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Copyright and the Liberation of Music - A Personal View
by Dr Stephen Hall


Consider this job description:
1) you will be paid  a fee to perform for a recording and be entitled to additional payments each time the item is played for fifty years;
2) the recording company will receive the usual product fee per item and be paid additional fees (royalties) for fifty years without commitment to continued production;
2a) companies may make new charges for products issued in different media and receive royalties for all for fifty years;
3) composers/writers of recorded items will receive fees from publishers as well as royalties from recorded editions, when played or sold as products, for fifty years in addition to contract payments from their recording companies and media companies using material for any purpose.

I think I might write a pop song hit and live off the proceeds instead of going to work like most people do for a wage/salary without any extended claims and attend to a pension like everyone else.

Yes, my opening paragraph is parodic to an extent but not actually inaccurate, even though others might quote legislation and precedent galore to “justify” current legislation on the copyright period being set at fifty years.

However, the word justify has nothing to do with justice. The current situation merely reflects the outcome of a long and sordid history of commercial manipulation from the early days of recorded music by the corporate giants with remarkably small reward to composers, performers and access to recorded music. With that in the background let us sit back and think about the whole matter.

Has recorded music become more accessible or less so under such corporations, even from the stock of masters from 1945 to 2006, let alone new recordings outwith the mayfly pop market? The fact is that there is more of everything in rich societies but very important music and great recordings are locked away in by the majors because they are deemed to be commercially unviable by suited business types with no actual interest in music. This extends to the dear old BBC.

If the executives of these companies have no knowledge of the subject matter of their base product it follows that they are employed for their financial or legal training. That rather proves the point I am making BUT I invite comments because all views must be heard and let the people judge. Freedom is the essence of MWI and as such is a website respected worldwide.

This is the homework task for MWI readers set by retired headmaster Stephen. You will need to consider what music you have, in what formats, what music you want but is unavailable yet extant in master form and what plaudits or moans you have about corporations.

It is also quite easy to understand the grip of US/UK commerce with just a bit of research – the most obvious example being the infamous ‘RIAA curve’ coding system alleged to set a standard for vinyl production in 1952 but actually a means of industry control. Most of the world was recovering from war back then but the USA had profited so called the shots and even overcame Decca, EMI and the emerging DGG.

However, I urge readers to pursue their own research on the industry/corporate/repertoire issue for themselves because I am not so arrogant as to say that I know the whole picture, merely what I know as a music lover and know to be missing, presumed dead … but by whose order?

Readers of my reviews will know that I’m a man for live music and for  analogue, I own a huge archive on tape and when I have recorded live I couldn’t care less about RIAA and know that most musicians just want to give their best.

Production is actually cheap, very cheap in the case of CD, presentation and packaging more than recovered in the retail price – yet what sheer power companies have. We hear what they let us hear, thus so much is stored away, ‘owned’ (?) and we let another generation go by without hearing great art, despite the fact that mid-price CDs aimed at we old buffers but also music students would turn a profit and establish loyalty as it used to be.

Naxos, NMC, Chandos and other dedicated labels have really wrong-footed the biggies through sheer quality but the latter are missing opportunities to get even more fag-end profits at minuscule cost from material released many times before with texts well out of copyright.

Argo-Decca has some marvellous Gerhard, Holst with Britten and Pears and with Imogen Holst in urgent need, indeed a duty, of reissue. EMI sits on a lot - please would MWI readers submit lists. When it comes to BMG-Sony-CBS I despair. All that Stravinsky and Schoenberg just rotting away. This includes the great Gregg Smith Ives vocal/choral LP which was never bettered and that’s the opinion of many on the web. Why can’t we buy these things with honest money as products like any normal transaction?

So, patient reader, back to the subject with just a sketch of the predicates immediately above. I hope that my opinions will open a forum of information and not just strong opinions as they are politely called by the BBC.

Maybe I am dim but the whole concept of ‘royalties’ and copyright rules of fifty years seems to me to be special pleading writ large. Ordinary people work for salaries/wages and pay into modest pensions and insurances without expectation of anything more. Expectations of creators of art in all forms may well differ because it often takes time for appreciation to catch up with creativity. Thus, truly great creators in history seldom died rich and very many died poor. In any event single-mindedness/genius is a risky thing and one cannot quite see Mozart planning his pension.

