How Trickle Down Music is helping artists punch upstream

By Tom Beedham | Art by: Tom Beedham

“We’re surrounded by programs and grant systems — just systems in general in the music industry — that seem to always have the artist as the afterthought and never the main crux of new initiatives. It never seems to trickle down to the artists themselves.”

Gesturing to trickle-down economics, Calgary guitarist and arts administrator Shawn Petsche paints a troubling picture of the place musicians find themselves in. 

Intimately familiar with the grant and royalty management landscape, in May, Petsche launched Trickle Down Music as an online resource to demystify and expedite their processes so musicians have one less obstacle to overcome.

A play on the term typically reserved for criticizing economic systems that preach an environment where wealth from the ruling class will eventually reach the working class, he says the point of the website “is actually to punch up, not trickle down.”

As the former festival manager of Sled Island Music & Arts Festival and a member of Napolmpom and Self-Cut Bangs, Petsche has spent more than a decade maneuvering the barriers and misgivings of the Canadian music industry, but Trickle Down Music is ostensibly low on critique and a firmly generative project aimed instead at reducing barriers to entry and increasing infiltration.

“If you’re good at Google you can figure out how to register your songs on SOCAN, you can figure out what grants are available to you, but if you don’t know what to Google, you end up missing steps,” Petsche says. Simply formatted and primarily text-based with no frills or ads, the site offers an artist-centred resource abundant in checklists, timelines, and links to additional resources users can reference to ensure they’re collecting royalties that they’re due, as well as templates and samples of successful grant applications– equipping artists to fend for themselves and skip the added cost of a manager or grant writer in the process. 

“At the very least it walks you through everything you should be thinking about without having to visit 25 different websites,”he says.

Grant applications are never a sure thing and performance royalties are not overly substantial, Petsche disclaims, but he insists the time invested in the process is worth it in the long run, connecting artists to cash flows they would otherwise never touch. In the case of registering with performance royalty organization (PRO) SOCAN and submitting a setlist for a concert, the resulting payout can be a not insignificant top up to a venue guarantee.

“The amount you get depends on the size of the venue, how many people attended, the cover charge, if it was a festival, et cetera, but on average, I found it used to be about 40 bucks a show for our band. So if you’re doing a tour, that can be gas or go towards a hotel for the night or it can pay for lunch for the band,” Petsche insists. “If you’re not doing it, you’re leaving money on the table.”

On a grander scale, the accelerationist imposition of a project like Trickle Down Music can pose important challenges to the structural frameworks of systems governing those funds, drawing heavily on their resources and flooding them with applicants. Managing the increased traffic alone would ideally force these publicly funded granting bodies and PROs to reckon with their models and restructure social relations in terms more favourable to working class artists. Or, at the very least, this intensification could overwhelm granting bodies with data to take to their respective municipal, provincial, or federal governments and build a case for increased funding or perhaps the creation of new or more comprehensive funding streams. 

“One of the things I find really frustrating with the arts funding in Canada is that so many [grant] programs forbid the artists from paying themselves or forbid the artists from claiming subsistence,” Petsche gripes. Typically, grant funding is available for costs like recording in a professional studio, working with a publicist, or filming a music video, but the same funds are off the table when artists choose to provide the same services in-house, and they rarely compensate the time and energy that goes into making the music itself and stimulating the economy around it, let alone basic subsistence. This material imbalance tacitly suggests Canada’s music granting system does not value artists for their direct economic contributions, but rather as conduits commuting those funds to labourers in more outwardly professionalized and technologically immersed areas of the industry.

As a result, artists are paradoxically incentivized to shoulder those burdens themselves at the same time as they are disqualified from receiving payment for them from the same granting bodies that would fund work others would receive if employed to do it for them.

“It’s a really outdated system,” Petsche laments. “Particularly as more and more musicians are recording from home and being asked to be musician-agent-manager-social media-website administrator-graphic designer-et ceteras — doing everything themselves.”

It doesn’t help that these organizations rely on prudent spending from government bodies, and that their viability can shift drastically with leadership changes.

In March, the Ford government announced plans to maintain its base funding to the Ontario Arts Council while nixing the $5 million it contributed towards one-time initiatives, funds the OAC said in February were distributed for diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives to Indigenous arts organizations and other marginalized or minority groups and for innovative artistic approaches.

Alberta musicians were similarly neglected. While Alberta’s United Conservative Party government topped up the $2 million initially allotted for its Stabilize Live Music Grant in February 2022 with another million, offering $1,500 to musicians and up to $25,000 to for-profit music venues, the program was nowhere to be found in the government’s 2023 budget.

Reporting the OAC story for the Globe and Mail, Josh O’Kane joined a chorus in the public funding sector by pointing out that “simply maintaining the OAC’s baseline funding year-to-year would also mean less money in real terms in an era of high inflation,” citing a Statistics Canada figure from January pinning the annual rate of inflation at 5.9 per cent.

