CMU Weekly Editor's Letter

Editor’s Letter – Friday 16 Sep 2011

By | Published on Friday 16 September 2011

Andy Malt

So, copyright extension. Ccccooopppyyyrrriiiiiiigghhhttttt Eeeeexxxxtttteeeeeeeeennnsssssiiiioooooonnnnnn. It’s not fun, but we’re going to talk about it because it’s the big music business story of the week. Actually, it’s not even this week’s story really. The move to extend the sound recording copyright in Europe was rubber stamped by the European Union this Monday, but we knew it was going happen last week.

Basically copyright on recordings in Europe is going to be extended from 50 to 70 years – bringing it slightly closer to the 95 years enjoyed in the US – after groups lobbying for the change finally convinced representatives of all EU member states that it was a good idea. This means that on 1 Jan 2013, EMI will still own the exclusive right to sell the first Beatles single ‘Love Me Do’. Which is nice. For them.

But it wasn’t the possibility of EMI being able to earn even more money from some 50 year old recordings that brought about the extension. What really won it was the possibility of some aging session musicians being out on the street, the same argument that changed the British government’s mind two years ago.

The argument goes like this: Session musicians, by law, are due a cut (a small cut) of public performance royalties from any recordings that they play on. And if you happened to play the kazoo on a particularly big hit that is still played regularly around the world 50 years later, then that small cut can add up to a fairly decent salary. But, said the BPI, PPL and others behind the campaign, after 50 years those musicians no longer get their cut, and suddenly find themselves with no income.

Now, you might ask why these people hadn’t planned for their retirement, and you’d probably be right to. Nevertheless, many of these musicians were wheeled into parliament during the campaign and MPs were asked to explain why they were going to take the food out of these OAPs’ mouths. The MPs, rather than asking why they hadn’t been paid properly by the music industry for their work in the first place, instead buckled and said that, yes, this all sounded like a great idea.

I’m not saying I want the guy who played violin on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ to go hungry, but there is something of a smoke screen here. Session musicians earn by far the lowest cut of these royalties, featured artists make more, but the bulk of the money still goes to the record label.

Now, I’m not going to a launch into a tirade about “greedy record labels”, because people who do that are among the most irritating on earth. Besides, if greed is your main motivator, there are better businesses to be in. And I can see exactly why the majors don’t want to give up the revenues 50 year old recordings generate. The record industry still dominates within the wider music business when it comes to launching new talent, ie it still generally invests the most money and takes much of the risk (even if both investments and levels of risk are less than they once were). And that label system works by taking some of the profits of older hits and investing them in new records, some of which will be profitable, some of which will not.

In many ways it’s a good system, though if the labels are really still relying on The Beatles to fund the launch of the next generation of Coldplays, I’m not sure it’s working as well as it could and should. I mean, how long does this system need its copyrights to last to be viable? Because the copyright has to run out eventually, and perhaps labels should just accept that fact and put their efforts into finding new ways to make the label system work, one that doesn’t rely on endless royalties from very old songs.

And let’s not forget, that when copyrights expire, it can result in a whole new era of creativity as new artists rediscover the work of old artists that are now out of copyright. What’s to say that the next big wave in music wouldn’t be based on samples of 60s recordings, on which no label licence would now be required? Hip hop and drum n bass have both benefitted from the use of out of copyright samples, so who knows what delights we could have enjoyed had producers suddenly had freer access to the 1960s catalogue. Still, there could still be a whole burgeoning underground scene based on Cliff Richard’s already out of copyright 50s recordings about to blow up right now. I sincerely hope so.

I suppose my point is this. I don’t begrudge artists and session musicians another 20 years of royalties, and maybe not even the record labels. But while active sound recording copyrights aid innovation as labels use yesterday’s hits to fund tomorrow’s acts, copyrights expiring can also result in, and force, other kinds of innovation, both commercial and creative, and it’s that kind of thing the music industry could probably do with just now. If only to ensure that in 20 years time EMI isn’t still saying it can only invest in new bands if it is still earning money from Beatles songs.

But, hey, I’ve talked about copyright long enough. If you want further discussion on the topic, check out this week’s CMU podcast, in which CMU Business Editor Chris Cooke and I also chat about the Amy Winehouse Foundation, Turntable FM, MOG, Mick Jagger’s distaste for Keith Richards, and, for some reason, the Mercury Prize.

What else has been going on this week? Well, Jeremy Hunt made a speech in which he called on Google to do more to block websites that infringe copyright (there’s that bloody word again), while a German court refused to force German ISP HanseNet to block file-sharing network eDonkey on EMI’s behalf. EMI also filed new papers relating to its legal fight against

Elsewhere in legal news, it was claimed that Interscope’s New York offices may have been used by Czar Entertainment chief James Rosemond in the drug trafficking operation he is accused of running. And slightly bizarrely, it turned out that the Boombox record shop in Edmonton was actually a front for a Met Police operation to ensnare criminals.

On Tuesday, it was sadly announced that French producer DJ Mehdi had died in an accident at his home, when he and a number of people fell through a glass veranda. Three others were injured, while Mehdi’s production partner in Carte Blanche, Riton, whose birthday they were celebrating, escaped unhurt. He tweeted later this week: “Just want everyone to know that we were all laughing our asses off half a second before the accident”. Our thoughts go out to his Mehdi’s family and friends.

Also this week, we launched the new look CMU Daily. Thanks to all who have commented on it. The first week of the revamp brought with it an interview with Beggars Group founder Martin Mills and a playlist from Peggy Sue, amongst other things. And, as usual, we brought you all manner of new music to listen to. There were CMU Approved tracks from Visions Of Trees, Joker and Lana Del Rey, as well as a whole free live album from Deerhoof. And elsewhere, we brought you new music from Florence And The Machine, The Big Pink, Drake, DJ Shadow, and more.

But that really is quite enough from me, I think. I’ll just urge you once more to listen to this week’s CMU podcast. It’s our first after a two month break, and between talking for an hour before we realised we weren’t actually recording and the sounds of clattering crockery halting the entire process, it was a bit traumatic. Despite this, I think the finished product it pretty good. If you’ve not listened before and fancy some CMU-style audio, today is the day you should rectify that, I think.

Andy Malt
Editor, CMU