Spin City: Round Table on Canadian Music

Is radio dead? Can the Internet save our indie bands? Should record labels be suing their listeners? Answers – or opinions, anyway – in our provocative music round table, featuring three industry titans: Bruce Allen, Sam Feldman, Terry McBride.

Is radio dead? Can the Internet save our indie bands? Should record labels be suing their listeners? Answers – or opinions, anyway – in our provocative music round table, featuring three industry titans: Bruce Allen, Sam Feldman, Terry McBride.

British Columbia – and Vancouver in particular – has long maintained a rich presence in the North American popular music scene. Venues past and present, ranging from the Commodore Ballroom to the Railway Club, have nurtured a bevy of world-class acts: Heart, Joni Mitchell, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Skinny Puppy, Sarah McLachlan, Bryan Adams and Michael Bublé, to name a few. More than 500 local and corporate radio stations compete for the province’s four-million-plus listeners, not counting the worldwide audience available through Internet feeds. And as one of the most arts-oriented provinces in Canada, B.C. is host to an ongoing parade of musical treats, including folk and jazz festivals, top touring acts and a strong community of indie bands.

The market, however, is rife with contradiction. According to Statistics Canada, British Columbians maintain the lowest attention span for radio in the country, listening to just over 16 hours per week, and yet advertising revenues are continuing a small but steady rise. A worldwide decline in album sales, as well as competition from other forms of entertainment, has devastated the music industry, yet the most recent available figures show growing profit margins in Canadian recording and publishing, largely thanks to the low overhead of online delivery channels. But even these delivery channels are a paradox, increasing the distribution opportunities for small artists while redefining listeners’ notions of “ownership” through peer-to-peer networks – a technology that has resulted in a flood of lawsuits and encouraged an adversarial relationship between the music industry and its customers. To help us navigate this artistic morass, we’ve brought in three of Canada’s top music managers, each based in Vancouver, to discuss the state of radio, the evolution of artists and the impact of Internet technology, among other issues facing their industry: Sam Feldman has been in the artist game since launching a small Vancouver booking agency in 1971, which has since grown into SL Feldman & Associates Ltd. (SLFA), a full-service entertainment agency booking more than 200 artists for music, film, television and live concerts. Feldman’s current roster includes such luminaries as Norah Jones, Diana Krall and Joni Mitchell. Bruce Allen has been booking acts in B.C. since 1966 and has long maintained a reputation for building artists from the ground up, launching the careers of Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Loverboy, Bryan Adams and Michael Bublé. Allen and Feldman have worked together building the careers of many of their artists, and both SLFA and Bruce Allen Talent share the parent company A&F Music Ltd. (Canada’s largest full-service talent agency and artist management company). Terry McBride is known as something of a maverick in the artist management arena, championing consumer rights and maintaining a position on the forefront of emerging technology since founding Nettwerk Music Group in 1984. The Richmond native maintains a roster of more than 50 acts, including the Barenaked Ladies, Avril Lavigne, Dido and Sarah McLachlan. Feldman, Allen and McBride represent a major portion of this country’s most successful acts, bringing to bear more than 100 years of experience between them in the music management business. Chris Cannon (who also publishes under the name Chris Smith) has written about music for dozens of outlets, including Rolling Stone, Billboard and MTV, and he currently writes a weekly music column for the Vancouver Sun. He is the author of 100 Albums That Changed Popular Music (Greenwood Press, 2007), as well as two books on rock culture in the 1960s and 1970s. In addition to teaching cultural criticism at UBC, Cannon appears every Friday on CFMI Rock 101’s Bro Jake Show as “Rusty Shackleford, the Rant King of Vancouver.” [pagebreak]

