Copyright – Use It Or Lose It?

I was browsing in one of the last remaining record stores in Melbourne’s CBD last week, flipping through the secondhand racks for independent vinyl releases of the 70s and 80s. (I was in search of some sounds of the Paisley Underground, if anyone is interested.) The shop owner, who also runs a record label, lamented that there are a whole bunch of out-of-print recordings of that era that he wants to license for reissue in physical format – but in many cases, the rights have since been acquired by major record companies that have no interest in re-releasing this material themselves. Yet, when approached for permission, oftentimes they ask for prohibitive licensing fees, making the venture uneconomic.

The sound of the Paisley Underground (on vinyl, of course) – Image sourced from Discogs.com

The irony is, most times the major labels have no idea what they have in their back catalogues, because the content they own has been scooped up through corporate mergers or is still managed via a series of archaic territorial licensing and distribution deals based on antiquated geo-blocking practices. Plus, understandably, they are usually more interested in flogging their latest product than curating their past.

There’s nothing wrong with content owners wanting to charge licensing fees, but surely they need to be commensurate with the likely rate of return for the licensee (we’re usually talking about a small circulation among enthusiasts, after all). Plus, the original production costs have either been written off, or amortized on the books – so, given there is little to no new cost to the content owner, ANY additional revenue stream would surely be welcome, however modest?

But what about streaming and downloads? Surely all this back catalogue content is available from your nearest digital music platform of choice? Well, actually no. In many cases, “out-of-print” also means “out-of-circulation”. And even if back content is available to stream or download, the aforementioned geo-blocking can mean that rights owners in certain markets may choose not to make the content available in specific countries. (I’ve even had the experience where content I have purchased and downloaded from iTunes Australia is no longer available – probably because the rights have subsequently been acquired by a local distributor who has elected to withdraw it from circulation.)

Of course, copyrights eventually expire or lapse, and unless renewed or otherwise maintained, usually fall into the public domain (but not for many years…..). Again, nothing wrong with affording copyright owners the commercial and financial benefits of their IP. But, should content owners be allowed to sit on their assets, and do nothing with their IP, despite the willingness of potential licensees to generate additional income for them?

In a previous blog, I ventured the idea of a “use it or lose it” concept. This would enable prospective licensees to re-issue content, in return for an appropriate royalty fee or share of revenues, where the copyright owners (and/or their labels, publishers and distributors) no longer make it available – either in certain markets and territories, or in specific formats. To mitigate potential copyright exploitation, copyright owners would be given the opportunity to explain why they have chosen to withhold or withdraw material that had previously been commercially available. There could also be an independent adjudicator to assess these explanations, and to help set an appropriate level of licensing fees and/or royalties.

Meanwhile, on-line sites like Discogs.com provide a welcome marketplace for out-of-print back catalogue!

Next week: Big Data – Panacea or Pandemic?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Supersense – Festival of the Ecstatic

Taking a break from startups, FinTech and digital disruption, I spent the past weekend at this year’s Supersense at the Melbourne Arts Centre. This underground festival (both literally and culturally) is back after 2015’s launch event, with an even more ambitious yet also more coherent line-up. It was still an endurance test, and while there were several absorbing performances, in the end it felt like there was nothing that was totally outstanding.

Part of the problem is we are so overloaded with aural stimulation that it takes something truly special to capture our imagination. First, we have access to an endless supply of music (thanks to Apple, Spotify, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, BitTorrent, Vimeo, Resonate, Napster, Vevo, Gnutella, YouTube…). Second, what was once deemed subversive or cutting edge, has now been appropriated by the mainstream and co-opted into the mass media. Third, and as a result of which, when it comes to the avant-garde, there is a sense of “been there, seen that”.

Alternatively, perhaps after more than 40 years of watching live music my palette has become jaded. But I’m also aware that theses days, some of the really interesting and engaging “live” audio experiences are to be found in art gallery installations, site-specific works and interactive pieces. For much of the festival, there was the traditional boundary between performer and audience – even though the idea was to wander between the different performance areas, we were still very much spectators.

