Keith Harris was general manager of Motown, has managed Stevie Wonder for 30 years, is currently director of performer affairs at collecting society the PPL and chairman of the MusicTank network at the University of Westminster.
Were you disappointed there wasn’t more public support for extending copyright on sound recordings? When the issue was raised, it was all about Cliff Richard, and no one wants Sir Cliff to get richer…
In my opinion the record industry has absolutely made a rod for its own back. We’ve not really endeared ourselves to the public over the years.
And journalists have found it easy pickings in terms of creating a story about the big bad record company out to get as much money as possible. And you know, a lot of that is because of the way the industry has operated.
The more you get artists who are dissatisfied – and in many cases they’re entitled to be, given the way deals have worked out financially – the more that reinforces that view. But it’s lazy journalism a lot of the time because if you just knock the record company and support the artist, you’re always going to win.
Where the industry’s at fault is that we haven’t really taken any steps to explain the issues.
Now it so happens that Cliff was one of the people gutted first, if you like, he became the voice of the campaign. To some extent the industry was foolish for not preparing the case with somebody else, who needs the money more, but is going to be hit by exactly the same rules.
One example I’d like people to think about is that Cliff in his early years used an orchestra called the Norrie Paramour Strings. They did all the EMI stuff from the late 50s to the early 60s. Now these session players could use the money as well. What financial position are they in?
Even if it’s only 500 quid a year to them that’s a significant amount of money. So in rubbishing Cliff, everyone forgets about the behind-the-scenes players. I saw a poster for Jet Harris of The Shadows a couple of weeks ago in some lounge in Amersham – it’s these guys who get cut off as well after 50 years. That can’t be right. How can it be that someone can come up to you and basically take away your life’s work and say “you’ve had enough”.
But then if people haven’t made money out of that sound recording after 50 years, why do they need more?
What do you mean, “haven’t made money out of that sound recordings after 50 years”? Of course you’ve made some money, but look at it a different way.
Peter Blake did the cover of the [Beatles] Sgt. Pepper’s album, but the only reason that cover is famous is because it was the cover of Sgt.Pepper’s. When Sgt.Pepper’s goes out of copyright in a few years, all the people who played on that, the composers, their rights stop. Peter Blake’s don’t.
I thought cover art was 25 years…
No, it’s life plus 70.
It just seems weird to me. The only reason the cover was brought into being was because of the music, but the people who created the music lose their rights.
Are you optimistic the EU will probably fall in line with the US?
I actually don’t think the EU should.
I’m not going to give any ground on people creating the work, but to some extent Gowers has fallen into the view that copyright is “given” to the creator rather than it actually being theirs. I think it would make life a lot easier if it was just standardised, life plus 70 in everything, then everybody would understand it. People don’t fully understand what it is. When you have all these different terms, if everything was the same period, with blanket licensing and multiple licensing, that they were harmonised.
To me the most compelling argument I only heard made once was, up at In The City, and it was Ted Carroll from Ace Records talking about the quality of public domain recordings – which are terrible, and put out by really shady characters.
They basically license the top ten BB King tracks, put them out at an inferior standard, and it costs more per track than the stuff that’s in copyright [see note]. So people really who care find the masters, put out a lovingly compiled package, liner notes and all the rest of it, and then find people use that and only want the most famous songs. That’s what’s going to happen in the future.
Again it’s one of the flaws in Gowers. He talks about companies sitting on stuff that doesn’t get released. But actually, he’s facing both ways. He’s talking about the past, and in the digital environment that’s going to happen less and less, because there’s no inherent cost in making the material available. So it’s a dead argument.
It’s already happening. I used to source records once and naturally you wanted to sell the best stuff, but you couldn’t touch these, they were so bad
People just want to get as much money as possible, for as little outlay, and they don’t have to answer to anybody even if the artists are still alive. Somebody says, “hold on a minute, that’s my work and you’ve treated it like garbage” – but they can do what they want.
My line has always been that even if you extend copyright it should return to the performers after so many years, so they can do something else with it. The chances are it will go back to a record company – the industry doesn’t stand to lose a great deal by it – but at the end the creative should have the right.
In my discussion of Gowers I said I just wanted to talk about terms, internally the players know that’s my view, and the IMMF, and we don’t cloud the issue by talking about extension.
So tell us about how MusicTank got here…
In the first year it was more of a workshop, but it wasn’t working out – we were skirting round people’s ideas without treading on anyone’s toes. We realised there was a gap for a higher level thinktank drawing on people from outside the industry to see how they see us.
