and appreciated the role and contribution of public funders.  She gave a shout out to FACTOR, the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council and the recently launched Ontario Music Fund.

For an arts advocate and cultural policy wonk, it was refreshing to hear this come from the stage on a dark Saturday night.

The work of cultural funders and policy makers does matter.  It’s great to see the connection between the artist, the audience and the policy and funding wonks in the background.  

Thanks Miranda. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

Australia's Biennale Corporate Sponsorship Saga is a Lesson for Everyone

In Australia, a recent sponsorship decision of the Sydney Biennale is testing the relationship between the government, arts organizations, artists and sponsors.  

As government investment is eroded and ticket sales cannot keep up to the rising cost of producing arts events, increasingly organizations are turning to corporations for help with the bottom line. While many productive partnerships between large companies and non-profit corporations exist, navigating the fine line between a good partnership and a partnership that will alienate the artists and audience can be tricky. 

A prime example is the recent uproar in Australia over Transfield Holding’s sponsorship of the Biennale of Sydney.  Transfield is a company that is contracted by the Australian federal government to supply facilities to the Manus Island Detention Centre, where asylum-seekers are sent to await processing.  Outrage over the partnership led to boycotts by artists and eventually a mutual termination of the partnership. 

The government was unhappy with the decision. George Brandis, the Minister for Arts, wrote to the Chair of the Australia Council for the Arts, Rupert Myer,  “At a time when government funding for the arts is, like all demands upon the budget, under pressure, it is difficult to justify funding for an arts festival which has announced to its principal private partner that it would prefer not to receive its financial support.”  He added, “Equally appalling is the fact that the board of the Biennale, apparently under pressure from certain individual artists, has decided to decline to accept funding from a generous benefactor, because of the political opinion of those individual artists, concerning a matter which has nothing to do with the Sydney Biennale.”

Essentially, the minister told the arts community that beggars can’t be choosers.  He worried that the controversy would send the wrong message to other corporations who would withdraw funding in fear that an artist would boycott them and draw attention to an unpleasant aspect of their business.  It is almost as if he thinks that corporations only support the arts as a way to distract the public from what they really do. 

Here in Canada there seem to be far fewer of these tenuous relationships.  Corporate sponsorships, undeniably, are part of the art funding landscape.  For the big companies, it offers the opportunity to expose large audiences to your brand, build your philanthropic image, and usually comes with some free marketing.  For the arts organizations it provides the funding necessary to pull off a season that would otherwise be difficult to do without outside money. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Sponsorship Marketing Council of Canada and the Sponsorship Report have been paying attention to the growing industry of corporate sponsorships and have been put in place a policy of best-practices.

Thankfully, we haven’t had a minister tell the arts sector that beggars can’t be choosers, though artists and arts organizations should have the power to choose their sponsors.  Most organizations have a mandate that goes beyond the creation of their art and they should be given the power to partner with a sponsor that fits with that mandate.  Individual artists can, and should, think independently, and if they feel they are being used for propaganda, their art will likely suffer. 


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Look Back at Budget 2012: Some Impact of Cuts to the CBC

It is cultural policy that is tangible to many average Canadians: the 2012 federal budget cut funding for the CBC.  In the wake of the announcement the CBC faced a difficult situation, announcing a plan to cut 650 jobs and introduce advertisements to CBC Radio 2.  According to an article in the Globe and Mail, the broadcaster hoped to earn $20-million per year from the new ad revenue, but restrictions imposed by the CRTC cut those potential earnings in half. 

Many people vehemently opposed the introduction of the ads, the most noticeable effect of the cuts.  Friends of Canadian Broadcasting created a petition that had close to 18 000 signatures until it was taken down in mid-March.  According to an email from Friends of Canadian Broadcasting’s Ian Morrison, By the CRTC’s own count, 92.5% of the interventions they received on this topic opposed the introduction of ads to select CBC/SRC Radio services.”  The pressure and complaints of Canadians did have some impact – the CRTC limited the amount of advertising to 4 minutes per hour and only national advertising is allowed to air.  Nonetheless, ads began appearing on Radio 2 at the beginning of October.

A glance at their facebook page reveals some of the more recent criticisms, here’s a sample:

Too many commercials! If you needed money, why didn't you just ask? I thought we were friends? Oh ya, Northern Gateway? Not cool, CBC, not cool.” – Radio 2 facebook page, March 14
Had it with the AWFUL ADS that have invaded our beloved CBC Radio 2!! If you HAD to sink to the level of having commercials, which is completely against what CBC stood for, then at least pick ones that are befitting our National Radio. Show some class, will you please? 
"The New 2" is sounding more & more like ALL the other channels. There is not much distinction from the noisy CHUM mindset... It has lost its mojo” – Radio 2 facebook page, March 11
Friends of Canadian Broadcasting believes that many people were affected by the ads, though was unable to estimate the number of disgruntled listeners.
 “We have received many letters of complaint from supporters and from the public.  We have also observed that people were quite outraged and that they took to Twitter to complain when the ads first appeared.  In February 2014, the CBC started airing ads promising Enbridge’s Northern Gateway.  We also received letters of complaint about this and observed people airing their opposition to this move via Twitter and Facebook.”
While there are still some listeners who vocally oppose the introduction of the ads, Chris Boyce, Executive Director of Radio & Audio, said in an email that Radio 2 actually increased its audience in October and November. 
So far the reaction has been quite quiet. We've received very few audience complaints. And most listeners that I've spoken to have been understanding of the difficult situation that we find ourselves in.
"We wrestled with the decision to carry ads on Radio 2 in the first place and we considered every option carefully before applying. But we needed to address a financial shortfall at CBC, following the significant cuts to CBC funding in 2012. Given those financial constraints, CBC Radio’s primary goal was to avoid making more drastic cuts or shutting down CBC Radio’s services and stations. The reality is that featuring advertising on Radio 2 is one of the ways we can generate additional funds while continuing to offer programming on Radio 2. And I think most of our audience understands that.”
Judging by comments on Radio 2’s social media pages, some people are still upset by the ads, but they are a vocal minority.   For most of the months after the introduction of the ads there is hardly any mention of advertising. It seems that lately, however, listeners are irked by one company’s ad in particular: Enbridge. While already a controversial company, some listeners appear to feel that the ads do not relay accurate information or the complete story.  Mr. Boyce also addressed this sentiment, saying,
“I have received a few letters about the Enbridge ads over the past few weeks. CBC has comprehensive policies on advertising standards that govern what advertising we will accept and what advertising we won't. Those policies are consistent across all of our platforms including Radio 2. […] In this case, the Enbridge ad was reviewed and in accordance with the policy and was approved with the condition that it not run directly adjacent to news programs.”
Some had hoped that the introduction would annoy listeners enough to demand more funding from the government, most people don’t seem to really mind, or even notice, them. It looks like the ads are here to stay.
 -Michela Comparey