The future of Canadian music (reprinted from Canadian Notes and Queries)

canadian-music

My favourite coping mechanism for an uncertain future is to just not think about it. This strategy proves problematic when I’m on deadline to predict the future of Canadian music in 2,000 words.

Last fall, I was approached by Montreal-based poet Carmine Starnino about writing an article for an upcoming issue of the literary journal Canadian Notes and Queries that he was editing. The 40th anniversary edition of the journal was to feature essays from a variety of writers and thinkers on the future of Canadian culture, and Carmine wanted me to tackle Canadian music. The pitch excited me for two reasons: the first was the broad and daunting topic to tackle, the second was having 2,000 words with which to do so (a rare luxury in my world of journalistic-style writing).

Word length aside, the lack of limits on the subject was both empowering and infuriating, which led to a fairly agonizing writing process. The editing was no walk-in-the-park either and it was one of the few times in my short writing career thus far that I’ve felt truly challenged in the editing process (in a good way). Carmine did a great job getting rid of some of my more self-indulgent tendencies as a writer, but also helped me radically rework the final section of the essay.

My original draft took a pretty dramatic shift in tone once it reached “The Death of Pop,” sharply veering away from the analytical and towards the polemical. It was my attempt to reconcile the tension between writing as “McNutt the Critic” and “McNutt the Fan” – a natural complication of the blog-centric digital age, but very problematic when we’re talking about a more formal piece of work. I’m very pleased with what Carmine and I eventually came up with to close the piece, because it takes some of those more polemical ideas and reworks them into a more convincing analytical tone.

I wonder, though, if it’s too optimistic. Carmine thinks it’s a pretty positive conclusion; in his introduction to the issue, he points to my essay as one of only a couple that view the rise of new technology as presenting opportunity amongst the uncertainty. I think that’s quite fair, and I’m glad that my essay makes that point, but those who follow this blog know that I wrestle with the downsides of the digital age all the time and I’m not sure if my reservations come through as strongly in the piece as I might actually believe.

But no matter; it was a great essay to write and it’s part of a very cool issue. I received my copy a week or so ago, and I strongly urge you to check it out yourself. It’s full of a variety of rather provocative essays, on everything from the future of blogs and newspapers to graphic novels, theatre and visual arts. I feel woefully unqualified and out-of-place amongst my fellow contributors, but honoured to be in their company.

Now that I’ve dispensed with the fanfare, my essay on the future of Canadian music after the fold…

MUSIC

By Ryan McNutt

For music fans, twenty five years can seem like a lifetime. The past quarter century, after all, saw an entire sub-medium — the music video — rise to prominence, influence cultural dialogue, and drop into semi-obscurity. And it was only ten short years ago that an online file-sharing program called Napster debuted and proceeded to revolutionize the music industry.

Since I didn’t see either of those changes coming, I confess that I don’t have much enthusiasm for making bold statements about the next twenty five years. But it does feel like the right time to ask some big questions about the future of Canadian music. Our artists are producing some of the most exciting music in the world, whether it’s the messy chaos of Broken Social Scene, the nostalgic folk-rock of Joel Plaskett or the glorious rush of Arcade Fire. We’re a nation of cold winters and warm guitars, a combination that should continue to serve us well at kitchen parties, smoky bars and concert halls for decades to come.

But putting aside our native genius for folding inspiration into chorus and refrain, it’s clear the internet has fundamentally altered our relationship with the art form — how we learn about it, how we consume it, and how we discuss it. These changes ensure that a generation of “digital natives” are discovering music in ways utterly unlike how I discovered it ten years ago, or how my parents discovered it thirty years ago. Since this generation will be the one to decide music’s fate in a 21st century Canada — with the rest of us along for the ride — we had better understand the emerging features of their brave new world.

THE DEATH OF BROADCAST

Wikipedia’s page on the “Music of Canada” includes a section titled “The History of Canadian Music.” Fittingly, it kicks off in 1970 with the passage of Canadian content regulations, affectionately known as “Cancon.”

It’s a reasonable misconception to believe Canadian music didn’t exist before Cancon, given how the quota system has overwhelmingly shaped the Canadian music industry for the past 40 years. Like any act of cultural protectionism, Cancon has its downsides. Most notably, it has reinforced our inferiority complex and is a big reason why artists who achieve success south of the border—the Celines, the Avrils—earn our greatest praise while popular bands like the Tragically Hip are forced to field questions about why they can’t sell records in the States. But for all its flaws, Cancon has allowed many Canadian artists to have profitable, successful careers when they might not otherwise have been able.

