You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

Canada’s artistic middle class is disappearing. Blame the digital economy

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2019-07-16 Tony Wong - Technology Reporter
Danny Michel holding a guitar: Singer-songwriter Danny Michel says music-streaming services have had a devastating impact on artists. © Provided by Toronto Star Newspapers Limited Singer-songwriter Danny Michel says music-streaming services have had a devastating impact on artists. Miranda Mulholland who is smiling and looking at the camera: Musician Miranda Mulholland has enjoyed many successes in Canada, but says the impact of the digital economy makes it difficult for artists to make a living. © Provided by Toronto Star Newspapers Limited Musician Miranda Mulholland has enjoyed many successes in Canada, but says the impact of the digital economy makes it difficult for artists to make a living.

You may not have heard of Miranda Mulholland, but you’ve heard her music.

Her fiddle playing is in every episode of the CBC’s Republic of Doyle and on the hummable “Good Things Grow in Ontario” jingle. She’s sung or recorded hundreds of songs on albums, and created music for film and television.

But despite her success, the digital economy has meant it’s getting decidedly harder, not easier, to make a living as an indie musician in Canada as Mulholland has found in the past two decades she’s been in the business. And that has implications for all Canadian artists trying to survive in the gig economy.

“I played on so many Juno-nominated albums, and I toured all over the world and I thought I wasn’t working hard enough, or maybe I wasn’t good enough,” says Mulholland. “But the reality is the framework is broken and we need to fix it.”

Mulholland is heartened that recent legislation by European lawmakers on digital copyright laws would give a boost to musicians, writers, publishers and film and television producers. Artist groups are hoping the European Union lead may provide a footprint to the future.

The legislation means that big online platforms such as Facebook and Google must filter out copyrighted content and share more revenue with creators, leading to a potential windfall of billions of dollars.

At stake is the future of an artistic middle class in Canada. A creative cluster of artists who once were able to support themselves relatively comfortably are now struggling. That has implications for Canadian cities. Metropolitan areas that fail to keep and attract creative residents tend to stagnate and are less desirable to live in, according to the thesis of University of Toronto professor Richard Florida’s book Rise of The Creative Class.

“Arts are such a huge economic driver, but it can be unappreciated,” says Mulholland, who provided testimony to a federal heritage committee on the subject.

Overall, there is no question the middle class is getting squeezed.

An Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report in April showed that millennials in Canada are faring particularly poorly with just 59 per cent attaining middle-class status, compared with the baby boom generation at 67 per cent when they were in their 20s.

The situation is especially bleak for artists. Statistics Canada lumps together weekly salaries for workers in the arts, entertainment and recreation sectors, showing they have fallen behind the national average. The average salary was $601.31 in 2018, up a mere $20 from four years earlier. The national average, meanwhile, is $1,001.18, up by $66 from 2018. But if you drill down into the numbers, looking specifically at artists, the numbers can be shocking.

A study by the Writers Union of Canada says a Canadian author’s average annual income from writing is $9,380, a 27 per cent drop from a decade ago when it was $12,789. The union calls it a “cultural emergency.”

“Regardless of the platform, workers should be compensated for their work,” says Christine Peet, president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada.

A poll by Ekos Research for The Canadian Press in 2017 found that 47 per cent of Canadians defined themselves as middle class. That’s compared to 70 per cent in 2002 — a significant drop. The percentage who identified themselves as poor doubled from about 5 per cent to more than 10 per cent.

The plight of the middle class was part of the election platform Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on before he was elected. He defined the middle class then as a family of four earning $90,000. There is no precise definition of what constitutes middle class, but economists typically use median income as a marker. According to Statistics Canada, that’s $92,700 for families and $33,000 for individuals. But in the digital economy, many artists don’t achieve anywhere close to those numbers.

It’s especially infuriating for artists who see their work shared with little or no compensation.

“So many people think the internet should be completely free, but people forget that someone wrote that story and have a right to be compensated,” says writer’s association president Peet.

A study by the News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 U.S.-based newspapers, estimates Google made $4.7 billion (U.S.) alone in 2018 — nearly as much as the entire United States news industry took in from digital advertising.

A bill before U.S. lawmakers, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, would give publishers a four-year antitrust exemption. That means under that proposal they would be allowed to negotiate with platforms over splitting revenues.

But the EU so far has gone the furthest. Besides requiring filters for copyrighted works such as music, it is also protecting writers by implementing a “link tax” that would grant publishers the copyright over their work if it is shared online or aggregated on platforms like Google. That means platforms would have to pay to host links to news articles.

