Tag Archives: Record Industry

PR During Protests

Published 10/1/2020

By Dalton Higgins

During these last number of months, it has not been just another day at the office for me. As an African-Canadian owner of one of Canada’s leading boutique PR companies, that just happens to specialize in Black music (i.e., rap, R&B, electronic), long before the social protests, posting of Black squares, and sharing of hashtags, I have pretty much seen, heard, and witnessed all kinds of repulsive anti-Black racist acts that would make your head spin like a helicopter. Right here. In Canada. While being based in “multicultural” Toronto.

When we talk about structural and systemic racism in Canada, it means looking at what’s around you, looking at facts (and not feelings), and looking at real measures of equality, like representation. There’s no hard data that’s been collected or compiled in Canada (yet) to spell out how companies are faring as far as hiring and retaining Black staffers in the music and entertainment PR field. (The U.S. has always been 20 steps ahead of us when it comes to compiling race-based data.) According to Data USA, only 7.15 percent of publicists are Black  (non-Hispanic).

But you don’t need to rely on statistics at this juncture. Our industry is small. Just go to all of the major awards shows, industry confabs, music festivals, and conferences, like I do, and you’ll see that our presence is scant to non-existent. JUNO Award winner Jessie Reyez, who isn’t Black, was so offended by the lack of Black representation at Canada’s major labels, that she listed out all of the woefully low percentages of Black staffers who were gainfully employed, on a recent CTV special, Change and Action: Racism in Canada, and said, “That’s not acceptable.”

Given that the numbers of Black management companies, booking agents, entertainment lawyers, commercial radio Program Directors and Music Directors, music presenters, venue owners, etc., in the entertainment industry in Canada are minuscule, and because all of these jobs have a naturally symbiotic relationship (i.e., “65 percent of my clientele comes from referrals”), you can see that the playing field could never be even here.

I’ve also always been a strong proponent of the idea of “building your own table,” and business ownership – serial entrepreneurs move a certain way – but that has more to do with the fact that I grew up reading about the exploits of the late Afrocentric business titan Marcus Garvey, who insisted that Black people need to own businesses, properties, the means of production and distribution, to have a more self-fulfilling existence.

Also, the facts are that if I hadn’t been a long-time media practitioner in both Canada and the U.S., my company would be dead in the water. I won’t lie. We’ve been in demand, and busier than ever over the last five years, but that might be more because we deliver results, and oftentimes have to work five times as hard as the perceived competition. (Many Black kids are told by their parents that due to anti-Black racism they have to be 10 times better than whites, and may still only get one-half the results.) And I ain’t talking about competing PR companies either.

The journey of the Black publicist in Canada means sitting idly by, as all kinds of mediocre rock, indie rock, country, and folk acts generate more local media attention at home than some of our world-class rap, R&B, and electronic music clients. Ironically, they’re able to generate significant media attention in far larger media outlets in the U.S., including Billboard, SPIN, or Hypebeast, and who are streaming more, have larger socials, and who have a lot cooler cachet.

The sheer dominance of contemporary Black music (e.g., rap, R&B), from a streaming and sales standpoint, stands in stark opposition to what gets covered in Canadian media. It’s the pink elephant in the room. If we were to treat the music media world like a genuine meritocracy, and base it on sales, youth culture, market penetration, growth potential, the cool factor, and whatever other metrics you want to use for what’s relevant in music or the zeitgeist, you would be seeing and hearing a lot more Black music on TV, radio, in newspapers, magazines, and blogs. But the facts are, you just aren’t in Canada.

I don’t even want to get into the normalized micro-aggressions I have to endure while running my company and doing my job. Is there a reason administrative staff (or security guards) in mainstream media houses and corporations who hire us always ask me in this distrusting way, “Can I help you with something?” when I land in their lobbies, intimating I don’t belong there, when it’s clear I’m there for a meeting, or to assist my client? If I were a white guy, there’s no way they would be walking over to me, and asking me these asinine questions. Maybe the next time I get that “Can I help you?” routine, and I will respond “Uhhh, yes you can help me, by moving out of my damn way, as I’m here to tend to the needs of my Grammy-nominated/JUNO-winning/best selling client, please and thank you.”

