Saturday, February 28, 2004

Reissues and Copyright

There is quite a difference between American copyright law and that of European countries. In many European countries, 50 years after a recording has been made, copyright restrictions cease and the music becomes fair game for any record label to release.

This has become something of a double-edged sword for music fans. On the one hand, it has led to dubious releases lacking in sound quality and discographical acuity. On the other hand, if offers music which is often vital and important at a reasonable price.

The major labels have really been there own worst enemies in this matter and have brought this upon themselves and music fans. For years, and even now, the Charlie Parker discography has been an absolute mess, shamefully treating one of the most important musical figures in American history. Innumerable compilation discs with titles like “Greatest Hits” and “Bird Plays for Lovers” were issued while a true summation of his music was lacking. European labels like Definitive stepped in after the 50 year mark began to be passed, issuing reasonable collections – Savoy and Dial master takes, and complete collections of Parker’s recordings for those labels. This did justice to discographical order, but often the music wasn’t taken from the original master tapes and the sound quality was left wanting.

When the Parker material was finally released by a major label, it was in a gigantic boxed set that boasted a price tag of over $100. This left music fans who couldn’t afford it to scramble to pick up scraps or turn to these gray market European recordings.

Before we brand the European labels as the savior of the little guy, though much controversy still reigns. “John L.” writing on the Organissimo forum says:

As you may have noticed, the market has become flooded by JSP sets recently, although most of these sets differ little from the products of labels like Proper and Definitive that exploit the liberal copyright laws on the continent. The remastering on many sets is no longer first generation. Still, they are making great music in good sound quality available at a very low price.

JSP is an English label, which issues inexpensive boxed sets. They have won much praise for their collections of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. On the Devil’s Music blues forum, “Montgomery Cleft” comments of the recent JSP pre-war blues reissues:

But their more recent box sets, of Lemon, McTell, etc. seem to come from various sources, basically from whatever they can get their hands on. The sound quality, then, differs from track to track, and the EQing they do often makes things worse. I've found their very recent reissues to sound muddy and extremely inconsistent. On the other hand, the price is right, and they almost always do complete works (though some of their "complete" sets have several notable omissions).

This really sums up the nature of the problem that music fans face. Either accept poor sound quality and other problems but get the music at a reasonable price or shell out a large amount of money to by lavish boxed sets from the major labels.

Send comments to: Tim