We’ve been doing that for three years now, and it’s been really successful. Thanks to the internet I think, ideas get out and it starts to change thinking. We’re becoming a useful neutral outlet for new ideas.
What’s the biggest change in those two years?
People have finally realised we have to get together as an industry and have some sort of common voice. This idea of spending all day and all night briefing against each other actually isn’t going to work. And we need some things to agree on. People are beginning to realise that we do have to do a deal amongst our selves and carry it forward as a community.
I’m impressed that there’s a lot of participation in the digital license talks. But is it ever going to happen?
I think it probably will. We have to make it as simple as possible: simple for intermediate users and end users to understand what they’re buying and how the money flows back. But really all that stuff in the middle should be as invisible as possible. We need to thrash those deals out ourselves.
In the meantime, there is this pressure from consumer groups that “we want it now”, which is understandable, but at the end of the day I don’t see why the creators should lose out. That’s why so many people are talking about a blanket license.
There’ll be some kind of digital license, whether it’s a flat fee I don’t know. It’ll be harmonised so the consumer knows what they’re getting. There’s a hell of a long way to go.
But what I can’t go along with is the idea that once something is out there people can do what they like with it, change it and so on.
Oh, I think nearly everyone gets that. If New Labour wanted to invade somebody and decided to use a Billy Bragg song as the PR theme, everyone would understand how Billy might have an objection to that.
Yeah, exactly! It’s really important that right exists.
There are two problems. One is because of the way the industry is viewed, it’s seen as dragging everybody back. But I think the industry is trying to get to grips with it. There’s no simple way to do it.
Why are people not bashing the DVD industry over BluRay?
I think as soon as they can afford it, and realise there are two standards, they will start bashing them.
But compared to the complexity of licensing in the music industry. that’s a really simple thing. With the history of the music industry it’s going to take years to work it out.
The indies seem to get along fine without DRM, why can’t the Big Four?
People have got to establish what they mean by DRM. DRM is an umbrella term for encoding in the background to monitor and sometimes protect music. The protection side is what everybody complains about. But everybody, the indies included, is going to need some kind of DRM unless they don’t care about paying their performers.
So you mean some kind of non-intrusive watermark?
The fact is, in terms of non-protected MP3s there’s a couple of issues. The major labels, if you’ve got a big catalog, there might even be an argument they have a fiduciary duty to give their performers some kind of protection. Indies are smaller, more flexible, and it’s much easier for them to move and make that change.
The major’s first reaction when MP3 came along was “let’s close it down”, and that then caused a huge public backlash against the record industry.
But I don’t know if the answer is necessarily to say OK, we’re giving it away for free.
But you’re equating a DRM-free sale with giving it away for free…
No, no. I don’t say that is – but that’s the driving force argument against protection. The argument is “music is free therefore people won’t pay for music”.
I think people will pay for music, I don’t know technical protection is the way to do it. I can understand why the independents are moving to unprotected MP3s, it makes a lot of sense, but I can see why the majors haven’t yet.
Once you’ve done that you can’t roll back from it very easily.
In your view would physical sales go off a cliff if there was either a blanket digital license or unprotected downloads?
No, no. People will pay for music if it’s in a format they want, and it’s easy and simple and they like the price. People don’t have a problem paying for music – online, offline, or wherever they want it.
I don’t think the CD’s dead – for another 10 years anyway.
At one time I was a strong advocate of putting music on SD cards, because it’s a new format – I still am. I just don’t think they’re moving along with it.
The memory makers keep changing their formats every five minutes, though.
It’s an obvious successor to the CD.
And triggered by the dance music there’s a move away from MP3, not just MP3 people but compressed music in general, because it doesn’t sound good. They’re trying to get uncompressed music to download. But that’s got bandwidth issues. We’re not there yet.
It’s like people going back to vinyl because they prefer the sound. They go back to CDs because they sound better than MP3s, they’re not compressed to hell.
So you’re pushing for a more equitable royalty share?
I can understand from a performer’s point of view that they seem to be right at the bottom of the new industries, and they should get a hell of a lot more. However you slice it, the performer is getting too little. ®
Bootnote Ted Carroll’s numbers add up like this: Of the top 100 BB King albums on Amazon.com, 61 originated from companies that produce out-of-copyright recordings, 39 came from Ace or Universal. The average price per track for the out-of-copyright CDs was 52p per track; for Ace Records’ BB King reissues, it was 32p per track. Says Carroll: “It’s crapola. They sound like shit and the public isn’t getting a deal.”