Conference Presentations: IASPM, 2021

Members of the Cultural Capital Project presented recent research at the International Association for the Study of Popular Music – Canada. The panel and paper abstracts are below, along with slides from each presentation.

“Independent Canadian Music: Obstacles and Opportunities for Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization”

Digital technologies and new listening practices have established innovative methods for circulating music, but because of corporate consolidation, independent and diverse voices are increasingly unable to support themselves making and performing music. For Canadian musicians, they are at the mercy of non-Canadian media and tech companies. In 2015, Billboard reported that Universal, Sony, and Warner control roughly 86% of the North American recording and publishing market. LiveNation and AEG monopolize the live concert and ticketing business and the digital streaming media sector has come to be dominated by Apple, Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Spotify. Within this consolidated sector, inequality is rising: the top 1% of artists account for 77% of recorded music income and radio playlists and Billboard charts are dominated by just a handful of the record industry’s biggest superstars. This power dynamic increasingly marginalizes independent musicians, especially in Canada.

Our panel is designed to respond to this dire situation by presenting four perspectives that evaluate the state of Canadian independent music. Each scholar is presenting research from our SSHRC-funded research project entitled “The Cultural Capital Project: Digital Stewardship and Sustainable Monetization for Independent Canadian Musicians.” In the first paper, Andrew deWaard will contextualize Canadian music within the broader economic shift of financialization, in which private equity, institutional investment, and venture capital are harvesting profit from many segments of the economy, including the music industry, resulting in further consolidation. In the second paper, Brian Fauteux will draw on trade press research to evaluate the degree to which musician’s perspectives are incorporated into the discourse about the music industry, as well as research into the limited availability of independent and marginalized music on popular streaming platforms. In the third paper, Brianne Selman will talk about how we saw some of these industry interests play out in the recent review of Canada’s Copyright Act.

“Life After Death”

Brianne Selman (University of Winnipeg)

Abstract: In 2018, INDU launched the Statutory Review of the Copyright Act, followed by Heritage launching their study on Remuneration Models for Artists and the Creative Industries. Together, they heard 250+ briefs and 300+ witnesses on issues around copyright, compensation, and the role of copyright in cultural production. Meanwhile, UMSCA was signed on November 30, 2018, with its concomitant copyright term extension from 50 years after death to 70 years after death. Many of the industry witnesses and briefs encouraged this term extension, while individual creators – and the Cultural Capital Project, as witnesses at the Committee on Canadian Heritage meetings – talked about other, and perhaps more significant, ways that creativity can be supported. This preoccupation of the recording industry with term extensions comes at the expense of both considering the evidence from cultural economics that term extension does little to bolster creators, as well as at the expense of talking about copyright issues that do have impact on independent creators. Considering the increasing financialization and consolidation of the music industry, the process and the resulting reports of the Committee which seemed to greatly favour industry perspective over that of creators and evidence based scholarship are unsurprising but nonetheless concerning. This presentation will look at some of the briefs and testimony presented to both Committees, as well as critically examine its origins and results.

“Amplifying Canadian Artist Perspectives in the Streaming Music Era”

Brian Fauteux (University of Alberta)

Abstract: Corporate streaming music services have brought forth few benefits for independent musicians. Meagre payouts, limited catalogues, and predictable algorithms combine to reward a shrinking number of bestselling popstars. Despite these issues, streaming services are often characterized by narratives of progress and superiority. This is an issue that has garnered attention from writers, journalists, and artists who have raised claims about the marginalization and inequality in the digital music industries. As Liz Pelly writes for The Baffler (2017) “In its quest for total power and control, Spotify has prioritized its own content, and it has made it notably more difficult to find albums rather than playlists.” More recently, the Canadian songwriter Danny Michel publicly exposed inadequacies with the way that streaming services and big tech companies compensate artists. With this context in mind, this presentation will emphasize the perspectives of Canadian independent artists who are navigating the digital music industries and working to carve out a livelihood in the streaming music era. It will do so by sharing results from an analysis of trade publications and popular journalism to discover how often artists are quoted or featured in articles about the very issues shaping their careers. Further, it will highlight gaps in Spotify’s catalogue by comparison to artists that have been part of the Top 100 !earshot charts in Canada over the past 20 years (which measures Canadian campus radio station airplay). The number of albums that are played frequently by Canadian campus stations that are not on Spotify also exposes inadequacies in catalogue coverage and makes it clear that narratives of “discovery” and infinite music are misleading. Taken together, these findings indicate that Canadian independent artists and their positions within the global digital music industries are not prominently featured and industry consolidation has narrowed playlists and perspectives in the streaming music era. 

“Canada and the Financialization of the Music Industry”

Andrew deWaard (UC San Diego)

Abstract: Over the past two decades, the corporate consolidation of the music industry has been facilitated by a silent partner: Wall Street. This paper utilizes a political economy of media approach to contextualize the state of Canadian music within the era of financialization. Private equity firms, such as Bain Capital and Terra Firma, have used debt and financial engineering to extract capital from record labels (Warner, EMI) and terrestrial radio networks (Cumulus, iHeartMedia), while financing the consolidation of the live music market (Ticketmaster/LiveNation, AEG). Even the trade press that reports on these developments (Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter) has been transformed by private equity. Institutional investors, such as Blackrock and Vanguard, have assembled dominant investment stakes in all major media companies, using this ‘common ownership’ to reduce competition and raise prices. Hedge funds are also targeting recording and publishing rights in an effort to harvest capital from streaming companies. In conjunction with this external financial pressure, the big three labels (Universal, Warner, Sony) have enacted internal strategies of financialization, monopolistically leveraging their back-catalogs for equity stakes in streaming music companies (Spotify, Soundcloud). Finding great success in this investment-based strategy that requires no sharing of royalties with its artists, the big three labels now operate their own venture capital funds, as do all major media companies. Premised upon massive debt, short-term interests, and profit extraction, this new era of financialization and consolidation represents a dangerous transformation for a music industry already hostile to independent and marginalized musicians. In the Canadian context, this means the livelihoods of Canadian musicians are subject to the predatory behaviours of Fortune 500 CEOs, Silicon Valley programmers, and hedge fund vultures. Considering the onslaught of financialization in the cultural industries, the diversity and vitality of Canadian music will require bold government action, such as financial reform, cultural protectionism, and antitrust enforcement.

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