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).