The harsh reality of life as a musician: an interview with Miranda Mulholland

August 2019

By Catherine Jewell, Publications Division, WIPO

Award-winning Canadian musician, record-label owner and festival founder Miranda Mulholland offers a personal account of the realities that artists are facing in the digital era.

What challenges are artists like you facing?

Image: Courtesy of Miranda Mulholland

These days, even professionally accomplished musicians are struggling financially. At first, I thought I was alone in this, but when I gave a speech to executives from the Canadian music industry, government officials, lawyers, policymakers and other professional musicians, I realized this was a common challenge. As I spoke of my professional accomplishments and my personal financial struggles, there were nods from the musicians in the audience. Today, artists like me have to spend huge amounts of time updating, marketing, posting, reporting, engaging and connecting. This limits our creative time, and drains our energy and confidence, making it difficult for us to earn a living from our music. Indeed, many (too many) feel being a professional artist is no longer a viable career.

In this age of social media gloss, the shameful reality of a working musician in the digital marketplace is a dirty secret. Being honest about the challenges I face and learning that the peers I admire share the same difficulties was one of the most validating moments of my life. I learned that it wasn’t just me, the situation was affecting all of us. It was also hurting independent labels, major labels, artist entrepreneurs, journalists, writers and more. What many call the “value gap” was putting the entire ecosystem at risk. In fact, an entire creative middle class is under threat.

What lies at the core of the problem?

Although the music market is showing signs of recovery, the revenues that are being returned to artists are at an all-time low. We just aren’t earning enough to pay our bills. There is a huge disparity between the value of creative content that is being consumed and the remuneration received by the artists who create it.

Technology companies tell musicians that if we are not making a living from our work, it is because we are not good enough, or we are not doing it right. They simply blame the victim. However, the fact is our work is good enough; it is the commercial framework in which we operate that is unfair and broken. Overly broad safe harbor provisions are one of the root causes of the problem. These online liability laws, which originally were designed to support the growth of online platforms, are now being (mis)-used by some digital services to avoid licensing music on fair terms. This means that artists across the creative community do not get a fair return for their work. In turn, this limits our capacity to earn a living, and to create and record new music. Ultimately, that affects consumers too.

Image: Courtesy of Miranda Mulholland
Image: Courtesy of Miranda Mulholland

Is it not just a question of adapting to the digital economy?

You could say we just have to adapt – in fact, that is what the tech companies do say – and that is true. We have adapted and we continue to adapt. We stretch ourselves, adopt social media strategies, and cut through the noise, but we are facing a real and identifiable adversary that is devaluing all we do and taking away any leverage we have to work within a functioning marketplace. The policies that allow this adversary to get away with this are older than the adversary itself. These policies need updating. Musicians don’t create an obsolete product – we aren’t buggy whip-makers in the 1920s – there has never been more music than there is today, and it has never been more accessible or popular. It has value, but giant technology companies are using that value to mine consumer data and to line their pockets. YouTube pays one twentieth of what Spotify pays creators because of safe harbor laws. YouTube is also vacuuming up all the data it can about consumer preferences, age, income, and more. In the digital world, if something is free for you as a consumer, you are the commodity. YOU are what is being sold.

An incredible book by Deborah Spar called Ruling the Waves turns to history to show us that innovation always creates waves of commerce and chaos, followed by monopoly, and then, finally implemented rules and regulations. Think of the printing press, maps, the compass, radio, television – all, like the Wild West of the Internet, follow the same pattern. Another excellent book, Jonathan Taplin’s Move Fast and Break Things describes how, unlike its democratizing promise, the Internet has hindered rather than helped those trying to make a living in the arts. These books, along with Music Canada’s Value Gap report released in 2017, were a revelation to me.

So, it’s the framework that is broken?

Yes, learning about the “value gap” and its causes affirmed that my own self-worth as a musician, or any lack of hard work and dedication to my craft, were not the problem. I had never enjoyed the same revenues as colleagues with the same credentials who entered the industry before me, but that wasn’t because of a lack of skill or talent on my part, it was because the framework is broken. This discovery has lifted a huge weight of self-doubt and shame and has encouraged me to search for solutions, and to unite with others in doing so.

Are artists making progress in ensuring their voices are heard?