But Cancon was intended for a broadcast world, one where gatekeepers — radio conglomerates, station managers, TV executives — determined what reached the eyes and ears of Canadians and where legislators could tangibly intervene in the middle. Today, we live in a podcast world, a demassified digital age where content is produced for niche audiences and the individual has a limitless spectrum of tools in which to engage with it. MySpace doesn’t care about Cancon. Limewire doesn’t care about Cancon. MP3 blogs don’t care about Cancon. These platforms are nation-neutral, available to any citizen of planet earth with an Internet account. The idea of legislating national culture within this global platform is laughable.

And within Canada, traditional broadcast is continuing its march towards irrelevancy. Music television is dead — just try and find a video on MuchMusic these days. Commercial radio is still around, of course, but the digital generation is finding less and less reason to tune in. In 2006, the Canadian Recording Industry Association commissioned a report on the listening habits of Canadians, from teenagers to seniors. The report is a great read, in part because of sentences like this: “Canadian youth are at risk of being lost to radio as new technologies and channels are being adopted at a rapid pace.”

At risk? They’re already gone. The two main reasons to listen to music radio — variety and discovery — are rendered obsolete by the digital era. The variety available on radio is a joke, even if we pretend that commercial radio actually plays a wide mix of songs and sounds. Radio spoonfeeds 10 songs an hour, at best; Apple’s most popular iPod model holds 2,000 tracks, and every one of them could be your favourite. But it’s the depth of discovery the web allows that truly makes radio pointless. The internet is faster, more efficient and more effective at finding new music. You have a greater capacity to discuss new sounds with friends, track down the latest hot bands, or find podcasters and bloggers with appreciable tastes. You simply can’t duplicate that level of engagement with radio.

The broadcast model is dying, and if the industry thinks that this younger generation is going to magically discover music radio, they’ve got another thing coming. Music delivery is moving online, and by 2033 things are bound to get even more personalized, more customizable and more agnostic towards national boundaries and government legislation.

THE DEATH OF THE MIDDLE MAN

I bought my first CD when I was twelve; embarrassingly, it was by Hootie and the Blowfish (this is the first time that I have ever confessed this — consider it a CNQ exclusive). From that point on, music stores became my favourite haunts. Even when I was a cash-strapped university student, I probably bought an average of two or three CDs a month, keeping them all in a large binder in my dorm room and playing them in an oversized stereo that I dragged to campus.

By the time I finished my undergrad, I felt like an outlier, a bizarre oddity. Freshmen looked at my silvery discs with perplexity: “You know you can just download those for free, right?”

Illegal downloading is no longer the elephant in the room. Among Canadians ages 12 to 24, it’s their primary source of new music. This is the same demographic responsible for 78 per cent of total file sharing in Canada. No wonder they were the industry’s public enemy number one when record sales dropped 12 per cent in 2006, and 9 per cent in 2007.

Overblown? Perhaps. I’ve read studies — good ones — that argue the impact of file sharing on music sales is minimal at best, and that many downloaders actually purchase more music because of it. But even if the relationship between increased downloading and declining music sales is not strictly causative, its threat to the traditional industry model is real.

So, what’s actually happening? Let me answer that question with a question: does music mean less when it’s free?

If you’re a connoisseur, that very question is preposterous. Music has an essential value to your daily life that you can’t put a price on, but that doesn’t keep you from buying albums from your favourite bands. You go to concerts, you have an iPod full of singles, b-sides and rarities, and you probably have a long list of music blogs you consider required reading.

If you’re a casual listener, your experience is radically different. You might not listen to radio often, but if you hear a song you like in the car you might download it when you return home. You might get some music news from the entertainment websites you visit while bored at work, but you probably think Pitchfork is a gardening tool, not the internet’s most prominent indie music website.

In the past, the taste-making structure of the music industry — pop radio, record buying, music video — would provide both connoisseurs and casuals with a common ground on which to engage with one another and make the industry a good chunk of profit in the process. Today, there is no shared space, no middle ground. The great paradox of the internet age is that for all the new information we now have access to, we’ve never had more power to ignore it. In the past, we had radio, television and government to determine what content breached our walls; today, we get to practice our own personal cultural protectionism.