As a Black publicist, I also sadly have to spend an inordinate amount of time educating people in general about race, ethnicity, and music history. Because I’m Black, it doesn’t mean that I only represent Black artists. I represent the interests of all kinds of white, Asian, Indigenous, South Asian, and  Latin American artists, largely because there’s a genre hybridity that has been happening over the last 20 years. Many good contemporary musicians, across cultures and racial designations, don’t really believe in being stuck in genre silos.

Also, Black music and culture influences the music creations of everybody. Always has. Where do you think the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” got his direct musical inspiration, guitar-playing style, and dance moves from? C’mon now, are you telling me that you don’t know (Bo) Diddley? Don’t ever judge a book by its cover, as I quickly learned while working for a few years with the so-called “world” music scene in Canada. It’s a scene that might arguably be the most problematic, when it comes to dealing with issues around race, representation, colonization, and other questionable employment practices, but I’ll save that for another column.

What does the future hold for PR professionals of my ilk? We essentially want nothing to do with the old boys’ network. Why? Because homogeneity bores us. And my time is, quite frankly, better spent building a New Boys (& Girls!) network that’s a lot more interesting, and that will represent contemporary demographic and music realities. Despite what some of the few remaining gatekeepers are doing (we see you), the music forms you’re supporting are dying a slow death. Not because of anything I’m writing here. It’s because of the people. Music consumers. They want more hip-hop, R&B, Afro beats, electronic music. Or maybe it’s a hip-hop world, and you’re just living in it?

Despite all of these daily anti-Black industry annoyances, I’ll always be working with my talented clients to get their stories out. I still get a great high landing a major media hit for my clients, both big and small. And it’s true that you’ll likely always catch me hanging out and partying with both my emerging and celebrity clients. Even while Paris is burning.

About Dalton Higgins

The “Business of Music”

Published 08/29/2019

By Widney Bonfils

Ever since I started working at SOCAN, I’ve had the opportunity to meet countless emerging songwriters. What all of them have in common is a deep desire to “make it” in the music industry. I’m fascinated by their desire to share their art, and the courage that requires, just as I’m fascinated by their contagious passion.

Throughout all of the captivating conversations I’ve had with them, I’ve noticed that many of them had no idea of what they were getting into. I realize that many of them totally ignored the amount of work, and the knowledge, required in order to navigate this industry. Merely saying “All I want to do is make music” is, I believe, totally obsolete and – dare I say it – ludicrous. How can one hope to succeed in an industry one doesn’t understand? Can you imagine a budding banker who doesn’t have a basic understanding of economics or finance? The same goes for music. Making good music is the start, of course, but that alone doesn’t guarantee success.

The first question one should ask when they consider entering this business should be, “Is this just a hobby, or do I want to profit from my art?” The answer to this question is critical, as it will determine the future of people who wish to earn a living in this industry. Believe me, a career in music does indeed require you to have the profile of an entrepreneur. And just as with any start-up, you need to proceed step by step, and not try to go too fast. Here are a few points that I hope will help some of you better understand the basics of the music industry.

The Importance of Being Well Informed

Ignorance never was, is, and never will be sexy. The notion of saying one makes music and doesn’t need to grasp the business side of it is utterly crazy, and borders on irresponsibility. One doesn’t climb a mountain without climbing equipment. Just as, one doesn’t enter the music business without knowing the basics. Here are a few essential pieces of information to have in order to understand this environment:

  • Copyright (mechanical royalties, performance royalties…)
  • Rights management organizations and their responsibilities (SOCAN, Re: Sound…)
  • Financing methods, and the institutions that support the music industry (Musicaction, FACTOR, CALQ, The Canada Council for The Arts…)
  • The various players and their responsibilities (music labels, music publishers, venue bookers…)
  • Broadcast platforms and how they operate

It’s a music entrepreneur’s responsibility to familiarize themselves with these sides of the industry, because once that’s done, they can determine their needs, are and start assembling the right team for themselves.

