A highly recommended rip-off
Today the BBC launches iPlayer Radio, a new service that takes audio content out of the existing BBC iPlayer and offer it instead as part of a separate service on desktop and mobile. A BBC spokesman says iPlayer Radio will "make it easier for people to enjoy the BBC's vast audio archive" which is welcome news. But let's hope that the BBC also irons out the pricing anomalies. Because as I write you can legally listen to Bernard Haitink’s towering 2012 BBC Proms performance of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony for free. But listening to Sir Adrian Boult’s legendary 1976 Proms performance of Elgar’s First Symphony will cost you £12.99. The reason is that the Strauss comes via the BBC iPlayer while the Elgar has been licensed by the BBC to ICA Classics for CD release in a deal that deserves close scrutiny.
ICA Classics is the audio-video label of ICA Artists, the management agency led by former IMG Artists executive Stephen Wright. Archive recordings - including the 1976 Elgar - are licensed by ICA Classics from BBC Worldwide, a wholly owned BBC subsidiary that generates a turnover of £1.09bn by, and I quote its website, “exploiting media content”. And exploiting is a perfect description of the pricing of the ICA Classics Boult/Elgar CD. All the costs associated with the recording, other than a modest remastering charge, were paid for by BBC license payers more than thirty years ago, and the many fine musicians who played at the Prom will not earn a penny from this re-issue. In fact its previous incarnation prior to licensing to ICA was as a free cover-mount disc on BBC Music Magazine. Yet it is now being sold for little less than a new recording of the same work.
The only benficiaries of the inflated price are BBC Worldwide – 2011/12 profit £155m and chief executive's salary £480,000 – and ICA Artists – profit and chief executive's salary unknown. And the argument that BBC Worldwide profits supplement license fee income is specious: if the bloated BBC cannot live within its £3.6bn license fee income it should cut costs, not gouge the consumer. If any more evidence is needed of ICA Classics' predatory pricing compare their £12.99 price for a single archive CD with £15.99 for the historically important five CD Virgin Classics Henri Dutilleux retrospective, and £25.99 for EMI's magnificent Boult Austro-German retrospective which contains eleven CDs including a complete Brahms Symphony cycle. It would be difficult to justify £12.99 for a single BBC archive disc even if came with a lavish Alia Vox-style book. But it doesn't: the minimalist documentation credits no less than seven ICA Classics executives and consultants but does not mention the leader - Bela Dekany? - or any other personnel of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, who play their hearts out for Boult in the Elgar and also in the 1977 Proms Brahms 3 it is coupled with.
As those of us who were in the Albert Hall in 1976 still vividly remember, Sir Adrian's interpretation of Elgar 1 was revelatory. There is a frisson to this concert performance that is absent from his studio recordings of the symphony, and the BBC engineers faithfully capture the sound and atmosphere that make the Proms so special. And, of course, in those days the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a world class band, but don’t let's go there. So Sir Adrian's 1976 Elgar is highly recommended - but not at this price. As I mused a couple of years ago - should we not be protecting great intellectual properties from the ravages of the free market and safeguarding them for future generations?
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