British Columbia’s spending meanwhile has continued to buttress the sector locally, announcing in April that through the BC Arts Council, it would distribute $34.5 million through its own one-time funds to 337 arts and culture organizations as part of sustained COVID-19 recovery support. Following the province’s February investment of $30 million in the Fairs, Festivals and Events program, the funds made available by the province’s NDP government far exceed those supplied by Ontario and Alberta’s conservative governments; still, BC’s spendings neglect to provide direct assistance to working artists, favouring infrastructural support instead.

Additional flaws exist within the economy of royalty distribution and the legitimacy granted to movement throughout the live performance sphere. For instance, SOCAN only distributes live performance royalties to artists if the venues they play are in their system. As a result, performances in informal settings like house shows and raves do not typically generate live performance royalties as the venues rarely pay licensing fees to SOCAN due to their underground nature. Meanwhile, these venues play an important role in generating value in the industry as talent incubators and exposure stages that put acts in front of invested audiences and communities.

“There’s a very important part of the music industry that’s below the surface and that tends to be ignored through funding, but also through any kind of institutional support at all,” Petsche explains.

Some argue those underinvestments are most in focus examining the imbalanced funding practices of non-profit public/private funding partnership FACTOR — a perennial source of hand wringing.

Offering successful applicants up to $10,000 in funds via its Juried Sound Recording stream, FACTOR grants are some of the most sought after in the country, but many argue not all of the country is treated equally by the music fund.

In 2013, this led New Feeling co-founder and prior organizing member Paul Lawton to spout off about the funding body on the infamous Tumblr blog Slagging Off. In a post titled The Trouble with FACTOR (the Slagging Off Tumblr no longer exists but posts are archived on Lawton’s personal website), Lawton skewered the funding body for supporting “a small percentage of well connected insiders” in the name of industry growth and artist development. Identifying FACTOR’s top funding recipients from 2003-2013, the blog also honed in on the labels working with the acts to secure that funding approval as well as the funds the label received from FACTOR under various programs, the genre the act worked within and the region they hailed from, as well as the label’s physical proximity to FACTOR headquarters. 

Revealing an overwhelming bias toward indie rock, Lawton concluded that FACTOR was a broken funding system that neglected to conduct meaningful outreach beyond Toronto-based “business class individuals who have set themselves up to live off the profits of middle of the road indie rock.” 

Seven years later, the granting body received more criticism when Grimes was listed as the recipient of a $90,000 FACTOR subsidy (contrary to their own 2020 recipients list, FACTOR later issued a statement explaining the label Crystal Math Music Inc., home to Grimes as well as Metric, Half Moon Run, and Emily Haines was the the applicant for the grant, and not Grimes herself).

Despite failures to deliver, funding bodies like FACTOR and the Canada Council for the Arts have it in their respective mandates to provide support across all of Canada, and voices within the sector have even acknowledged an existential dilemma in organization dispatches.

In a final entry on the Canada Council for the Arts blog, in May, outgoing Director and CEO Simon Brault identified four major transformations arts funders need to accelerate to “meet the realities of the 21st century and better our divided, impoverished, and endangered planet”: (1) putting equity, diversity, inclusion and access at the fore; (2) decolonizing arts funding; (3) breaking down silos and fostering connections; and (4) playing a role beyond funding.

Although presented in the problematic consequentialist framing of sidestepping “greater and greater irrelevance, if not their demise,” it is promising to see funding authorities grappling with their power; even better would be conduct in the name of basic decency and care.

While national funding bodies like Canada Council for the Arts and FACTOR have the largest proifles, Petsche urges artists not to ignore granting opportunities that are available to them more locally, boasting less competition and barriers to entry.

“They’re way more accessible in terms of what they ask of you when you’re submitting,” Petsche says, citing success applying for funds through Alberta Music and Calgary Arts Development. They’re way more intuitive, they’re way simpler, you don’t have to prove yourself as much, and you also know that you’re being juried by people in your city or at least province,” he says.

As the sector modernizes, Petsche intends to update the website in turn. The launch prompted a flurry of updates following suggestions a wave of eager visitors reached out with, and Petsche intends to curate the press lists he sends out so they’re targeted to specific genres. The website acknowledges it is informed by “an independent rock focus,” but maintains “much of it is broadly applicable to musicians of various genres around the world.” Regardless, he hopes to adapt.

“My hope is that it’s not just this static resource that got launched once, but stays relevant and ideally becomes more relevant to people that don’t sound like I do or live where I live.”

And it will have to. Until governments, funding bodies, and PROs break from a totalizing perspective and acknowledge the varied socio-economic conditions artists grapple with, adapting their policies and interventions to address inequities across the board, resources like Petsche’s have the perpetual errand of pushing them to their limits at every turn. Artist-oriented COVID-19 relief efforts showed promise and demonstrated it is possible to connect artists to material security, but without a sustained commitment to reorganizing the built environment from the bottom-up, artists will need every resource they can get to stay afloat and punch upstream.

*Full disclosure: in 2021, the author of this story participated in a panel discussion moderated by Petsche as part of Sled Island’s Rebooting the Music Mainframe symposium. In the same year, New Feeling presented a showcase benefiting Afros In Tha City at Sled Island.*