Picking the Right Crew Mates, While Remaining the Captain of Your Ship

One thing I’ve noticed while interacting with songwriters and composers is their desire to find a manager, a publisher, or a record label – without understanding those roles, and the differences between all of those players, and without having taken the time to properly evaluate what their needs actually are. It’s no surprise that some of them end up in difficult situations down the line. However, if you understand those fields, and your own needs, I believe it’s fundamental to build the right team to support you. No one can do it all by themselves. Being able to count on the right team allows creators to focus on what they prefer – creating music – while knowing the business side of things is in good hands. Obviously, that requires a good understanding of the areas outlined above. The artist is at the heart of their project, but they should also be the CEO of the team supporting it.

Managing Rejection and Chasing Your Dream

Many give up when they realize how harsh this the process can be. Many are called, few are chosen. These people weren’t ready for it, or at the very least, thought their hobby was a profession. The music industry can be just as gratifying as it can be frustrating. One has to be prepared to be rejected often before finding success, and that’s not easy. And once you have reached that success, you need to know how to manage it, and again, this is where a good team is crucial. The mental stress of being constantly solicited can quickly devolve into a problem if it’s not handled properly.

I believe that once you’ve become aware of your talent, and have decided to earn a living with it, you also have the responsibility to share it. I believe in the incredible power of music. It unites us, motivates us, heals us… This integral part of culture is critical for humanity, because it’s an integral part of our lives. I also believe in the importance of artists, and I’m saddened when I see some abandon their career prematurely. It is not an easy trade. As I said, knowing how to deal with the rejection, deception, and financial hardships that are typical when you begin a career is challenging. But hang in there, it’s worth it!

As in any other industry, the music industry operates in tiers. Sure, the big names of this industry like Drake, The Weeknd, and others are successful artists making millions, year after year. But there are tons of artists who earn a very decent living from their art. That, to me, is what being successful means.


How to Survive “No”

Published 12/13/2016

By Savannah Leigh Wellman

It’s undeniable the positive impact that artist development programs, grants, and contests have on the Canadian music scene. Artists being educated on the “how-tos” of the industry begin to see their music not just as an art form, or hobby, or crap shoot – but a viable business, in which they can learn the tools to use in building a career. Funding given to artists is in turn invested right back into the industry around them. Programs that include mentorships or professional introductions offer an invaluable “insider” opportunity to make connections that would quite possibly be otherwise ignored. Being selected for any kind of funding or program is almost always a welcomed leg up and boost of confidence for an artist.

But what happens when being left on the outside of these opportunities creates the opposite effect – a discouragement, a seed of doubt in an already self-critical mind?  It can create divides amongst the very community the programs are aiming to support, or lead to viewpoints of entitlement and judgement.  Not that these programs shouldn’t exist – they’re crucial for building the careers of emerging artists, in a way that record labels generally can’t any more. But how can we help artists come away from such experiences stronger than when they began, instead of defeated?

Anyone who’s ever worked with an artist understands that the creative mind is usually also a sensitive one – that sensitivity is what makes an artist compelling to the public, and what provides a unique insight into the human experience. When your product is so innately personal, criticisms can feel extra severe, and artists in the early stages of their career don’t have the same defense mechanisms as more established acts. They don’t have dedicated fans sending positive messages of support, or successes they can look back on for reassurance, or managers and team members to keep them focused on the positive. To someone who is still trying to make it on their own, blows to your confidence can be real setbacks.

But why is not being selected for something taken as a criticism? Why can’t an artist simply shrug off a “no” and apply for the next opportunity? I think it comes down to the fact that when putting your music on the line to be judged, to be critiqued and evaluated, it’s close to impossible to not take the results personally. It feels like someone is reviewing everything you’ve poured your heart into, and deciding it’s not worthy – when in reality, there’s just not enough funds, or showcase slots, or prizes to give away to everyone who is worthy.

The most important thing to remember when putting your music in a situation where it will be judged in one way or another is that art is subjective. Even though guidelines can be created to try to best measure the tangible components (strong melody, professional production, interesting lyrics), at the end of the day, it still comes down to an individual’s opinion. And when has the music industry ever been unanimous on an opinion of what’s good?! Just because the small sample group of people who had the fate of your application in their hands didn’t think it was better than the one they heard before it, doesn’t mean someone else won’t.

Also, some programs offer feedback for applicants, and if you’re up for taking it in, it can provide great opportunities for growth. Again, the key is to take them with a grain of salt, and if there are suggestions you agree with, then consider following those.

