At the Globe and Mail, Kate Taylor writes:
The policy tools that have protected and nurtured Canada’s cultural industries since the 1970s are unknown to transnational distributors of foreign content – that would be Google, YouTube and Netflix – while Canadian consumers are increasingly sidestepping the domestic distributors who, whether by inclination or by regulation, produce Canadian content.
How big a crisis? A new report prepared by the research firm Nordicity for the annual Digital Media at the Crossroads gathering held at the University of Toronto last weekend assembles some shocking economic evidence. Netflix is taking an estimated $445-million a year in subscription fees out of Canada; YouTube is taking an estimated $22.5-million in annual advertising revenue out of Canada; iTunes and Google Play are taking $50-million in annual music sales out of Canada. And half of the estimated $432-million in ad revenues that the newspaper and magazine industries are losing every year to digital platforms is also leaving Canada.
As there have been such cultural protection policies since the 1970’s, so there have been articles since before then that there is a crisis in Canadian cultural policy, namely the, well, popularity of popular culture from south of the border; Ms Taylor is part of a long tradition. But is it a healthy tradition?
In one way there is something universal in this kind of reporting on cultural industries, namely taking the point of view of some parts of the ‘supply side’ of the market with no accounting for effects on the ‘demand side’, i.e. consumers. Scan the archives of the host of this blog, artsjournal.com, and see that for articles about Amazon, for example, the ratio of stories that concern Amazon’s potential harm to writers, publishers, and other bookstores, to the number of articles that note how Amazon has brought a vast inventory and diversity of books to consumers everywhere at very low prices, is about one thousand to zero. Likewise articles about Spotify. Producers are organized enough to use reporting to their advantage, but arts consumers are not, and are never quoted in stories.
And so it is with Ms Taylor’s article. That Netflix has enormously increased the range of movies available to folks in Saskatoon and Sudbury is not on her radar. Instead, it is that ‘Netflix is taking an estimated $445-million a year in subscription fees out of Canada.’ Subscription fees go ‘out’, but let’s keep in mind that movies come ‘in’, and that makes people happy. The Donald Trump-ian approach to international trade is as wrong in discussing media services as it is for anything else.
But what is specifically Canadian here is the notion that popular culture up north (and, for me, back home) needs ‘nurturing’, even though the policies of grants, tax breaks and trade protection that have swaddled film and television production, and music, now apply to a sector well past the age of eligibility for receiving benefits under the Canada Pension Plan (a taste of the protectionist rules for music recording can be found here). And applying the criteria of performance management: what has it yielded? The golden age of television and film production is always just around the corner, but we never seem to get there. And so always a call from Canadian media industry (but never Canadian consumers) that US premium cable channels need blocking, that radio stations need rules on Canadian content, that Canadian literature is doomed if investment laws are loosened to allow more freedom for foreign-owned bookshops.
The problem with Canadian cultural industries is that energy is focused on lobbying, regulatory capture of government agencies, and ‘the sky is falling’ conferences at the U of T, rather than devoting all effort making things people want to watch and listen to. There are some good movies that have come out of Canada, and good music and good books. Make more of them. But don’t think the solution lies in more trade and investment rules. They haven’t worked, they never will.