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Musician Patrick Watson on how ethics got between him and half a million dollars

Canadian singer Patrick Watson performs on the Montreux Jazz Lab stage during the last day of the 56th Montreux Jazz Festival (MJF), in Montreux, Switzerland, Saturday, July 16, 2022. Watson will receive the inaugural Impact Award at the Canadian Sync Awards on Monday as part of Canadian Music Week. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Keystone via AP- Valentin Flauraud

TORONTO — Patrick Watson can't be easily bought.

While many have offered heaps of money to license the Montreal musician's acclaimed work over the years, he says there are certain ethical lines he refused to cross.

In the case of "To Build a Home," his 2007 piano-string ballad with the Cinematic Orchestra, one corporation with a history of what he calls "reasonable ethical doubts" wanted to license his song for an internal marketing video. Watson said he flatly declined their request.

"We were offered half a million," he said in a recent conversation from his Montreal home.

"I'm not anti-corporation. I just think there's a difference between corporations."

Watson said he wrestled with similar moral quandaries numerous times early in his career, concluding that musicians sometimes have to pick their "evils" and settle on rights deals that allow them to sleep at night.

"To Build a Home" has appeared on TV shows spanning "One Tree Hill" to "Schitt's Creek" and an array of live sports montages.

Watson will receive the inaugural Impact Award at the Canadian Sync Awards on Monday, in recognition of having his songs placed in more than 200 movies, TV shows and other media.

The Sync Awards launched in 2018 at Canadian Music Week to recognize music supervisors and other players whose behind-the-scenes work connects music to filmed entertainment.

In a rapid-fire conversation rife with expletives, Watson spoke to The Canadian Press about how hockey unexpectedly jump-started his career and why he thinks musicians are at the frontlines of a battle with artificial intelligence — particularly, generative AI.

CP: Let’s talk about “To Build a Home,” which has entrenched itself in pop culture partly from being licensed for TV shows. Did you foresee such a lifespan for it?

Watson: I didn't even love the song that much when I did it. It was a moment. I captured a moment and that moment hit the world at exactly the right time. I don't think you can plan that. I find "Lighthouse" way better than "To Build a Home," or songs written after that exceedingly better. But they didn't hit at the time.

CP: You didn't have a previous working relationship with Cinematic Orchestra before "To Build a Home," so how did that come about?

Watson: I got the gig in the weirdest way possible. I was a goalie when I was a kid. And Jeff (Waye, former North American label manager of the U.K. record label) Ninja Tune was my coach. I was on their team at the Exclaim! Cup (a longtime charity Toronto hockey tournament consisting mostly of musicians). I played this great game and Jeff was a competitive hockey coach in a really funny way. He's like, "All right, since you played such a good game, Cinematic Orchestra is looking for this singer for a song." Which was good for me because I was a nobody. They sent me the tune and it was this four-on-the-floor house track with the chord progression in it. And then Cinematic Orchestra's Jason Swinscoe came to Montreal to work with me on a piano version. It was a demo and it was not supposed to end like that. I thought they would chop it up and do s--t to it because they're an electronic band. But instead, they're like, "We’re releasing it like that." And I'm like, "You guys are nuts."

CP: Your first taste of popularity came in the middle of the peer-to-peer file-sharing era as illicit services devoured a significant chunk of album sales. Song placement in TV shows and commercials became one of the few revenue streams for many musicians.

Watson: Syncs were just becoming a thing at that moment. That was the counterbalance to downloading. Bands before had so much in album sales that they didn't (need to sell their songs to be synced). So they always said no. But at this point, if you didn't say yes, you couldn't pay your rent. There's been periods of my life where sync kept us afloat.

CP: You mentioned you've turned down big cheques from corporations. Can you talk more about what it's like wrestling with those decisions?

Watson: In London, this mother (told me her) husband passed away and she has three young daughters. (She) planted this tree and they sit around the tree and listen to "To Build a Home" when they miss their dad. I can't ruin that. There's this tricky balance. So, TV shows are great because they don’t have as many social implications (as commercials). It was not an easy era. (Now) TikTok and Instagram are music placements. My music is perfect for the modern era because it’s all sync with images — that’s my strength.

CP: Let's talk about artificial intelligence. Some songwriters use ChatGPT to write their lyrics while others are adopting apps that pull from vast data libraries to replicate the voices of famous musicians, living or dead. What do you think of this phenomenon?

Watson: Ten years ago, I was really excited (about AI), but I feel that ChatGPT and all the companies that release AI have 100 per cent cheapened the entire idea. It's a generative tool. There's a big difference (between that and traditional AI music applications). It's taking a library of information, you put in the limitations of what you're looking for, and ... it generates you something. And I feel if we said it was generative, then people would ask, "Why don't you pay for the intellectual property?" I think the only reason they don't use that term properly is they don't want to pay intellectual property. They sell the entire human library back to everybody without any intellectual pay. If there’s no (pay), it’s just theft. I find that ChatGPT makes information cheap and kills the joy of it. It's not the tool — it's the people running the tool. They're cheap and they make everything feel cheap and then pointless.

Let’s say I was a kid, I’m 18 and paying for school. Yet the guy who owns ChatGPT can take the entire human library, doesn't pay a cent to train his tool, but I have to pay for school? I wouldn't pay tuition anymore. I would go on strike until they pay.

That's what I always tell people about why they should be worried about intellectual property in music. It's an early tell of what's going to happen. If musicians accept that, later on you will have to accept that too. Because (musicians are) the guinea pigs of economic systems and intellectual property. I get it, people want to play and make wonderful things. But if we're not cautious of that, we'll set a precedent that everybody will have to deal with later.

CP: Let’s jump back to you being the inaugural recipient of the Impact Award at the Canadian Sync Awards. What does this recognition by the industry mean to you?

Watson: It’s part of the sync community, a really nice community. They’re people who look through loads of people’s demos and find gems that work for cinema. So it’s a nice honour to have. I’d rather have that than the labels because these people are music lovers. I think of when I started going to (Canadian Music Week). I remember being at the Horseshoe Tavern with the people from all the big labels and they all told me to f--k off.

CP: So you’re saying, the big labels said you couldn’t do it, and this award proves you did?

Watson: People are so certain of paths. What I like about the award is that me, Justin West from my label Secret City and my manager Olivier Sirois, took a wild and weird path that we stuck to. I don't need to be Taylor Swift by any stretch of the imagination, but I get to pay my rent, put food on the table for my kids and make noise. That is a massive privilege.

— This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 30, 2024.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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