Q&A: TRAVIS Talks Art with CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi

Jian Ghomeshi is a busy man. He hosts Q, a daily arts program on CBC Radio, manages up-and-coming superstar Lights, and when he’s not making music with his legendary folk-pop band, Moxy Früvous he’s a regular contributor to The Hour. Having surrounded himself with art his whole life while watching the digital revolution take over, we wondered where he saw real change and where the whole art scene was heading. Between stops in Montreal, Chicago and Los Angeles, TRAVIS caught up with Ghomeshi to see where he thinks the future of art will be bought and sold. Scott McManus gives us the scoop. Read the unabridged interview here.

The CBC's Jian Ghomeshi talks art with TRAVIS

The CBC's Jian Ghomeshi talks art with TRAVIS

TRAVIS: What are the benefits and drawbacks of the digital music revolution?

Ghomeshi: Well, you know when you talk about the digital music revolution we could be talking about a lot of different things. We could be talking about how recording techniques have changed; we could be talking about how easy it is to distribute one’s music using the Internet. We could be talking about how digital music has taken – some would argue – the soul out of music that used to be on analog. But I think when you say digital, you’re usually talking about cyberspace and the way things have changed in terms of the distribution of music.
     So, just five years ago we didn’t have the strength of MySpace, YouTube, iTunes, Yahoo! the way we do now, and that has revolutionized music. I think the greatest benefit is that it has democratized the ability to get your name out there so that all of a sudden an independent band in Guelph, Ontario can reach kids in Los Angeles, New York or London, England as easily as major label artists in a big city in one of those countries could do. The downside is with more competition and the increasing democratization of cyberspace and the Internet, the big dogs are increasingly controlling. The corporate interests are controlling what you see and hear and have access to in cyberspace as well, so it’s not all democracy and freedom. The bottom line to a certain extent is still what’s romantic about music is that great songs and artists have an ability to capture people’s imagination and there’s a magic to a great song that will draw people to it. That was true in 1956 with Paul Anka and Diana, and it’s true today. The digital revolution has made that process and ability so much faster.
     There’s so many stories now. The Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen and Lights here in Canada – of successful artists whose starting point was throwing some stuff up on the Internet on MySpace and being heard by people who then catapulted them into public acknowledgement.

You touched on both sides there. Do you think record companies are more in touch with the new media scene or are artists more in touch with it?

I think the major labels were caught with their pants down in the ‘90s – we all know that now. Napster and beyond that, the major labels did not transform and adjust fast enough and suffered because of it. I think there’s been all this talk for the last decade about the crisis in the music business, but really I’ve never believed that the crisis in the music business was the reality for artists, and certainly not for independent labels. The crisis came for major label middle management with bloated salaries, who cannot count on that anymore because people can do without them… There isn’t a crisis in the music business in terms of people having access to or love music more than ever around the world. The crisis is not a crisis so much as a change in platforms and consumption patterns and the real losers are, like I say, major label middle managers. I think artists’ ability to get their music out there and control their own careers is the greatest it’s ever been.

So if middle management is proof that the industry has been hurting financially, has it also been hurting artistically? Where has it been hurting artistically?

I don’t think it has been hurting artistically. I think the explosion of independent music and Canada being at the forefront of wildly creative musical projects like… the Arcade Fire, an extremely creative band with what they’re doing. Same is true of the New Pornogrophers, Stars, Crystal Castles, Metric, Junior Boys, or Death From Above [1979]. I mean all of those artists have emerged – Broken Social Scene, too – without a major label and they all have emerged in a new reality that allows for more creative diversity, more creative exploration, and despite myopic and narrow radio playlists, these bands are finding outlets so that Broken Social Scene has virtually never been played on commercial radio. CBC would play them and a couple other places that’s it, and yet they can go platinum and sell-out concerts. That would suggest to me that artistry isn’t suffering. At the other end of it, things are becoming more and more polarized so there’s certain bands or albums that are more manufactured than ever. They have numerous producers and just one or two years ago there were five or six different albums that all sounded like Timbaland, because Timbaland was producing them. He’s a talented guy, but that doesn’t allow for a lot of artistic dexterity. It’s just a guy pumping stuff out on a major label budget.
     So I think that exists too and that has to do with the conservatism of the major labels trying to go with sure bets because they’re worried about losing more money, but in general, I think artistry has flourished.

You’re an artist. Your band Moxy Früvous started out as buskers. Do you see similarities now with ‘pay what you want’ downloading?

