File Sharing and the Canadian Indie Musician

While downloading the album of an established, world-famous rock star might not take a bite out of the artists’ wallet, the spread of online file sharing has begun to impact artists who do not have the luxury of a private jet or a world tour.

Artists striving to keep sales up to combat piracy is becoming more difficult than ever before

by Liam Scott, Staff Writer

The Arkells | Flickr by Scott Penner

A war is raging in the U.S., one that pits the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against individual file-sharers. Six years in, the RIAA has spent $64.1 million on legal proceedings, winning only $1.4 million from its offenders.

The result? The RIAA hasn’t even dented the web of peer-to-peer file sharing services that have continued to grow over the last decade, despite superstar recording artists such as Metallica, Dr. Dre and, most recently, Gene Simmons of KISS, speaking in support of the cause.

But while downloading the album of an established, world-famous rock star might not take a bite out of the artists’ wallet, the spread of file sharing has begun to impact artists who do not have the luxury of a private jet or a world tour.

[pullquote] I guess (radio placement) is a major source of income if you’re Katy Perry or Lady Gaga or something.[/pullquote]

“We were sleeping on the floors of friends-of-friends’s apartments. We had $10 a day for food, no per diem. We were definitely pinching pennies,” says Phil Maloney, drummer for Newfoundland band Hey Rosetta!, of their first tour. “It’s not until the third tour or so that you hope to at least break even.”

For a band that has had their music featured in CBC Radio’s Great Canadian Song Quest, as well as on the hit Canadian TV show Flashpoint, one would think the album sales would be substantial. While that may have been true a generation ago, things are different now. “Albums are a dying form of income,” explains Maloney, a sentiment echoed across the Canadian indie music scene.

Max Kerman, front man of Hamilton quartet The Arkells, says record sales provide “pretty little in the form of money. It’s probably like that for most bands.”

It’s not just the artists taking a financial hit from declining sales. Mike Greatorex, of Sonic Entertainment Company, says labels are being forced to find other ways to stay afloat as sales crash. “If (Sonic Entertainment) was just a record label, we would have gone out of business years ago,” says Greatorex, noting that Sonic Entertainment’s management of bands is what generates most of the income. Sonic’s label has signed four acts in the past eight years but, ideally, the number of acts signed would be at least twice that.

“(Physical record sales) are a bit of a joke, honestly,” admits Greatorex. “A lot of smaller labels don’t bother with major physical distribution anymore.”

The root of declining record sales? Piracy.

Since the inception of the peer-to-peer file sharing service Napster, in July of 1999, the music industry has fought non-stop for its fair share of revenue. But always it found itself one step behind file sharers.

“Our entire career has seen a rise in the popularity of our band and, at the same time, a drop in our album sales,” says Stephen Carroll, lead guitarist and manager of Polaris-nominated, Winnipeg indie-rock staples, The Weakerthans. The Weakerthans’s first album, Fallow, was released in 1997, when downloading music was all but unheard of. Carroll says the majority of their fans probably downloaded their last album, Live at the Burton Cummings Theatre.

“Demand (for music) hasn’t gone down,” explains Greatorex, “but if the options are buying it versus getting it for free, people will obviously choose free.”

Websites like thepiratebay.org, operated out of Sweden, are the main culprits for harbouring illegal torrents. Pirate Bay makes most of its revenue from advertising on the website, much to the chagrin of artists.

“I have a real problem with websites that profit from banner ads without giving anything to the artist,” says Winnipeg singer/songwriter, James Struthers. “Just because copyright laws are different in your country, it doesn’t give you the right on any level.”

Artists and labels may not agree with file sharing, but there’s no sign of their stance slowing it down. Greatorex used to track down and report illegal torrents of bands on his label, but soon gave up. “It’s impossible, so I stopped doing it,” he says, noting that in the time it took to contact the hosts and demand one be removed, two would pop up elsewhere.

The murky legal and moral ground surrounding piracy is the reason behind its prevalence. Most people, primarily a younger demographic, don’t see it as stealing.

“It’s the net, it’s going to get out there anyway,” says Michelle Zuniga, a nursing student at Ryerson University. She doesn’t see intellectual property as something one can claim ownership of, so it doesn’t count as stealing.

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