Digital culture fails to pay artists, says new UNESCO report

“A basic paradox has emerged, whereby people’s global consumption of, and reliance on, cultural content has increased, however, at the same time, those who produce arts and culture...

0

The creative industries around the world lost 10 million jobs in 2020, a UNESCO report estimates, with artists’ incomes collapsing even as digital consumption of culture rises.

The report, initiated before the pandemic, covers the impact of COVID-19 closings on the arts but is more broadly concerned with artists’ incomes. At a time when the music streaming service Spotify is mired in controversy over its relationship with musicians, the report notes that it has never been easier to access culture digitally yet never harder for artists to get paid for their work.

The pandemic has underlined this trend because the rise in streaming revenues since March, 2020, more than offsets the loss of revenue in the live performance sector, and yet that money has not flowed to those who have lost their incomes, the report said.

“A basic paradox has emerged, whereby people’s global consumption of, and reliance on, cultural content has increased, however, at the same time, those who produce arts and culture find it increasingly difficult to work,” Ernesto Ottone, UNESCO’s assistant director-general for culture, said in a statement released by the UN organization that covers culture, education and science.

“We need to rethink how we build a sustainable and inclusive working environment for cultural and artistic professionals who play a vital role for society, the world over.”

The report calculates that the global gross value added in the cultural and creative industries contracted by US$750-billion in 2020, with the revenue for cultural and creative industries shrinking between 20 per cent and 40 per cent in the countries where data are available. Internationally, UNESCO estimated the cultural sector accounted for more than 3 per cent of GDP; in Canada, Statistics Canada had estimated it at 4 per cent.

The UNESCO report, which also includes sections on achieving ethnic diversity, gender equity and Indigenous participation in cultural industries, argues that the current business models for digital services are simply not sustainable for artists.

The report, entitled Re|Shaping Policies for Creativity, takes the example of Zimbabwe where one-third of the population accesses music through streaming services but almost 70 per cent of musicians say they make no income from streaming.

Musicians’ complaints that they see little to no revenue from services such as Spotify are long-standing but recently the relationship has been further complicated by prominent performers, led by Canadian-American rock star Neil Young, pulling their music from the service to protest it programming the Joe Rogan podcast, which has included misinformation about vaccination.

The report also weighs in on the controversial area of national content quotas, noting that an increasing number of countries, including Canada, Australia and South Africa, are considering how streaming services can be made to take responsibility for providing local content.

Following a European Union directive to member states stipulating that streaming services such as Netflix must be required to ensure at least 30-per-cent European content in their catalogues, both France and Spain have moved ahead with yet higher quotas.

In Canada, a bill to update the Broadcasting Act to include streaming services is currently before Parliament. Although it would be up to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to figure out the logistics, most supporters assume it will mainly require financial contributions, not content quotas.

Services such as Spotify, Netflix or Disney Plus would be required to contribute financially to Canadian production funds or to spend a percentage of Canadian revenues on Canadian content, but would not be told how much Canadian content to include in their catalogues. The Ministry of Canadian Heritage has estimated that these levies would raise about $830-million for Canadian production.

On the other hand, there has been less discussion of how to ensure that income from streaming flows more directly to artists. UNESCO cited Quebec’s 2017-19 action plan for the music industry as the only reported example of a jurisdiction intervening directly to address the impact of digital technology on its music industry.

The report, the third in a series, aims to monitor the success of the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, a convention aimed at countering the effects of globalization on culture. These have tended to create a one-way trade relationship – from the United States in particular – to the rest of the world. The convention has been ratified by 150 countries including Canada but not the United States.

In this article

Join the Conversation