Monday, January 26, 2009

Reissue This?

At one point I used to pen an occasional column for Paris Transatlantic called “Reissue This.” I took an in-depth look at certain recordings, most of them hard to find and not extant in the digital realm, and made a case for their value in the contexts/history of modern improvisation. No call was made to specific labels, though a couple of titles – Norman Howard’s Burn Baby Burn and Selwyn Lissack’s Friendship Next of Kin, for example – were in fact reissued on the strength of the column. As an avid collector, I wasn’t necessarily perusing the blogosphere for stuff that was being file-shared or made downloadable as something that would be a good candidate; normally, I just picked something out of my collection that I liked and thought relevant. However, this Paris Transatlantic column became referenced by some of the sites offering illegal downloads of titles that I had mentioned – John Tchicai’s Cadentia Nova Danica on Polydor was one.

At the time I thought that was pretty wack – I didn’t condone people ripping FLAC files of rare albums and throwing them up on the web for anybody. It’s not just because, like some people, I prefer to have the object in hand and really don’t care to own a copy unless it’s the real thing, whether vinyl or CD. I think that the artist does deserve some compensation. But then again, if I’m paying dough for a used copy of an LP, the artist is of course not receiving a dime from that sale (though one would hope that they did upon the issuance of the title).

Yet in my quest to hear as much as possible from a given artist’s oeuvre, I have also traded tapes and CD-Rs among friends to acquire unissued live recordings. I write it off as something “educational” that I’m able to learn more about an artist whom I may at some point interview or write about. I don’t download these things myself, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter – it is a behavior that’s equally questionable in its morality. My interest in such practice in light of the ethics of download mania has waned a bit. I still have and listen to those recordings, some of them quite frequently, ill-gotten gains as they are.

This subject is on the brain, however sketchily, because of a few things that have come to light in recent months. One is that an article was published in the Wire on trumpeter-composer Bill Dixon; the writer later bragged on another site that he had downloaded certain titles from the artist’s oeuvre for free from some of these obscure-music blogs. I don’t know if it’s much different that I paid $40 for out of print vinyl from the same artist years ago, but at least it wasn’t being shared and passed along the information superhighway. I also interviewed Dixon, and he railed against the lack of appreciation for artists on the part of record companies AND the refusal of citizens to pay for their art. By the same token, I acquired a CD-R of unissued performances of one of his orchestras as a prequel to the article, but since it was not being shared and was for my own “education” he was copacetic with my acquisition and review of this music.

Now, Eremite Records has re-released two rare vinyl albums by Sunny Murray and the Black Artists’ Group. These are in limited-edition runs of 600 copies on LP with no CD or authorized digital-download counterpart. They are being presented as facsimile reprints, sort of like “art reprints” authorized by the artists. The label proprietor has asked one of these download blogs to take down files of the Sunny Murray from the site, a request that the site complied with. But, with respect to those who don’t have the means to listen to them on vinyl, this is a fairly limited medium. In all likelihood, after the Eremite reissues have gone out of print, these will be up again on the blogs to download. And I'm still quizzical as to why Eremite is not doing a CD version of this as well, or a legitimized download at, say, $5 a track with proceeds going to the artist.

I don’t have the perfect prescription to these problems. I don’t approve of the “instant record collection” that the downloaders have access to. But does it excuse my own acquisition of unlicensed material for research purposes – even if I DO buy a significant amount of records and can act in good conscience on that front? Does it matter to prattle on about the artist’s right to compensation on a bootlegged release that in its original incarnation didn’t net the artist more than a $50 session fee and a sandwich?

I had been hoping – in my small way – to once and for all make a definitive statement of my own on the downloading phenomenon, but the more I think about it the less immune from criticism I become as both a consumer and a collector. The "old model" for distributing music is fast changing, but should one necessarily be forced to give up the "old model" of consuming or, more importantly, appreciating it?

- Bill Shoemaker weighs in here

- Michael Ehlers weighs in here

- Dan Warburton weighs in here

- I weigh in confused as ever.

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