Dear Mailing List,
This coming Monday evening (Nov 24), I am taking part in an interesting event at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). My music publishing company, Carthage Music (in which I am a partner with long-time colleagues Guy Morris and Catherine Steinmann) is collaborating with SOAS in a study of the issues surrounding copyright and traditional music in Mali. The great griot vocalist Kassemady Diabate will perform and I will join Lucy Duran and Caspar Melville from SOAS in presenting some of the issues we are confronting and the fruits of our work to date. For people in the music industry – and even for ‘civilians’ – it can be quite an interesting subject. (I have included some of what I intend to say on the subject at the bottom of this newsletter.) Kassemady and his group will also perform at the Purcell Room on the South Bank the evening before as part of the London Jazz Festival. Tickets are available from The Southbank Centre
For something completely different, the excellent non-commercial radio station in San Francisco, KALW, will commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Nick Drake’s death with a special which includes interviews the host JoAnn Mar has done with yours truly over the years as well as an excellent Kitchen Sisters documentary about Nick’s music and the creation of the “Way To Blue” concerts a few years back. (The cd of that project, featuring Vashti Bunyan, Robyn Hitchcock, Teddy Thompson, Green Gartside, Lisa Hannigan, Krystle Warren, Danny Thompson and others is available from shops, both online and real, and various downloads and streams….) It airs at 3pm Saturday Nov 22, Pacific Standard Time (8 hours behind GMT) and will be available in the KALW archive for a week thereafter. http://www.kalwfolk.org
Last weekend I had the privilege of meeting the singer Edwyn Collins (Orange Juice) and has wife Grace Maxwell. They are the subject of a wonderful film called “The Possibilities Are Endless”, which tells of Edwyn’s recovery from a massive stroke which completely incapacitated him. He is now producing records again – including a wonderful job on the new cd by The Rails (Kami Thompson and her husband James Walbourne’s group) – writing and singing songs and walking. (He explained to an interviewer that he now “talks better than he walks and sings better than he talks”.) Grace’s brilliant combative support is also documented in her book “Falling and Laughing”. I was “in conversation with” them at the Aldeburgh Documentary Festival in Suffolk, a wonderful weekend of high-quality, provocative films followed by equally stimulating discussions. Mark your diaries for next November.
ciao for niao
Copyright Footnote: To the uninitiated, music royalty and copyright issues can seem arcane and confusing. To simplify, when Bob Dylan records a Dylan song, he gets two royalties, one from CBS Records as the artist and another which comes from CBS via his music publisher, as composer. The label pays a ‘mechanical’ royalty for each copy sold. iTunes pays two royalties, one to the label, one to the publisher on behalf of the author. When Jimi Hendrix sang “All Along the Watchtower”, he got the artist royalty and Dylan got the composer royalty from Hendrix’ label via his publisher. For many years, the only one getting paid royalties for radio play was the composer, but now – in Europe, at least – performers are starting to get paid for radio play.
Back in the 1930s, A P Carter would ride through the hills of Appalachia collecting folk songs. He, his wife and sister – The Carter Family – would then record them for Bluebird Records with producer Ralph Peer. Carter claimed authorship of most of the songs and Peer started a publishing company that collected the songwriting royalties and split the proceeds with Carter. Today, Peer Southern Music is one of the biggest publishers in the world.
A few years later, John Lomax and his son Alan also went through the South recording folk singers, including many in prison. They sprung one such prisoner – Leadbelly – out of jail, managed his career and claimed ‘co-authorship’ of many of the songs he sang for their microphones. One such song, “Good Night Irene”, reached #1 on the US hit-parade in 1951, as recorded by Pete Seeger’s group, The Weavers. A growing awareness of the dubious nature of this practice meant that by the late ’50s, most folksingers would acknowledge the fact that authorship of most such songs was unknowable by crediting “trad. arr. so-and-so”. “Arr” stands for “arranged by”.
In the US, “Trad arr” meant that a performer recording his own arrangement of a folk song got paid just the same as if he had written it himself. But in Europe, this was uncommon. One reason was that many authors’ societies like PRS (UK), SACEM (France) and GEMA (Germany) required ‘authors’ to submit lead sheets, and pass a test of musical and composing ability in order to be admitted to the society of authors. When I began working in the UK ‘folk’ scene in the 1960s, I encouraged singers to claim “trad arr” on traditional songs. I didn’t go deeply into the philosophy – it just seemed like a way to benefit artists; if they didn’t claim that money, the record label got a free ride on that song.
British business culture is more like American than are Continental ones. Most British organizations and labels accept this practice, but it is very difficult for members of European societies to make similar claims. European law requires that German labels respect such claims by PRS on behalf of British performers, but those registered with GEMA can’t do likewise.
Lucy Duran, who teaches African music at SOAS, and I have worked on many projects involving Malian music and she has also worked with World Circuit and other labels, producing a wonderful body of recorded work. She knows better than anyone what a complex business Malian traditional music is, where melodies and lyrics often can be traced back through royal court histories and griot family traidition for more than a thousand years. Can you simply slap a “trad arr” on an ancient Malian praise song in order to reward a great singer or musician for their brilliant version of such a song? Is it fair to deprive them of an income stream that other performers around the world receive? Most Malian musicians are registered with SACEM, which is almost as rigid as GEMA in its strictures.
There is a UN-sponsored body that wants to institutionalize the notion of “collective copyright” which would claim money on behalf of a “culture” rather than an idividual. I confess to being sceptical of this idea. African copyright societies have an execrable record of paying out royalties in any direction.
In any case, these are the issues we are discussing on Monday evening at SOAS. I gather it is ‘sold out’ (although entrance is free), but there are still tickets for the Sunday evening concert. Kassemady is a truly great singer, a living repository of Malian tradition and a singer whose brilliance deserves all the rewards – royalties and otherwise – he receives.