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Jordan Officer (pt. 2): Three albums, one petition… two interviews

Interview by Alain Brunet

Montrealer Jordan Officer has invested himself in the three fundamental axes of his art: jazz, blues, and country. The release of a triptych recorded by the guitarist, violinist, and singer coincides with his public statement concerning the dwindling incomes of musicians in a digital environment dominated by streaming on the web. The result is an intense cycle of creativity: three albums released by Spectra Musique, a petition of 6,000 names submitted to the Parliament of Canada, and public performances. This justifies two separate interviews with PAN M 360: one artistic, one political. This is the second one.

Genres and styles : Blues / Country / Jazz

Additional Information

Photo: Geneviève Bellemare

For Jordan Officer, the COVID-19 pandemic was an opportunity to realize the extent of the damage caused by the dramatic decline in revenue from physical and digital recordings.

Sales no longer mean much, streaming has become the norm for good, but it still needs to be made economically viable and sustainable for the musicians, creators, and performers who fill the platforms every day. For the moment, streaming revenues are negligible for artists, with only a small minority of them benefiting from it.

“Has my status as a musician declined with streaming? Yes, that’s for sure. Back when you were releasing an album and you could sell thousands of albums, you could plan your life based on one income from performing and one from recording. That doesn’t exist anymore. My fellow musicians and I are all used to that. 

“Gradually, we saw the recording as a tool to make ourselves known. But since the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve realized that it doesn’t make sense to accept the disappearance of income from recording. Right now, we can record albums while waiting for shows to resume… and that could certainly be more profitable.”

Make Streaming Sustainable is the headline of a petition launched by Officer, which collected more than 6,000 signatures before being presented to the House of Commons in Ottawa. Already, Steven Guilbeault, Minister of Canadian Heritage, has shown his sensitivity to the demands of the signatory musicians, who have been mobilized by several Facebook posts by Officer on the issue of streaming. 

How to explain this situation to the Canadian Heritage department?

“I had a first connection with Steven Guilbeault when he was president of Équiterre, because our daughters were enrolled in the same class in elementary school. In addition, my sister-in-law is a lawyer and knows him well. We had virtual meetings with him and his team, we also participated together in a panel discussion on Pénélope McQuade’s show. I found it really interesting that the Minister of Canadian Heritage was listening. I was then able to discuss this with a lot of people, and I am still in conversation with some very committed musicians on this issue. I am thinking in particular of David Bussières, Ariane Moffatt and Laurence Lafond-Beaulne (Milk & Bones).”

Any short-term results?

“It gave visibility to the issue, but not much happened,” says Officer. “Since the pandemic, we’ve been in crisis-management mode a lot to help musicians. As far as streaming is concerned, it’s a longer-term project, we’ll have to change laws, but we shouldn’t wait until later to start doing it. This subject must remain in the news.”

Awareness of this issue is recent for many artists, although others have been reporting on it for years. So why is a Jordan Officer lighting up in 2020 rather than 2010?

“For everyone,” he answers, “the challenges of digital technology are difficult to grasp, it’s still a new reality that remains abstract. For my part, I took the time to understand the streaming issue in order to offer a credible, honest and thoughtful voice. As I researched the issue, I realized that if I brought my voice to the debate, it could help.”

Thus, Jordan Officer has launched a 6,000-name petition that is gathering new members every day, to become one of the leading musicians in this vast issue:

“We’ve tabled the petition in the House of Commons, we’re waiting for the official response… In the meantime, we’ve seen other emergencies, that of accompanying musicians and technicians, not all of whom are eligible for assistance programs. I, for one, am fortunate enough to be able to apply for grants and propose projects. Generally speaking, it’s difficult, whether at the provincial or federal level. Elected officials are doing their best, I think, but…so much is happening at the same time.”

We know that the Canadian government is relying on a much-awaited OECD report on the issue of streaming. Ottawa could then clarify its position and affirm it on the international scene.

“In Europe,” Officer recalls, “there are laws in place to collect royalties on smartphones, computer hard drives, and anything else used for permanent or temporary storage. Other countries have started to find solutions to the issue of GAFA taxation but… every country is afraid to act first, fearing retaliation from the US government. 

“Already, however, the Justin Trudeau government could correct the Harper government’s mistakes, among others, on the private copying regime – which provides for levies collected on the purchase of blank media, CDs or cassettes, which are then redistributed to rights holders. However, this regime has not been updated for digital equipment manufacturers. The regime should normally be adapted to new technology media that allow information to be stored or streamed. Tens of millions of dollars could then be paid to artists.”

So this is a very complex problem overall, still far from being solved. Officer is well aware of this.

“I don’t know if there’s an easy solution to submit. For example, streaming sites don’t make a lot of profit, contrary to popular belief, but it’s still very profitable for other players in the industry, including Internet Service Providers who sell their services at high prices. So we are selling these Internet accesses for culture, but we avoid the responsibility of paying the artists. It seems to me that when these companies have profit margins of around 50%, we are entitled to demand royalties. Even in the context of the pandemic, we don’t always see how the money from new government support is getting to the artists. We want more transparency.”

Collective rights societies (SOCAN, etc.), artists’ unions (UDA, Musicians’ Guild, etc.) and other organizations such as Regroupement des artisans de la musique (RAM) are multiplying the number of performances to win their case. 

Jordan Officer sits on the Board of Directors of Artisti, a Quebec collective management society representing performing artists. However, on the issue of streaming music, he is more or less going it alone, speaking on his own behalf and leading the petition file tabled in the House of Commons.

“I think the RAM is doing a very good job on this issue, but I’m not directly involved with this organization or any other organizations speaking out on this issue. Will I? At the moment, I feel that I have more impact and credibility by speaking out as an individual, as myself. I may be wrong, but that is my impression at the moment. But I certainly want to collaborate and contribute to moving this important issue forward.”

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