Skip to content

Copyright in Performance of a Note?

Here’s an innovation that makes Justin Hughes’s scholarship on “microworks” all the more relevant:

[Conductors can now use a] computerized baton [to]. . .  lead an “orchestra” with no musicians — the product of a computer program designed by a former Vienna Philharmonic cellist and comprised of over a million recorded notes played by top musicians.

Aspiring composers who couldn’t otherwise afford to have their creations performed by an orchestra can now commission a high-quality computer-generated recording for a fraction of the price. For communities facing the loss of their orchestra, it could be a way to keep performances in town — even if it means a computer stands in for half the players.

This reminds me of an old economics article by Baumol on the “cost-disease” in the arts, and services generally: whereas a pin factory can make a pin-maker 10,000 times more productive than he would be working alone, a string quartet required the same amount of labor in 1970 as it did in 1870.  But perhaps not after innovations like these take hold….

To take this in a speculative direction: what is to keep us from thinking of producers or the recording industry as being all that different from the musicians displaced by a program like the one above?  Perhaps in a remix culture, pop songs themselves are as fundamental as notes.  Perhaps the only thing separating the note-contributors in the program above from today’s cartelized songmongers is the latter’s market power.

2 thoughts on “Copyright in Performance of a Note?”

  1. No need to speculate; this is the classical world on the threshold of succumbing to the pop paradigm, which carefully segregates the relative importance of the work (the song), and the craft (performance), and the artist, then reintegrates them in carefully packaged, marketable ways. It’s tempting to see a conceptual connection between the horror expressed by classical traditionalists here, and proponents of Truth-in-Music legislation, and between both of them and Benjamin-esque or Ruskinian anxiety over authenticity and humanism. It’s also tempting to note that more people get more access to more creative stuff, and they pay less for the privilege. But I’ll resist, on both counts.

  2. what is to keep us from thinking of producers or the recording industry as being all that different from the musicians displaced by a program like the one above?

    One distinction might be that the recording industry facilitates the sale and consumption of pop music but adds nothing creative to it, while classical musicians’ performances add their own distinctive interpretive perspective on the pieces they perform (something that might be lost in a computerized form, though if the profs surveyed in the WSJ article can’t tell the difference between real and computerized symphonies, this loss might not be so meaningful). At the very least, my guess is that there will always be demand for performances of live classical music for the same reason that there remains demand for live pop music: people attend concerts not only to hear music, but to see the musicians (or conductors, who have more star cachet), and also to be in the presence of music being made live.

    I’m also not sure that these developments herald the breakdown of a division between pop music “remix” culture and classical music culture, because they may not ever have been that different in this respect. Although I’m no expert on the subject, some work on this suggests that classical music, just as modern pop, was suffused with borrowed riffs from and references to earlier well-known works. Handel and Bach in particular were notorious borrowers. Funmi Arewa has a good piece that addresses remixing/borrowing in premodern music in the North Carolina Law Review.

Comments are closed.