Creative theft, poor payouts from streaming services chipping away at artistic middle class

Country musician Mike Plume in his recording studio in Edmonton on Aug. 23, 2019. Plume and other Canadians are seeing a decline of the the middle class for creatives. IAN JACKSON/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Country musician Mike Plume still recalls the heyday of his career in the early 2000s. With a 15-year publishing deal at a Nashville record label and regular touring opportunities, he was able to earn a decent living. Royalties from the use of his music on TV shows such as Dawson’s Creek further supplemented his income. “It was a nifty little chunk of change that came in. It made life a little easier for a couple of months.”

After his publishing deal expired in 2015, Mr. Plume returned home to Edmonton. He began dabbling in voice-over and narration work to supplement a modest income earned from his music career. At the same time, the popularity of internet streaming exploded, putting greater stress on his musician’s income. Two months ago, he got a job at his local Long & McQuade, a musical instrument retailer.

Mr. Plume enjoys his work at Long & McQuade. “It’s a good gig if you’re a musician,” he explains, as his employers are flexible with offering days off for short touring stints. But as he’s currently planning his latest record, shifts at the store mean less time dedicated to his music. But that’s the reality of the industry he’s in. “It almost feels like there’s no such thing as a middle-class musician,” he says. “You’re either making $25,000 a year or you’re making north of a hundred grand.”

The experience of musicians and creative professionals like Mr. Plume are common. The growing impact of internet streaming and ease of creative theft is making entry into the creative middle class harder than ever. A 2018 survey of music industry professionals in British Columbia showed that 24 per cent of respondents are considering leaving the industry primarily due to concerns about wages and paid opportunities.

Music Canada, a non-profit trade organization advocating for the rights of creative professionals working in the music industry, has released two reports, in October, 2017 and June, 2019, to convey the impact that copyright laws have had on the music industry. The most significant blow, according to Music Canada president Graham Henderson, comes from free streaming services such as YouTube.

In its June report, Music Canada estimates that $550-million of artist revenue is lost per year to free streaming services like YouTube in what it calls a “value gap”. “Were YouTube to pay fairly and properly, at the same rate that Spotify is paying, then $550-million would appear in the music marketplace,” Mr. Henderson says, which would significantly bolster the incomes of musicians. “That, in fact, doubles it because we’re barely at $500-million now.”

A report in May from the House of Commons Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage addressed the state of creative industries in Canada and the impact of copyright on its livelihood, recommending “that tariffs for online music services be reviewed by the Copyright Board to ensure royalty payments provide fair compensation for artists.” Should policy-makers put these recommendations in place, Mr. Henderson says we would see the return of creative pursuits as viable middle-class careers.

The pre-Internet music industry serves as a reminder of the potential that careers in music once held, and could again in the future. “In 1999, if you’ve got a record deal, and there were lots of record deals large and small, you had a legitimate shot at a career,” Mr. Henderson says. “You’d sell 50,000 records, get a gold record. And then you’ve got a lot of touring. And then there’s radio play. It all added up to an opportunity.”

Musicians aren’t the only creative careers being affected. Wedding photographer Anastasia Giaouris was flipping through a copy of a prominent Toronto magazine when she discovered one of her images – a photo of a bride – was used in an advertisement. “I was completely taken aback because no one had reached out to me about using my images,” she said. “I decided that I didn’t want to let it slide.”

Ms. Giaouris reached out to the company – an international matchmaking service – and requested payment and a licensing agreement for further use of the image. The company owner promptly called her. “She said that usually, they’re very good about paying their photographers, but an intern put that campaign together and it just slipped through the cracks.”

Ms. Giaouris worked out fair payment for further licensing of the image. But “there’s this weird perception right now that it’s okay to steal photographers’ work,” she says.

Although government policy may play a part in the re-establishment of the creative middle class, some of the onus lies on the consumer, according to Martha Rans, a Vancouver-based lawyer who works with non-profits, charities and artists. “We who consume music, and all other creative things, need to come to terms with how much it actually costs to make good music, or music we want to listen to, ” she says.

Ms. Rans is the legal director of Artists’ Legal Outreach, a Vancouver-based organization that offers donation-based legal advice and resources to artists. Through the organization, and her private practice, Ms. Rans has encountered countless artists that have had their work stolen. She recently assisted a Vancouver-based artist who had an image of his painting used by the developers of a condo building. “They put his painting in the digital rendering of the interior of the condo, above the fireplace,” she says.

“It’s a distraction having to continually find out about people who are replicating their work,” she says. “Do I think it impacts their creativity? Absolutely. Yes.”

While established artists may have the wherewithal to crack down on theft, less-established artists need more support. Ms. Rans hopes that increasing awareness of current copyright laws can help creators such as Anastasia Giaouris learn how to best stand up for the value of their art and receive proper compensation for it. “We could do more educating about how copyright works, and how it doesn’t,” says Ms. Rans. “We can make people less fearful of being sued and explain how to better manage their materials so they don’t get ripped off.”