Is Apple deleting the history of music? Moral Rights on iTunes
Moral Rights, included an overview of the fascinating strategies adopted by music companies to try to undercut the “illegal” downloading of music online. Among these, Apple’s iTunes has led the way. This leading platform for legal music downloads, revolutionary in its time, adopted a practical strategy that showed just how much Apple had learned from the illegal downloading scene.
Apple focused on selling music singles as individual tracks, and at prices so insignificant that it was almost like getting music for free. Of course, it is possible to buy entire albums on iTunes – and, on occasion, in more specialized genres like jazz or classical, only albums might be available – but the basic format on which iTunes is built remains the single. Popular music tracks typically sell for around $1.29, while jazz and classical “singles” are usually priced at a mere 99 cents (for more on Apple's pricing scheme click here). And Apple is selling something more than just music. It is selling insurance – a way to be reasonably sure that downloaded music is legally obtained, or at least, to make it credible to argue that it is.
A time may come when downloading will entirely surpass the market for recordings in “hard copy” (see here for an interesting analysis). The economic consequences of such a shift have been analyzed countless times. But, in an environment that is overwhelmingly online, what will be the fate of moral rights in music?
There has been surprisingly little discussion of moral rights in the online environment. What little has been said emphasizes the practical reality, obvious but immensely significant, that it is very difficult it is to protect moral rights online. Given the freedom to manipulate data, and the fact that many online exchanges of music occur in informal or illegal contexts, maintaining the attribution and integrity of musical works depends almost entirely on the goodwill of the individuals involved. There are some inherent incentives to maintain the source and integrity of data on file-sharing networks (also discussed briefly in my book), and there is some overlap between an interest in data per se and moral rights in music; but this is still a far cry from explicit recognition for music rights.
To date, the tacit consensus seems to be that moral rights are of limited relevance to digital transactions. From the artists’ perspective, however, nothing could be further from the truth. As noted above, the music industry seems to be moving towards an era when revenues from music CDs will largely disappear. Some of those revenues will be replaced by legitimate online sales, but musicians will also have to find other ways of making a living. While the ultimate shape of the music industry to come is still unclear, it is possible to catch certain glimpses of its future face. Live performance may experience a resurgence; self-promotion and the development of a unique musical presence, or “brand,” will be essential; and successful strategies for selling music through venues like iTunes will be crucial. In all of these areas, the value of reputation, name, and a uniquely identifiable product or creation seems to be at least as important as it was in the era of recorded music. Moral rights, and the twin principles of attribution and integrity, in particular, will be more important than ever to the musicians of the future.
Will CDs just vaporise?
But online platforms are not only relevant to the future of music; they play a crucial role in relation to its past. As recordings are essentially transferred from CDs to music services like iTunes, these vast online databases will become increasingly important as repositories for the entire history of recorded music. In relation to the music of the past, the attribution and integrity of musical recordings is involved. This issue should be of concern to anyone and everyone with an interest in music.
A look at iTunes provides a clear illustration of what is at stake. iTunes is already a vast digital library, offering tracks for sale in virtually every genre of music. However, there are obvious problems in relation to both attribution and integrity. For example, a jazz performance usually involves a degree of collaboration between at least three people – a soloist supported by bass and drums. Many of these “side men” are extraordinary musicians in their own right. Charles Mingus was an extraordinary bassist who also played piano, composed, and led a big band. The bassists who played with pianist Bill Evans were in a special class known for their virtuosity – Scott LaFaro, Eddie Gomez, Marc Johnson. A large number of percussionists have attained the status of jazz legends. And yet, a survey of jazz recordings on iTunes suggests that some number of them, quite probably a majority, do not list the names of contributors anywhere on the track.
A similar problem occurs in relation to classical music recordings, but classical music tracks also contain other kinds of mistakes. A fan of the Scriabin sonatas recorded by legendary pianist Vladimir Horowitz might want to download the tracks from his 1989 RCA Victor album, but the listener would be startled to find that one of the feature pieces, the famous first movement of Scriabin’s third piano sonata (“Dramatico”), actually contains another piece. The recording is available for download in its proper form from Apple’s competitor online, Amazon.com.
Where integrity is concerned, the problems are also fundamental. Some artists feel that splitting an album into individual tracks affects the integrity of their music – a case that was made, successfully, by rock group, Pink Floyd, in 2010 (though one wonders how committed the group was to this concept, as they have subsequently struck a deal with EMI Classics that allows the company to continue selling individual tracks online). A work of classical music like Glenn Gould’s recording of the Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach is available as a series of individual tracks, although Gould, very unusually, re-recorded this work in order to explore the “overarching ... pulse,” in the phrase of journalist Jonathan Cott (Conversations With Glenn Gould (University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1984), that unites all of the variations. It is possible to think of many reasons why it might be interesting and important to be able to download single variations, and the point here is not to argue against making them available. Rather, in cases like this, it may be important to make them available with a specific focus on maintaining the integrity of the work. Something as simple as indicating that the piece is part of a larger work, and showing where the selection fits within the whole, could accomplish this goal.