Planning for musical obsolescence

Gustavo Dudamel is one of the most celebrated conductors of his generation.  As Music Director of both the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Simon Bolivar Orchestra of Venezuela, he has built a solid and enthusiastic following amongst lovers of symphonic music.  He is also, according to his website bio, deeply committed to “access to music for all.”  So it is particularly poignant that a recording by Dudamel should serve as the prime example of a new access problem for music.

When Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic release a new recording of a live performance of Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, it should be a significant event, another milestone in the interpretation of that great work.  But in this particular case we are entitled to wonder if the recording will really have any impact, or if it will drop into obscurity, almost unnoticed.

Why would such a question arise?  Because the Dudamel/LA Philharmonic recording was released only as a digital file and under licensing terms that make it impossible for libraries to purchase, preserve and make the work available.  When one goes to the LA Philharmonic site about this recording of Symphonie Fantastique and tries to purchase it, one is directed to the iTunes site, and the licensing terms that accompany the “purchase” — it is really just a license — restrict the user to personal uses.  Most librarians believe that this rules out traditional library functions, including lending for personal listening and use in a classroom.  Presumably, it would also prevent a library from reformatting the work for preservation purposes in order to help the recording outlive the inevitable obsolescence of the MP3 or MP4 format.  Remember that the section 108 authorization for preservation copying by libraries has restrictions on digital preservation and also explicitly allows contractual provisions to override that part of the law.

At a recent consultation to discuss this problem, it was interesting to note that several of the lawyers in the room encouraged the librarians to just download the music anyway and ignore the licensing terms, simply treating this piece of music like any other library acquisition.  Their argument was that iTunes and the LA Philharmonic really do not mean to prevent library acquisitions; they are just using a boilerplate license without full awareness of the impact of its terms.  But the librarians were unwilling.  Librarians as a group are very law-abiding and respectful of the rights of others.  And as a practical matter, libraries cannot build a collection by ignoring licensing terms; it would be even more confusing and uncertain than it is to try to comply with the myriad licensing terms we encounter every day!

In the particular case of the Dudamel recording of Berlioz, we know rather more about the situation than is normal, because a couple of intrepid librarians tried valiantly to pursue the issue.   Judy Tsou and John Vallier of the University of Washington tracked the rights back from the LA Philharmonic, through Deustche Grammophon to Universal Music Group, and engaged UMG in a negotiation for library-friendly licensing.  The response was, as librarians have come to expect, both inconsistent and discouraging.  First, Tsou and Vallier were told that an educational license for the download was impossible, but that UMG could license a CD.  Later, they dropped the idea of allowing the library to burn a CD from the MP3 and said an educational license for download was possible, but only for up to 25% of the “album.”  For this 25% there would be  a $250 processing fee as well as an unspecified additional charge that would make the total cost “a lot more” than the $250.  Even worse, the license would be limited to 2 years, making preservation impossible. The e-mail exchange asserts that UMG is “not able” to license more than 25% of the album for educational use, which suggests that part of the problem is that the rights ownership and licensing through to UMG is tangled.  But in any case, this is an impossible proposal.  The cost is absurd for one quarter of an album, and what sense does it make for a library to acquire only part of a performance like this for such a limited time? Such a proposal fundamentally misunderstands what libraries do and how important they are to our cultural memory.

Reading over the documents and messages in this exchange, it is not at all clear what role Maestro Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic have in this mess.  It is possible that they simply do not know how the recording is being licensed or that it is unavailable for libraries to acquire and preserve.  Or they may think that by releasing the recording in digital format only they are being up-to-date and actually encouraging access to music for everyone.  In either case, they have a responsibility to know more about the situation, because the state of affairs they have allowed impedes access, in direct contradiction to Maestro Dudamel’s express commitment, and it ensures that this recording will not be part of the ongoing canon of interpretation of Berlioz.

As far as access is concerned, the form of its release means that people who cannot afford an MP3 player will not be able to hear this recording.  Many of those people depend on libraries, and that option will be closed to them because libraries cannot acquire the album.  Also, access will become impossible at that inevitable point in time when this format for digital music becomes obsolete.  Maybe UMG and the Philharmonic will pay attention and release the recording on a different format before that happens, but maybe they won’t.  The most reliable source of preservation is libraries, and they will not be there to help with this one.  So access for listeners 20 or 30 years from now is very much in question.

This question of the future should have great consequence for Maestro Dudamel and the orchestra.  Without libraries that can collect their recording, how will it be used in classrooms in order to teach future generations of musicians?  Those who study Berlioz and examine the performance history of the Symphonie Fantastique simply may not know about this performance by Dudamel and the LA Philharmonic.  That performance, regardless of how brilliant it is, may get, at best, a footnote in the history of Berlioz — “In 2013 the Symphonie Fantastique was recorded by the LA Philharmonic under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel; unfortunately, that recording is now lost.”  These licensing terms matter, and without due attention to the consequences that seemingly harmless boilerplate like “personal use only” can produce, a great work of art may be doomed to obscurity.