Hey man, when we were out there, a lot of what we did in the ‘90s was a precursor to what’s happening today. We were an independent band. For us it was literally mailing lists, sending out postcards and e-mailing. We didn’t have MySpace in the ‘90s, but we were very much… it sounds kind of funny to say, but the reality was our success was exactly what is happening on the independent-level based on the digital revolution now. It was exactly the same thing; it was just in a more primitive form.
     In 1997, USA Today wrote a bit about us as one of the new “Internet bands.” What they meant by that was a lot of people were going to our website and ordering music from there. They couldn’t download the music at the time. They would literally go to the website and e-mail and send money and get the record shipped to them. But what was happening was we had this massive word-of-mouth happening that was based in the Internet, and that was really important, because we were a quirky band. Other than the first one or two songs on our first album, we barely got any commercial play in Canada and we ended up selling half a million records and that was because people were hearing us in different ways outside of the commercial mainstream.
     The other thing we did, if you’re looking for a metaphor around the downloading debate now, at the time when we were touring in the mid-‘90s people would come to shows and tape the show and we struggled with that at first. This goes back to the Grateful Dead back in the ‘60s and ‘70s where people would go and tape the Dead shows and then trade tapes. So we struggled with this at first. We were like, ‘Well if someone is going to come and record us, why are they going to go buy our record?’ We quickly realized that the truth is that by allowing recording and allowing people to share the music, we would gain more fans who were not just fans but were devotees and would come to the concerts, buy our T-shirts, buy whatever record we put out still and really buy into the whole idea of the band. That was exactly the same issue that people grapple with now in terms of allowing free downloads or streaming their songs on MySpace.
     That’s why I was a big proponent to some people in the music business in the late ‘90s and early new millennium. I was a big supporter of Napster for that very reason because my position has always been, ‘Look, let the artist make the decision.’ If the artist decides to allow people to experience their music for free, that doesn’t mean necessarily the artist can’t make it into a career, it can actually be created in the conditions where they’re making real fans.

If we move from music to video, what aspects make the online video revolution different from music?

Again, I think that there’s a tremendous accessibility and democratization of art that is happening whereby people can make a short film, relatively cheaply ‘cause the technology is cheaper, and you don’t have to go and show it at an art house theatre and hope that people come or sell VHS copies or something. Now you can just post it and people can watch it. So that has allowed to point out the extremely obvious YouTube. Just in the last two or three years, user-generated content has grown exponentially and has become wildly creative and way more interesting and diverse than it has before and there is so much access to cool things that people are creating.
     Now, having said that, all of these new models as they change, as platforms grow and morph they will need to develop structures for the artist at the root of them and the creators to be compensated, I believe that should happen. So while I don’t have a hard line policy around what’s happening with films streaming on the Internet, I also recognize at the same time these movies cost a lot of money to make, and in some cases, they’re not all fat cats who are making them. It could be indie Canadian projects or something that are going to depend on people paying to see the films and make their money back. So we have to figure out ways that’s going to work.
     But in general, I think the knee-jerk reaction for the audience at large and certainly from the entrainment industry is to be afraid of technological change. It’s to go, ‘Oh, we’re not sure about this,’ and that’s not new. Like that happened when the videocassette came out, there was a cry from the movie business saying no one is going to go to movies anymore ‘cause they can watch them on video. When the cassette tape came out people were freaking out thinking that no one would buy records anymore ‘cause they can just tape the songs off the radio. With every change in technology and new platform, these theories exist. I think the benefits of the kind of accessibility of art that the digital revolution has created far outweigh the concerns of how to structure this so the creators and industry make their money.

Are the video producers learning from the music industry? Were they not caught with their pants down?

Yes and no. I mean I think you have some interesting examples of where NBC was pulling skits from Saturday Night Live off the Internet and not letting people see them. They freaked out about if people will even watch the show anymore. Then they realized that was just futile and ridiculous. The more people who watch Saturday Night Live online, the bigger the show is, the more people are gonna watch it on TV, which is exactly what happened. So I think yes and no, I think the music industry had it worst in terms of being caught with their pants down, but I think that the entertainment industry in general gets scared by these kinds of changes and continues to sometimes make decisions that are counterintuitive to what would be best for them.

You talk a lot about fear with this technological change. Why do you think advertisers are scared of the Internet?

I don’t think advertisers are scared of the Internet, I think advertisers are harnessing the Internet. I think that the concern so far has been a struggle around whether the Internet delivers the same amount of punch in terms of moving consumers to product as television ads, radio ads or print ads do. So I think a few things we’ve seen in major growth in online advertising, but the online advertising industry still does not outweigh the offline industry. I think it’s been more about how to really sell products in cyberspace effectively when people can click beyond it very quickly and easily. But I don’t think advertisers are afraid of it, I think that’s just a shift that’s occurring and we’re seeing more and more of it happening.

Will copyright become obsolete?

Not obsolete. I think that there are going to be issues that need to be battled over. Everything is still in flux, you know. Like things are still being figured out. This is still a process and so there’s no hard and fast answer yet to a lot of these questions. But I believe we’re getting to a place where people are more comfortable.
     I think what was happening initially was a complete rejection of the Internet. For example, major labels opposing downloading in the beginning, and now I think that there’s more recognition in the entertainment business and cultural industries you cannot stop the cyberspace train. So now it’s more about how to figure this out so that all the players involved can still survive. So some big companies are trying to diversify to make this work. Issues then like copyright are still in flux.

I’ve never paid for any of your material. I download Q as a podcast, your documentary, The End I watched all three parts by streaming them on the Internet and I can download your music. How does that make you feel?

I’m fine with that because most of what you just talked about is on CBC. So we want the podcast to be free and we want you to be able to listen to my show commercial-free. I don’t have any problems with you downloading my music either. I think that there are broader questions. Like, I think, for example, if you like what you hear on Q and you like a song, or the end, I think it’s important to support public broadcasting so that funding continues to happen for that. I think if you like my music it would be important to at some point support me as an artist. If I would be out there playing I would want you to come out and see me and buy tickets to see me, and end up supporting me one way or another. But in general, my immediate reaction is if you believe in a broader system of society of arts and artists I don’t have any problems with you getting all that stuff without having to pay for it.

  1. April 9th, 2009

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