The suit in which the record label Hyperion is being forced to pay royalties to the musicologist who edited the music of Michel-Richard de Lalande (1657-1726), linked by Arts Journal, does sound bogus and unfortunate. Musicologists have their own well-trodden career paths, and to tempt them to gear their research toward commercial interests sounds like an invitation to chaos at worst and superficiality at best. But for a moment the story conjured up a plan I’ve always secretly nurtured. Follow this logic: Mozart made appallingly little money on his music during his short life, and were he still alive today, his royalties would doubtless amount to billions a year. Meanwhile, musical ensembles today have a financial incentive to play dead composers rather than living ones, because they don’t have to pay the dead ones royalties. I’ve always thought we should reverse that: that some ASCAP- or BMI-like organization should collect royalties on music by dead composers, which could then be distributed among the living ones, on the well-established theory that classical composers (at least the good ones) get a lot more performances after they’re dead than while they’re living. You’d need sort of an old-fashioned guild system that composers would have to be inducted into to qualify for the benefits – which ASCAP and BMI already are, to some extent that could be feasibly extended. Today’s composers could be living off of Wagner’s and Stravinsky’s divided royalties, and the next generation of composers could live off of our music. Or, ensembles would at least find it cheaper, if nothing else, to play music by living composers.
I know, I know, it’ll happen when Nader is elected president and Halliburton decides to turn over all its profits toward subsidizing housing for low-income families. But all my life I’ve mused over it as a more just system for an art form in which the true worth of a piece of music may not emerge for decades.