The copyright rules discussed here are less directed towards musicians than companies and we have to remember that. The popular press sells papers if such as Cliff Richard and other famous people want to extend the copyright period - if indeed successful popular performers do … maybe it is their companies. After all, any consistently successful performer lucky enough to have good health has a better chance than most to secure his/her future and if an individual squanders assets why should there be a safety net in any case? Happily, the aforementioned Sir Cliff is an example of a popular artist who gives a lot to charities but he doesn’t shout about it and others are similar.

So we are back to ab initio copyright rules and they are corporate in history. I mentioned Roberto Gerhard above and if one checks the catalogues of the Catalan-British composer’s music on record one turns up a low score, yet his symphonies, concerto for orchestra and violin concerto were gorgeously recorded by Argo-Decca at a time when musical life was egalitarian and healthy.

How many music undergrads preparing for their last year at college have heard these works and why not?

Karlheinz Stockhausen had the vision to see that his works could face the possibility of not being heard at the whim of DG as it rushed to corporate mergers. He  was in a position to buy back his own recordings so we all have access to them at a modest price on the Stockhausen Verlag label. The honesty of Stockhausen Verlag sets immature works against the best, some eccentricities, some dull stuff and genius – but IS HONEST and that’s the point. Would that companies entrusted by composers with superb recordings of their works were to re-issue in smallish quantities at a price allowing for a small profit as well as a levy to be ploughed back into the support of musicians in true need. Then we would be able to hear what is currently locked up and what so many have missed.

Put plainly, dump royalties and complicated copyright rules past their sell-by date, release music hidden for too long (and create a demand), put art before profit but get the best of both worlds because accurate and sonically secure recordings will sell. Dump the copyright lawyers in the process with their exorbitant fees and a whole tier of accountants and think instead of musical artistic duty.

I have no personal axe to grind as I own large archives so will listen to them. However I deeply regret that younger people have never heard what I have and what is locked away in ‘master’ form by companies, in a much reduced BBC library and in the British Library Sound Archive where there are so many gaps that it’s hard to understand where the investment went.

The alternative - for people will have music - is piracy, MP3 compression, a drift even farther from what music sounds like from real instruments played live -  alongside important music and composers being hidden.

Surely it makes more sense to put music first to prime the pump of the sort of musical health we had in the 1970s before ‘classical’ music is reduced to just a few things in the past. No careers, no new music, no treasures of great quality available just because copyright laws were designed for a different age.

Fairness to those accustomed to royalties, as well as the suggested levy to be ploughed back into musicians’ welfare over a period is something music lovers would agree to, but what amounts to corporate censorship under current rules will end very soon one way or another. Better that it changes in a grown up way by agreement than in piracy, horrid compression to MP3 and the ruin of companies which once stood for standards of excellence but are now just bits of giant conglomerates dedicated to money and nothing else.

Klaus Heymann went up against the corporations over twenty years ago from the love of music. The ‘budget label’ Naxos consistently gained plaudits on musical merit and certainly not from promotion: the plain style of Naxos CDs is now a trade mark of excellence, accuracy and honesty so why change it? Naxos used obscure orchestras and ensembles but was strict about quality and the rest is the history of now.

The Naxos discs rescuing quite a lot of the ill-fated Collins catalogue could have been priced far higher than was actually charged. Heymann is in this light to be seen alongside the music bosses of famous labels of an earlier age. Other ‘independent’ labels have followed the Naxos route rather than that of the corporate giants. THIS is what making great music available is about.

Looking at Naxos and other ‘small’ labels in terms of reviews, artists, orchestras, is the writing now on the wall for the complacent and feather-bedded big corporations? If it is then the latter hold vital music hostage.

Those of us with archives of music lost by corporations paid from public funds (effectively a tax in the UK) could be sued if we released material under current copyright rules yet how do people judge music and enjoy great, unique and important material under this tyranny?

There is a middle way but if we lose the chance then we rob our children (a generation that has already been robbed) of rights to culture. I hope that MWI readers will give comments to the website and possibly ask about works/performances which might be extant. It is amazing how well treasured archives still sound better than new issues. There must be other ancients like me who took the trouble over our heritage to conserve and maintain it.

Dr Stephen Hall

 


 


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