A large part of the programme was given over to genre-pushing performances.  But even here I realize that, whether it’s free jazz, improvisation or experimental sounds, there is an orthodoxy at work. Many of these performers are playing a pre-defined musical role, whether it’s torch singer, axe hero, R&B diva, stonking saxophonist, glitch supremo, string scraper, drone aficionado or ur-vocalist.

Some performers played the venue as much as their instruments (stretching the acoustic limits of the building). Some even ended up “playing” the audience (in the sense of stretching their patience and tolerance). And in the many collaborative pieces, the musicians were mainly playing for or against each other, somewhat oblivious to the audience. In such circumstances, the creative tension did provide for some interesting results; but as so often with virtuoso performances, the players that relied only on speed, noise, volume or however many (or few) notes they produced were probably the least interesting.

Overall, few performers offered much variety within their allotted time slots. For all the colour, range and styles on display, many of the individual sets were extremely monochromatic, with little in the way of transition or shade. The volume, tones and textures were always full on. Pieces lacked development, and did not reveal or explore the aural equivalent of negative space. I understand and appreciate the importance of minimalism, repetition and compressed tonality in contemporary composition, but I was also hoping for a more layered approach to these live performances, and even some juxtaposition or contrast.

The subtitle of Supersense is “Festival of the Ecstatic”, with the implication that the audience will be swept away on a (sound) wave of transcendence. When it came to being enraptured, as with so many things these days, less is more. So the key sessions for me included: Oliver Coates who mesmerized with his solo cello performance; Jannah Quill and Fujui Wang whose laptop glitches sounded like a version of Philip Jeck’s “Vinyl Requiem” using only the works of Karlheinz Stockhausen; Zeena Parkins‘ sublime piano drone harmonics; JG Thirwell‘s minimalist sound poem; and Stephen O’Malley’s plaster-shredding guitar feedback oscillation. Whether or not it was the intended effect, during a number of performances I actually found myself drifting into a soporific state of semi-consciousness – but maybe it was just fatigue setting in?

Of course, I am extremely grateful that this type of event exists – it’s essential to have these showcases, for all their limitations and challenges. But it’s a bit like being a tourist: there are lots of destinations we may like to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there – and there are some places where it’s enough just to know they are there.

Next week: FinTech and the Regulators

David Bowie Was – “It’s a god-awful small affair…”

The music of David Bowie was the soundtrack to my teenage years, coinciding with the extraordinary run of albums he released in the 1970s, the like of which we will never see again. He was the first (and probably last) 20th century mega pop star, with a prescient knack for reinvention and innovation. He will be remembered as one of the few truly original musicians of his era, a legacy that he has confirmed with his final studio album, released on his 69th birthday, just two days before he died. Talk about timing…. Even his long-time collaborator, Tony Visconti was moved to say “His death was a work of art.”

Sleeve of 1976 compilation album released by RCA Records. Portrait by Tom Kelley. (Image sourced from Discogs.com)

Sleeve of 1976 compilation album released by RCA Records. Portrait by Tom Kelley. (Image sourced from Discogs.com)

Overture

My own journey with Bowie began with “Life on Mars?” (from “Hunky Dory”), which was released as a single in June of 1973. I was 12 years old, and my family had just returned to suburban London after three years living in Australia. The re-entry was bewildering.

The UK of my childhood had disappeared in my absence: there was decimal currency, membership of the EEC, a Tory government, colour TV, and the Three-Day Week. And then there was glam rock, with Bowie at the forefront. The kids at school were all wearing platform shoes, outrageously wide shirt collars, flared trousers, and Bowie haircuts. If they’d been allowed, they’d probably be wearing glitter and makeup as well. There certainly hadn’t been anything like this in staid, suburban Adelaide, which felt like it was firmly stuck in the 1950s.

