BBC Beethoven plays, and plays, and plays...

The hysteria over the BBC Beethoven MP3 downloads continues as the BBC PR machine works overtime on the story. Beethoven now has so much street cred that the new BBC Director General Mark Thompson even quotes the inscription "From the heart...may it go again to the heart!" from the Missa Solemnis score in his first annual report. Which should at least raise a laugh from recently ousted DG Greg Dyke.

And a page three Guardian story today screams.. "Beethoven (1.4m) beats Bono (20,000) in battle of the internet downloads."

I may be naive (although I have worked for the BBC, a major record company, and a digital rights management consultancy), but the following facts seem clear:

  • The cheapest set of Beethoven Symphonies available on sells for £12.99 ($24 US) which is a pretty remarkable bargain for 5 CD's.
  • The BBC offered the same content over the internet for no charge.
  • Around 250,000 people (assuming the same people downloaded more than one symphony) were delighted to get free what they would otherwise have had to pay a minimum of £12.99 ($24) for. (Or £44.99 -$80 US - if they preferred Simon Rattle conducting).

The following fact has not been made available by the BBC, and would really help discussions if it was:

  • What additional payments (if any) were made to the musicians of the BBC Philharmonic for the use of the Beethoven recordings for MP3 downloads?

I am sure the 1.4 million downloaders thought they received 'value' from the music they received. But who was rewarded for creating that value? In any supply chain, if the creators of value are not rewarded, the chain will quickly break down.

My concern is not the lost sales for record companies, which the Guardian and others seem to identify as the main 'anti download' argument. I am afraid the major record companies are currently reaping what they sowed in terms of difficult market conditions, and I have little sympathy for them. My concern is for the interests of the composers, musicians, editors and producers without whom recordings cannot be made. Plus there is also problem of the lowering of price expectations for concert tickets with its knock-on effect on audience sizes.

I completely understand the compelling argument that free downloads such as these Beethoven Symphonies widen the audience for classical music. By the same token I look forward to attending the free concert performance that the BBC will be offering of Siegfried at next year's Prom season to bring Wagner to a wider audience. And if that is not financially possible, why do we have to pay a fair rate to the star musicians who sit with us in the concert hall, but not to those hidden away in a recording studio?

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David said…
I expect the BBC Phil musicians received nothing extra for their Beethoven recordings. Since the raison d'etre of all BBC orchestral musicians is to record and broadcast, they receive nothing 'extra' above their usual salary, unlike most other orchestras.

I agree that the free downloads and cheap orchestras' own labels are valuing the orchestras far below what they make in the concert hall. But without them, an orchestra has a much more parochial audience and leaves little legacy. You are forgetting that most British orchestras (outside the BBC), including the LSO, are run by the players, so it is themselves who are choosing to record, in full knowledge they make no money from it.

There is little money in recording standard repertoire, so there is little to cheapen by launching LSO Live. The labels might has well write-off their back catalogs of standard rep which linger at full price. If you look at an Amazon sales chart for a well known piece you will note that the 'famous' recording is often not the bestselling - it is nearly always the cheapest, be that with Kurgestan Philharmonic with Boris Czrystoff or whoever. So there is an argument that says will make most money at super budget, hence LSO Live's budget price.

The labels are now only concerned with the most interesting performers (or 'famous'...) and interesting pieces (or interesting editions), and quite rightly. Uniqueness and newness has value.

I say the real problem is that there are no composers these days that are producing masterworks that capture the imagination of more than a tiny pocket of the audiences. When Elgar or Walton produced a new work, it would be an event. Orchestras would fight over the right to the premiere and would make a lot of money in ticket sales. These days, new works have to be under 30 minutes, so that it can be squeezed into the first half of a concert without detracting too much of the audience.
Berend de Boer said…
You really think people downloading a 128kpbs encoded recording would prefer it above a CD version? I doubt it. It sounds crap, but is played quit well.

