Promoting Canadian music is crucial
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In the early 1990s, rock musician Bryan Adams became a lightning rod for what many people said was wrong with Canadian content rules.
His international hit song, (Everything I Do) I Do It For You, didn’t adequately meet the definition of a Canadian song, at least according to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). It had been recorded in Britain and co-written by non-Canadian Mutt Lange.
“The Canadian government should just take a step out of the music business entirely,” Adams told the CBC at a press conference in 1992.
“Music is international — it belongs to everybody,” he said. “There may be some argument that CanCon helps young bands get started, but if anything, I think it breeds mediocrity.”
Adams had a point, says Brian Fauteux, a University of Alberta professor of popular music and media studies. The CRTC’s MAPL system for defining what makes a song Canadian was far from perfect. But why throw out the baby with the bathwater, he argues, when by Adams’ own admission, CanCon helped emerging artists who needed it most?
As updates to Canada’s Broadcasting Act are about to become law, debates over how to protect Canadian cultural content have become heated again in the streaming era.
Bill C-11, the Online Streaming Act, is meant to ensure that global streaming giants adhere to Canadian content regulations on the internet in the same way traditional broadcasters do, paying their fair share to promote Canadian creators.
Since the 1970s, broadcasters have been required to include a certain percentage of Canadian content in their programming, a system that helped artists stay financially afloat through royalties.
But the reaction to the new act has been fierce. Critics include venerated authors Margaret Atwood and David Adams Richards, who assert CanCon protection amounts to censorship and is no longer necessary in the 21st century. Andrew Coyne, in the Globe and Mail, argued the government should kill the bill in its tracks.
Fauteux says he finds such a negative reaction perplexing.
“In recent weeks, there seems to be a consensus that any sort of Canadian content regulation is useless or unwanted,” he says. “But painting all CanCon regulations as inherently bad for musicians or creators is, I think, misguided.”
Fauteux’s research shows that today’s big music streamers, such as Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, don’t benefit emerging or less-known artists, especially Canadian artists, much at all. Their algorithms tend to promote those already enjoying global commercial success while giving scant support to acts that haven’t hit the stratosphere.
Canadian hardcore punk band NoMeansNo is a case in point. Its 1989 album Wrong won the prestigious 2021 Slaight Family Polaris Heritage Prize but isn’t available for streaming, says Fauteux, a Polaris Music Prize juror.
According to a 2018 presentation by Fauteux and his research partners before the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, 77 per cent of all music income in North America at the time was going to the top one per cent of artists. The top-10-selling tracks commanded 82 per cent more market share than the decade before and were played twice as much on Top 40 radio.
“It means an artist like Drake does amazingly well, others not so much,” says Fauteux, adding that Canadian singer-songwriter Danny Michel’s income from album sales had dropped an astounding 95 per cent in the previous decade owing to the transition to streaming services.
Fauteux says he would like to see streaming companies invest in Canadian content proportionate to broadcasters in the past. But he is also calling for more public money for music and other cultural productions.
Besides funding, Canada should also demand a critical examination of streaming algorithms, says Fauteux, and not assume they naturally and objectively allow the best — or even what people want to hear — to rise to the top.
“I think sometimes we believe in these utopian ideals of a free internet. But algorithms aren’t neutral, they’re not objective, and a lot of the details are hidden in a black box,” he says.
“Is it really a bad thing to potentially alter them to provide a wider variety of music that isn’t just based on already existing market success?”
When CanCon was in its infancy more than 50 years ago, its supporters said its protection was necessary insulation from the cultural juggernaut on our southern border. But in the streaming era, Fauteux says, the new threat is the increasing consolidation of the music industry and the algorithms it designs to drive profit.
“We need to keep thinking about whether there are better ways to continue investing in and supporting Canadian culture through these new gatekeepers.”
Geoff McMaster is a reporter with the University of Alberta’s Folio online magazine.
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