Facing the Music; throughout History, Musicians and Composers Have Battled Rampant Piracy, Unscrupulous Publishers and Dubious Employment Practices. the Problems of Today's Recording Industry Pale in Comparison, Writes Time Blanning

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On 26 November a video message was sent to the Prime Minister on behalf of professional musicians, demanding an extension of copyright protection for performers from 50 to 95 years after any recording. With many of the classic tracks of the high noon of rock'n'roll about to reach their half-century, the issue is becoming urgent. Such an extension is not thought to be supported by the UK government. A spokesman for the artists was understandably irate about this, pointing to the "staggering" amount of foreign revenue generated by British session musicians ("the finest in the world the absolute finest").

Although sympathy for veterans about to be deprived of their royalties is entirely proper, it is just as well to see the crisis of the modern music industry-of which the wrangling over copyright forms a part-in its historical context. Modern musicians' lot compares very well to that of their predecessors. By definition, it was only when commercial recording began in the early 20th century that a musician could expect any additional payment for performance. Not even as great a virtuoso as Paganini or Liszt had a back catalogue.

For composers, too, copyright protection is very much a creation of modern times. Until deep into the 19th century, piracy of the most flagrant kind was the norm. As soon as a score was published, it was liable to be copied right across Europe without any kind of payment to its creator. Moreover, unscrupulous publishers often borrowed the identity of prestigious composers to add allure to slow-selling catalogue items. In Paris, in 1789, the Bohemian composer Adalbert Gyrowetz went to a concert to hear a symphony advertised as being by Haydn-and found himself having to sit through one of his own compositions. Two years earlier, one of the more respectable publishing houses, Breitkopf & Hartel of Leipzig, advertised for sale 96 symphonies by Haydn, even though at that time he had written fewer than 80. If modern copyright protection had been in place in Germany in the middle of the 19th century, Richard Wagner would have been a rich man. As his biographer Ernest New-man a rich man. As his biographer Ernest new-man pointed out, it was the system that made him a beggar-and then condemned him for being a debtor.

One of the reasons why Wagner-and every other composer-was so keen to make a name in Paris was that legislation introduced during the French Revolution had given France the best intelloectual property rights in Europe, and consequently the continent's most vibrant musical culture. The result was that Auber, Meyerbeer and Halevy became very rich. That these three succeeded where Berlioz and Wagner failed ought to be sufficient warning that secure access to the market is not a guarantee of superior quality. When copyright protection came to Italy in the late 19th century, it marginalised the impresarios and prompted the now dominant music publishers to cosset their star composers. Whether the music produced under these new conditions by, saw, Puccini is superior to that of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti or the younger Verdi is a different matter.

The relationship between context and content in music has always been problematic. The rise of the anonymous public in the course of the 18th century certainly liberated musicians from the patronage of prince of prelate. Never again would a composer of Mozart's stature be booted out of the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg ("with a kick to my arse", as Wolfgang put it in a letter to his father). The development of a prosperous public sphere in London allowed Haydn, in a matter of months, to make six times the annual salary paid to him in Austria by Prince Esterhazy. Yet public patronage came at a cost. Haydn chose not to settle in London, but to remain in the service of the Esterhazys until the day he died in 1809. He may well have had, an inkling that the public could be a much harder taskmaster than the relatively undemanding aristocrats he served at home. …