If videos of Sonny are removed, will the legend grow?

Gone from Youtube are two brief but vivid excerpts from Sonny Rollins’ 80th birthday concert at the Beacon Theater on Sept. 10 — one showing the great tenor saxophonist in duet with percussionist Sammy Figueroa, the second documenting the surprise, climactic contributions of Ornette Coleman to the set, and Rollins’ inspired improvised responses. 

What a shame! — from at least one perspective. Or should those visuals never have been made public without the artists’ permissions? 

Though neither clip — evidently shot from the same vantage point, perhaps posted by the same videographer — was authorized by anyone or should have been permitted by the venue under standard presentation arrangements (though no one recalls an announcement being made in this instance forbidding flash photography and recording in any form), both clips depicted to the general public, at no charge, one of the most gratifying and unrepeatable meetings and performance by American musicians in recent memory. By the standards of any jazz-covering journalist, a once-in-a-lifetime onstage interaction between Rollins and Coleman, both 80 and revered as fonts of ongoing, enduring, in-the-moment musical creativity, is news. In olden times, a bootleg audio tape of such an encounter might be passed around avid fan-to-avid fan, duplicated in ever-worsening versions and promoted as a holy grail when years later the original was acquired by a museum (cf., the Savory Collection).

Nowadays, members of the public and/or professionals are able to shoot fairly high quality digital documentary footage of whatever they see, wherever they go, on our phones — and disseminate it quickly, worldwide. Hours and hours of amateur video is available online, which some artists believe serves as free promotion, though it’s content they’re not getting paid for. Then too there’s the notion of “fair usage” — if I write a blog post of Sonny’s concert, it’s a gift to my readers and should be a check on my accuracy if I can include a glimpse of what I’m writing about. As a professional journalist, I ought to seek and get permission from the musicians I want to feature — but that’s not something amateurs usually are concerned about.
Sonny’s b-day concert was fantastic, most eye-witnesses agree. But without video proof, will the many odes to this show be believed or discounted? I spoke with representatives of Rollins’ management about this on Sunday Sept. 12, urging them to consider putting out a comment that they didn’t condone unauthorized video, but that Sonny had seen these clips and wouldn’t demand they be withdrawn. Sonny’s rep said that wasn’t likely, but that they weren’t going to pursue the matter, either. 
Sonny’s spokespersona hadn’t seen the clip — at that time, only the duet with Figueroa had been posted at Youtube. But when I shared my blog posting that featured Rollins’ forays into harmolodics on Monday, Sept. 13, it elicited comment on my Facebook page from no less than Bret JazzVideoGuy Primack, Rollins’ official videographer, that “You can’t stop viral video.”
Well, it seems you can. Here’s an explanatory note from Bret (who is, full disclosure, an old friend/colleague of mine, with whom I hope to work on a Jazz Journalists Association’s guerilla video project in the new future): 

As a YouTube viewer and someone who creates and posts many videos, I believe it’s the artist’s choice as to whether or not unauthorized concert/club videos be posted.  I know that when a fan shoots a video and then posts it on YouTube, it’s not done to exploit the artist and profit from the posting, but to share the experience with the community.


Some artists see these postings as promotion, and, for the most part, I would agree.  In the age of digital media fans can easily record part of a concert and share it with their friends and the global YouTube audience.  The videos serve to as a powerful marketing tool for the artist.


When the Grateful Dead played, they would allow their fans to tape their concerts, because they knew that this network of collectors would enhance their reputation and solidify the community. The Dead made their money from live appearances, not recordings.


But some artists simply don’t feel that way.  They want to control their content, just as a writer who publishes a book doesn’t want paragraphs of their priceless prose quoted without permission.


At the incredible Beacon Theatre concert Sonny Rollins played on September 10, there were many people taking pictures and recording the concert on video via phones.  They simply wanted to document the event that they were lucky enough to attend. 


There’s also the matter of quality control.  Many artists only wish to release professional quality audio, and video, of their work.  Even though the music played at Sonny’s concert was superb, and the surreptitious recordings are okay, they’re simply not up to his standards.


If all the people taping had asked him, he probably would have appreciated their interest and support, and told them to wait for a more professionally produced recording.


But no one asked Sonny’s permission, and so he requested I have the videos removed. — Bret Primack

Is there an authorized video version of the concert? Rollins has been recording all his performances — which he now produces himself — and the resulting cd Road Shows, Vol. 1 was cited on many 2008 top 10 cd lists. As Primack notes, in situ recordings from the Beacon would probably not be of professional quality, so would probably not seriously cut into the sales of a well-produced documentary on the event. And I must add to his comment that writers don’t want their prose quoted without permission that it happens all the time, and we’re accustomed to not having the least bit of control over that.
So what does Rollins’ request for withdrawl (and Primack’s ability to enforce it) suggest for the public (or professionals) now able to shoot documentary footage of whatever they see, wherever they go, on phones they carry — and disseminate it quickly, widely? How about some thoughtful discussion among artists and would-be videographers on parameters applying to “fair use” of excerpts of live performances? How about a general agreement that such excerpts be under 3.5 minutes, or no more than 60 seconds, or less than 1/2 the total performance; that clips run with a disclaimer of the artists’ permissions or notification that they have been acknowledged and agreed to? 
Instituting as common practice and governing such “rules” would be challenging, and many complications could arise (what if more than ONE videographer were to put up excerpts that accrued into an entire performance). But those of us interested in the matter and likely to try to accommodate its ramifications while pursuing our own work as technology allows us to ought to talk about it. No formal copyright laws would seem to apply. Anyone out there have ideas on how to proceed? Can mutually agreeable protocols be established? Or shall chaos prevail?  