Prologue

Although I had probably heard “Space Oddity” (and even “The Laughing Gnome”) on the radio as a child, “Life on Mars?” is the first Bowie song I connected with. I couldn’t fathom the lyrics, but their sense of alienation (along with the song’s outsider perspective) must have resonated with me. It also suggested a loss of innocence, time and place. It was hard to avoid or ignore Bowie during this period. There was a constant stream of hit singles released to an eager market that was happy to keep him in the charts week in, week out.

Act I

At the time, I was more in tune with Top 40 radio than album releases, so for me Bowie was “just” a singles artist. I was mostly oblivious to the stage and album personas of “Ziggy Stardust”, “Aladdin Sane” and “Diamond Dogs”. It took me a while to backtrack through those albums, especially “The Man Who Sold The World”, which was only known to me through Lulu’s cover version of the title song. As for “Pin Ups”, although it was not his strongest effort at the time, it was a significant portal into 60s psychedelic, progressive and underground rock music for those of us too young to have been there.

The first Bowie album I actually bought was “ChangesOneBowie” because it was an excellent primer, and it contained two of my favourite tracks of the mid-70s, “Fame” (from the pivotal “Young Americans”) and “Golden Years” (from the even more significant “Station to Station”, which Kraftwerk name-checked on their contemporaneous album, “Trans-Europe Express”). “ChangesOneBowie” was not a typical greatest hits collection, but stood as an album in its own right.

From there, it was headlong into the Berlin trilogy of “Low” (still an astonishing collection of post-modern rock songs, electronic and ambient music), “Heroes” (confirming Bowie as one of the few pre-punk musicians it was still OK to like) and “Lodger” (tackling issues of cold war politics, gender identity and domestic violence against a backdrop of Eastern, Reggae and Krautrock influences – “world music” before the term had even been coined).

In 1980, Bowie said farewell to the 70s with “Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)”, which thanks to the video for “Ashes to Ashes”, helped usher in the MTV era. It remained his strongest work for more than 30 years (apart from “Heathen”, and maybe “Let’s Dance”) until “The Next Day” in 2013 (which acted as both a coda to and summation of his musical career), and the valedictory released early last month.

Act II

For much of the 80s and 90s, Bowie seemed to flounder. In the 70s, he had been the instigator of change and the artist to follow; witness the legion of artists who cite him as a key influence. But after “Let’s Dance” he became more of a follower as he tried to catch up with the latest trends rather than setting them, and much of the material on the resulting albums sounds outdated, stodgy and formulaic, lacking the deft touches of his earlier work. While I can even understand why he formed the Tin Machine, I have no time for their music. To my ears their albums are no better than much of the vapid, soulless and synthetic rock that polluted mainstream radio and TV as the major record companies tried to re-corporatise pop and rock music following the disruption of punk, new wave, post-punk, electronic and independent artists and labels.

Act III

I’m sure history will treat the “third act” of Bowie’s career (from “1. Outside” to “Reality”) more kindly than when some of those late albums were first released. Overall, it’s a reasonably solid body of work, and still a lot better than what most of his contemporaries were churning out at the time. It feels as if Bowie was treading water, biding his time, waiting for new inspiration while he explored other interests – whether securitising his back catalogue via Bowie Bonds, or launching his own ISP, BowieNet.

Then came the growing silence: no new material, no live tours, and gradual withdrawal from the spotlight. Only the odd glimpse, and the occasional rumours about his health. Maybe the curtain had finally fallen on Bowie’s recording career.

Epilogue

Suddenly out of nowhere, after an 11-year hiatus, in January 2013 came a startling new single, “Where Are We Now?”, which caught most of us by surprise. It was both new and comfortably familiar – the sonic palette had been updated (without trying to sound “trendy”), but the lyrical themes were the same. Bowie himself sounded wiser but world-weary, and there was an abiding sense of loss, regret and redemption.

