Graham Henderson Speaks on the Broken Promise of Music’s Golden Age

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While Sean Parker was busy reinterpreting legalities to justify unethical conduct in his pursuit of channelling $2.4 billion into his own personal pockets (or offshore bank accounts), something media mentions with cringeworthy casualness, the music industry’s fortunes dropped 70% from 1999 to 2013. From physical copies at legitimate retail outlets, to internet piracy and Napster, to digital shops, to streaming services, the twists and turns of music platforms were part of a course that has led to the stark modern reality that the average Canadian recording artist earns $7,200 per year.

On November 1, 2016, President of Music Canada Graham Henderson spoke to a sold-out crowd at the Economic Club of Canada presenting his thoughts on the state of the music industry and how its fortunes might be rekindled.

In a toxic environment in which greed is overlooked in the praises of cleverness used in poaching, he notes that musicians are not the only ones treated with contempt; authors are earning 27% less than in 1998. He points out that behind the disdain is the “offensive concept” that artists do not need to be compensated much for their works because they have an intrinsic need to create which is not sparked by remuneration. Henderson argues that the age-old mechanism that work leads to wealth is largely seized up in today’s world of precarious work characterized by “immigrant Uber drivers and millennial interns, part-time lecturers and the cleaners and couriers of the ‘gig economy'” becoming mainstream. He cites as a grotesque example Amanda Palmer’s remark that musicians would be happy to perform with her for “beer and hugs”.

Curious also is the apathy or feelings of impotence preventing players in the industry from taking hold of the rudder and instead abandoning it to the mindless will of market forces. Rather than being driven by human intelligence, reason, and moral rectitude, “the market determines how we live our lives and governments need to get out of the way”.

Interestingly, this “political and economic mess” was heralded by some as the beginning of a golden age, an idea shared by “artists, the media, pundits, professors and most importantly, policy makers around the globe”. It was assumed that “in return for the collapse of artists’ traditional marketplaces” they “would make more money from the sale of concert tickets, merchandise and other means” because the digital world would enable them to tap into a much larger audience. The reality now is “a world in which the creative middle class, within the span of a single generation, has virtually ceased to exist,” as recording artists have transitioned “to the world of the self-employed ‘entrepreneur’ … working longer hours … engaged in activities for which they have little aptitude, such as data entry clerks – all for scandalously less money.”

Graham Henderson blames much of the share of problems on the fact that the regulations which govern the modern digital music world were founded on two nascent treaties adopted by the World Intellectual Property Organization in 1996: The WIPO Copyright Treaty and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty. He believes these, borne of speculation, were made at a time when we knew little of the emerging digital world and now stand starkly obsolescent. The new rules were made with the intention of supercharging the digital marketplace in which both the creators and public would benefit. Creators, who in return would gain a wider audience, were asked to sacrifice receiving copyright payments for use of their works in order to subsidize the development of the new technology infrastructure. The safe harbours from liability insisted on by technology companies were codified in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Since the hasty regulations were slapped together, no golden age emerged. On the contrary, “digital technologies and the Internet were associated with sharply reduced demand, prices and sales, and consequently, to lower investment and employment.” Music Canada has identified what it terms a “value gap”, or “the gross mismatch between the volume of music being enjoyed by consumers and the revenues being returned to the music community”.

Digital’s promise to bring the buck back that was lost in internet piracy and Napster not only failed to deliver but as supported by statistics worsened conditions. Streaming is now parroting those same promises in its own interests, and it will not come as a surprise that Sean Parker has managed to weasel himself onto the board of Spotify. A lawyer, Graham Henderson expresses a number of suggestions regarding legislation, policies, and programs he thinks will help turn the fortunes of artists around such as ending “all the cross-subsidies paid by creators. Now.”

You can read the full text of the speech here or watch a video of it below.