US AND THEM (The Technological Divide) Cannon: Why have CD sales been cut in half in the last 10 years? Why is the music industry claiming that it’s not making any money? Feldman: Sales are off in the last seven years by, what, $4 billion? People are stealing music. There are way too many artists dividing up the pie and the consumer has way more options – including games – than they ever used to have. Allen: I also believe we got faked out by a bubble when everybody replaced their record collections with CDs. That was a fake, and we thought that was going to go on forever. We got deluded by the rise of the CD. McBride: The advent of the CD did two things: one, we went from a maximum of about 40 minutes on vinyl to something that was more than 70 minutes. And all of a sudden there was this push from within the labels that you had to get the value, because they wanted to charge more. So you went from $11 vinyls to, within five years, $20 CDs – with the extra five or six songs being utter filler. So the quality of what was being put out came way down. Also, with the advent of the CD, we changed behaviour. Up to that point, music was pushed at you. Now, for the first time, you were able to pull music. You could have a three-year-old kid in the car going, “Play that song again and again.” That was really hard to do with vinyl and a pain in the ass to do with cassette but super easy to do with CD. So the audience moved into a pull mentality. Music had always been pushed at us. Radio was the only way to hear it unless you went to a friend’s house. Now these kids can pull from anywhere, at any time. Allen: When we put out records in the ’70s, there were people putting out bodies of work that were really good. You look back at those albums – the Eagles album Hotel California or Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd, all the stuff that came out – those were good albums, top to bottom. We worked hard, but Terry’s right, we had a shorter window: 18 minutes a side, 36 minutes of music, 40 minutes of music, you can get that. The guys could really bear down on that – and they did, because they wanted to get the airplay on the FM radio and on pop radio. And with that just going away, ooh boy, it just went right to the hits all of a sudden. That’s hard. Cannon: This change has created an adversarial relationship between the industry and the audience. The small artists are saying, “Let’s do free downloads”; the larger artists are saying, “Our money’s being taken away”; the labels are saying, “These kids stealing music have cut our industry in half”; and the audience is saying, “I can’t transfer this song to this device – I don’t have any freedom.” How would you solve this adversarial relationship between the industry and the listener?

Allen: Suing them isn’t working, right, Terry? McBride: No. I can’t believe that any business based on suing your customers is ultimately going to win. Feldman: I think this just goes straight to a business model that works: value and service. If the customer feels they’re getting some value and some service, and they feel like the company cares about them, they’ll fix it, right? If they don’t, they won’t. It’s pretty basic. Cannon: What about the technology that locks down music and doesn’t allow people to move it from device to device? It seems like this puts a lot of power in the hands of the two American companies that control this technology – Apple and Microsoft. Do you think this serves Canadian artists? McBride: I think DRM locks [Digital Rights Management] are just wrong. If someone buys a piece of music, they expect to be able to listen to it on anything that they have. You used to buy a CD and it would work in every CD player, a cassette in every cassette player, vinyl on vinyl players. Why would you buy a digital file that doesn’t work in every one of your players? It makes no sense to me, locking these files down. All they’re doing is limiting the market. Allen: The artistic community is against [these locks]. McBride: Most of them are, but some of them aren’t. I’ve been talking for years about the glass ceiling upon digital sales being caused by digital locks. Amazon would not get into the marketplace of selling digital music until those locks were taken off. When the labels finally did, for Amazon’s sake, the market grew by 10 to 12 per cent in six months because there’s an audience that shops at Amazon that does not shop at iTunes. Allen: Absolutely. McBride: And if it instantly downloads and you can play it upon your iPod, bingo! Amazon wouldn’t sell those digital files until those locks were taken off because they didn’t want some soccer mom in Minneapolis screaming about why, for 79 cents, it does not work on Tommy’s player, when she was buying it for Tommy. So the minute the locks were taken off, business grows. [pagebreak] MONEY (Who Owns What)

Cannon: There is a school of thought that says there are two levels of ownership: you own a work of art that you are compensated for when you distribute it to the masses, but after that the community that forms around that work of art, and the other works of art it inspires, is all kind of a gift – that it’s not something that needs to be monetized over and over again. Is there a point where the ownership ends and it’s community property? Feldman: I have heard Terry speak about the creator not owning what he creates, and I disagree vehemently. I think that if you create something, you own it. You do your best to be compensated, and it should be up to you whether you let it go out to the masses free or not. McBride: It has more to do with just the way that the world works, in a social nature versus a business nature. I would love my artists to get paid for every single copy that’s actually consumed. But I think the reality is, a song is just an emotion, and if I love that song, it’s because I’m attaching part of me to what that emotion is. So I’m of the point of view that neither the record companies nor the publishers nor the artist actually own the song. I think the fans own the song. You could sell a million of that song and have a million different emotional connections to it. Now, how do you monetize that? I think the most profitable way that we do monetize that emotional connection is through concerts. Because those are something that are scarce. And artists can only do so many of them, so scarcity comes into play. And our greatest value in this age of instant photocopying is the fact that we have scarcity. It’s how we decide to monetize that. Feldman: I agree with that part, other than to say that the fans own it. Allen: Are you saying that the artists should just give up their copyrights then because the fans love it? McBride: No, no, I’m saying that you have to understand that the fan owns that song emotionally.

