The Canadian Broadcasting Company is under attack. Like many Canadians, I have mixed feelings about our semi-venerable state-sponsored national broadcaster. Part of me feels a deep connection to its very Canadian-ness, its humble programming, and its support for homegrown arts. Another part of me despises it as a governmental pawn/whipping boy, that spews bland programming at an unquestioning populace, too afraid of losing favour with whichever moronic politician happens to be in power to actually take a stand on anything or be too ambitious. However, I am surprised at my own intense reaction to the people trying to dismantle it. Thus, I must draw the conclusion that I value the CBC in some way, or that I feel that it is better than nothing.
The attack on the CBC is coming from a few fronts. The first, and most well-known assault came from the current Conservative government: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty’s most recent budget proposes 5-10% cuts to government agencies across the board (supposedly, although I’ll bet National Defence gets off the hook somehow). So the CBC is set to lose 115 million dollars between now and 2015. The head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation pointed out that the cuts aren’t as bad as they were during the 90s recession, but regardless it is going to make things a bit more difficult for them, especially since the production costs of homegrown television shows are only going to rise. Although it’s true that many other government organizations are also receiving budget cuts, it’s difficult for me not to see it as part of a larger trend of Conservative distaste for the arts and a slow dismantling of the more socialist ideals of Canada.
The second vulture circling is an obscure cabal of desperate pseudo-titans, from the most reprehensible of business sectors: the music industry. In April, a mysterious “coalition” of music companies, licensing firms, and the undead carcass of several terrestrial radio companies banded together to launch a formal CRTC investigation of the newest element of the CBC: a comprehensive music website called, naturally, “CBC Music”. The site streams music of every conceivable genre, round the clock, and also houses all of their music-related programming (ie. Q, Strombo, CBC Concerts, and the indie site that used to be called CBC3) in one place. It’s actually very cool, especially when you consider that the CBC is not normally known as “innovative”. The gist of the coalition’s argument is that CBC Music competes with their existing business either publishing or distributing music, and that the usage is royalty-free since everything is streaming. A company called Stingray Digital is heading up the coalition as the public face (and you know that any company with “digital” in its name is trying desperately to get a handle on the economic/creative free-for-all that is the Internet). Their “CEO” Eric Boyko even dropped this whopper of a quote onto the media in their initial statement: “The only music that you can hear for free is when the birds sing. There is a cost to everything, yet CBC does not seem to think that is true.”
There has even been a rumour (though I can find no proof) that the coalition includes the two biggest oligarchical media dinosaurs in Canada: Rogers Communications and Corus Entertainment. These two companies represent the heavyweights of the old media industry that will likely be wiped out in the coming decades. Both of them are heavily invested in terrestrial radio, and both tend to monopolize whichever market they enter. Rogers will actually go to a small town and buy up every available radio station, AM and FM. Corus tends to go with bigger markets, but they are also the same people who helped make Nickelback stars; in other words, they represent the lowest cultural standards of traditional FM radio.
Mr. Boyko’s statement that the only free music is birdsong is offensive to me on so many levels (I can imagine him chewing a cigar and leaning against his BMW while spouting this nonsense). It’s like he’s saying that music has no right to exist when there isn’t somebody making money off of it, which is ludicrous, disrespectful, and dismissive to the entire art form. Mr. Boyko clearly does not understand that, contrary to popular contemporary belief, art is not a commodity (at least not in the way he defines it). Beyond that, the whole coalition effort smacks of desperation and short-sightedness. Instead of finding a way to partner with the CBC or emulate their model, the coalition wants them shut down because they are hurting their financial bottom line. As if traditional royalties amount to anything nowadays? It’s analogous to what happened to the big record companies at the turn of this century. Instead of trying to adjust to the paradigm shift within their industry, the big guys just dug in their heels and tried to litigate their way back into the good ol’ days when they could spend billions on totally unnecessary things, gouge the consumer, and force bad art upon an undiscriminating populace, all in the name of “artistry” and contributing to our culture.
The crux of the coalition’s argument is that the CBC is able to avoid certain pricing laws and get better (cheaper) licensing rates for music by being officially a non-profit business. They whine that this new concept of all-in-one, free streaming music will hurt their bottom line. My personal view is that this coalition represents an outdated business and distribution model that deserves to be ripped apart by more free-form innovative concepts. This is simply the latest example of the old guard music companies trying to force their industry into the past. They want to ignore the fact that the vast majority of the world’s music is now sold or traded online for a tiny fraction of the previous costs. For years the music industry gouged us all with ridiculously high-cost products, and pointless format changes, all for the sole purpose of buying themselves mansions and the best cocaine in the world. These fuckers deserve what is happening to them now. They deserve to have their profit margins reduced to virtually nothing. This is the revenge of the music listener, finally fed up with the abusive totalitarian structures that have oppressed art since the very first record industry boom in the early 20th century. In this age when music has been almost completely stripped of its monetary value, what’s the point in complaining about the slow death of traditional royalties? Can this paltry revenue source alone save all of these companies and keep the old guard wealthy and fat? It seems unlikely.
There is a strange coda to this whole situation: SOCAN has also launched a complaint against the CBC. SOCAN collects and distributes royalties for Canadian artists as a Performing Right Organization. They apply a one-time licensing fee for their member’s songs, and their complaint is that they never envisioned a site that allows for unlimited streaming (CBC supposedly avoids the “pay-per-click” model by being a non-profit). Famous Canandian Artists/SOCAN members like Jim Cuddy have made statements in support of this, saying that a renegotiation of the licensing policy seems fair, in light of how much the industry has changed. But this idea only helps the massive artists who are already making money because they’re famous. There’s a much larger class of artists who would rather have their music heard on a cool website than fight over the cents that would be generated by a pay-per-click model. Arguing about the share and distribution of royalties in an industry where wholesale piracy and theft have become the norm seems a bit silly: it’s a miracle that anyone makes any money anymore. Royalties are just spit in the metaphorical hurricane. And when all hell is breaking loose, what’s the value in sitting around counting pennies?
I’m a member of SOCAN. Indeed, I would bet that the majority of the indie artists who upload their music to CBC Music are as well. We don’t make any money anyway, but it’s good just to have the chance to expose your music on the site. So I may have a vested interest, but I really hope that my Performing Right Organization doesn’t shut down my favourite music site.
The CBC is flawed, yes, but it is better than nothing. It’s beginning to seem like wishful thinking that it will always be there, but I hope so. They’ve tried to do innovative things like CBC Music, and for this they are met with open hostility. It has served our country for decades, turning an eye on ourselves, and is rewarded with apathy and accusations of irrelevance. Today, the CBC will launch its counter-attack via a “comprehensive response” letter that will be sent to the CRTC, defending itself against the coalition. I would not be surprised if they are unsuccessful. And business concerns like the coalition will plunge us back into the dark ages of monopolistic media domination. The worst part of it is, no-one seems to care that much.