Cultural industries are an ideas business. They sell ideas.

The Canadian cultural industry, since just around Confederation, sells the idea of Canada.

Is Canada a good idea? Does anybody want to buy it?

Is there a market for it?

What is?

All businesses rely on networks of channels. There’s power in networks. There’s power in distribution networks. The Canadian state, since its inception, invested in networks. There were promises of network connectivity built right into Constitution. It had to then. It has to continue to do so now. There’s just too much physical geography to ignore. And not a lot of that geography it is helpful to the social geography of the country. Look at the place: The rockies run North to South, the prairies run North to South, the North runs wherever it wants to because there’s so much of it. Sure, the True North is Strong and Free. It’s quite free to kill you with its cold indifference if it wants to. It’s difficult to understate just how truly vast the North is. The only place where the land sort of works to the advantage of an East-to-West-to-North oriented state is around the Great Lakes and the Saint Lawrence. Everywhere else, including the Maritimes and Atlantic Canada, is a mess.

Physically, it’s a very difficult country to keep together. There’s really only one quasi-national elected office in the entire country: the Prime Minister. The Leader of the Opposition, when they’re trying to cobble together some loose coalition to win power and hold it long enough to do something meaningful, tends to be transformed by the vastness of the country. A few of the premiers of the physically largest provinces tend to be gripped by the awesomeness of the size and scale of the place.

From this perspective, the Canadian state has just barely enough power to keep it all together.

You know who else likes power?

The private sector likes power. So there’s always a lot of competition for it. Because if you can consolidate distribution networks, you can charge any price you want, well beyond what the market can bear. The marginal benefit curve for a single firm peaks well before societies marginal benefit curve. So if they can keep those pesky politicians bought off and capture enough regulators, they earn the right to extract their fill, and then some. Canadians fought long battles over this with railways, pipelines, traction systems, and utilities over this kind of power. The cycle repeats because it’s embedded in a (classical) liberal paradigm, and in a (classical) liberal paradigm, natural monopolies attract natural monopolists.

It isn’t a surprise.

We just seem to be condemned, as Canadians, to fight this same fight over and over again because the game is pretty much set up to obligate the players to maximize their respective positions.

This applies to Cultural Industries as well.

Time and again, when the distribution channels are consolidated and centralized, it is easier for the state to control what ideas get distributed [1] with mixed results [2]. Print, literacy, and the postal system created one hell of a combination didn’t they? What a ride! Scientists could exchange letters reliably, people could get busy with business, and wow, did we ever progress! Enabling ideas to move around society faster lubricates the engine of progress.

Later, telegraph, film, and radio started out decentralized. Until they were centralized by the usual suspects behaving suspiciously. In Canada, cable, referring to the system of cables used to deliver television signals through wires instead of over the air, started out centralized and stayed that way. Today, film, print and news-gathering are more centralized than ever. Our attention is crammed into just a handful of newsfeeds.

It’s pretty wild just how concentrated media distribution is.

So who do you trust to tell you about ideas? Creatives? Advertisers? The State? I’ve asked, again and again, who do you trust with your attention?

When ownership is concentrated, the state has more power to decide which ideas you get and which you don’t. Ownership isn’t the only way that power is exerted. The people that pay most of the cost, typically the advertisers, get to decide what you experience and what you don’t. It takes a lot of money to produce a persuasive and effective 30-second spot and even more money to distribute it — and not too many organizations can afford to do that.

The typical long suffering brand manager will argue that they can’t have their brand associated with negative stimulus, and they must appeal to their target demographic. Because the people that do the consuming in society tend to be young, the brand manager has to appeal to them. The culture wars are demographic wars. The masses want what they want. Don’t hate the brand manager, they’ll argue, blame the youths.

So in the end, the creative can create whatever they want — but if they want to be seen — they need a distribution channel. If they want to receive financial recognition, they need a monetized distribution channel. Most creatives don’t have a direct financial relationship with their audiences. Until recently, most creatives used agents as intermediaries to intermediate the intermediating intermediaries on the business side. And all of this is a fractal of services and financial intermediaries that each shave a few points off the top.

The consumer pays. The consumer always pays. But they don’t quite have as much direct say. Your taste is diluted by the relentless regression to the mean. Which, if you have mean tastes, then you’re pretty well served and don’t have much to complain about. I mean…if you’re an average person, things are pretty much set up for you. The world is designed for your average tastes and set up so that you aren’t too challenged.

But it’s worse for the long suffering creative: the supercycle of invention and consolidation over distribution repeats regardless of the medium.

It could be different. The future feels stalled right now, for reasons that are numerous and infuriating.

What’s changing?

Mass audiences change at an actuarial rate. It’s happening very slowly, roughly at the rate of funeral processions. Mass audiences love mass ideas. And mass ideas don’t change too quickly. If it’s a day ending in y, I’m citing Yang and Smith [3] [4], who emphasized that creativity is a function of relevance and divergence. Mass audiences want story ideas that are relevant to their lives, and they just want enough divergence to make it interesting. Too much divergence, and you get confusion [5]. And the masses can only handle so much confusion at a time. The overall rate of societal learning is constrained, braked, by how much dissonance they can absorb. Mass broadcast audiences like their stories familiar with a little bit of a twist. Not too much. It’s okay to invite a guest star onto The Bad Doctor, CSI:Halifax or Law and Order Elevator Inspectors Unit, but they had better have committed the crime. It’s okay to put generic superhero into some situation, but they better have a traditional hero’s journey, because if they don’t, then it isn’t a superhero movie.

