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An Example of Online Cooperation

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The American Music Center to offer free contemporary classical music on the web:

    the American Music Center, an organization to aid in the distribution of music and serve as an information clearinghouse. When the center opened an office on West 42nd Street later that year, it quickly became a command post and drop-in site. In 1990 the center moved to airy offices on West 26th Street. In the last few years the kind of networking the center was founded for has been shifting to its Web site, which includes an online magazine called New Music Box.

    This afternoon the American Music Center takes a bold leap into the Internet future when it formally introduces New Music Jukebox (newmusicjukebox.org) in a briefing at Avery Fisher Hall. This free site promises to be a powerful Web portal for contemporary American music and the composers who create it, as well as performers, professionals in the larger field and the musically curious.

    New Music Jukebox offers a 24-hour “virtual” listening room with streaming and downloadable sound files, as well as extensive composer biographies, works lists, publishers, performance data and other information, all cross-referenced. If things go well, browsing through New Music Jukebox may give today’s online users some sense of what it was like to hang out at the center’s bustling, ramshackle office some 60 years ago, to talk shop and trade scores with other people in the field.

    But legal thickets could slow down the process. Besides using sound files from commercial recordings, which are protected by copyright, New Music Jukebox will also include scores online, either excerpted or complete, which users will be able to view and in many cases print out or download for free. To date, printed scores have been strictly protected; photocopying them is illegal. In order to include scores online, the American Music Center has been engaged in case-by-case negotiations with composers, publishers and record producers. Their success could represent a breakthrough in copyright law.

    With the rising costs of printing and with fewer houses taking on fewer composers, the system of distributing and promoting new works has languished. Composers have increasingly turned to self-publishing. The Internet offers an alternative way to distribute scores, yet there are legal complications, as Richard Kessler, 43, the center’s executive director since 1997, acknowledges.

    “At its core, New Music Jukebox is based on the idea that everyone is struggling with in the music field, namely, that technology provides access to information and music in ways we have never experienced before,” Mr. Kessler said in a recent interview. “But that great potential is being wrestled to the ground by intellectual-property-rights issues.”

    Comparable wrestling matches are going on in all fields that involve the exchange of creative work and information, notably pop music, which was made clear by the legal ruckus provoked free file-sharing Web sites

    Mr. Kessler, an accomplished trombonist and a firebrand on behalf of contemporary American music, and his colleagues at the center have proven better at bringing about cooperation between publishers, recording companies and composers. Paradoxically, because the field of contemporary classical music involves vastly fewer people, products and dollars, they had an advantage of sorts. Still, their success may serve as a model to other fields of how to bridge conflicting interests.

    In every case involving the inclusion of a score on Jukebox, Mr. Kessler said, “the copyright holder determines how people will access it.” A particular composer or publisher might only want the score listed as a bibliographical entry with information on how to obtain it, as well as listings of past performances and reviews. Some scores will be available only in excerpted form, as an inducement for later purchase. But other scores, especially shorter works, will be available complete. For larger chamber works, interested users must still rent individual parts to perform them, and pay appropriate fees to Ascap and B.M.I. (Broadcast Music Inc.), the organizations that regulate the performances and broadcast of music.

Yet another step down an inexorable path.

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