Not any more

Why are Canadians stuck in an AM/FM world?

In Canada on September 30, 2010 at 23:23

Go ahead. Just put on your headphones and turn up the volume.

While the rest of the world is walking down the street to the beat of a breathtaking 21st century soundtrack—from free music streaming on their cellphone, thanks to online music services like Pandora—we Canadians are stuck shuffling along in 20th century AM/FM land.

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Podcast

Canada should open up to Pandora

Brianna Goldberg on why Canada needs to stop overcharging online streaming services

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Do you think Canada should give music streaming services like Pandora a break on royalty rates?

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Yes

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No

AM/FM. It even sounds old fashioned. Nostalgic. Sepia-toned. Provincial. But it seems that’s what we’re fighting to keep as the status quo, with all the regulations we slap companies like Pandora with when they try to bring their services here.

Don’t get me wrong. I love AM/FM radio. I was a producer at the CBC for three years, and even though I recently flew the coop, I miss it every single day. There’s nothing quite like public broadcasting: Informing and exposing Canada to new ideas. Often musical ones.

When you’re feeling lonely, you turn on the radio because you want to connect to another human–the DJ or host who you know will be there without fail. It’s about relationships, it’s about humans being there for one another, and it’s about public service. That’s a pretty good standard we uphold.

But what about the idea of freedom? That’s what leads to innovation. It’s a pretty important value to put into the mix. And it’s what we’re saying “No” to by blocking Pandora’s entry into Canada.

News came out the other day that one of the most popular worldwide music streaming sources, Pandora, has put its plans to expand into Canada on hold. That’s because the royalty rates we’re demanding “are astronomical,” according to Tim Westergren, who founded the California-based music service.

In case you don’t know, Pandora is one of the most awe-inspiring things around. You start it up, you tell it what kind of songs you like, and it plays music for you based on your preferences. If you don’t like the song it chooses, you tell it why (“Too much bass!” or “Boring lyrics!”), and eventually it builds a musical algorithm that will provide you with an ideal music stream based on your personal likes and dislikes.

I still remember the first time I tried it, when it was still available back in Canada, in 2004 or so. I literally felt like my ears had opened for the first time.

But down came the Canadian regulations, and out went Pandora. And now that they’re trying to return with legal approval, our regulations are making it all but impossible by treating services like Pandora as de facto low lives who have to pay a Sin Tax.

Here are the numbers based on what Westergren told the Canadian Press the other day. The bucks Pandora and similar companies would have to pay to the Record Companies’ royalty collection agency (Re:Sound) and that for the songwriters and publishers (SOCAN) would amount to 20 times more than any AM/FM station ever has to pay.

With rules like that it almost seems like Canada wants to be stuck in the past.

The Recording Industry’s comment on the Pandora situation was to blame the public. (An interesting strategy, blaming your customers.)

Graham Henderson, president of the Canadian Recording Industry Association, cited widespread illegal music downloading in Canada as the real reason why services like Pandora wouldn’t want to come here. “Why would you spend a lot of money trying to build a service in Canada when Canadians take so much without paying for it?” he said.

Well, bizarre consumer relations tactics aside, I offer two points in response.

First, you can argue numbers and statistics, but according to the anti-piracy company BayTSP, Canada is one of the least offensive countries for illegal downloads. 2008 numbers show us behind the U.S., the U.K., France, Spain, Italy… even Poland. But I think we all know that isn’t really the issue with Pandora. They want to come here.

Second, an anecdote. A few months ago I traveled to Washington, DC, and visited the headquarters of America’s public broadcaster—NPR. Since I was working as director and producer of a national radio show at the time, I asked if I could meet the crew at NPR who did the same kind of work. It was a sweltering day, and I was just covered in sweat. So naturally one of the first people I ran into when I walked in the building was the most important person in the whole music organization: Anya Grundmann, Executive Producer of NPR Music.

Although I looked like a hot mess, she was incredibly friendly and kind, and spent almost the entirety of our short chat talking to me about how much she loved a free, web-based, user-defined music service… based in Canada… called CBC Radio 3.

It’s a website where Canadian independent musicians go to upload their albums. Users can pick and choose from a huge database, make personal playlists, join the community… or, if they want, they can listen to the virtual radio channel, complete with plucky and knowledgeable hosts, featuring shows programmed with that free uploaded music.

And, of course, if you like the track you’re listening to (either on the “hosted show” portion, or one you’ve just searched out)… you can buy it on iTunes.

Ms. Grundmann told me she felt it was a great snapshot of the future of music online. And the fact that Radio 3 had a direct relationship with artists, who benefitted directly from the service, was an added bonus.

I know from personal experience working with some of those artists, that they love Radio 3. Because they interact directly with the service, they feel like they’re heard, relevant, and in control. And isn’t that how we want Canadian musicians to feel?

It is possible for Canadians to not only join the 21st century music party, but to lead it. It may challenge our outdated business models, but in the long run, freeing ourselves to live and work in the true 21st century will result in good things. Innovation always results in good things.

To open ourselves to this good thing, we just need our royalty regulators to stop treating musicians and listeners like children who can’t be trusted.

We need to be brave enough to open our minds—and our business models—to the idea of freedom and the benefits it will provide. The least of which would be moving out of the sepia-toned 20th century and becoming truly relevant in the music world.

And dropping all the ridiculous overcharges to services like Pandora sure would be a great start.

Brianna Goldberg is a freelance writer and producer.

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