Q&A: Burton Cummings

Burton Cummings
As a proud Canadian, what is your opinion on the state of the Canadian music industry today?

Way back in the 60’s when I first joined The Guess Who, I had just turned 18, and there really wasn’t very much of a Canadian industry at all. In those days we used to joke about the fact that if a single sold 10, 000 units we’d break out the champagne. I think what really helped create the industry that we have today was the Canadian content ruling, CAN-CON.

Initially I spoke out loudly against that – even though I was biting the hand that feeds me rather well – but at that point I just didn’t think it was a cool thing for the government to be helping the artists, and I was yapping about how it made the artists look weaker. But, in the long term, once CAN-CON came into being, a lot more producers and engineers came up to Canada from England and came up from the States and it really did help to create an industry that wasn’t there previously.

It’s a tremendous industry now, and it just didn’t exist that way when we were plowing away in the 60’s trying to cut some records. Now you can sell a million units here in Canada, but there was a time when Canadian artists really had to head for the States and Europe to make a living.

With the manor in which the music business has been deteriorating in recent years, do you think that the Canadian industry continues to have that kind of strength today, or do artists still need to head to the States and abroad to find international success?
No not anymore. You can now have a very nice career here in Canada, and its been proven over and over again. It’s so solidified now with the CAN-CON ruling and the airplay from coast to coast, if you get a record that really takes off in Canada it’s instantly from one end of the country to the other, from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland.

Today, thanks to the Internet it doesn’t matter where you come from anymore. Just look at Justin Bieber. Granted, he’s a bit of a different situation because he was initially something of an online phenomenon, but look at the level of success he’s had. That would have been impossible before the days of the Internet.

What is your opinion on the CBC closing their CD and vinyl archives?
Well, the CBC is famous for bonehead moves like that. The Guess Who did a weekly television show for two years, and rather than save the videotapes they just used them again and recorded over them. The CBC is just so bureaucratic. It’s been around for so long that it’s so set in it’s ways.

You know, the BBC in England did the same thing. They took Dudley Moore and Peter Cook who had wonderful shows, and they were all erased. It’s really a shame but you know the world keeps spinning and that’s the way it is.

You guys became popular during the cultural transition from the ’60s to the ’70s, and so too did your music. With music today being again in a period of transition, how do you think the experiences of young band’s coming up today stack up against what you guys went through 40 years ago?
Well, I’m a bit of an exception in a way because the songs that I wrote and sang have never gone away. I’m very lucky, and believe me when I say it I’m not trying to sound corny. I have that attitude of gratitude as I’m walking around because I still hear my songs on the radio every single day. For young guys coming up today the competition is worse. The population has almost doubled since we made it 40 years ago, and there are way more groups vying for the brass ring.

With the Internet, there is no more shock factor either. When Alice Cooper first came along, now that was shocking. He had a guillotine on stage and he had a Cyclops and a boa constrictor, today that wouldn’t be shocking, people wouldn’t even look twice. It’s a different world, so today you have to really be unique. But, that being said, the people that can really play and sing live are making a resurgence. I think the fans and people in general have had enough of auto-tune, the machines, and the computers.

With social media, the Internet, and technology essentially being the name of the game in today’s world, like with anything, music has benefited but it has also suffered. Do you think it’s fair to say that much of the music today lacks the guts, and the grit, and that realness that just comes from the heart?
The music has become dehumanized in a way, if you know what I mean. When you make a record now there is no more tape. Everything is computerized and it’s so easy for people who can’t really sing or play to do a sub-par track or just something really unexciting, and go in and fix it with the computer. We never had those luxuries.

I’ll tell you something though, it makes me prouder of the records that we did way back then before the computers. When I had to sing a vocal track in the late 60’s early 70’s, I had to really sing it. If I wasn’t in key you couldn’t go in and fix it. These days, everything is perfect on record. The vocal is always perfectly in tune, there’s never a bad note on the piano or guitar or anything, because it’s all been fixed and meddled with after the recording.

It’s not natural for us to hear everything perfectly in tune. The human element is what makes records wonderful to me. I don’t want to hear everything machined out!

As a fan of music I crave for that human element we’re discussing, but as someone who came up while both rock and roll and the industry were really in their prime, do you think that the current generation will see the likes of a Guess Who or Led Zeppelin or a Lennon and McCartney?
Well, it’s hard to say. Progress is a one-way door. A lot of times things change and they don’t change back. But as I mentioned there is certainly a huge movement back toward acts that really sing and play.

Fortunately though, for every one of all ages, from every generation, all those records by Elvis and The Beatles and all the British Invasion stuff, those records will live forever. That’s the great thing about recording; you’re freezing a piece of time.

Coming up on the expiration of copyright laws in 2013, in what way do you think that artists being able regain ownership over the publishing of their songs is going to reshape the power structure of the industry?
It’s been a very sad point of contention for years and years now because a lot of musicians lost the rights to their songs. It took me years to get mine back but I got them a long time ago so it’s not going to affect me one way or the other, but I think for a lot of artists the movement is on now. For a really long time there were a lot of songwriters who just weren’t getting their props, and I think we are definitely going to see some shake ups in the next couple of years.

In commenting on your days growing up in Winnipeg and performing with The Deverons you’ve said, “The music was the buzz” and that “The strongest thing at a Deverons performance was the people playing.” Is that still the bottom line today?
Oh the music has always been the buzz, you know? Everybody knows I haven’t exactly lived the life of a Buddhist monk, but the music has always been the number one priority for me. Even through all those days with The Guess Who, when we would finish an album the other guys would always go out partying and fly off holidaying; I would always stay until the very bitter end, until the final mixes were all done. The music has always been of number one paramount importance to me, and if the music is good then everything else falls into line.

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