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Canada's Lagging Digital Music Industry
Navneet Alang: To be a music fan in contemporary Canada is to live in a state of contradiction

To be a music fan in contemporary Canada is to live in a state of contradiction. On the one hand, the still-young Internet is already deeply intertwined in our habits–so much so that Canadians are among the highest users of social media and online video in the world. On the other, we of the Great White North are all-too-familiar with being denied the kind of wealth of music options–think Spotify–that exist elsewhere, particularly in our neighbour to the South.

So when music streaming service Rdio convened a roundtable on the state of digital music in Canada, the question that dominated was this: why does web-friendly Canada seem to lack choice when it comes to ways of getting our music online? Held at the Gabardine pub on Bay Street, the event brought together a host of interests, from members of licensing organizations, to music fans, to press–and even artist Rich Terfry, otherwise known as Buck 65  (disclosure: this writer was also a participant).

The conversation, led by CBC Music’s Jonas Woost, began with the question of what both music fans and artists now want. And it was lifestyle blogger Casie Stewart who presented the opinion of the current music fan–though you could say, she also presented the consumer id. She suggested that the question of where music comes from, how it’s made, or even how it’s licensed are largely irrelevant to fans. Accustomed to instant access, she argued, the modern music consumer favours convenience over quality, access over ownership–but is still willing to pay, given the right conditions.

But a significant issue for listeners was that of discovery. Presented with a glut of content, fans are having a more difficult time finding new music they like. What was generally agreed, however, was that social methods–in which friends use social features built into services to recommend tracks and albums to each other–are preferable to algorithmic ones, which make suggestions based on software that tracks your listening habits.

Yet artist Rich Terfry suggested there are also downsides to the changes initiated by these new technologies. He related how a musical colleague of his hasn’t written a song for over a year because of the demands of connecting with fans on social media platforms like Facebook. It was the seeming first of many of the evening’s catch-22s: while new media is enabling a connection between artists and fans like never before, it is also interfering in the very processes and methods by which music gets created.

Making things even more complicated was the issue of money. Terfry and others argued that though the Internet has opened the channels of distribution, the amount of potential money is shrinking, even for artists who can draw three or four thousand fans a night. Meanwhile, Rdio representative Scott Bagby suggested streaming music is still in its infancy. With royalty rates often well under a tenth of cent for each song streamed, there simply isn’t a wide enough userbase yet for these services to become a legitimate revenue stream. The convenience of digital is brilliant, but a sustainable business model still seems some ways off.

Of course, any discussion about digital music in this country will return to one central question: why does Canada lag? While many think it has something to do with the CRTC–which in fact does not regulate the Internet–the group seems to land on the idea that we are in a transitionary period in which regulatory structures and copyright law have yet to catch up with the reality of digital music. Making matters worse is that the Pandora’s Box of Napster and other forms of free downloads that have initiated a cultural sea change in how people relate to media and the idea of paying for it. Also not helping matters is that services who do wish to enter Canada must enter into a tangled web of agreements with not only labels, but artist collectives, too.

At the same time, Victoria Shepard of the Audio-Video Licensing Agency, the body that enables digital licensing in Canada, stated that Canada will soon catch up with Bill C-11, which she argued will bring Canada up to international standards when it comes to copyright law. It should be noted, however, that there is pronounced disagreement over whether forthcoming changes in Bill C-11 will foster new growth, or if it will help entrench the presence existing industries and companies.

Naturally, any such event held by a company with an investment in the discussion will ‘coincidentally’ end up favouring the host. Rdio has a selection of 15 million tracks, and the only real competition is Sony’s recently launched Music Unlimited, which lacks some of the social features that differentiate Rdio. To wit, as the panel lamented the lack of options in Canada, Rdio came off looking quite good. Indeed, we at the Standard endorsed the service quite wholeheartedly in our review last September. The obvious conflict, however, seems worth mentioning.

What became clear by the end of the night, however, is that how the music business, consumers and the web will happily and profitably co-exist is still a question the answer to which no-one knows. In the meantime, it seems Canada is still destined to lag in the short term for choice and business models. What seems especially unfortunate about that is that the one thing the country does not lack for is fans.


Navneet Alang is a tech critic at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @navalang.

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