Release the music!


Lilian recently sent me some information about releasethemusic.org, because she knows that I am absurdly interested in issues concerning music, performance and copyright. This website is run by the Open Rights Group (an organisation which I sometimes agree with, but sometimes think are very misguided) and concerns plans to extend the length of time that sound recordings are protected by copyright. In a rare move for me, I ‘signed’ their on-line petition, so it seems that writing a blog entry about the issue is a good idea as well.

Copyright is a complicated thing, which the library and information profession constantly struggles with. It is bound up with many other issues: data protection versus freedom of information; access to information versus the right to control intellectual property; the conflicting rights of information creator, disseminator and user. In general terms, librarians are often seen to be upholders of copyright, yet are foes of censorship and are sometimes oddly anti-establishment (see the fun and games of the FBI vs. ‘radical militant librarians’). And yet, although I do indeed agree that copyright is in general a good thing, and do not agree with most of the arguments against it, I can see that the term of copyright protection is perhaps excessive (generally 70 years after the death of the author) and that this is particularly true in the case of sound recordings. 

Sound recordings (whether of music, spoken word or whalesong) have a copyright term of 50 years in the UK, after which they fall into the public domain. The composers and lyricists (in the case of music) are still entitled to their share of royalties after this point, but the record company is not, and if the artist gets royalties from the recording, neither are they. This has not been a particular issue before, but the music industry has realised that great chunks of very popular material from Cliff Richard, Elvis Presley and the like are rapidly becoming public domain, and it won’t be long before the same happens to other sales juggernauts such as the Beatles. This represents a rather large potential decrease of revenue, and although I feel for them, I do wonder at their business models which rely so much on material from five decades ago.

The problem is that for every recording which a record company can mine for further sales, there are dozens of recordings in the vault which will never be released due to a relative lack of commercial viability. And the longer that copyright protection exists in the recordings, the longer they will remain out of print, unavailable and unheard. Many sound recordings have never been transferred to the all-powerful CD format and are never likely to be. However, there are wonderful companies out there who rescue these obscure recordings once they go out of print, do their best to clean up the sound (not generally having access to the master copies) and release them to the world, to be heard by a new generation of listeners. Companies like ASV, Pearl, Naxos, Sepia and Must Close Saturdayare a treasure trove for collectors, and the latter two are of particular interest to me as they both release a lot of original cast material which has never before seen a CD transfer, and which I’ve never managed to track down on vinyl. Naxos also has a musicals series, but tends to stick to the big names, which the major companies probably hate them for. However, even they have been wonderful enough to release such otherwise out-of-print gems as Allegro and High Button Shoes, paired up with the more famous Carousel and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Other companies have released obscure recordings by crooners, jazz artists and others which haven’t seen the light of day for decades, which surely has to be a good thing. If the companies that owned the copyright weren’t doing anything with the vast majority of their back catalogue, how can they complain?

Buying releases from the public domain people can be a bit of a gamble.  Some of them spend more time and effort working on the sound quality than others, some of them have fantastic liner notes while some don’t bother, and they often end up in odd competition with each other, with two or more labels releasing very similar CDs at almost exactly the same time.  But it is a joy to hear the music they release, whether it is unfamiliar renditions of familiar songs, or a recording of a very peculiar musical.  Of course, it’s also important not to pretend that they do this as a public service – they are businesses just as the major labels are, but they have a different focus.

It is obvious that as a collector of show music, I very much want it to be available (I am particularly anxious for either the rights holders or a public domain company to get around to Me and Juliet, which would otherwise cost me at least £50 second hand) and I thus welcome the public domain issues. And if the companies that own the copyright release the material, I’d rather get it from them, as their access to the masters means that they can achieve superior sound quality. However, I’d like to think that it isn’t only my selfish desire for more and more music that informs my position. I’m sure that there are aspects to the issue which I am completely unaware of, but I can’t find any compelling reason why the copyright protection term should be extended beyond the current 50 years (UK – the period differs in other nations). I don’t want to obtain the music in an underhand way (in fact, when someone far away offered to burn me a copy of Me and Juliet, I turned them down), I just want to be able to access it. I don’t have any particular right to own the music to Sandy Wilson’s Buccaneer, but if whoever owned the copyright didn’t utilise it, I can’t see that they have any particular right to keep it locked away. It is a shame that companies with a heavy bias towards rock and roll are seeing their back catalogues become available to other companies, but they can still release the recordings themselves, of course, and generally as a sonically superior version. But when all is said and done, and I probably haven’t said it very well, on this issue I agree with the Open Rights Group – release the music!

  1. Thank you very much for the links to Sepia and Must Close Saturday. They were two companies I was not aware of and have an interesting catalogue. This could be a costly visit to your blog Singing Librarian.

  2. Oops, sorry! Sepia is an entirely public domain issuer, whereas Must Close Saturday does a mixture of p.d. and non-p.d. issues – their mission statement concerns British musical theatre only. If only I had the money, I could happily get their entire catalogue… I hope I haven’t caused the Music Man to go bankrupt!

  3. Thanks for this well-considered support of the Release the Music campaign. I’d love to hear more about when you think ORG is misguided – the http://www.openrightsgroup.org/ site has a link to join the ORG-discuss mailing list.

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