Allen: Oh, that’s fine, yeah, emotionally. It’s like a painting. I’ll look at a painting and see one thing, you’ll look at it and see another – we both enjoy it. Cannon: So you own the experience of listening to the song, as opposed to owning the song. Feldman: That’s just semantics though. You own the experience of the emotion, that’s fine. If I have an emotional experience, sure I own that experience, but if I see a beautiful painting and I’m getting emotional and I want to hang it on my wall, I gotta pay for it. And I should. McBride: But that painting is scarce because it’s a physical thing. Feldman: But what if it isn’t scarce? What if I’m just looking at a print? I don’t think that you can turn over a basic common law based on human behaviour. Like, what percentage of people on the street, if money started pouring out of a bank vault onto the corner – a lot of them would turn the money back in – but human behaviour says a few of them might go, “You know what, fuck the bank, they screwed me, I’m sticking it in my pocket, goodbye.” That doesn’t mean you should be able to do it. McBride: I’m actually not even questioning that. Where I’m going with this is to understand the social behaviour of the millennium generation. Feldman: That’s a different topic. McBride: No, it actually isn’t. Because if you understand how they view music and how they consume music, they view it very differently than the older generation. So saying they emotionally own these songs, OK, how can I monetize their emotions? Because that is the new shift. That’s where everything’s gone to, or will go to, as this generation gets older and older. Feldman: So they can own it emotionally, but you still think the artist should hold the copyright. McBride: Absolutely. But the actual monetization is not the selling of individual pieces now; it’s making them pay for that emotional connection. And how do we do that? Through brand development, cause alignments – there’s all these other ways of monetizing now. In our current situation, we get most of our emotional value back from live concerts. The value of our copyrights is going down based on the economic value, but we haven’t lost this emotional connection. So where are all these other little emotional connections that we never monetized because we never had to? Feldman: But I think in a literal, technical way, the creator owns what he creates. There’s a whole bunch of visceral, emotional connections that can happen from an infinite number of ways that an art form gets out there, and I agree that people own that personal experience, but, in terms of the technical aspect of owning that income stream, whatever the income stream may be, it should ultimately go back to the creator. [pagebreak]

