Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Postcapitalist Musical Economy and the IMSLP

Paul Mason's lengthy article about Postcapitalism in The Guardian got me thinking about the way the new musical economy functions in a world where digital exchange of information has relatively few "real" costs associated with it.

Anyone who knows me knows that I "play" by my own rules. Basically my practice boils down to personal contact. If I show up to play for someone's concert, I expect to be paid. If I decide to donate my services, I consider it a personal gift to the person or organization. If I write a piece for someone, I happily accept payment and consider the payment as something to insure that the person I write the piece for will be the person to give the first performance. Once the piece is performed I like to make it available on the IMSLP for anyone to play.

I no longer send my music to the publisher who holds the copyright on 77 of my pieces because I cannot depend on that publisher to do anything in the way of promotion. My pieces are, for the most part, files on their computer. When a musician buys a piece of music from this publisher (or most publishers) it is printed (nicely) and mailed. The publisher keeps 90% of the asking price (set by the publisher), and I get a royalty for 10%. Sometimes people buy a "mechanical license," which means that they have permission from the publisher to record a piece, if they choose to. Believe me, it rarely amounts to much.

The only measure I have of how many people play my published music is my yearly (sometimes) royalty statement. That measure does not take into account the people who take the music out of libraries (the now-deceased former owner of the music that is now controlled by my current publisher made sure that everything in his catalog made it into the stacks of major music libraries). I like to imagine that those 77 pieces are being played once in a while, but I have no way of knowing if they are, outside of the occasional YouTube video.

Once something is written I do not think of the music itself as a product to sell. It makes me rather nervous when I think of a piece of music being "worth" a set amount of money. When I look at the stats from my Thematic Catalog blog, I see that there have been 7864 visits to my transcription of the Pachelbel Canon. When I follow the link to the IMSLP listing, I see that there have been 19,686 people who downloaded the score.

The value that this IMSLP listing contributes to people who want to play the Pachelbel Canon with their string orchestra or string quartet is pretty great. The value that knowing that people can use the arrangements I make and the music I write (here's the page that has links to the original music I have in the IMSLP) is great for me. It helps me to know that what I do with music is useful and brings people pleasure. I get a great deal of pleasure out of writing and arranging music, and it is great to know that people (thousands of them) get pleasure from playing it. I'm happy to contribute to the musical economy by making accessible music (accessible for people who like to play music that isn't ridiculously difficult to play and to hear) easily accessible to all musicians for free.

But even a post-capitalist musical mindset involves money. The IMSLP, an organization run by a dedicated crowd of volunteers, has to use money to pay for its bandwidth. They have, like every other entity that uses bandwidth, started a fundraising campaign. There is a simple way to become a member (around $20 bucks a year if you make it a multi-year membership), and there are more creative ways. You can even sponsor a composer of your choice (maybe someone will pick me!).

The value of the IMSLP to me as a contributor and as a frequent user is immeasurable, and I'm proud to have done my part to keep it viable.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Fine,

With respect, I don't think the Petrucci library represents a "post capitalist" step in things. The real issue has been that music publishers such as yours has been have taken -- the verb is chosen -- 90 percent of your work in a day and age when paper is cheap and PDFs even cheaper. When a work finds a larger entity such as an orchestra with a budget for such things, I think we all would expect payment of some sort. Rather I think Petrucci and other represent a real capitalist step in competing with big publishers, as one can see from various law suits by the big boys against IMSLP in the past. One competes by undercutting, as by breaking cartels, and this is what some of the big publishers seem to be, more than just arts organizations. This explains the newly edited publications of such things as Mozart operas by Barenreiter which cost a very large sum for small corrections and pages of footnotes and commentary. When on thinks that between IMSLP and and others, most of common practice music may be found for small groups and individuals at little cost -- perhaps sheets of paper and some toner -- it is an amazing next step. The same is true for centuries of novels and poetry and research. I recall at Caltech some texts costing hundreds of dollars because of small printing runs and a tiny market, but this can break the "bank" of a student. It is the same with recordings, as more and more becomes available not just from YouTube but other providers as well. It is an exciting time, and reminds me of the breaking of the north European cartels which controlled markets and kept prices high for the sake of what is now called corporatism by some, not capitalism. I suspect small capitalism -- not under the control of the corporations -- is this next step, in which the little guy is finding new ways to complete with the few who have controlled for so long. I personally am happy for Petrucci and Archive and others, who have saved a bundle. A "contribution" is small capital for them, but worth the small price. Hurray that through them you have found a greater audience, that a publisher would never have found. In this you are competing by offering something the publishers cannot. Best wishes.