In some cases, instead of spawning insecurities, a “no” will raise feelings of anger, and defensiveness. But I did this, and I have earned that!  Or perhaps a comparative outlook is taken on – but I did this and they didn’t! These mind frames breed negativity and competitiveness within a scene, and can harbour jealousy and resentment towards acts for which there’s no other reason to withdraw support. It’s important to remember that everyone’s working hard, and that someone else’s success does not actually take away from your own.

If the concern is about procedure or policy, making sure that certain standards are being upheld, or that processes are transparent and accessible, then those are fair points to make with whoever is running the program. However, it’s important to bring it up in an un-biased, rational discussion, rather than as an emotional defence. Don’t focus on why your own application wasn’t selected, but rather on the guideline or policy that seems to be counter-productive for a number of artists (for example).

We are so lucky to live in a country that supports arts and culture the way Canada does – it’s unique on a worldwide scale.  While it can be disheartening to apply for various support programs and not be selected, it’s important to remember the real reasons you started making music – chances are it wasn’t to win contests, or record albums only if someone else paid for them.

Every successful musician has their own novel of rejection stories – it’s the ones who persevere through them who have a chance at a successful career.


Savannah Leigh Wellman was the program manager at Music BC Industry Association for eight years, performs under the artist name SAVVIE, and is a co-founder of Tiny Kingdom Management & Artist Services.

Streaming requires new business model for record companies

Published 11/5/2014

By Terry McBride

Streaming is the future of music consumption.

In Nielsen and Billboard’s sales numbers for 2013, streaming music increased 32 percent over the previous year, to 118.1-billion track streams. Overall music sales dropped 6.3 percent to about 1.5-billion tracks, albums, and videos. Digital music sales (downloads) dropped too, by 6 percent, about the same rate.

The Recording Industry Association of America recently announced that revenue from streaming-music services overtook that from the sale of physical CDs, and came in just a hair behind total physical sales. The RIAA also said that streaming now accounts for 27 per cent of recording industry revenues in the first half of 2014, versus 20 per cent the year prior.

About 35 percent of the revenues of my record company, Nettwerk Records, already come from streaming, and that amount is only going to grow in the coming years.

When music is streamed online, songwriters in North America are currently being vastly underpaid for the music they create, some thousandth fraction of a penny for each streaming play (though, as SOCAN CEO Eric Baptiste pointed out in his last SOCAN blog, there are reasons for this).The same is generally true for the artists, and the non-major record companies whose music is being streamed, which is why streaming is not yet offsetting the decline in physical sales and downloads in North America.

The solution to this problem is for record companies to seek a percentage of the revenue earned by the streaming companies, rather than a penny rate “per play” (or in this case, “per stream”). The solution must also create equitable deals between the labels and their artists to ensure that the artists are fairly compensated after such negotiations.

There’s a great deal of generational resistance to this idea. Past generations are strongly invested in the attitude that rates of remuneration for recordings have to be set by a governmental regulatory body. But in the online world, where borders are becoming more and more meaningless, where a song streams to one person at a time rather being played to hundreds of thousands of people via a spin on radio, and where streaming companies’ revenues are dwarfed by many orders of magnitude when compared with traditional media such as TV and radio, the only practical way forward is to abandon penny-rate regulations and negotiate percentage deals directly with the streaming companies. In addition to payment for access to their music, major labels are already obtaining equity in music streaming companies.

This approach can work. In fact, it already has. Nordic European countries are seeing growth from streaming music, and their artists are earning a significant portion of their living from it. The Norwegian recording industry reported that streaming revenue was up 66 percent in the first half of 2013. Streaming revenue accounted for two-thirds of total music revenues in Norway. It’s been a similar story in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. Sweden’s music industry is now back to double-digit growth, even though about 90 percent of the music consumed there occurs via streaming.

By comparison, if the penny-rate mentality doesn’t disappear sooner rather than later, the North American record industry will continue to shrink annually at a rate of five to six percent. In fact, one of the reasons Nettwerk has been able to prosper in the face of this continuing decline is that 90 percent of our income comes from outside of Canada.

The writing is on the wall. The old way needs to go. The record industry has got to get moving, and moving fast, to adapt to the new reality of music streaming.

Views expressed in this and all posts on this blog are not necessarily those of SOCAN.