Canadian indie music won’t recover from COVID until 2023: study

A new music sector report recommends government create a CERB-like financial aid program specifically for cultural workers

It’s been a very tough year for Canada’s independent music industry. With the pandemic cancelling most shows since March, musicians have lost live performance revenue; music venues have gone dark; the live events ecosystem (lighting, production) is devastated; and a new civil rights movement has brought into focus the need for greater racial inclusion and representation.

We knew it was bad, but a new report from the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) and Nordicity puts a number on it: $233 million. That’s how much revenue the music industry lost in just six months according to their new report, The Impact of COVID-19 on Canadian Independent Music.

It’s a very thorough study based on 24 interviews with industry professionals, three national workshops, economic modelling and scenario planning. The report offers optimistic and pessimistic forecasts that take into account a number of different possible scenarios and potential government supports.

According to that modelling, the industry won’t recover to pre-COVID levels until at least 2023-2024. Recovery on that timeline depends on a few things – like major governmental supports for the music industry, a greater confidence among fans going to concerts in 2022, and a greater march towards gender and racial inclusion (which would expand the talent pool within the music industry and replace some people who are forced to exit due to the pandemic).

CIMA’s report focuses mostly on measurable dollar-value metrics. The live sector has taken the biggest hit during the pandemic, with a 79 per cent drop in income from 2019. Nearly 2,000 full-time equivalent jobs were lost in the last six months.

That’s not to say problems didn’t exist in the music industry prior to COVID.

The death of George Floyd gave rise to discussions about systemic racism in many areas. Indeed, systemic bias determines who gets access to grants and funds in Canada, who gets opportunities to play live and have their music heard and who gets past crucial gatekeepers.

This pandemic has widened that divide, as emerging and already marginalized artists have been hit the hardest.

Canadian music industry forecast

It’s easy to dwell on the doom and gloom, but there will eventually be a return to public life post-COVID. And that will eventually include the return of live music.

Some venues and artists are already gearing up for whenever that day comes.

In the meantime, CIMA has recommendations for how the Canadian independent music industry can recover starting in 2021:

  • Extending and enhancing the Canada Music Fund’s Annual and Supplemental Funding
  • Increasing flexibility in how funding is disbursed 
  • Enhancing financial and technical support for audience development 
  • Providing wage support for workers in the Canadian music sector 
  • Creating tailored financing for underrepresented groups
  • Enhancing support for online training for new and emerging music professionals

There’s a lot of nuance to each of those points that you can dig into in the report, but one of the most interesting is the suggestion of wage support for music industry workers.

Many music industry workers are gig workers and freelancers, which means many relied on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) early in the pandemic.

The report also estimates that five per cent of the workforce (870 workers) were supported by the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) between August 30 and September 26.

The report suggests the Canadian music industry could become a global leader by championing a universal basic income for cultural workers. Or if not that, then a low-restriction funding that’s less reliant on specific project-based goals (such as most FACTOR grants).

It also suggests a CERB-like program of flat-fee cash payments targeted to music industry workers, especially those with specific technical skills. The idea is to retain freelance and gig workers who might leave the industry altogether without those supports.

An optimistic scenario with that CERB-like program would cost the government between $29 and $56 million, the report says, and get back $94 million. If the music industry recovered quickly (i.e. by 2023-2024) that fund would ultimately pay itself back.

Even with all the hard numbers, it can’t help but feel uncertain to project in the future when the pandemic still rages on in its second wave. But CIMA is one of many groups in the cultural sphere planning for the eventual light at the end of the tunnel.


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