The accompanying album, “The Next Day” did not herald any great musical surprises, yet it was good to have him back with such a solid album. The songs avoid being Bowie pastiches (which is a trap many comeback albums fall into), but each track could have appeared on one or more of his classic 70s albums. At one point, too, his vocals sound reminiscent of Scott Walker‘s recent work (surely not mere coincidence?). Despite the lingering thought that this really was the last Bowie album, “The Next Day” was soon followed by new material, various remixes, the “David Bowie Is” touring exhibition, a stage show based on “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, and yet more Bowie compilations, box-sets and re-issues.

All this renewed activity now seems like a diversion, designed to catch us off our guard. Because we were hardly prepared for what happened next: the huge anticipation, when yet another new album was scheduled for release on January 8, 2016; and deep sorrow, when Bowie’s death was announced just two days later.

I haven’t managed to listen to “” more than a couple of times. The lyrics are loaded with poignant references to death, resurrection and final endings. It feels like we are listening in on someone predicting and meditating upon their own imminent demise, contemplating their life with quiet reflection. While the accompanying music is not exactly funereal, nor it as avant-garde or as cutting-edge as some reviews might suggest; but it’s still quite experimental for a mainstream artist. Inevitably, the album will be regarded as Bowie’s final artistic act, a grand gesture, signing off on his own terms. Not many of us will get to do that…

Postscript

When I heard the news that Bowie had died, I was walking home through the park. The city was bathed in a golden glow of a rain lit sunset, and there was a huge rainbow across the sky…. Starman indeed.

Without the benefit of Bowie, I probably wouldn’t have explored or appreciated loads of other music: the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, Iggy & the Stooges, John Cale, Brian Eno, Neu!, Roxy Music, Robert Fripp, Can, Wire, Faust, Buzzcocks, The Cure, Nico, Devo, TV on The Radio, Arcade Fire, Blur, The Associates, Nick Cave, Au Pairs, The Doors, Tindersticks, Air, Magazine, Kraftwerk, Gang of Four, Sonic Youth, Joy Division, Pixies, Talking Heads, Television, A Certain Ratio, Echo & The Bunnymen, and many more.

If I had to choose one song that best epitomizes Bowie’s personal perspective on stardom (and notoriety), along with a sense of his own mortality and place in the world, it would be “It’s No Game”, from 1980’s “Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps)”. Bowie was neither politician nor philosopher (and he certainly wasn’t a saint), but this existentialist anthem is a perfect statement on the human condition that is still valid today, which is why I for one will miss his presence.

Acknowledgment: Thanks to my fellow presenters David Whiting and Steve Groves at North West FM Community Radio for the great times we had with our special Bowie programs over the past few years.

Next Week: Tech vs The Human Factor

A Music Buyer’s Guide to Japan (or Crate Digging in Kobe, Kyoto & Tokyo…)

For serious music collectors, Japan is like an oasis in a desert of digital downloads and streaming services. Not only does Japan still have bricks and mortar record shops, it also boasts a couple of well-known chain stores, in the guise of Tower Records and HMV, although both brands operate under local licenses totally unconnected with their original US and UK parent companies.

A Crate Diggers Paradise....

A Crate Diggers’ Paradise…. (Picture sourced from Facebook post)

On my recent tour of Japan, I spent several hours visiting some of the crate-digging hubs of Kobe, Kyoto and Tokyo. I barely scratched the surface, but still managed to come across some interesting finds.

“Big In Japan”

Whether it’s the country’s aging population, the love of tactile objects combined with a strong design aesthetic, or just that national obsession with detail and authenticity when it comes to pursuing hobbies and interests; whatever the reason, Japan has established a reputation for being a paradise for lovers of vinyl records, CDs and cassettes.

For collectors like myself, it seems like all the unwanted and discarded records from around the world have ended up in Japan’s second hand music shops to be (re)discovered and appreciated by audiophiles, hipsters and analogue enthusiasts.

Here is just a small glimpse of what dedicated music lovers and crate-diggers can experience in Japan.