This ensures a growing gap between those who consider music background noise and those who consider music the essential soundtrack to their lives. The casual listener no longer has to invest any money or effort into experiencing music. They don’t have to buy records or go to concerts to get that small taste they’re looking for. In contrast, the connoisseur is now able to completely bypass mass platforms and use the internet to follow their favourite bands and artists alongside their own online communities—completely separate from the big label system.

This gap helps explain why independent labels have been flourishing this decade while record sales in general have declined. It’s why many mid- to upper-card heavyweight bands have seen their sales plunge album-over-album, while bands such as Modest Mouse, The Shins and Spoon are cracking the sales charts. In what other era could a band like Arcade Fire end up on the cover of Time Magazine? When the casuals don’t have a reason to care — or spend — anymore, it’s the music geeks who are setting the cultural agenda.

THE DEATH OF POP

When trends are all mashed together, one gets the sense that we are witnessing the slow, painful end of pop music; not as a genre but, rather, the term used its broadest sense. “Popular” music is a throwback to an era of mass media that is increasingly foreign to the kids and adults setting the Canadian cultural agenda today. Any lingering relics of shared experience seem likely to fade away in the decades to come. Twenty-five years from now, there may be no one left who can decide what we listen to, and nothing that can dictate how we listen to it.

These trends are not uniquely Canadian, but their consequences are. The trade-off of this new reality is that the traditional mechanisms by which we’ve maintained the “Canadianness” of our musical experience go out the window. When the internet is the platform of choice and we each control our own earspace, Cancon becomes pointless, the incentive for government to support Canadian artists decreases and the traditional record industry won’t have the resources to spend on turning local bands into national or international superstars.

And yet Canada’s best bands are thriving in these prohibitive conditions — and will likely continue to do so — because their fans have stepped in where the old guard has stepped out. What’s taken hold is a new sort of musical flag-waving, one where rewarding a band simply because it’s Canadian seems wildly misguided (with so much interesting media at your fingertips, what possible incentive can there be to voluntarily listen to lousy music?). This sense of “Canadianness” will be connoisseur-driven, attended by a notion of excellence less patriotically sentimental and more driven by actual quality.

In other words, even as the platforms of 21st century music become increasingly nation-neutral, I’m not so sure listeners will follow. In fact, Canadian music fans may turn out to be more patriotic than ever before. Listeners will realize that they can no longer afford to be content to simply describe Canadian music in abstract terms, to sit back and hope that good music from their own backyard will find its way to an audience. Good music may find a way, but it will take a conscious choice on the part of thousands of individuals to get it there.

Without a music industry as we know it, without a mainstream, connoisseurs will become genuine activists. They will be constantly reminded of their responsibility to not just buy music and go to shows, but to spread the word about great bands to other Canadians, and the rest of the world. In 2033, connoisseurs will be the most important players in an exciting, challenging new era. They—and not Cancon—will put out the rallying call.

(reprinted with permission from Canadian Notes and Queries, number 75, winter 2008. For more information, visit http://www.notesandqueries.ca)

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7 responses to “The future of Canadian music (reprinted from Canadian Notes and Queries)

  1. Pingback: The State of Canadian Music: McNutt on Cancon & Connoisseurs « CYNICISM FALLS ASLEEP·

  2. Hi Ryan,

    Came across this via a Google Alert for Joel Plaskett which definitely gives credence to your thesis.

    The current business climate in the music industry has pretty much been created by the “industry” itself and it only has itself (and its inherent greed) to blame. I agree that great music will find a way to rise to the top regardless of how it’s disseminated. Plaskett is a perfect case in point.

  3. Great article!

    Your point about the slow death of pop music is really interesting. It is now rare to see an album that is both a best seller and critically acclaimed. Coldplay’s new disc may be the possible exception to this. However if you look at Juno nominations, which are based on sales, I think the divergence becomes pretty clear.

    Also, I think that the efforts of CBC in advancing into the internet age should be noted. CBC Radio 3 and the related podcasts are mediums where Cancon can still be promoted in the internet age.

  4. That’s a good point, Adam. I really don’t address the distinct role that a public broadcaster plays in this future, which is probably an oversight on my part (although I’m not quite sure where I would have fit it in). If I were to offer a quick thought, I would suggest that the CBC already targets its content to the connoisseur class (not the casual), and as such is well positioned to continue to play a role in shaping our musical dialogue…that is, if its funding is maintained and they don’t succumb to pressure to reach as broad and casual an audience as possible.

  5. Pingback: …in which McNutt lets Kelly Clarkson rock his world « McNutt Against the Music·

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