The rejigging of a federal fund for Canadian music has divided the independent music community, with thousands of artists voicing outrage at the move at the same time that associations supporting independent production are offering their support.
In a move to provide more money for Canadian artists to tour internationally and focus on commercially viable projects, the Tories have redirected funds that were used to help artists on the musical fringe record their work.
Many who benefited from the eliminated grants say innovative, avant-garde albums such as The Perilous Beauty of Madness by indie band DarkBlueWorld or This Riot Life by Veda Hille (which was long-listed for the 2008 Polaris Prize) will no longer be made, dulling Canada's cultural edge. But other musicians, as well as the associations who distribute the funds, defend the decision and are praising the Tories for offering sustainable funding.
On Friday, July 31, the Conservative government renewed $27.6-million per year in funding for the Canada Music Fund, for five years. They also "streamlined" the fund, eliminating two of its seven components and pouring those funds back into the remaining five in an effort to "increase the visibility of Canadian music on digital platforms and in international markets."
One of the casualties is the Canadian Musical Diversity category, a $1.35-million initiative established in the late 1980s by the Mulroney government and administered by the Canada Council for the Arts on behalf of Canadian Heritage.
The people who get money through FACTOR are never the people who support the kind of music that we do. Elizabeth Fischer
The Musical Diversity component gave grants of up to $20,000 for the recording and distribution of "specialized music," defined as "music whose intent or content is not shaped by the desire for wide market appeal - instead, it places creativity, self-expression or experimentation above the demands and format expectations of the mainstream recording industry," and has "significance beyond being just entertainment."
Of the savings, $900,000 will go to digital market development and the other $500,000 to international market development, administered by FACTOR (The Foundation Assisting Canadian Talent on Recordings) and MUSICACTION, two non-profit organizations supporting independent music. FACTOR, MUSICACTION and the Canadian Independent Music Association (formerly CIRPA), have all lent their support to the move.
Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore said the government was "reacting to the pressures of the last election campaign" which came after the Conservatives eliminated the $4.7 million Promart and $7-million Trade Routes programs, which supported international touring and cultural marketing.
"These changes are policy reforms that have long been called for by people in the music industry," Moore said. "We consulted, we listened, we reasoned, we figured out what was the best approach to take, and that's what we did."
Many artists, however, are taking it as a crushing blow to their aspirations. Nilan Perera, an improvisational musician, started an online petition demanding that the Musical Diversity component be reinstated, drawing 3,924 signatures from both independent musicians and established stars such as Blue Rodeo drummer Glenn Milchem and concert pianist Eve Egoyan.
"The Conservative government mugged the Canada Council and gave the money to the industry through FACTOR and MUSICACTION," said Gary Cristall, who manages independent artists and is the former acting head of the Canada Council's music branch. "They were Robin Hood in reverse. They robbed the poor to give to the rich."
Moore countered that these artists might still find support in the same place.
"The Canada Council has their own envelope of funding - I believe it's $9-million. If they want to spend their money in a way to help independent artists, they're free to do that," he said.
Some musicians also cited a comment Moore made to the CBC earlier this month as evidence that the Conservatives were abandoning artists with narrower appeal.
"The envelope they were looking for was basically to fund artists who have no interest in developing any kind of commercial opportunities for their music, that's just a different approach than what we have in mind," Moore told the CBC.
Moore said yesterday the Conservatives' philosophical inclination is toward funding artists with commercial promise, a view Prime Minister Stephen Harper has espoused. "But not entirely," Moore added.
"It's not my view that in order for art to have merit and value to society, it has to be commercially viable," Moore said. "I'm not at all castigating independent artists and what their hopes are for their creations. … It's about funding things that are of a higher priority for government and for the industry."
Cristall acknowledges that not all artists will make a commercial splash, but "everything that is mainstream now was once marginal, and that is where things come from. … Stravinsky - there were fights when The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris … and these are the things that are now seen as the foundations of our culture."
Elizabeth Fischer, a member of DarkBlueWorld, contends that FACTOR is of little use to musicians like her, who typically only achieve sales of a few hundred or a few thousand copies.
"[FACTOR is]only interested in commercial product. The people who get money through FACTOR are never the people who support the kind of music that we do. When they say they're independents … they're really farm teams for some major label," she said.
FACTOR president and CEO Heather Ostertag disagreed, saying a large part of the organization's funding goes to culturally and musically diverse artists, some of whom have "very limited or no sales potential." She added that she believes the debate is premature, as the streamlined Fund's criteria haven't been set in stone.
Moore added that now that the funding is locked in for five years, "there's always room to adjust and change things" and for "open debate."
But Fischer said expanded international funds are of little use if she can no longer scrape together the money to record her music. Her group toured their second album - which "could never" have been made without a Musical Diversity grant - to several Baltic and Eastern European countries on the strength of a separate Canada Council touring grant.
"But we would never have gotten the touring grant if we hadn't made the record," she said.