Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Whose Music Is It Anyway?; Lawsuits over Who Owns Music - and Even Silence - Reveal the Recording Industry at Its Most Powerful. but Using Other People's Tunes Need Not Be Theft

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Whose Music Is It Anyway?; Lawsuits over Who Owns Music - and Even Silence - Reveal the Recording Industry at Its Most Powerful. but Using Other People's Tunes Need Not Be Theft

Article excerpt

Byline: NORMAN LEBRECHT

TWO landmark cases, both settled on the courtroom steps with smiles all round and lips firmly sealed. The only losers are those who love music and must continue paying for it through the nose. So, you wonder, what's new?

What's new is that the two cases set consumers and creators militantly on the same side, against the music machine. In New York last week the Big Five record companies struck a deal with the attorney generals of 40 US states who were suing them for price-fixing.

The Five - Sony, Warner Brothers, EMI, Vivendi-Universal and Bertelsmann - agreed to give five and a half million free CDs to schools and public libraries after being accused of setting minimum CD prices at three major retailers, Tower Records, Wal-Mart and Musicland.

The labels and stores also agreed to cough up $67.3 million (pound sterling43 million) to compensate the suing states and cover legal costs. No wrongdoing was admitted by the record industry, which made it clear that no reduction could be expected in the price of new CDs.

The cost of CDs has given rise to public concern since their introduction 20 years ago at twice the price of LPs. It seemed odd that all new releases cost about the same across all labels, and that the price did not budge even when sales slumped and common sense might have dictated a fire-sale. What's more, the mark-up on a disc can be eight to 10 times the cost of its production.

Anomalies like these have provoked parliamentary inquiries in Washington, London and Brussels, but never a full prosecution.

Governments do not mess with the music biz. It is too big, too generous at election time and too influential on young minds for politicians to risk a coalition of gangsta rappers, country crooners and opera divas converging on their doorstep in cacophonous protest.

The biz has always got away with it in the lobby. Now the US prosecutors have backed off again in exchange for a stack of free discs.

The other settlement was equally blurred. Outside the High Court in London two weeks ago, the musical arranger Mike Batt paid the publishers Edition Peters over pound sterling100,000 for the use of a minute's silence on his EMI album, Classical Graffiti. Batt had jokily credited his blank track to "Batt/Cage", a tribute to the Californian iconoclast John Cage whose 1952 composition 4'33" involved a pianist going on stage and sitting motionless in front of his instrument for the prescribed duration.

Cage regarded 4'33" as his finest piece. "I wanted my work to be free of my own likes and dislikes," he said in a 1974 interview, "... to have led other people to feel that the sounds of the environment constitute a music which is more interesting than the work they would hear if they went to a concert hall." For all his pride in the piece, Cage maintained that his sole intervention was to alert listeners to ambient noise.

His was a clear and humble statement of creative dis-ownership. He raised no objection when younger composers built upon his breakthrough - notably when the German-based Hungarian Gyargy Ligeti issued a concise version titled 0'00". Cage often raided others' work, altering copyrighted texts by James Joyce in several scores. He would have been amused, nothing more, to see club DJs of the 21st century freely applying a technique he invented in 1938, when he began manipulating record turntables and sampling sounds. …

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