While aggregate media consumption is changing slowly, it is a bit more multi-channel. We’re still consuming around forty hours of media a week, it’s just more fragmented than it was in the 1910’s [6]. We’re listening to a podcast with Netflix streaming while flipping through TikTok.

The market for ideas created by Anglo-Canada for Anglo-Canada is changing. And the incentives are increasingly misaligned.

What the state wants is to persist in perpetuity. It can’t be a perpetuity if its tax base citizens are fighting it for independence, or each other.

What the political party wants is to be in power for perpetuity. They want good news. Awards are great press release fluff. They want the hardware. They crave the approval of American Cultural authorities because it would be reassurance that they like us, they really like us. Some political parties want direct creative control. There are lessons about that relationship that are getting rapidly forgotten.

What mass audiences want is they’ve always wanted: the same story ideas told and retold just a little bit differently.

That isn’t what American cultural authorities want though. The Academy wants art. It’s called film, not movies, sweetie, look it up.

Many anglo-creatives want awards too. They want recognition, validation, and the status as well. Some genuinely want to create art. They didn’t get into media to create commercial story ideas. They don’t suffer for their art to produce Big Brother Canada or The Traitors Canada or Entertainment Tonight Canada, or NCIS Canada. They got into media for their own reasons. Not all of them are desperate for approval out of fear that their egos will collapse into a black hole. It’s probably all a game of autonomy maximization. Creatives want complete freedom from the tyranny of median, regressively mean, audience expectations and the limits placed on divergence by advertisers. And mass audiences end up … directing their attention to cheap and plentiful cultural exhaust from American studios and the Los Angeles dream macerator.

For a long time this misalignment was sustained by cable fees that the mass Canadian audience couldn’t avoid paying because distribution was centralized by design. Anglo-Canadians just want to be entertained and occasionally learn something — like what’s under Oak Island, and maybe, sometimes, what those crooked politicians are up to. Cable enabled the continuation of user fees and spectrum licensing enabled the continuation of the quota system. Anglo-Canadians got their Oak Island and Big Brother subsidized. And they also got a whole bunch of art that they pay for, but they don’t ever get to see.

Then an increasing percentage of them stopped paying for cable. The Government of Canada, through the CRTC, started slapping taxes on FAANG entities as a continuation of this tradition. Once a player gets an effective monopoly on distribution, they earn the wonderful obligation of taxing Canadians, in order to persist the misaligned incentive in perpetuity. Because surely somebody has to pay for cultural product for which there is no market.

This misalignment has soured into alienation. Some of this alienation is an organic continuation of the tension between the core and the hinterland, a social shadow cast by mountains of time and space. It’s been there since the beginning of Canada. People living in a cabin upstream held the belief that people at the fort were cosmopolitan with their fancy blankets and cast iron stove. Later, people on the farm thought the people in the hamlet, later the village, then in town were wicked. And then cities…Toronto, masses of loud, rude, people acting like they’re so important rushing everywhere. Don’t even get them started on the people that speak French. It’s to be expected and it’s always been so. It’s a cold, massive, country and people like the familiar. What’s familiar is affected by the physical geography of a place.

It isn’t that Toronto actively dislikes the hinterland. It’s just that Toronto doesn’t think about the hinterland. The hinterland isn’t the basis of comparison or competition. Toronto doesn’t think that it needs to build a new theme park because it’s worried about Niagara Falls swiping the valuable American tourist dollar. Toronto thinks about New York and rubs its forehead in concern about why there’s so much violence on the TTC because people are losing their damn minds. The median Torontonian worries about paying rent at the end of the month. But the hinterland has no choice but to pay attention to what’s happening in Toronto because Toronto determines what’s news, art, entertainment — and what isn’t.

Some of this vitriol is directed towards the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/ Radio-Canada (CBC-RC). It’s the most visible entity in the hinterland. It’s something they all have ready access because the distribution network, frequencies and low-speed Internet, is still up and running. In some places, CBC-RC is the only local media covering anything locally, at all.

Worse, if you live in the hinterland, you don’t see any of the results of the billions that are poured into the media they don’t get to see. If they only knew for sure what they suspect, they’d be angrier.

The intensity of the alienation is stronger than it’s been in the past. In part, there are fewer people selling the idea of Canada, fewer people buying the idea of Canada, and more entities selling the idea that Canada isn’t a good idea.

Selling the idea of Canada

There are very few programmes dedicated to selling the idea of Canada to Canadians. Within Quebec, there’s an industry of selling the idea of Quebec to Quebecois. And it’s distinctive. I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere in English Canada, or for that matter, anywhere else on Earth.

