Journalist Alain Brunet sounds alarm on music industry destruction

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In writing about jazz for the Montreal Gazette the mid 1980s I met a young, energetic, curious, and knowledgeable music journalist named Alain Brunet, who was starting to work at La Presse after a stint with CIBL community radio.

These were halcyon days for live music, and musicians were veering off in many directions. Among the most assiduous in covering the remarkable and burgeoning production and performance locally was young Brunet. Avant jazz, electronica, and avant rock were among the niche corners of the musical world that became his specialty, even as he covered pop-rock, including then-emerging pop diva, Céline Dion.

The now veteran Brunet, who has a B.A. in journalism and M.A. in communications from Université du Québec à Montréal, continues to fulfill many roles for La Presse in its current digital-only format. He has even taken over the classical beat from the paper’s former reviewer, the opinionated Claude Gingras, whose claim to fame was bringing along the scores to orchestral concerts.

Brunet has big ears and does his homework. He prefers analyzing and describing what he hears, signaling errors, if they occur, or what may sound like unfulfilled intentions. He also previews concerts and over the years has tracked behind-the-scenes developments in the industry, one of the few in conventional media to do so.

Included in that mission was his reporting on how the digital revolution and file sharing have resulted in a disastrous decline in revenue for most of the industry’s artisans, even as a tiny
minority, including those who control social media, have become unbelievably rich.

Brunet and I chatted the other day about this decline, the subject of his second book, La misère des niches (XYZ, 270 pages, $25.95), a play on la misère des riches –the troubles of the wealthy – and the title of a popular French-language TV soap opera. Brunet tackled file sharing and its consequences in his first book, Le disque ne tourne pas rond (Coronet Liv, 295 pages, $29.95), the record is stuck.

Extensively and meticulously researched, Brunet has dug deeply into the profound shifts in how we consume music, news, and information and its consequences on various content providers, including conventional media, which are convulsing our cultural environment. A broad overview, it is full of well-chosen data about the profound shifts worldwide, and at home.

Even his own blog, as well as others in specialized cultural fields produced by La Presse writers, was cut last spring.

Brunet wrote his first book because he saw some 18 years ago, that with Napster and MP3 players, the music business was the first content industry to suffer collateral damage as a result of the digital revolution. (Napster was an application to share music over the internet without having to buy the CD. After downloading Napster, users could access music recorded on the MP3 format with others who were online at the same time.)

Napster opened the floodgates, and such digital streaming services as Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Tidal, and Stingray Musique now dominate mass listening habits. As a result revenues to creators have plummeted. Of course it is complex, Brunet notes, since Spotify, for example in 2015 had gross revenue of US $2.12 billion but finished the year with a net loss of $188.7 million!

The pirating, or virtual pirating of recorded music that started at the end of the last century has only accelerated, Brunet notes. By its very nature, it has become technically impossible for most creative artists to police the internet for intellectual property violations.

Before the internet, good and decent musicians could make a basic living, but it is becoming more and more difficult for most. Apart from a tiny minority — the Rihannas, Madonnas, and Jay-Z’s of the world — so-called disruptive innovation is taking its toll on most musicians, composers, singers and other creative artists.

Click bait — the number of people who listen to a cut or CD on a listening site such as Spotify — means pitiful returns to the creators. Bassist Alain Bédard, who produces CDs with local jazz musicians on the Effendi label, told Brunet that his content garnered 550,000 clicks last year, and that resulted in revenue of $1,200.

“If you sold 50,000 copies of a CD, you could hope to make $150,000 or more, and now this is gone – replaced by a tiny amount of revenue for the same consumption,” he notes.

“It is impossible to pay everyone involved under the new system.”

“The only people making money are the people who own huge platforms such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook.”

The irony is that renowned music schools, such as the one at McGill, have excellent staff and programs and are producing superb musicians, but “they’re all going to be poor,” Brunet remarks.

Massive political will and bold leadership are needed, to make sure that a larger share of the huge profits being accumulated on social media be dedicated to the content creators, including traditional media, which are dying. The federal government, could have shown initiative by taxing Netflix, but declined. Quebec’s recent budget did include a PST tax on Netflix – money that could be used to promote content creators.

For example, the European Union antitrust unit last summer hit Google with a record 2.42 billion Euro fine for favouring its own shopping service over those of rivals.

“Only a political-legal decision can change what is happening and force (the internet giants) to share,” he writes.

“Only an historic mobilization with common demands can force government to upgrade international treaties on intellectual property, and compel the new monopolies of the internet to equitably share some of their hallucinatory profits.”

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