Sony owns America’s music

What’s it mean that the back catalogs of record companies documenting 100 years of American music are now wholly owned by the Japanese Sony Corporation, which has bought out Bertelsmann, its German partner in the four-year-old behemoth music corporation Sony BMG?


Sony now controls the master tapes of Columbia, Okeh, RCA Victor, Bluebird, Epic, Arista, Ariola — labels that brought us the sounds of Enrico Caruso, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, King Oliver, the Carter Family, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Rogers, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Holiday, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw, Arsenio Rodriguez, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Chet Atkins, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Tito Puente, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, the Jefferson Airplane, stereophonic sound, the long-play record, the 45 rpm single, many Broadway shows and much classical repertoire, among other productions.  This amounts to an invaluable national treasure.
Neither BMG nor Sony, separately or united for the past four years, have been very responsible caretakers of this legacy. There is voluminous out-of-print music in their vaults, and intermittent initiatives to reissue classic works in the latest formats have suffered from lack of follow-through. We thank Columbia Legacy for all those Miles boxed sets as well as Lady Day – The Complete Billie Holiday on Columbia, 1933-1944, and Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (Legends of Country Music); also BMG for The Duke Ellington Centennial Edition, The Complete RCAVictor Recordings (1927-1973), and Fats Waller’s If You Gotta Ask, You Ain’t Got It! They’ve done the occasional deluxe package proud. But big-ticket sets are also less frequently being scheduled for release.
Both BMG and Sony have continued to record and issue American popular music — Alicia Keyes, Usher, Justin Timberlake, et al — yet efforts in regards to jazz, blues, classical and contemporary composition have mostly been curtailed. The bean-counting experts who run media conglomerates today recognize little profit margin in reissues of classics or attempts to develop anything but likely huge hits. They’re probably right, as long as they ignore the unquantifiable yield of creative productivity. However, if the music of our past is not readily accessible to us (which is the promise of recording processes and the theoretically unlimited storage and distribution available through the Internet) portions of our collective memory are fogged, if not lost. Young listeners — including hit-makers of tomorrow — won’t become very musically literate if corporations don’t bother to make the great music they’ve come to own available for iPods.
Over the last week I advised two highly acclaimed and accomplished musician friends to stop worrying about getting signed by record labels and figure out how to record and distribute their works themselves (though a third musician told me a good indie label will put $$ into production in return for, say 50% of a master he has recorded, and everybody’s happy). Successful models for the time and labor-intensive DIY endeavor include ArtistShare and trumpeter Dave Douglas’s Greenleaf Music. Such business is not for everyone — it requires considerable attention, energy and a stash of working capitol. But why give rights to your creativity away? Especially if the new owners aren’t gonna do anything with those rights but squander creativity’s potential to reach new audiences and seed more creativity?
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  1. Elston Gunn says

    I suggest that in the future you work on checking your spelling.
    I cringed when I saw “Jimmy Rogers.” Jimmie Rodgers is known as “The Father of Country Music” and it is not that difficult to learn to spell his name and show him the proper respect.
    I also noticed “Alicia Keyes” and couldn’t keep from crying. It should have been “Alicia Keys.”
    HM: Thanks for the corrections, Elston — posted in haste. I had that twinge about Jimmie Rodgers when I wrote it that I ought to have looked it up. Alicia Keys, too, is someone I always need to check, and I didn’t.

  2. Lana Kolbrún Eddudóttir says

    As a jazz enthusiast born outside the U.S.A.(on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean) I use the Internet a lot for purchasing jazz records, thereby getting to know music I would otherwise never ever hear. I am a frequent customer of two great Internetstores: and, the latter leading to an extensive collection of Blue Note/Mosaic records. But I have not yet found an equal to these two companies when it comes to the Columbia/Sony music, much as I would REALLY like to buy and collect some of Columbia’s great jazz records. It would be priceless for all present and future jazz enhusiasts (all around the world) to see Columbia’s heritage loved enough to re-release all those gems AND build a proper Columbia Internet record-shop, dedicated to American jazz.
    With best regards from Iceland,
    Lana Kolbrún Eddudottir
    jazz program producer
    Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (=NPR)

  3. mauro says

    Hi, Howard;
    would we face a similar lack of reissues if Sony were American-owned? I believe we would as unfortuantely bean-counting experts have the same mentality world-wide.
    Interested in knowing if I am wrong on the above.
    Mauro from Italy
    HM: Mauro, your point is well-taken: Bean-counters are a nation unto themselves. I harbor an unsubstantiated and dangerously idealistic notion that the nation of those who love America’s musical legacy — and that the dedicated would include citizens and maybe even gov’t agencies of the U.S. who consider that legacy an inherently national treasure — would be better protectors than corporations run by people who have no national interest in that legacy at all. But there are those who argue that the Parthenon’s “Elgin” marbles have been better maintained by the British Museum than they would have been if returned to Greece.
    The real deal is that Sony’s purchase could institute a moment in which all of us who care about the musical past begin to clamor for its availability. What can we listeners do to encourage Sony (or any corporation) to regard their intellectual possessions as a cultural trust? With one corporate entity to lobby instead of two, maybe it would be easier to persuade powers-that-be to make our music accessible. Letter-writing campaign? Backed with info on potential profit to be derived from online issue of out-of-print music? Any other, better ideas?

  4. A. Viner Seiler says

    It is true that Sony owns the rights to all that great ’20s-’50s music — in North America. But trademark laws are different in England and the rest of Europe. Almost everything you mention is in the public domain there. So anyone over there can put out this stuff — and then ship it to the USA! Many of them do. An international corporation like Sony (or Universal, which owns Decca and much else) is unlikely to put out vintage stuff that they only own in North America.
    HM: True — as for a long time, some classic jazz, essential to serious students of the art, have been available in exemplary editions from small firms located outside the US and North America, in the UK and European countries. I’ve enjoyed Robert Parker’s “classic jazz in digital stereo” series and John R.T. Davies remasterings of King Oliver, Jelly Roll, Armstrong, et al, both imported common domain productions. These imports are probably easier to obtain now online than they’ve ever been in retails stores, though jazz-and-beyond purveyors like the Jazz Record Mart in Chicago and Downtown Music Gallery on the Bowery in Manhattan have often been able to stock them, though distribution in the U.S. has never been widespread or assured.