McBride: Which I totally agree with. All I’m trying to do is shift my industry away from only one way of looking at it and realize that there’s a whole other area that we need to start focusing on. We need to learn how to monetize that because the value is going down. Cannon: It sounds like what you’re saying, Terry, is that we have to understand human nature better, particularly the millennium generation, how they view ownership, and try to find a way to monetize that and put that money back in the artists’ pockets. McBride: Absolutely. I really believe that the people who create these copyrights – the performers, the songwriters, the producers, everyone in that creative mix – they should get paid. The reality is that, with this new generation, they think differently, and we need to understand them and figure out a way to make money from them to get the value back to our creators. Cannon: So you’re saying the value has shifted from the actual copyright to the emotional experience, and that we need to find ways to monetize that to make up the difference. McBride: Absolutely. Allen: There was always an emotional attachment, wasn’t there, Sam, when people were paid for everything? Feldman: I think that in the old days you had your record, you had your tour. That was it. And what’s happened now is there’s all kinds of other ways – synchronization rights, music in film, TV, games – there’s a million other income streams. And I think that it’s the responsibility of a good manager to tap into every one of those income streams for his client, as long as they don’t sell him down the road and make him look bad. But it’s definitely changed. The CD is now just an expensive poster for the tour. Cannon: But didn’t the tour used to be more to promote the album, as opposed to the album promoting the tour? Allen: Yes. Feldman: Yes, it was to make money, but also to promote the album. “The tour in support of the record” is the way you would say it. THE GREAT GIG IN THE SKY (The Death of Radio) Cannon: Where are we in the state of Canadian radio and Canadian content? Feldman: I think the state of radio is kind of pathetic. They just all gravitate to a very narrow playlist that they think is going to get the most listeners, and I guess in some ways it does. But I think they’re eating their young. They pretend to be in the development game, but they’re not. Rarely do they even mention the name of an artist that they play, except for the top superstars. Allen: I’m a talk-radio listener. I’m not really interested in music radio. I’m like Sam – I get bored with it. I don’t want to hit the button all day long; I’d rather get wired into a topic, then listen to that. But if I’m in my home, in my car, I’m a satellite radio guy. I’m not an iPod guy because I don’t want to listen to my own music, but I love satellite radio for turning me on to stuff I might never hear. Feldman: When satellite radio came in, I thought it was over for radio. I just thought, “Man, I can get all that R&B, whatever I want to listen to,” but I think that there is a bigger need for a community connection for people than anyone can anticipate. I think there are a lot of disconnected people and that they somehow, subconsciously, get more of a sense of community from local radio. But you’ve got to ask yourself a question, and it goes back to the Internet. Why does my son, who’s a musician, not listen to the radio? He listens to the Internet because he’s going to get a broad . . . McBride: Well, he’s also pulling. He doesn’t like to be pushed at. He doesn’t like to be told what music he should listen to. Allen: It’s just music on demand for him. He demands it. McBride: He’s pulling what he wants. And you know what? His peer group is his radio station. It’s Bob texting Joe about, “Hey, did you hear this new song, so-and-so,” and the guy’s like click click click, “Oh yeah, that sounds pretty damn good.” Within 30 seconds! So I think radio, for the millennium generation, is over. Allen: Same here. Feldman: Or it’s gonna change. McBride: It’s still relevant for basically 30 and up, but it’s really not that relevant for 25 and below. It’s over. [pagebreak] ANY COLOUR YOU LIKE (The Future) Cannon: How are Internet downloads, copyright lawsuits and locking mechanisms on music affecting the artists? Are these things limiting our artists or are they expanding their frontiers? McBride: I have a straightforward philosophy: you can’t litigate behaviour, especially of millions of kids. Legislation and litigation work in a business-to-business relationship. The issue is not the end user; the issue is the business-to-business property, and that’s what needs to get sorted out. Suing fans, legislating any teenager, we all know it won’t work. Feldman: It starts with radio. It used to be, to make a proper business model for a record company, you had to have a hit. But as what people were hearing shrunk, it caused a lot of problems for developing artists, so it was very difficult to get your music heard from the promoter and marketed. With the Internet now, you do have an opportunity to get yourself heard, but it’s difficult because you may not have the marketing muscle behind you. So the double-edged sword is that it’s going to be a lot harder for an artist to break through and be a huge superstar. We’re not going to see as many superstars, but you will see more talent getting to first base because people like my kid, who is now 17, his awareness of music is so broad, compared to what a 17-year-old kid would have had 20 years ago, and that is amazing. Allen: I find that the Internet gives young bands a portal to be heard. Will they have a career? I don’t see it. I haven’t seen it yet. But what’s weird to me now is, the Internet has also given a lot of the old bands a portal for the young people to rediscover them, so you get these guys that are having new lives – Journey, Def Leppard, Cheap Trick, Iron Maiden – and it’s because of the Internet and file sharing. McBride: It’s a combination of that plus video games that are locked in to social behaviour on the Internet – whether it’s Guitar Hero or Rock Band or any of these games that are social in their nature. Those older bands wrote great riffs for people, great melodies, and 10 years ago you would have had to go to oldies radio to hear it. Well, no young kid is going to be caught dead going to oldies radio, but they will play video games, and within those video games they’ve been exposed to a whole bunch of music. They can go on the Net and search out all these old bands. Their ticket prices are going back up again because they’re worth tickets again. It’s awesome to see. Allen: Sam’s son is a really good guitar player, I know that, and I betcha he knows every Led Zeppelin song. Feldman: I was just going to say, the first time I went to see him at the battle of the bands – and he was about 13 at this point – the set was mostly Led Zeppelin material, cover stuff. Where did he find that? On the Internet. But I also gotta make a point that, and this might sound really bad, but I think there was better talent back then. I think a lot of the talent now doesn’t get the chance to develop properly and really get to fruition. They’ve got this trendy name, they get this little buzz thing going on the Internet, but they haven’t had that road experience and that recording experience to really deliver the goods. I know when we were coming up, when you thought of breaking an artist, you thought to yourself, “Well, this will be three albums,” and you never sort of thought, “Well, I’m going to put out this first album and it’s going to go to the top.” You go: the first album, it’s going to introduce this band; second album, they’ll be opening up for someone – they could maybe do 2,000 seats – but, you know, you have them opening for awhile. And then when they’re ready, they headline. Allen: That happened with me with every band: Bryan Adams, third album; Loverboy, third album. Every time. They had a three-album strategy that you signed for. Feldman: Sarah [McLachlan], not so different.

McBride: Yeah, Sarah, third album. Allen: Now it’s “one and done.” Cannon: So the evolution of musicians – because it’s so much easier now, through the emerging technology – has created a weaker musical species? Feldman: I think so. McBride: I don’t know whether I fully agree with that. I think what it has created, though, is a laziness. The way that you used to be heard, to develop an audience, was to get in a van and go tour. Now they can get on the Internet and go tour. They don’t need to get out there and actually play. Allen: But while they were physically touring, they were also learning their craft. McBride: I think there are some amazing artists out there, but they don’t have the attitude that you used to have to have. The long-lasting stars were the ones who took three or four albums to actually break, and they toured and developed their craft and their songwriting. They saw the world and were able to write songs that were relevant to more than just Cincinnati. They were relevant to the rest of the world. Feldman: That’s the biggest failing syndrome for young artists – they’re competing with the other artists in their own cities, as opposed to other artists from around the world. Their real competition is worldwide. It’s not local.