There isn’t much that’s an intra-national idea. Aside from having a few people from Quebec on the few reality shows on English television, and a few anglos from outside of Quebec on Quebecois television, there isn’t much cross-talk there. Everybody is just kind of talking to themselves. The two solitudes, chattering away and muttering at themselves.

The idea of Canada is pretty relevant to those living here though. When you’re here in some part of Canada, you feel like you’re in a Canada. It isn’t like the Northeast of the United States. It isn’t like the United Kingdom. It isn’t like France. It’s some variant of Canada. There are unique stories here. There are ideas that are pretty good for us. There are new Canadians that are curious enough about just what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into. There are old Canadians that would enjoy the same ideas retold to them just a little bit differently. Some, a few, not many, are even receptive to hearing new perspectives about the people that came before them! There aren’t enough of them to tell those stories in an American primetime broadcast standard and still be profitable.

I used to believe, strongly, that the idea of Canada was exportable. We got a few perspectives and a few relevant ideas that could be pretty interesting to different markets around the world. For instance, federalism is a pretty neat way to hold enough space for different levels of localism. The idea that we got plenty of space in Canada and if you don’t like your environment, just leave, is another good one. It can deconflict the irreconcilable conflicts. I hold that belief a bit more lightly these days. I think we need to spend more time telling ourselves stories before we try to fill up the world with ours.

So either the incentives are misaligned, the incentives are insufficient, or both.

If there was mass profit in it – somebody would be taking the risk to profit from it?

What could be different?

Our scale could be different. There might be 100 million Canadians before the end of the century. That’s a critical mass for an internal market for cultural ideas. It would mean the development of a real augmented-entertainment market. It would do more to align incentives somewhat. It would mean that Canadian comedians that are motivated to entertain would be able to make a go of it in Canada, and could find success here. I don’t think that the market for celebrity stories about celebrities will evaporate before the end of the century. People have a primal need for celebrity gossip. Some people have a primal ned to be the subject of celebrity gossip.

So long as you have a group of people that are willing to sell their privacy for attention, and people that are curious enough about those people, you’ll always find a market for the idea of celebrity. A hundred million Canadians would be sufficient to support a handful of people that would compete for scarce attention for them to be called a Canadian celebrity. It’s kind of funny to think about it. It feels off brand.

The tension between mass audiences and artists autonomy feels permanent and intractable. There’s always going to be temporal and scale variance there, even jitter caused by trying to try. It’s a tension that can only be managed and balanced.

Distribution could be different. So long as distribution channels continue to consolidate and centralize shortly after their inception, the dance of innovation, divergence, regression, stasis, and decline will continue. What if networks could evolve to be immune to such consolidation? What if we could stop the swinging [7]? If so, that would create quite a different ecosystem.

The power consumers have to direct the creative process might change. A consolidator of power is always attracted by the whiff of decentralized power, and there’s always some element of the State that is more than happy to regulate the consolidation. How could anybody arrest the cycle?

Our mindset could be different. The incentives seem to be geared towards mass audiences chasing mass audience marketing dollars. Because input costs continue to deflate, a trend that is likely to accelerate during the Generative Era, new economics might mean new opportunities. That would require new mindsets to work. It’ll take some getting used to, some familiarity, and then it could happen. It’s already happening in pockets.

It may be that the idea of Canada would change in that time. It could be changed by the mediums and by greater creator autonomy to create it. And that could be pretty neat.

Canada is probably a pretty good idea, and the idea of Canada could be different. It could change a lot faster if the mindset about change was a bit more flexible. It could be a vector to explore.

Does anybody want to buy it?

As it is right now, there’s more financial incentive and attention to be harvested from raging against the idea of Canada than selling the idea of Canada. Rage drives attention. And it’s a great time to be a rage farmer. The Europeans see that now, and they’re probably about to use their centralizing power to arrest that. Canada may imitate some form of that.

There are pockets of markets here and there are interested in buying the idea of Canada. There are larger pockets interested in defining a better Canada. And that’s great, because we aren’t holding it together too well right now.

The market for the cultural idea of Canada isn’t as large as it could be, but there’s a market there.


[1] Wu, T. (2011). The master switch: The rise and fall of information empires. Vintage.

[2] Scott, J. C. (2020). Seeing like a state: How certain schemes to improve the human condition have failed. yale university Press.

[3] Smith, R. E., MacKenzie, S. B., Yang, X., Buchholz, L. M., & Darley, W. K. (2007). Modeling the determinants and effects of creativity in advertising. Marketing science26(6), 819-833.

[4] Yang, X., & Smith, R. E. (2009). Beyond attention effects: Modeling the persuasive and emotional effects of advertising creativity. Marketing Science28(5), 935-949.

[5] The Simpsons (1992) Season 2, Episode 9. Lisa: “Dad, was that your commercial?”, Homer: “I don’t know.”

[6] People didn’t start reading newspapers while listening to radio until the mass adoption of the radio. The denial about divided attention persists to the present day because it’s an argument that undermines the entities that are paying for the audience reach estimations.

[7] George Orwell’s 1984 in which the elite understood the grand cycle of the middle replacing the high and becoming the new high … only this time, the Inner Party sought to end the swinging of the pendulum forever.