Musicians consider fairness of grand prize in TTC/Universal Music busker contest

April 12, 2018

By Arianne Robinson

The Toronto Transit Commission has held its subway musician program for nearly 40 years, but this year, the public transit agency is partnering with Universal Music Canada for an online contest that will end with one winner having the chance to build a relationship with the music label giant. This week, Universal Music Canada started accepting online submissions for a contest called “Underground Sounds” that will result in 90 TTC music licences allowing musicians to perform in more than 30 stations throughout the GTA and 10 finalists who will compete at a late-summer show for a deal to record one song with Universal.

The contest started on Monday and, so far, there are 62 submissions.

The contest rules allow for contestants to play any song, including covers or originals, but if the winning song is an original, Universal will own the rights to the publishing and master, with no compensation for the musician and no opportunity to negotiate the deal. There is no obligation for the winner to redeem the prize and record their song.

With that, Universal’s contest prize and offer to record and master one song comes with the label retaining future decisions about the winning song, such as who can cover it during what circumstances, where it can be used, the deciding who will own the recording of the song, the decision about whether other musicians can cover the song, and where the song will be used, including movies, television shows, and commercials.

“Musicians must agree to the terms if they want to participate in a chance to win the grand prize. The terms are non-negotiable for the grand prize winner if they choose to redeem it,” a spokesperson for Universal Music Canada wrote via email.  “UMC will have global rights to the song and will deliver it to Apple. If the song is a cover, whoever owns the publishing will own the copyright of the song. UMC will own the master. If the song is original UMC will own both the publishing and master in perpetuity.”

Juno-award winning Hollerado’s lead singer Menno Versteeg says songs always have value. They’ve licensed songs to TV shows, movies and commercials. Versteeg told Signal Toronto in an interview this week that that profit is significant for musicians.

“My band has licensed songs for like $70,000 or $80,000 for one song [for a commercial], and it doesn’t happen every day, but when it does happen, everyone’s got their rent for the next six months, and your  manager gets paid, and you know, producer gets a bit, and that’s just how the music industry works, it’s paying the artists.”

Versteeg is one of the heads of the label Royal Mountain Records, and they use a 50/50 deal with their musicians.

“That means like we’re in it together, we’re partners, and we pay them money and then when the money comes in, we split it, you know down the middle, that’s how we roll. And that’s like a cool indie way to do it cause you’re partners with your record label, and you both want to work hard, and reap the benefits of your hard work. It’s a creative partnership.”

Beside the issue of compensation, Versteeg says in cases where the song is original, it’s important for the artists they work with to make the decision about where their song will be used. Versteeg has worked with musicians who have turned down deals with television shows and commercials because the original artist didn’t think the use of the song made sense.

“The most common thing is that the artist just feels like it’s a brand that doesn’t represent what they represent,” said the Ottawa-native musician, who busked when he was a teenager.

“They didn’t like the TV show. They just didn’t feel – they just thought it was a bad TV show [laughs] so they didn’t want their music in it, and that makes total sense, you know, if it’s some crappy art, why do you want your music being the soundtrack to crappy art if you worked so hard on it, you know?”

Noah Mintz of the 90’s band hHead calls it a great opportunity for those without any traction in the industry. “Nothing of nothing is still nothing, so if [a musican] put out the song themselves and nothing happens of it – they may want to put it out themselves if they already have some momentum from it, but if they have no momentum, if they’ve got nothing, if their first time they’re coming on the scene, there’s no harm in this, they just don’t get paid all the money on it. [In cases where it’s an original], they’re still going to get paid something on it,” Mintz said via phone, referring to SOCAN royalties.

“But it’s just one song. Who cares? It’s like saying, ‘You can go buy a lottery ticket tonight, but if you buy it tonight, I get half.’ So your choice to not go buy it or buy it, but if you buy it [and win a prize], you have to share it with me. But, I mean, let’s be honest, chances are you’re not going to win, so you’re not really going to have to share it…”

“It’s the same thing with a song, yeah you could argue forever about rights and royalties and everything else, but the chances are that song is never going to make money. I’ve worked with thousands of artists … over the past 20 years, and maybe a handful of people have ever made money from their music. That’s just the way it is. It’s art,” said Mintz, a senior mastering engineer and owner the studio Lacquer Channel Mastering.

Mintz said he had an experience with hHead where it wasn’t worth taking a record deal.  “With my band, we won a radio prize and part of it was that Polygram would put out the song. The deal was very similar. But we had so much momentum going on and we were doing well that it made no sense to do… College radio was playing us, radio was playing us and we were on the up. It was a very different time. It was ’92, it was a very different time. Getting any radio play was phenomenal at the time. There was no internet, no videos for independent artists.

“If they have a few hundred thousand followers on Youtube, they may decide, oh we’ll just release it on Youtube and make more money doing this deal with Universal because through this contest we’ve already gotten some success. But chances are, if they’re a busker, they’re not going to have that.”

Here’s how to win the contest: contestants must submit their song Youtube before May 6th, and approximately 40 time slots will be available at a live audition event. Starting May 7, voters are required to register on the Underground Sounds website, where they will be able to vote on their favourite video, over and over (once every 24 hours), until June 3.

The top ten videos with the most votes will participate in a late-summer live competition show, where one winner will be selected by a panel of judges: three from Universal Canada’s Artist and Repertoire division, and the TTC’s communications specialist, Stuart Green, a former city hall Metroland journalist and guitarist for the band Crawl Rocks.

That grand prize winner will be given the opportunity to to record a song in studio, which Universal says is valued up to $7500. All 90 are required to pay about $200 for a TTC license fee. The grand prize winner will be featured on Apple Music’s Tracks on Tracks playlist for a minimum of 4 weeks.

According to an account executive at SOCAN, each 1000 streams of music is worth approximately $1 in royalties. Writers of original songs always make at least 50 per cent of SOCAN royalties. So for 1500 streams of an original song, the writer will make 75 cents. Factor in licenses for plays on broadcast and other people covering the song, and the worth of the song and royalties paid out will grow.

The value of the music license itself (and revenue earned) depends on the musician and number of hours played. One source told Signal Toronto he made more than minimum wage when playing in stations 25 years ago.

Asked what advice he has for musicians, Versteeg says it should be about the love of doing it.

“Whether Universal’s going  to help you, or a small indie label’s going to come and help you, or no one’s going to help you, if you love it, and you love doing what you do, and you work hard at it, that’s what your success should be, and if you keep at it, you’re going to get opportunities, whether they come from winning a contest or because you wrote a good song and put it on Youtube and it connected with some great people, that’s really what’s important.

“This is not a job for making money. Of course, you hear Drake making tons of money and you hear of bands making tons of money. Those are the exceptions, the most are just hard working people who do a job like anyone else. It’s one that they really love. It’s a lot of work but they deserve to get paid for it.

“You know, if you’re a master of your craft, it’s not your right to get paid for it, but if someone else is making money off your music, you should be also.”