Published Nov 29, 2010As a music-obsessed foodie, I note some interesting parallels between North American food production and the music industry. Both really took off on an industrial scale following mechanization in the early 1900s; both experienced a huge post-war boom in the 1950s. Both ballooned into greedy, bloated polluters who sacrifice quality and respect for process in favour of mass production of cheap crap whose nutritive value has become entirely questionable.
Carrying the metaphor, I liken the crash of the music industry in the last ten years, caused by fans taking over the production and distribution of music, to the one that's brewing for the food production industry. In the face of awful, spiralling effects of pesticides, widespread antibiotic use, animal cruelty and vulnerable monocultures, consumers have started demanding change, and it better happen soon or the whole system (the planet, our bodies) will collapse.
For people who care about food, one answer has been to dial it down, to turn to local, small farm production, and to encourage home and away menus that support sustainable methods of healthy food production. As we end another scary year in the music business, I propose we take a cue from the slow food movement and start looking for similar ways to create a fundamentally sustainable music business.
Let's start with the assertion that the music business has to stop looking at consumers as pests and at artists as fallow ground just waiting to be pillaged. The music business must aim to do all things in balance with the good health of consumers and artists. It must let go of its sense of entitlement to grab and keep all the rights and all the money. It must learn to set reasonable goals and stop defining success by its own material gain.
That you're "successful" only if you're a ginormous megastar is a bill of goods that's been sold to artists and to the public by a greedy industry. Also on the bill is the idea that the only happy outcome for a business that's still struggling with the downturn in CD sales will be the glorious day when the megabucks start pouring in once again. Canadian legislators looking at revisions to the Copyright Act should bear in mind that everything the music business tells them is self-serving, which is fine ― but if it comes at the expense of consumers, music lovers, and the artists who make the music in the first place, it is absolutely not fine. Record labels should not go around asserting that they represent the best interests of music creators. That's like saying the slaughterhouse represents the best interests of cattle. Bollocks to that!
Now is a terrific time for everyone involved in music, from artists to fans to retailers, from labels to managers to media, to get a goddamn grip on learning to work together. Artists in particular have to face some serious realities. Repeat after me: Stardom is an unreasonable goal. What is reasonable, based on all the evidence, is to expect a long, hard slog through mediocre sales and semi-obscurity. If you can't handle that, you are in the wrong career. And let's be clear: the downturn in sales of recorded music is not the ultimate cause of anyone's low-to-middling performance issues. Making a career in music has always been a highly dodgy prospect; it's just that ten years ago Big Music did a much better job of distributing fairy dust and sweeping underperformers under the carpet.
Here in Canada, much of the domestic industry's history has been shaped by our (generally hopeless) efforts to erect and maintain American-style star-making machinery. The endless awards ceremonies and televised red carpet yawnfests are all symptoms of the obsessive celebri-philia that pervades the business. Now, if these events manage to put Canadian artists' names on the public lips, I suppose that's a success ― for the life of the news story, anyway. But wouldn't a greater success come from putting all that time and money into creating opportunities for Canadian artists to build a lifelong fan base?
For example: the best way to make fans is to tour. Seeing an artist live creates a valuable emotional connection between artist and fan. But touring is expensive and risky, to say nothing of promoting shows, and fans can find ticket prices prohibitive. So a smart move on the part of the industry would be finding ways to bring those costs and that risk down. A shift in priorities among funding agencies could help accomplish this.
In addition to handing out touring grants and record marketing money, we need to support local promoters and independent music retailers, who are as important to the music business as the artists and the fans. Much of the funding currently available is intended to be spent on marketing schemes involving heavy spends on radio, TV and print media advertising. If I had my druthers, I'd move a considerable pile of that into incentives for promoters, support for retail promotion, viral marketing and initiatives that lure people into live music venues and record stores.
We need to be doing this at local levels with a view to expanding from hometown to province to country, rather than obsessing over export market development. Many artists and their teams tire too quickly of developing a Canadian audience in favour of spending insane amounts of money to tour and market in faraway territories. We have indie bands touring China who can't sell 500 copies in Canada. I find this puzzling. Don't get me wrong: if you are right for, say, Germany and you can sell records there, then go with Gott. But don't do it at the expense of a domestic audience. If the careers of Blue Rodeo or the Tragically Hip tell us anything, it's that being beloved in Canada (and an obscurity everywhere else) ain't such a bad thing.
In the same way that food-loving Italy led the culinary world to the slow food movement, I think Canada is supremely poised to create a new music business based on what I call "slow music" principles. We are a music-loving people. We're generally less about bling and more about substance. We care about culture and community and we value "good" over "disposable." These are all elements that, like a rich, well-irrigated soil, can help grow a very tasty crop of talent. And don't worry, music industry, we'll still be needing the occasional shovelful of bullshit.