What happens when we starve our artists
Miranda Mulholland, seen in Toronto on Wednesday, is speaking out against the increasing ‘value gap’ in the music industry. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Miranda Mulholland is a musician and a multitasker. She sings and plays her fiddle with bands (Great Lake Swimmers and now Harrow Fair), on television (Republic of Doyle), on film (Maudie) and on stage (Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre). She runs her own boutique label, Roaring Girl Records, and this summer, she is launching a cottage-country music festival in Gravenhurst, Ont.
Recently, she texted a friend and Juno Award-winning musician asking if she could book him for the August long-weekend event.
He replied sorry, he had been all booked up for months now. Then he realized he had misunderstood and texted back: “Oh, you mean as a musician? I thought you wanted to rent my Airbnb.”
Mulholland told that tragicomic anecdote at the Economic Club of Canada this week in a speech laying bare the plight of professional musicians impoverished by the digital economy. Seems Mulholland has added “music activist” to her crowded CV.
“For a long time, I thought I just wasn’t good enough, until I started being honest with other artist friends who I had imagined were in a better financial situation than I was. It turned out, it was across the board,” she said.
I was asked to moderate Wednesday’s event, and the first thing I did after Mulholland had finished her speech was to congratulate her on her courage. It is hard to understate how tough a step she has taken: In a world that equates money with success and in a business that markets glamour, she is admitting to poverty.
It’s not that she can’t find work. To prove her point, she listed her experience, including seven years with Great Lake Swimmers; her new duo with Andrew Penner, Harrow Fair, which recently returned from a British tour; her contributions on hundreds of recordings by a wide variety of artists; appearances with Jim Cuddy, Steven Page, Calexico, Alan Doyle, Dan Mangan and Joel Plaskett, and the fiddle music (often of her own composition) on most episodes of CBC’s Republic of Doyle. She is a busy and respected professional now in her second decade in the music business, but she rents an apartment in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, drives a 1998 Toyota Corolla and confesses that she is barely making a living.
Why? Because the digital distribution of music is not fairly compensating the people who create it, and continual touring cannot make up the difference.
Mulholland takes particular issue with YouTube, pointing out that it effectively works as a music service that is recommending music videos to users without compensating the creators. An estimated 80 per cent of YouTube visitors are using it for music and the service itself boasts that most viewing is through the site’s own recommendations rather than initial searches. (Many of these videos return no compensation to the original composers or performers. YouTube has a process for removing copyright-infringing videos if rights-holders complain, but that means musicians have to continuously police the site themselves. Meanwhile, they say the royalties paid through specialized channels or advertising undervalue the use of their work, paying only a fraction of the amounts paid by music-streaming services, which are already notoriously low.)
Similarly, Mulholland complains that the numerous streaming services out there use musicians’ work to entice users, and insist it’s the musicians’ job to advertise themselves – the Harrow Fair website includes links to 10 different services through which you can download its new album – and offer scant payment in exchange. She wants accountability – from these players who profit from the freedom of the Internet without compensating creators and from governments that exempted the digital realm from regulation in their early efforts to encourage innovation.
Mulholland originally decided to speak out a year ago, when she was asked to say a few words at a similar event after Graham Henderson, president of the record-industry association Music Canada, had delivered a speech.
As it lobbies the government for remedies, Music Canada’s position is simple: It is not seeking public money to compensate for losses, fund extra marketing initiatives or pump up existing grants. Henderson just asks for a level playing field, a creative economy in which money flows from distributors back to creators.
Since Mulholland echoed that plea last year, she has spoken twice with Mélanie Joly, the federal Minister of Canadian Heritage who is currently reviewing cultural policy. On both occasions, Mulholland says Joly simply told her that artists must speak out. So, here is Mulholland speaking out – and you can only hope that Joly will soon unveil improvements to Canadian copyright law that will reward her for her risk-taking.
For she risks being called a loser, although her artistic track record speaks for itself.
She risks being called a Luddite, although her mastery of digital marketing, distribution and rights management proves otherwise.
And she risks being called a whiner, although she offers lots of solutions. She wants Canada to follow the lead of the European Union, which is looking at how it could update copyright law to close what it has identified as the “value gap.”
More immediately, she has practical suggestions for how fans can help the artists they love. Buy merchandise. Buy albums and, when you do, buy them on release day: That helps an album’s chances on the algorithms. Pay for subscription streaming services rather than using ad-based ones: They pay artists better. Also – and this costs nothing – write user reviews on services, and make and share playlists, both of which improve an artist’s chances of getting noticed.
Mulholland has some advice for artists, too: Be honest about what’s going on out there. The public needs to understand that we are starving those we love.