Since it dawned on me that it’s the framework that is broken, I have spoken about my own personal experience in many international fora and am struck by the giant sea change in views on this issue since I first started talking about it. Gone is the cynicism towards creators; gone is the belief that if artists aren’t thriving it is their fault. We are living in a post-Cambridge Analytica world, a post-election interference world and both the public and government are rightly suspicious of the way giant technology corporations “move fast and break things.” There is a genuine eagerness on the part of policymakers to understand the day-to-day life of creators, the new challenges we face in the digital world and the steps that government can take to level the playing field.

This is my personal story, but I am not alone. This is a global issue and we have had some significant victories. At home in Canada, during the review of Canada’s copyright law, we have seen publishers, labels, independent artists and independent labels agree on a number of recommendations. This is virtually unprecedented.

In October 2018, the United States House of Representatives passed the bipartisan Music Modernization Act without a single dissenting vote. Many artists, industry representatives and government officials contributed to this historic bill. The way both political parties and representatives from across the music industry came together and unified to make change was truly impressive.

In Europe, in early May 2019, the European Parliament passed a package of amendments to the Copyright Directive marking a significant step toward rebuilding a functioning marketplace that has been almost destroyed by safe harbor legislation dating from the 1990s. And now, in Canada, the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, which studied remuneration models for artists and creative sectors as part of the Copyright Act Review, has issued a forward-looking and creator-focused report and recommendations. The voices of artists resonate throughout that report – and that Committee's recommendations, if implemented into law, would bring significant and immediate improvements to the lives and businesses of artists and creators.

Is it simply a question of outdated laws?

Much of the legislation the technology companies are exploiting has been around from before you could perform a search on Google. Many of the laws in place today reflect the days of dial up modems, home phones, and buying a CD at a music store instead of today’s world of streaming. For context, after the adoption of the WIPO Internet Treaties in 1996 (see box), it was a full two and a half years before Napster appeared. It was four and a half years before Apple launched the iPod, six years before the advent of the Blackberry smartphone, eight years before the first video was uploaded to YouTube and over a decade before the first song was streamed on Spotify.

“Although the music market is showing signs of recovery, the revenues that are being returned to artists are at an all-time low. There is a huge disparity between the value of creative content that is being consumed and the remuneration received by the artists who create it,” says Miranda Mulholland (above) (Image: Courtesy of Miranda Mulholland).

But there is nothing wrong with the Internet Treaties in themselves. Where things went wrong was the manner in which many countries chose to implement them. The WIPO treaties set out with all good intentions but there is always wiggle room and interpretation when it comes to their implementation. This is a slippery slope and can put creators’ rights in jeopardy.

Are you optimistic about the future?

The unification of voices for change – most recently in Canada, the USA and Europe – gives me hope. The lessons from history about the process of the rebalancing and regulation that takes place after upheaval gives me hope. We have turned a corner and the momentum is growing. We are undergoing an awakening. There is a global realization that free is not free. There is a global movement to preserve arts and culture, the very thing we leave behind as a civilization to say, “we were here.” Our global language of music unites us.

The WIPO Internet Treaties

The so-called WIPO Internet Treaties, which include the WIPO Copyright Treaty (WCT) and the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT), set down international norms aimed at preventing unauthorized access to and use of creative works on the Internet and other digital networks..

Creators of music, literature, and visual arts have been at the forefront of every revolution in which people have fought to improve their lives. Music has provided the soundtrack for human rights movements around the world. Musicians have been there advocating through music for civil rights, democracy, peace, the right to vote, birth control, the environment and other important causes. We have been there for you. Now we need your help.

Everyone has a part to play in rebalancing the ledger for the creators. For musicians, it means being honest about the situation despite the pressure of social media to create the perception of success. It means supporting strong copyright law and empowering artist colleagues to speak out and do the same.

What can consumers do to support your journey?

Anyone who cares about music can make informed decisions about how to stream music responsibly and in a way that benefits the musicians but also protects your valuable data. Subscribe to a music service, buy vinyl and go to concerts.

And the music industry and policymakers?

To the music industry, I say, continue to use your revenue to reinvest in young creators and diverse voices and continue to use your powerful amplification to encourage growth in all corners of the music ecosystem.

For the policymakers, my message is very clear:  end broad safe harbor provisions. Stop subsidizing billionaires who are commercializing the work of others without fair compensation.

My question to readers is – what will you do now?

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