Progressive politics, ideas & culture

September-October 2003

Unchain your melodies! Why we should stop worrying about ‘stolen’ music

Hal NiedzvieckiWebsite

Photo of a guitar case with change and a sign in itIt was a snowy April day in Ottawa, and a collection of us culture-types were sticking our heads out of the permafrost to discuss one of the most important issues facing the arts in Canada. Twenty creators—musicians, writers, visual artists, filmmakers—joined Sheila Copps, the mighty minister of Can-Con, and various heritage department officials to conduct a potentially policy-shaping discussion regarding an issue every bit as virulent as sars. Was it the American invasion by pop culture, or over-concentration of ownership in the bookstore industry? The utter lameness of Canadian TV, or the rebellion-lite posturings of Avril Lavigne? No, it was copyright.

Alas, we were already infected with unhappiness. We were a miserable, whiny group. The musicians got it started, with Laura Doyle, a singer-songwriter, bitterly complaining that even though songs from her new recording were featured on the thankfully defunct teen drama Dawson’s Creek, the majority of her prospective buyers downloaded her tunes for free—without buying the disc. This set off a torrent of commiseration. Apparently, songs are being traded, paintings are being scanned and slapped on covers and books are being photocopied, while artists go broke.

It’s a desperate situation, one that everyone from Rob Baker (The Tragically Hip guitarist) to André Cornellier (Montreal-based photographer) to Pat Durr (spokesperson for a national visual artists’ group) were pleased to bemoan at length. Every once in a while, Minister Copps would weigh in and commiserate. At one point, she compared culture to a loaf of bread—we don’t expect to get our bread for free now, do we?

Since I only agreed to attend for the complimentary sandwiches and the weekend stay in a luxury hotel (and didn’t bargain on cpac), I sat back and waited for someone else to elevate this discussion. But my peers were unanimous: the nasty consumer was getting one over on the increasingly desperate Canadian artist; the solution was simply a matter of tough-love copyright laws and more technologies to prevent unlicensed copying.

Quickly smoothing my uncombed hair through my fingers in an attempt to go telegenic, I found myself breaking into yet another Copps soliloquy with one of my own. It went something like: Yes, artists need to be compensated for their work. But, at the same time, the free and unfettered exchange made possible by the internet is the best way for Canadian creators to get their work out to Canada and the world. Because we live in a highly commercialized society where all the cultural distribution nodes are tightly controlled to maximize profit, the vast majority of Canadian cultural creations have extreme difficulty finding an audience. A song that does not fall into an accepted pop category and appear on an album sanctioned by a multinational label? You won’t hear it on any commercial radio station. A book by a first author published by a small press? Good luck finding it in the bookstore. A Canadian film not deemed marketable enough by the handful of distributors who control access to our movie screens? You will never have the chance to see it. So, I argued, internet conduits offering unmediated connections between cultural producers and a potential audience are actually a giant step forward, a way to take culture out of the capitalist system and return it to the community where it belongs. Finally, I said, though artists need to be compensated when their works are traded online, if I had to choose between having the opportunity to get my books out to a large, non-paying public or permanently shutting that conduit down, I would choose door number one.


My thoughts went over like stockwell in a wetsuit. Minister Copps peered at me with annoyance. The high-priced moderator—an aggressively bilingual former Miss Canada—was momentarily stunned. She quickly regained her senses and led a lengthy round of Hal-bashing that culminated with the minister patiently explaining to me that culture is like Aspirin—you don’t expect to walk into a drugstore and walk out with free Aspirin, now do you?

Only fellow writer Susan Crean stood up for me, noting that what we need in our copyright policy is balance, balance between the needs of the users and the needs of the creators. This idea, that the culture consumer also has rights and needs, that culture is not just a commodity artists make in order to gain fame and riches, was clearly a new one to most of the meeting’s attendees.

“But,” noted Baker of The Hip, “they’re stealing our music!”

Baker has little to gain from internet distribution, of course. His band’s albums are in every record store, played on every station. Laura Doyle, on the other hand, seems to be missing the point. Outside of her homebase Vancouver, where, exactly, are the Dawson faithful supposed to buy her self-released indie CD? None of the record stores I called in Toronto (including indie great Soundscapes and hmv’s giant flagship on Yonge) carried it.

This is not a commentary on the CD’s worth or Doyle’s talent; it is a reflection of the way the production side of any cultural industry colludes with the retail side. Supposedly, it is only through record stores and sanctioned online venues that the system can recoup the royalties we rightfully owe the artists. But this also means it is easy for publishers, production companies and retailers to control what we are exposed to. For every album that does gangbuster business in the Canadian record store, there are 100 just-as-good albums that are totally excluded from radio, video and store racks.

Online file-sharing threatens the large for-profit cultural industries with irrelevance—which is why the Hollywood studios and big five record companies react so virulently against it. But for an artist like Laura Doyle, it is the only way that she can reasonably expect fans to find her music.

It is not hard to imagine moving from a copyright-violating free exchange of music on the net to the complete redundancy of the entire corporate-controlled system. What is really interesting is not how many people ignore copyright to get access to free music, but what systems like Kazaa and Morpheus represent: total unfettered equal access for anyone with access to a computer. The flouting of copyright is the beginning of the end for a business model that has always depended on its ability to control what we hear, see—and find on our shelves.

And yet, I still want to make a living as a cultural creator. Can we have a system that cuts out the middleman while still finding a way to remunerate artists? I believe we can. Unfortunately, the copyright forum was never really about instituting meaningful solutions. Twenty artists were flown in from around the country for consultation, but when we got there, we discovered that the forum was scheduled to span a whole two hours. One singer-songwriter barely said a single word. Jane Siberry had a few interesting things to say about running her own record company, but she also digressed in order to make a point about the relationship between the arts and the heavens. Others, like Mad Child (a rapper from Vancouver’s Swollen Members) who, as a representative of the hip-hop set, might have had something to say about the way copyright laws restrict those who seek to borrow snippets from other songs in the spirit of creativity, seemed to think that the gathering was a perfunctory PR stop. “Canada’s a great country,” Mad Child told the gathering. “We feel really supported.”

Buoyed by such sentiments, the two hours flew by without any talk of solutions. An opportunity lost? Well, at the next night’s official government Juno party attended by 1,000 or so bureaucrats rubbernecking absent celebs (all at private parties with their record company pals), the minister’s assistant pulled me aside and invited me to put my comments down on paper.

So here they are.

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