Copyright and the Liberation of Music - A
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
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
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
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
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
lover and know to be missing, presumed dead … but by whose
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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