Kobe

The Motoko market (a series of cramped arcades underneath the railway lines) has at least a dozen second-hand music stores stuffed with vinyl. A few of these shops specialise in particular genres, and some also sell new independent releases. What they all have in common are over-stacked racks and heaving shelf units shoved close together, forcing shoppers to crab-walk very carefully between piles of records, at considerable risk of triggering a vinyl avalanche.

Some of the stores arrange their stock meticulously by type and artist, but not much help if you don’t read Japanese; others seemed to have given up cataloguing the stock, so if you are searching for a specific record, it’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

At times, it felt like this was the end of the line for many of the items on display – if they can’t find a buyer here, there probably isn’t much hope for them anywhere. No doubt there is a lot of on-line trading behind the scenes, and prices were generally reasonable, so maybe the shops are more like warehouses open to the public?

Poring through some of the 70s vinyl was something of an education, as I came across albums I had never seen before, even though I worked in a second-hand record store in London in the late 80s. I resisted the temptation to buy some of the older Japanese pressings (especially at Wild Honey Pie), even though they have a reputation for superior sound quality, but I did pick up a Japanese edition of the first Y.M.O. album on CD at Freak Out Records.

Kyoto

Armed with a handy crate-digging map of Kyoto, I checked out several shops located near City Hall. Unlike their Kobe counterparts, these were neat and orderly boutiques, and were easy to browse. None of the stores are at street level, so navigation can be challenging. The map lists stores by genre and other specialisations, although some of the music categories can seem bewildering.

I spent most time at 100000t alonetoco (I think it means something like “100,000 tonnes of records”?), which has a good range of vinyl and CD, from classic rock to contemporary sounds, from soundtracks to electronica, plus books and other memorabilia. The owner stocks numerous Japan-only releases by independent US and UK artists, many of which are highly collectible. Speaking of which, I found an absolute bargain – a 1987 compilation CD of the 2nd and 3rd albums by The Pop Group, which was only released in Japan. Copies of this particular pressing are currently listed for sale online from A$145 – mine cost a mere 600 yen….

Also worth checking out is Prototype, which leans toward reggae, soul and funk.

Tokyo

Around the hip Tokyo suburb of Shimokitazawa are a cluster of hi-quality specialist stores, including Jet Set, which is also a label and distributor for local and international releases, mainly indie, techno, beats, ambient and electronica. There are a couple of branches of Dorama, a chain of second-hand CD stores (plus comics, magazines, graphic novels, games and DVDs). Well worth checking out, especially for promotional releases, box sets, jazz, classical, Japanese pop and electronica, and alternative international rock. I managed to find very cheap (less than 300 yen each) and long-deleted Japanese releases by United Future Organization and the late Susumu Yokota. For the latest independent Japanese releases, the Village Vanguard book store has an intriguing music section.

Further towards the city, in Shinjuku, is the institution known as Disk Union (and not Disc Union as my Australian guide-book spells it…). With 10 branches in the Shinjuku area alone (plus more than 20 others across Tokyo and in Osaka), it would probably take several days to check them all out. While they do stock selected new releases, the real attraction of browsing in Disk Union is the sheer breadth of second-hand, deleted and promotional items on sale. A case in point being the special Japanese edition of the recent David Bowie “Five Years” box set – looks wonderful but too rich for my wallet.

Finally, no trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to Tower Records in Shibuya. This landmark, multi-storey superstore is constantly being upgraded, even though sales of physical albums are generally on the decline. It caters for most tastes, and many new releases are discounted, making it popular with locals and tourists alike. It’s great for finding the Japanese pressings of international CDs, as they usually feature additional music or limited editions not included in the European or US releases. There’s now even a section just for cassettes, both new releases and re-issues. On this occasion, I found a couple of very limited edition albums by Japan’s Silent Poets, both on sale at regular price, but which I’ve since found listed online for upwards of A$50 each…

Next week: Another weekend, another hacakathon