The point with classical music is that there is so much stuff that you don't have a clue what's good and what isn't. Unless you hear it that is. And you can't. Going to a shop in a big city is hell, if they have classical music at all. Amazon offers only the first 10s or so.

I would focus more on the people who have downloaded this, and ask: now what? How do I get a version that sounds better? Is played the same? Or played quite differently?

The new distribution model is the future and you adapt or die.
Anonymous said…
What additional payments (if any) were made to Beethoven's estate for the use of the BBC recordings for MP3 downloads?

I am sure the 1.4 million downloaders thought they received 'value' from the music they received. But who was rewarded for creating that value? In any supply chain, if the creators of value are not rewarded, the chain will quickly break down.
Pliable said…
No payments were made because the copyright in the composition has expired. The copyright in a music composition lives for many years after the composer has died. The number of years vary from country to country, but is generally around 50-75 years from the death of the composer.

But the point I am making, and the one that is commonly not known or ignored, is that there are two copyrights in every musical recording: A copyright in the composition, and a copyright in the recording. The copyright in the recording exists for 50 years in the UK. This provides a mechanism for value to be allocated to the recording artists. The BBC own the copyright of the Beethoven recordings. Their contract with the musicians presumably would have given the players a one-off payment which 'bought out' their copyright interest.

The vital point which I make in my subsequent post Download Doomsayer is that the BBC abandoned its copyright claims on these recordings - they are all over the internet on file sharing sites. My view is that this is a foolhardy precedent to set.
Anonymous said…
I believe that there was little or no copyright protection when Beethoven wrote. Didn't he annoy his publishers by shopping his works multiple times (in various countries)?

A point commonly ignored by those who want to push so-called digital-rights technologies is that the copyright in the protected work will expire eventually (unless their owners manage to buy off the governments first). When this occurs, will the protections expire? If they do not, will it be legal to break them? Will it be legal to tell others how to do this? Please remember that all of these methods are breakable and that their promoters want to back them up with laws keeping the general public from doing just that.
Pliable said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Pliable said…
This is an interesting, and useful, path to follow. In Beethoven's day copyright laws existed, but they weren't that robust. Co-ordination internationally only came about after the Berne convention in 1886, there is a good summary at

You are right. Beethoven, and many other composers, were very clever at recycling compositions. This would make a very interesting separate post. Bach's B Minor Mass contained little original material, and of course Stravinsky produced several versions of the Firebird to keep the work in copyright.

Another interesting post would be the history of 'cut and paste'(which is a central ingredient of blogs!) and how copyright law applies in this area. In the 18th century the German scholar Karl David Ilgen proposed the now commonly accepted view that around twenty separate documents make up the biblical book of Genesis, and that they were assembled by three separate groups of writers!

I very much sympathise with concerns about the vested interests of the companies supplying the digital rights management solutions. But lawyers/attorneys make a lot of money out of human rights cases. That doesn't mean though we shouldn't continue to pursue the cause.
Berend de Boer said…
This is going off on a tangent, but Karl David Ilgen's view is now commonly accepted??? I very much doubt it! I would be surprised if you can quote a single professor who still thinks the details of Ilgen's views have much merit.

Everyone still believes that the bible was a collaborative open source project of course.
Pliable said…
Berend, do feel free to go off on a tangent. That is exactly what this blog is about, and why I called in On An Overgrown Path. Anyway I think everyone (including me) is getting a little weary of the Beethoven MP3 saga.

But back on message. I'm not a biblical scholar. But my reference in the post about the attribution of the book of Genesis was an almost verbatim quote, including the words 'commonly accepted' from the excellent new book 'A History of Ideas'by Peter Watson, whose biography says... was educated at the universities of Durham, London, and Rome. He has written for the Sunday Times, the Times, the New York Times, the Observer, and the Spectator, and is the author of War on the Mind, Wisdom and Strength, The Caravaggio Conspiracy, and other books.

I may not be right, but that was the source. Please keep going down tangentical paths.....

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