Award-winning songwriting and Canadian legend Ian Thomas whose songs have found international success with many artists such as Santana, America, Manfred Man, Chicago, Bette Midler and Ann Murray, played an integral part of the evolution of the Songwriters Association of Canada. We invited him to share his memories of the journey. We also hope you will hear his appeal and join us.
In the words of Ian Thomas
In the mid-eighties I went to Ottawa with a group of songwriters to bend the ear of then Minister of Communications, Flora MacDonald. The issue of the day was that the mechanical rate for song usage in recordings had been fixed at 2 cents in 1924 and over 60 years later the rate was still sitting at … 2 cents. It was a wake up call for many songwriters who, like myself, had been living in a bit of a bubble. Many of us just couldn’t believe why no one had done anything about this? More importantly though was the realization of why we expected someone else to look out for our interests in the first place. We needed to grow up.
That Ottawa trip and the attendant publicity succeeded – the mechanical rate increased. The publicity alone probably outed and shamed the industry into action. An awakening creative community of songwriters shortly thereafter founded the SAC. It was a group of talented writers and kindred spirits who knew that songwriters needed dome serious advocacy and education in the business of music.
From 1998 to 2000, I took a turn as president of the SAC in a rather transitional time. The board and I worked hard and we accomplished a lot. We acquired a greater national profile, our own office, our first full time Executive Director, our first full time secretary and a new quarterly magazine.
Songwriters Magazine stirred up criticism from a few industry moguls. One article brought on considerable harrumphing from a few publishers. The article, “Looney Tunes” used some actual contracts to show how little money could trickle down to songwriters on every dollar earned. It was an educational, not a sensationalist, article and so no names were mentioned. We offered to print any rebuttals but none were offered. It’s hard to argue facts. The real problem was that advocacy for the creative community was offensive to some who posed as champions of writers while making a living at acquiring their rights. There were many in the music business establishment who simply didn’t like the notion of writers becoming better businessmen.
We visited the Heritage Ministry in Ottawa often in my years as SAC president. I must admit then Heritage Minister, Sheila Copps was a friend to the creative community. I think she sensed that authors’ rights were something of a canary in the coalmine in the fallout from international trade agreements and multinational corporations. Despite a sympathetic minister, I soon understood the sad reality that our Canadian government was merely a government by the best-funded lobby. Then, as now, we were up against an ever-increasing full court press from corporate lawyers working 24/7 to whittle away creator’s rights. My two years as president were an age of reason compared to current realities where unbridled capitalism is so mistakenly being considered the same thing as democracy. Where the common good is evaporating into the garish wealth acquisition by the few.
We have seen “work for hire” language erode creative rights. Language in some film contracts currently demands that, “producer shall be known as author of all work created by composer”. The latter is like Morris Levy of Roulette Records who, in the formative days of rock n’roll, insisted on co -author status of anything released on his label. I never imagined this would become a corporate template with full authorship, no less. Such corporate evolution requires a permissive societal moral regression.
Some commercial music users state that SOCAN and songwriters do not “fit into our business model”. That model seeks profit from music streaming without paying a penny for the music. This is akin to wanting to open a chain of hamburger outlets around the world … if they can get the hamburger for free. Outrageous? Not in the corporate boardrooms of the new millennium.
A few songwriters have a lofty notion that music should be free. In 2014, corporations hold an unbridled sense of entitlement to songwriters income as they seek to drift-net the industry. “Free music” means somebody else will gladly take the income your music might generate if you find it so distasteful. You won’t be writing for a living … well not your own.
The future has never looked so bleak for music creators. This has become a struggle for our very economic existence. As writers we have never needed the SAC more than we do now. As Canadians, there has never been a time when we needed to seriously dig down deep and “stand on guard for thee.” Take your pick. As a Canadian … or as a songwriter, it is our watch.
Disclaimer: This blog is part of an occasional series whereby those involved in the founding of the Songwriters Association of Canada have been invited to share their memories with us. These articles represent the recollections, perspective and opinions of their author only, and not the organization.