Saturday, February 04, 2012

A Simple Solution to Copyright Issues in Music Education

Today was Solo and Ensemble Contest for my high school students, and, as I noted on Facebook, I had to "rescue" quite a number of people who forgot the original copy of their solos or the score to their ensembles. (A bit of background to anyone who was never a school musician: The performer has to furnish a clean, original copy of the solo or the score to the ensemble, with no markings other than the measures numbered [or as many kids accidentally say, "the numbers measured"], and disqualification will result from not doing so. I tend to carry my entire selection of originals in my trunk on contest day in order to solve last-minute crises as described above.)

Among the comments to that post were several from my former boss from my days of moonlighting in the retail print music industry, and, as one might expect, he advocates for following the law to the letter--i.e. that the student should be using an original edition of the solo from Day One (what usually happens in practice is that the student practices off a photocopy until the order for the original comes in, and plays off that copy if he/she does not perform the solo from memory). He also correctly states that the one student who simply never ordered an original needs to do so before proceeding to the next level of competition, which is not until Memorial Day weekend. And then he asked me why a photocopy should ever be used in the first place. A band parent also commented on the thread, noting that the issue should first be taken up with the band directors.

This spawned a fairly long discussion from me, which is reproduced in its entirety here:
1) First of all, while I agree that it would be ideal if everyone had the original of the solo right away, I'm not sure that this is a realistic situation in light of the way that the contests are scheduled. In my region, All-Region is always the first weekend in December, and Solo & Ensemble is always the first weekend in February. Many of my students are so busy with All-Region that they don't even pick their solos until the week afterwards, and the possible lag time on an order (as well as Christmas break closings by most publishers) might leave the student with only a month to practice the solo if they had to wait until it was ordered.

2) Beyond that, I'm not sure that the "only using the original, never a photocopy" scenario is realistic unless every student performs the solo from memory, which simply is not the case with many younger, less-advanced students. Besides that, the original has to stay "clean" for the judge with no markings other than having the measures numbered. To perfectly realize [my former boss's] scenario would require buying TWO originals, and that's simply not something that parents are going to get on board with anytime soon. (To cite an extreme example on my instrument, the alto sax solo Tableaux de Provence comes in at an eye-popping $44 this year.)

Again, others are welcome to disagree, but to me, owning the original and making a "practice copy" is no different than owning a CD and ripping it on your computer to put on your iPod. Even the RIAA, for all its greediness, doesn't expect someone to buy a distinct mp3 copy of a CD he/she already owns just to listen to it on another device.

[The band parent who commented] is of course correct that the band directors likely bend farther from the letter of the law than we private teachers do, but I see both sides of this issue. One can't realistically expect directors to pass out originals to 16-year-olds until said 16-year-olds suddenly become 100% responsible caretakers of same. (I'll pause a moment while every parent reading this thread collapses in a fit of laughter.) The odds of a student leaving music at home or at school on the morning of UIL [the big concert and sight-reading contest here in Texas] are too great, and that would punish an entire ensemble, not just the irresponsible student.

But check this out: I'm not just writing about problems without offering a solution--one that would make both the students/parents/directors AND the music publishers/retail outlets happy if done properly.

The big problem at hand is that the publishing industry--like most content providers--is operating under an outdated and severely flawed business model, mostly by limiting itself to preexisting physical copies of the published material. With virtually everything able to be saved as a PDF, the entire process could be streamlined in this manner:

1) Retail music stores could serve as the gatekeepers for the publishers' "print on demand" capabilities. (We would assume that not all publishers would be interested in dealing with retail customers on a regular basis, so the music stores would not lose this element of their business.) This means that the 16-year-old COULD lose a part on the morning of UIL without tanking the entire band's performance, because the director would have a license to purchase a replacement part right then and there, printable on his/her own computer.

2) Make everything available as an individual part--in other words, if the publishers don't want students making practice copies of their solos (even though I still think this is OK under the "put a copy on your iPod" scenario I described earlier), then include two copies of the solo in the set to begin with. The price might be a tad higher in this case, but not nearly as much as it would be if the student had to buy two distinct originals of the solo (which also means buying two piano parts, which is completely unnecessary).

3) The ability of publishers to archive their entire catalogs on PDFs would also mean that there would be no reason for a piece of music to ever go "permanently out of print." {Former boss], you may correct me if I'm wrong, but the whole reason that happens in the first place is that a piece doesn't sell enough to justify keeping physical copies in the inventory, but if it's reduced to a small file on a hard drive, this scenario is rendered moot; those items that don't sell well can be printed on demand only, which will increase the sales of that item in the long run (even if it's only 5 or 10 a year, that's 5 or 10 more than the zero copies that would be sold if the item went POP).

(This last one is a soapbox issue for me right now, as one of my students didn't get to play his solo this year because it went POP sometime between last summer, when the PML [the prescribed music list for competitions in Texas] was revised, and now.)
And as if on cue, someone else on Facebook who wasn't involved in the discussion posted this article, which, although it deals with the movie industry, also touches on the flawed distribution model of only providing physical copies of media on the content providers' terms, the consumers' needs notwithstanding.

I'd love to hear other opinions on this outside the scope of my Facebook friends, so feel free to chime in with your comments.

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