Thursday, September 29, 2011

50 going on 70

“Volver” (“Coming back”) a very famous tango says that “twenty years is nothing”, but poetry is just a very polarized reflection of reality. Twenty years is actually what the Council of the EU has decided to expand the copyright on phonographic records. In other words, and in principle, this is the end of the countless cheap reissues of music published, as of today, before 1961. All classic rock'n'roll, including early Elvis, will require the permission from the owners of the original masters to be reissued. Same goes for classic Sinatra and a big load of jazz and pop classics recorded after 1941. As an example, Charlie Parker's whole output as a leader, in the public domain for a few years now, will go back in its entirety to its lawful owners.

That's the theory. In actual fact, anyone with a connection to the internet has almost immediate and free access to almost any music they may want. And sound quality doesn't seem to be an issue: we're in an age where arguably, for the first time ever, the widest spread standard of sound quality (mp3) is actually lower than the previous one (CD). If we take together Spotify, MySpace, YouTube, audio file exchange, blogs offering downloads, etc., the problem today is not getting access to the music, but having the time to listen to it.

This expansion of copyright by the EU is supposed to help musicians, but, at least in principle, it's the owners of master recordings who will be protected. Musicians, generally, will have signed some sort of contract on the use of those masters, that will grant them a percentage of royalties (that was actually one of João Gilberto's points of conflict with EMI, the original and ridiculous share he was granted over 50 years ago). In other words, some musicians will benefit from this measure, but most, due to the fact that plenty music is not reissued in any way, will hardly notice.

Regarding piracy, it's rather obvious that record companies tackle this problem only when it's profitable. Illegal use of their recordings is not dealt with in a uniform way. Only piracy on music that it's bound to make them a significant loss is tackled strongly, and also, perhaps, when very prominent artists are involved: their visibility would make inaction on piracy look like an open door for thiefs. In short, for EMI it's not the same if Hank Mobley or the Beatles are copied illegally.

As you know, this blog is written in London, where record shops are on the wane. There are very few left, and in those still standing, the volume of small British labels devoted exclusively to reissuing music which is over 50 years old, in any genre, is staggering. Sure, the most familiar material dominates (Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash...), but there are people who release music which is off the beaten track. Basic market rules apply, and whereas the more common recordings may be found at 3 quid for a 3-CD set, less usual selections come out at prices comparable to regular issues by the major labels (Universal, Sony, WEA, and EMI). As regards jazz, and still in the UK, a label that should get some breathing space is Candid. The classic side of their archive, the recordings produced by Nat Hentoff in the early sixties, will be out of the public domain for a while.

Candid is a good example of how the law is not equal for all. If one of the phantom labels operating – allegedly – from Andorra (the presumedly related Definitive, LoneHill Jazz, Solar, etc.) decide to go on reissuing Candid's recordings, it's very likely that such a tiny company will not sue and will lose income.

The “Andorran” case is also interesting, because, although the overall impression is that copyright on phonographic recordings is different as that applying in the EU, the 50-year lapse is also in their national law. A totally different matter is whether having a company domiciled at the Principality does or does not hamper tax inspections or prosecution from outside their borders is a different story, which I don't know about, anyway. The bottom line is that regarding this matter, things will probably proceed as usual.

So, what now? The fact that nowadays there are only four major record labels left is due to a series of takeovers and mergers of companies, which has left them with vast vaults full of old recordings, which can be divided in masterworks, utter rubbish, and everything in between, in different proportions depending on who we ask. Following a slightly different scale, these recordings can be classified as profitable or non-profitable assets.

Those treasures are expensive to maintain, and the majorest major, Universal, came up with a nifty solution to the problem. Last January, they donated their archives (“only” the recordings from the late 1920s to the late 1940s) to the Library of Congress, through a deal by which the public institution will preserve and digitize those materials, and will make them available for visitors, researchers and academisc, while Universal will keep the rights for commercial exploitation of said masters.

For whatever the reason, the general financial crisis, the labels' own particular straits, the pressure of the European 50-year rule, or the long-standing tradition of general clumsiness when it comes to knowing what to do with your own vaults, the fact is that, lately the majors have appeared to be at a loss about reissues. Whereas boutique labels like Mosaic, Bear Family or Ace keep prices to a steady level, related to the cost of their product (proper, sometimes even luxurious presentation, impeccable regarding permissions and dues, and a generous and attentive customer service), the majors have shown extreme behaviours, from the de-luxe boxes by Hip-O Select (a division of Universal), excessively luxurious and a price absurdly high for recordings that were, until now, public domain in the EU, to the ridiculously cheap, like the “Original Masters” series from SonyBMG, even if they included music which was previously unissued or difficult to obtain in good sonic quality.

I keep going back to jazz, and I know it amounts to just a drop in the music market. This change of heart from the EU has happened right before the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' “Love Me Do”. Given the financial situation of their label, EMI, I doubt that this will solve anything significant for them.

And yet, there are still unhappy musicians in the EU. Although this copyright threshold is levelled with the one in the US, there the law contemplates the possibility of musicians regaining ownership over masters 35 years after they were recorded. On this side of the pond this is out of the question, and musicians may be tied to less favourable contracs signed under very different circumstances, 50 years back.

For those of us who are neither in the industry, nor musicians, and subject to whether this measure will apply retroactively (will production of CDs that were legal be stopped now? Will the ones which are already manufactured be destroyed/confiscated?), one of the consequences of this measure, is that we may lose access to recordings which fall beyond the minority of music that gets reissued time and time again. Crazy ventures like French labels Chronogical [sic] Classics or Masters of Jazz, to which we owe the chance to listen to obscure jewels, will be almost impossible, and one has to wonder what will happen with labels like Frémeaux or Fresh Sound, which depended on the now deceased European law. At least it is to be expected that the model followed by Ace and Bear Family will remain intact.

There's a very real chance that this measure will not benefit – if it doesn't actually harm – the audiences and musicians, providing only some oxygen to an industry that has no other option than resize itself. Now that the deed is done, let's hope that trying to help the business, our politicians will not damage culture and the arts.

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