13 thoughts on “Planning for musical obsolescence”

  1. Kevin – Thank for sharing this with your readers and for participating in our IMLS funded grant. We would like to get your readers’ perspectives on the issue, along with any ideas they have for solutions. Even though music recordings are currently on the bleeding edge of this digital dilemma, many of us are encountering the same situation with online video (are eBoooks next?). Perhaps your readers are already encountering such “uncollectable” titles on their own. If so, it would be great to know what they are as we are compiling a list.

    More information about the IMLS grant is here:
    A previous NEH funded white paper on the topic is here:
    And a seminal article about the topic, written by librarian DJ Hoek, is here:

    – John Vallier

    1. Thoughts on solutions (many long term ones):
      1) Legislative action: Petition Congress to revise Copyright for the Digital Age that allows for first use and and preservation.
      2) Commercial License: Petition iTunes and other music platforms (Amazon, Google) to develop an educational licenses. I contacted Apple about this in 2012 when the Oscar winning shorts collection was only available on their platform (it is now available on DVD); I never heard back.
      3) Innovative platforms: Have UMG create a platform like Naxos Music Library that can be sold to libraries

  2. Dear Kevin, John & Judy:
    Thank you so much for all your work investigating and presenting findings to date on just this sort of case.

    As regards iTunes for individual consumers, the calculus of geographic location–not to mention local price point–could itself present an access barrier to some typical types of services (including songs and iTunes LPs in such destinations as Uruguay, Tunisia, and South Korea, if these tables are correct),

  3. Hi Kevin!
    I’m taking your Coursera copyright class, and was directed to this post by a classmate. This is a dreadful case of what I’m going to assume is creator/author ignorance of library rights and desires. I wanted to add that the problem goes beyond your tale of the two UW librarians; my public library doesn’t even have iTunes loaded on our public PCs (and we are disallowed from having it on our staff PCs as well–I think both restrictions are City policy.) So even if we could legally obtain a copy from Apple for the library, nobody could access it.

    1. As far as I know, you need iTunes to *purchase* music from the iTunes Music Store; but you definitely don’t need it to *use* that music once you have it. It’s encoded as AAC, which is a standardized and widely implemented format (though not as widely as MP3).

      In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I work for Apple, though I don’t speak for the firm.

      1. Right, but we would need some software to play those files, and as of now, we do not have any loaded.

  4. Thanks so much for spelling this out in a way that makes the issue clear. Libraries need, as a giant institution, to work/fight for patrons’ rights to access information in the formats they choose. I’m really proud of the UW folks for pushing to get clear and fair licensing terms for this content and frustrated that a quasi-legal end-run appears to be the only remedy available to them.

  5. The analysis of the legal situation is familiar, but there’s way too much pearl clutching and misplaced deference to the interests of original rights holders.

    First, most performances in the history of music share the fate Dudamel’s will….passing away in an instant. I’m not very interested in the fetish of the recorded performances, I suppose, but if they are to be made, they are also to be archived.

    Which brings me to the second point. The people advocating “just do it” are absolutely right. The best libraries acquire for the long haul and preserve their treasures accordingly. Corporate interests can’t be bothered with crafting licensing for this…because the analysis shows that they should be paying libraries for doing archival service for their backlist!! Hence, the wink-wink about libraries “breaking” their license with iTunes. What’s Apple going to say if they’re asked about the ultimate fate of todays’ cultural documents that future historians will be interested in–especially if their revenue-producing potential goes to 0 and beyond?

  6. Thank you for discussing this important issue for music libraries! I would suggest that another problem with this case, and other similar ones, is the availability of the recording only in the MP3 format, which is not really a preservation quality format. Hopefully, sometime in the near future, classical music will move away from MP3 and toward a better standard, such as FLAC.

    Terry Simpkins

  7. Thank you for discussing this important issue for music libraries! I would suggest that another problem with this case, and other similar ones, is the availability of the recording only in the MP3 format, which is not really a preservation quality format.

  8. The sad part is they could easily make the album available on a CD at Amazon for as little as $50.

  9. The privateers of online education, Corsaira, imposes restrictions on its classes that are wrong in the same way as Apple’s restrictions on iTunes music.

    It should be illegal to publish a copyrighted work with an End User License Agreement that limits the users’ rights beyond what copyright law gives them — and likewise illegal to impose technical obstructions (Digital Restrictions Management) to block users from exercising those rights.

    You can sign up at to help abolish DRM.

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