Matt Zimbel: photo provided
Matt Zimbel: photo provided

Matt Zimbel: Gov't Must Act Now To Preserve Our Creative Class

The following is penned by Matt Zimbel, percussionist and leader of the Juno Award-winning world jazz band Manteca. He is also a filmmaker, artistic director, television and radio show host and an articulate spokesperson for the cause of giving the creative class a fair financial shake.

When was the last time you used a payphone? Been a while, huh.  You know, there used to be a VP, likely a guy, at Bell Canada who ran the payphone division.  His golfing buddy was probably the guy who ran the long-distance division.  And every quarter for the past 30 years or so they would present their earnings and disappoint their CFO.

But when the payphone business collapsed, the ISP business blew up and when long-distance business tanked, mobile plans were the gift that just kept on giving.

As a musician and producer, Bell’s profit margin is really not forefront in my daily thinking (sorry, Randy), but after reading Tim Moxam’s piece about the devastation to creators that has been wrought by streaming and the collapse of CD sales (FYI, Feb. 14), what has become apparent to me is that when our revenue from physical product evaporated and our airplay royalties effectively became what I call “zero waste”, they were not replaced with any other revenue stream. A few years ago, it seemed like sync licenses were the road to salvation but now the terms for those are increasingly diminished.  As a studio percussionist in the 80’s, I’ve seen this movie before –when the drum machine arrived, my landline rang less.

When these matters of the evaporation of revenue for musicians and composers are discussed in the public square, there is always someone who says, spryly, “well I guess your touring revenue makes up for it now, right?”

Um, fuck no.

I regularly get offers for my band Manteca,  a band that has recorded 13 CDs, toured the world and, all modesty aside, is a visual, impactful, live act, that gets audiences to their feet no matter where we play and we are regularly offered less money for shows than we were in 1993.  When I point this out, artistic directors have often said things like, “Well, my costs have gone up”.  Right!  Our costs have not?  One Jazz Festival Artistic Director told me he had very little money to offer the Canadian artists because “the exchange rate for the U.S. acts was killing him”. Dude, maybe you should have done a better job of building audiences for the Canadian headliners.

So, when I read The Government of Canada’s Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage report, or see proposed revisions to the broadcasting act to ensure that Canadian content is available and that artists are treated fairly by ISP’s, streaming platforms and broadcasters, I support it fully.

When artists like Damhnait Doyle and Miranda Mulholland stand up and speak out about the “value-gap” and the evisceration of the middle class of creators at a Music Canada event, I am filled with admiration for their courage in defiance of the publicist’s admonition to always tell a “positive story”.

Like most artists, government regulation and support is not my preferred route.  I would be much happier simply getting fairly getting compensated for my work. “Content containers” are going to have to pay the “content creators” fairly to ensure we have the resources to create. Sorry CAB, but exempting large broadcast corporations from paying artist royalties on their first $1.25 million of revenue is just plain wrong.  You want to give that advantage to small secondary market mom and pop radio operators so they can survive, I’m sure most artists and creators would see the logic, but the big operators?  Come on!

As for the streamers, I produced a series for Netflix and, on the creative side, I have never seen a company as artist-driven and respectful for the work of the creator.  And while they cuddle their creators, their business affairs department is busy pounding them on the head with a sharp stick…  “all rights, buy out, in perpetuity, throughout the universe, through any method of manufacturing or distribution now known to man or to be discovered in the” blah blah blah…you get the idea.

I recognize that we cannot erect a firewall around our culture, that we have to play in the global creative sandbox. But to do so, we need to get paid and if that means more government regulation, I’m in. Here is one example outside of the music sphere.

Steve Warden recently wrote in these pages about proposed changes to the broadcasting act (FYI, Feb 03). He raised a number of valid points, but I take strenuous exception with one of his arguments. Steve suggested that casting a Canadian film funded by Telefilm without Canadians in lead roles should be acceptable. That is not on. Yes, international stars attract worldwide box office; yes, they should be permitted by Telefilm, but Canadians co-starring with international stars should be obligatory. There is no shortage of talent here, there is simply a shortage of recognition.  The cultural policy fails when our film ecosystem becomes known internationally only as a highly functioning service industry. When we are known for the superb quality of our “assistant” DOPs, our “supporting” actors and the finest “film catering sous chefs” anywhere in the world, we lose.  

And so, step by step, the middle class of the Canadian culture community in music, in film, in literature, in the visual arts and in dance is being decimated.

It’s time to rally medium rock stars!  Let us gather round the campfire of public opinion and speak truth to power. Minister Guilbeault, Minister Bains, no more studies, no more white papers, no more bills DOA in the Senate.  Let’s make the movie where Canadian creators are treated fairly and compensated for their work when it is consumed. 

Lights, Camera… Action!

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