Belgium’s Grand Plan to Save Music

On second thought, forget the Roman Catholic Church: it’s the music industry that is the institution really going down the drain these days! (Not only that, you just know that the latter has many more instances of depraved sexual abuse hidden away in its dark closets – but do you ever hear of journalists or the authorities getting upset about those?)

Not to worry, though: Belgium is on the case! Minister for Culture Fadila Laanan – that’s right, she’s of Moroccan extraction – has just unveiled a twenty-point plan for coming to the rescue, as the mysterious journalist “S.L.” discusses in La Libre Belgique. (You can get the 13-page PDF of Minister Laanan’s plan – in French, bien sûrhere. Yes, in the meantime the Belgium government has fallen, but it takes so long to put a new one together that you can be sure that Ms. Laanan will remain at least in a caretaker capacity for some time.)

Alright, now that we’re on the other side of the jump it’s probably time to abandon the snarky attitutde – although really, the thought of Belgium pioneering a public policy approach to much of anything save perhaps French fry quality or beer microbrewing still has to elicit a chuckle. However, what should be kept in mind is the limited scope of the ambition here: Ms. Laanan’s initiative is not even meant for the entire Belgian music industry, but only for that within the country’s French-speaking community. And it is still useful to examine what she has in mind, to see whether she “gets it” and how her proposal squares against other opinions about what ails the music industry,

For the music industry does ail in Belgium, too, even “vertiginously” so, as “S.L.” puts it: a 60% fall in sales over the last six years. What does Fadila Laanan see as the cause of this commercial catastrophe? Two things: 1) Lack of cultural (i.e. governmental) support, and, of course, 2) The explosion of illegal downloading and file-sharing.

Right there you could think that she is on the wrong track. We’re talking here about non-“classical” music, after all – since when did that stand in need of any support from the government in order to thrive? As for file-sharing, that’s the quick-and-easy cause to blame for the record companies’ problems, but in reality the cause-and-effect connection is not definitive; many studies have shown that the sort of finding and sampling functions such file-sharing enables actually serve to increase the music sales. Others would assert that those record companies are hurting mainly because they have ceased to offer much in the way of what customers really want to buy: whole CDs are mostly filled with mediocre songs, for instance, when people really just want to own and listen to the hits. Furthermore, with the increased influence of streaming services the entire notion of “buying” one’s music seems to be giving way to renting it instead, to even a “utilities” model under which (just like for electricity or water – or for Internet) a steady fee is paid for unlimited access – but not ownership – of songs via the Internet.

But there’s little sign of any of that in the specific measures outlined in this Ministry of Culture proposal. Rather, money is mainly to flow into efforts to boost both music’s visibility and professionalism. (Remember, we’re talking specifically here about French-language popular music within Belgium.) Those funds will go to support independent record labels and artistic agencies; to prompt the creation of more video clips as a means to better promote the music; to invest in resources and talent so that both concerts and artistic managers can have a higher degree of professionalism; and the like. At the same time, of course, the government’s legal resources are to be mobilized yet again to counter illegal downloads and file-sharing. Indeed, in her proposal Ms. Laanan specifically promises that Belgium will push hard for this when it takes up the EU Presidency, which it is scheduled to do at the beginning of July. (Of course, that is likely to turn into a farce, among other reasons because the country is sure to lack a working government at that point, but this is a subject for a later blogpost . . .)

Introducing: Larsen

And then the proposal brings up “Larsen.” That, believe it or not, is the name of the streaming music channel that the Ministry of Culture intends to put on-line sometime in June, a “true on-line catalogue of artists of the French[-speaking] Community, available free to all.” Quite apart from the choice of the name – “Larsen” might work as a music channel for Scandinavian lands, one imagines, but it’s hard to see what’s particularly Belgian about it – this seems to show that at least someone there in the Ministry of Culture has an idea of what is really going on in the music industry today. The thing is, “Larsen” also has the potential to work at cross-purposes with the other goals of this initiative – e.g. downloading is a no-no, but hearing a song for free on-line is OK? – depending on what precisely it turns out to be. Which is why, one suspects, it is left so undefined for now, both on the Ministry of Culture’s official announcement and in the Libre Belgique article.

Ever hear the story of King Canute of Merry Olde England? It’s said that he had his throne placed by the seashore, and then sat in it with all his kingly regalia and commanded the incoming tide to halt. It did him little good, and you really have to think that Fadila Laanan’s initiative will be just as successful in stifling current music industry developments, whether or not she confines the Belgian government’s efforts to French-language popular music within that country. Indeed, even the European Union as a whole would have a hard time having any effect. Any such effort would really have to be a global one – and that pretty much describes the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement that has been circulating among governments as of late. Perhaps I should have written about that instead – perhaps I still will – but until recently the ACTA has been kept behind closed governmental doors.

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