08/23/2011 04:53 EDT | Updated 10/24/2011 05:12 EDT

Government Grants Make Art Worse

To make money as an artist in Canada, you have two choices: Appeal to the crowd, or appeal for a grant. The former requires strong sales, good marketing, and a solid business plan. The latter requires an ability to fill in forms.

There are many Canadian books and albums that no one is ever likely to buy. Unfortunately -- whether you like it or not -- you've already paid for them.

While the world lauds Margaret Atwood and Arcade Fire, hundreds of lesser works slip through our publishing and recording industries every year. Most never stand a chance at making it on the market.

And the industry knows it.

In fact, for many in the industry in Canada it's never been about creating quality products. It's about creating any product that will pad their catalogue and make them eligible for more grant money.

To make money as an artist in Canada, you have two choices: appeal to the crowd, or appeal for a grant. The former requires strong sales, good marketing, and a solid business plan. The latter requires an ability to fill in forms.

If done right, the latter is more lucrative. The Canada Council for the Arts distributes approximately $180 million per year to artists, record companies, and book publishers. In addition, each province has its own Arts Council, which adds over 100 million dollars to the coffers of media publishers (the BC Arts Council, Ontario Arts Council, and Manitoba Arts Council alone do this much). By my estimation, the result is an annual arts budget in excess of $300 million in a country of only 33 million people.

William Hopper, author of the Heathen's Guide to World Religions faced the crowd/grant dilemma in the book publishing business. Having started out independently printing and selling his work, he eventually secured a publishing deal to re-release the wildly popular book through normal channels.

Hopper unwittingly entered the modern world of grant-oriented pulp. He tells me that the publisher (who will go unnamed) used a spell-checker to 'correct' the Greek, Hebrew, and Latin words used in the text. As none of these were in the dictionary, substitutions were made and promptly forgotten about.

Hopper was furious. He got the rights to his book back, but not before he learned a valuable lesson:

"When your primary income comes from government grants, you have no incentive to do a good job," Hopper explains.

Publishers are punctilious about the requirements to get a grant, less so about the other elements of launching a successful book, like copy editing.

Or actually getting the product into stores. That's what happened to Lindy Vopnfjord, a Toronto-based independent musician. When his fifth studio album, Suspension of Disbelief, was released in 2004, Toronto's CHUM-FM put "Beautifully Undone" on high rotation. That should have garnered major sales. But Lindy's fans wrote him to tell him that they couldn't find his album in stores.

In hindsight, Hopper says both he and Lindy should have expected this.

"It doesn't matter if it sells," Hopper says. "Sales revenue is gravy. They make their money from the grants."

On the market, if you don't sell a product, you go out of business. On the government grant system, if you don't sell the product -- if you don't even distribute it properly -- that's not so bad. You still have the grant money to keep you going. And you move on to the next Canadian artist or author who you can use to fill out the grant application. In fact, writing grant applications has in itself become an industry, with many publishing houses paying percentages of their take to professionals who know the system.

Hopper has washed his hands of Canadian publishing houses. Lindy, meanwhile, is also charting a different path. He's decided to use crowd-funding for his sixth studio album via a website, RocketHub, that raises money for artists, authors, etc. by getting people to pay in advance for the product, and for other rewards.

Lindy explained his choice on television recently, in an interview with Ezra Levant on the Sun News Network. He told me that he would rather be funded by people who actually listen to and enjoy his music, and who are willing to open their wallets to buy an advance copy of the album.

"I feel guilty taking money from people who couldn't care less about me," says Lindy. "I know why other artists do it, but it's not for me. I don't want to be a government artist."

As for inspiration, Lindy says getting money from the government could only hurt his music. "It kills ambition," he says.

That's what Canadian-born Chilly Gonzales, a piano composer and producer of acts like Feist, told a flabbergasted Jan Ghomeshi when the latter interviewed him for CBC's Q TV.

"I don't take government money. I refused the coffee down in the CBC cafeteria this morning," he told a bewildered Ghomeshi, "because it's government money."

Gonzales thinks taking government money makes the industry and the artists worse. He summarized his view in rap form:

In Canada and the European Union they subsidize art/

But believe me, they ruin it for hustlers who got their ish planned out/

That's why I never took a government hand-out/

See, if you get a grant that's free money/

That's rent for a year, that's food in your tummy/

So why bother having ambition?/

You already got paid,/

Thanks to the politician.

Proponents of the government grant system argue that without these grants there would be far fewer Canadian artists and authors. But maybe that would be a good thing. Maybe we have to admit that the Canadian model for fostering our talent has failed to bring us our best and brightest. We are showcasing inferior versions of ourselves, providing the world with a vision of Canadian art that is poorly thought out, badly presented, and designed only to stuff the shelves with as much 'Canadian content' as the council will pay for.

Whether it's good quality or poor quality is beside the point. But regardless of your opinion on the matter, you are still paying for it all.