Just what is music worth, anyway?

Illustration based on photo by thp365

The digital age has raised plenty of questions about the value of music.

This August in St. John’s, the Newfoundland and Labrador Musicians’ Association will host a national conference which will try to tackle some of the toughest problems facing musicians in Canada today, including, for musicians, one of the most important: how do I make money doing what I do? Our Future in Music will be a ten day event with free workshops and forums, as well as free and paid concerts by local and visiting artists.

Elling Lien spoke with NLMA President Dan Rubin about the organization and the conference, and about the real value of music.

Why is the NLMA putting this conference together?
We hope to accomplish four different things: for one, we hope to promote and publicize our own organization so that musicians can access the services we provide.

Secondly, we want to improve the chances of success for Newfoundland and Labrador musicians by helping them upgrade their knowledge and skills, by presenting them in a world class series of showcases and by helping them network with the kinds of people who have the skills and connections they need.

Third thing we want to do is download the professional knowledge we older musicians have to the younger players. We want to communicate.

And finally we want to provide a series of forums on really critical things affecting the music industry. Those are our four goals.

I like to think I’m pretty connected. Why haven’t I heard of the Musicians’ Association before?
Simple answer is we were in a coma for about four years due to officer burnout. The person who was president for 22 years basically filled the spot, but wasn’t doing the job. When we re-launched in December 2005, we got over 50 people to come out—every style of music. There was huge awareness, but when you dialled the number for the association, you just got nothing back.

It’s totally different now. If you call our office we’ll be back to you within an hour with what you need. For a period of a few years the only player was Music NL. We were still in existence but effectively not operating.

We’ve re-launched.

So how is the Newfoundland and Labrador Musician’s Association different from Music NL?
There is a lot of confusion out there about us being the same organisation. We’re very much not. We were founded in ’81, they were founded in ’94. They are the Music Industry Association, and they have a mixed agenda, which includes people like Charlotte Story and Landwash Distribution. We are exclusively made up of people providing musical services—that is, the musicians themselves. Sound people and dancers, can hold membership in the Association as well. Music NL includes corporate memberships and we are one person, one vote. A totally democratic structure. That’s one confusion…

You mentioned before that the association is not a union… Could you clarify that?
A lot of people refer to us as a union, and some people will fight tooth and nail and say “it’s a union, it’s a union,” but it’s not. In the United States, our parent organization was founded in the 1800s and has acquired status as a labour organization. But it is not a labour organization here in Canada except that there has been nobody to speak for musicians except us. When there are groups of musicians employed by the CBC or an orchestra, somebody has to step in to do the role of a labour organization, and do the negotiations on their behalf. When those situations come up we generally take them on because there is nobody else to do it.

But doesn’t that make you a union?
No, because when we do that we have to apply to our provincial authorities before we can act like a union. Here in Newfoundland we have never undertaken that role, so we are decidedly not a labour organization. So there’s a lot of confusion over that, up to and including the Arts Council members and the board.

Our status is pretty much the same here as the other arts organizations like Visual Arts NL and the Writers’ Association NL, and the Craft Council NL. We are an artist-run organization operating as a non-profit professional association. And that’s how we’re registered by the province of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Are people that afraid of unions?
They are. We’ve decidedly tried to shed that image because in times when it’s been heavy-handed, it has not been very good.

But we really do well as a professional organization offering services. So, between Music NL and the NL Musicians’ Association, what we can offer is a safety net. They have the grants for recording; they have the money for showcases. We don’t. We have a pension plan, we have an insurance plan, we have contracts to protect you when you perform, we have recently renegotiated the CBC contract, we have assistance with visas for US touring, we have money for public and free educational conferences, and we have a special payment fund which is our least-known but best program, which puts forth $5000 into your pocket after you record your album if you do it under contract and contribute to your own pension plan.

A bit of a strange question: what is music worth, anyway?
Music is worth billions of dollars. The annual market for guitars worldwide—I get this from Randy Bachman on CBC—is 5 billion dollars per year. That’s not keyboards. That’s just guitars.
It’s a lot of money.

What are the movies worth per year? Because a big slice of that is movie music. Then you’ve got to consider recorded music, which we realize is taking a dive, but what’s rising up? Rob DiPaola will be coming up from New York to the conference to talk about what seems to be taking the place of CD sales: Ringtones.

He says there are 13 billion cell phone accounts in the world right now. Something like twice as many cell phone accounts as there are people on the planet, and the market for ringtones has barely been scratched.

But what music is really worth is a much deeper question of course…

Within each of us we carry dreams, we carry imagery. And if they don’t come out, watch out. They need a way out. If they come out, it’s culture, and culture is a lot of things: it’s a memory, it’s a healer, it’s a vision of the future, it’s people who ask rude questions in public… It’s all of those things. If you look around you, everything you see was once an idea in somebody’s head.
So all of us, we need the artists.

Our Future in Music will take place in St. John’s from August 15-24. For more information, visit www.­ourfutureinmusic.org