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  1. says

    It is a pretty interesting situation as this is not a common thing for 2010. Of course it would be a different story (a non-story?) had it been me who wanted to remove a video of myself playing live.
    Controlling image and quality control are both reasonable concerns however I always find it amusing when my peers (with much less cache than Sonny Rollins) seem concerned when people are taking pictures (not withstanding an annoying flash) or video of our live performance.
    With jazz being such a marginal music we always need as much attention as we can get. Of course, this is not true for Mr. Rollins.
    I know I am going to take another quick look at it before it disappears.

  2. says

    That is ashame. One would really be inspired to go on Youtube to search for such material or other material of Sonny Rollins. His birthday concert was one of legends. I agree with the other poster that jazz needs as much exposure as possible. I have always wondered why more professional jazz musicians do not work on getting a television station solely for jazz?

  3. Tom says

    Ah, Mr Rollins is smart, I believe he came up with the solution.
    First, the artists have the right to control the distribution of their work. If the subject is an ensemble, each member of the group would have the right to deny recording or distribution of the collective work.
    The only way to do this effectively is to have a professional recording produced. This gives control over quality, presentation, documentation (credits) and profits. This involves releases on the part of all of the performers and composers.
    As for bootlegs, it’s again up to the artists whether to permit them or not. It worked well for the Dead, but with today’s technologies, it is possible to get great quality, although with surreptitious recordings, there’s usually unsteady video and a lot of club noise in the audio. IMHO, I think these only serve to increase the following of the artist and likely would not negatively impact sales of a quality recording, but there also may be performances that the artist may not to be released at all. (Bird’s last recordings are heart breaking.) Still, I think that’s a rarity among professionals, I’m still in favor of bootlegs if they’re not sold.
    I think there’s a great opportunity here for club owners here. Once a location is set up to video record performances at a club or theater, the performances could be routinely documented fairly easily. That would make the performers more likely to want to play the club, give both the club and the performers another revenue source and create a quality documentation of the concerts. Unknown artists don’t have the capability (time, resources) to professionally record their performances. But you don’t always know what performances or performers will be great. What would you give to see some early performances of jazz greats on video? These recordings of then-unknowns would age in the club like a fine wine.
    If Mr Rollins has recorded his performances, he must be planning to release them – a legacy and a good retirement income. And, if he understands YouTube, he will release a few professionally recorded excerpts to whet our appetites before they go on sale. I look forward to it!!

  4. says

    I think Mr. Rollins and his management would do well to observe what many artists from Bruce Springsteen on down have figured out: letting fans share audience videos of you doesn’t harm your sales. In fact, anecdotal evidence indicates that it builds your fan base. If Mr. Rollins is planning on releasing a commercial version of the concert on video in the near future, I can see his point. Otherwise, he’s just cheating the public of catching a glimpse of this historic meeting. Kind of a cruel blow.
    HM: James, I can’t think of Sonny Rollins and “cruel” in the same breath, especially after the enormous generosity of spirit he exhibited artistically last Friday night. I think he is operating in a somewhat oudated model, but also out of genuinely high standards of how he’s presented and represented by his music. You and I would surely believe the clips were of high enough quality to be deeply meaningful — he’s not always happy with what he plays, notoriously so. And I think that may be a genuine blocking point here, which is not vanity, anything but. I do wish his close advisors and he would talk the issue out, though, and come to a more open conclusion.

  5. says

    Whoever shot and posted the 14:58 of Ornette and Sonny should win a Pulitzer. It was a perfect amateur clip, steady hand and keen eye, and it encompassed the entire Ornette/Sonny experience, from the anticipation of the mystery guest taking the stage to the moment they all walked off. But at the same time it’s a patently amateur clip shot from the balcony, and the notion that it undercuts Sonny’s eventual DVD sales or lacks some requisite level of quality is ridiculous. It’s a sublime piece of verité and Sonny should have the wisdom to embrace it. Sonny, please!

  6. Stephen Malagodi says

    Over the past 30 years, I have been priviledged to meet, hear and record some of the greatest artists of our time.
    Usually that was in a club or performance space.
    If I intended to record, I would always, always, always, ask permission. 99.9% of the time it was “sure, and can I get a copy?”
    Whenever I asked permission, I always made clear who I was, and that the recording might be used locally on our public radio station. Locally only, no other use or distribution.
    I really feel, deeply feel, that a live performance is one thing – an event, actually – and a recording is quite another thing.
    In no way does the price of admission (outdoor, free concerts are another matter) include the right of the auditors to produce a product using the ‘raw material’ of the artist’s performance, unless explicitly granted.
    Furthermore, posting on YouTube or somewhere else is, I believe, usually an excercise in attention-getting, not for the artist, but for the poster.
    I was going to say that I don’t understand the attitude that we are entitled to every bit of an artist’s or celebrity’s life. But I’m afraid I do understand it. We consume our artists, and we are a nation of overeaters.
    We seem to want everything and we don’t want to pay for anything.