It’s a controversial move that has garnered major protests and critics say it will limit open access to the internet.

“It limits the ability for internet users to create and share content online,” argues Canadian advocacy group Open Media.

But publishers say it is not just a matter of survival, it’s the right thing to do. John Hinds, president and CEO of News Media Canada, which represents newspaper publishers, argues that online platforms “repurpose and aggregate stories and often don’t pay anything for it. They essentially steal it.” A link tax, he says, would put an end to that.

Hinds argues that most people might think twice before repurposing a copyrighted photograph but don’t hesitate to circulate news articles.

“It’s great to have a paywall. But what happens when they can go behind the paywall and grab the information and dump it on the web? Every other form of intellectual property seems to get some consideration except for news.”

To the disappointment of lobbyists such as Hinds, the copyright review by Industry Canada released in June did not recommend a link tax. Instead, it bounced the issue back to Heritage Canada to do a study “to investigate the remuneration of journalists, the revenues of news publishers, the licences granted to online service providers and copyright infringement” on their platforms.

“Not only do they not recommend a link tax, they just want further discussion,” says Hinds. “It’s really frustrating because we need action soon.”

Still, publishers have hope the idea of a link tax isn’t dead yet, especially since it is being introduced in the EU — but for Canadians, it’s unlikely to come before the federal election.

The tax was first introduced in Spain in 2014, requiring services to pay a fee to the Spanish Newspaper Publishers’ Association. That was met with immediate pushback from the platforms. Google decided to pull out of Spain and removed Spanish language newspapers from the service internationally.

If Canada adopts a link tax, pushback from the tech giant is also be a possibility, warned Richard Gingras, head of Google’s news division, in an interview. In fact, he warns that adopting the tax could be more harmful than helpful to publishers.

“It depends on the very specific circumstances that would cause us to shut down Google News in any country,” says Gingras. “Those suggested approaches (a link tax) don’t hold up. Google search is a useful tool for publishers to find new audiences. They want to be found on Google to build their audience base. The days of print when you put news boxes on street corners to find an audience are over.”

However, Hinds says there is strength in numbers.

“Google is so big and powerful they will crush any single country. Only if you have an international standard, and the European Union is the start of this, can you make a fair deal. On your own you’re not powerful enough. Giving publishers the right to their own content is absolutely necessary to the health of the industry.”

Given the recent recommendations by Industry Canada and another Canadian Heritage committee report, it’s doubtful Ottawa will tackle copyright legislation with any kind of urgency, leaving it to the next sitting government. But artists and publishing groups argue time is of the essence as creators are increasingly having trouble making a living wage.

Graham Henderson, president and CEO of Music Canada, a lobby group that represents major Canadian music publishers, calls this “the value gap,” or the disparity between the value of creative content to consumers and the revenues returned to artists and businesses who create it in the digital age.

That gap could be worth billions of dollars for Canadian artists, he argues.

“The origins of the value gap extend back more than two decades to a time when countries around the world, including Canada, began adapting and interpreting laws created in another era to protect telephone companies in the then-dawning digital marketplace,” he argued to legislators in a submission. “The impact of those laws today is that wealth has been diverted from creators into the pockets of massive digital intermediaries and what little is left over for creators is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands.”

Mulholland’s friend, fellow musician Danny Michel, described in a viral blog post what it was like to eke out an existence by detailing to the dollar his remuneration from music sites.

“Everywhere I go, musicians are quietly talking about one thing: how to survive,” said Michel.

Despite being in the Top 20 charts on CBC Radio 2 and 3 for 10 weeks, and climbing to No. 3, Michel said his hit song “Purgatory Cove” earned him just $44.99 on the popular music streamer Spotify.

“This is simply unsustainable,” he says. “My album sales have held steady for the last decade until dropping 95 per cent due to music-streaming services.”

Mulholland, who has her own record label, says she sees those effects on her artists every day, and it’s corrosive. But she has hope.

“I know what people aren’t making. I get my own statements and see those numbers and it’s disheartening,” she says. “Things can be bleak. But I am optimistic that this can be worked out. That other countries have already acknowledged what is happening out there. And I’m hopeful that Canada will see the urgency.”

Tony Wong is the Star’s technology reporter covering big tech, disinformation and regulation. Follow him on Twitter: @tonydwong

AdChoices
AdChoices

More From Toronto Star

image beaconimage beaconimage beacon