Pop music publishers: vestigial and disingenuous 

Another episode in the music industry's war against consumers: the US Music Publishers' Association wants to jail people who publish unauthorized lyrics and tablature on the web:

The music industry is to extend its copyright war by taking legal action against websites offering unlicensed song scores and lyrics.

The US Music Publishers' Association (MPA), which represents sheet music companies, will launch its first campaign against such sites in 2006.

MPA president Lauren Keiser said he wanted site owners to be jailed.

He said unlicensed guitar tabs and song scores were widely available on the internet but were "completely illegal".

Mr Keiser said he did not just want to shut websites and impose fines, saying if authorities can "throw in some jail time I think we'll be a little more effective".


David Israelite, president of the National Music Publishers' Association, added his concerns.

"Unauthorised use of lyrics and tablature deprives the songwriter of the ability to make a living, and is no different than stealing," he said.

"Music publishers and songwriters will consider all tools under the law to stop this illegal behaviour."

I can understand the record labels fighting illegal downloads, since illegal downloads have put a measurable dent into CD sales. Similarly, I'm pretty certain that lyrics and tabs on the web have hurt sales of sheet music, so I understand why the sheet music feels it necessary to take action. The infuriating thing, though, is that the publishers obtain exclusive rights from the bands, then choose to publish shoddy transcriptions or choose not to publish because they deem full transcriptions to be unprofitable.

As an example, the only full U2 tabs that Hal Leonard has officially published are for The Joshua Tree, The Best of 1990-2000, How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, and the single Beautiful Day. The tabs of these albums over at U2 Station aren't as good, but U2 Station has some decent material for just about every U2 song ever recorded. Hal Leonard has also published simple arrangements for Achtung Baby and a fake book of most of U2's works. Both of them suck rocks, at least from the samples I've seen at Sheet Music Plus. (Perhaps they're waiting to publish a compendium of complete U2 scores in about 25 years.)

I also have to take issue with the claim that the music publishers are acting in the best interests of the artists, though. If money is their only metric of joy, then I guess they're right. But the income that artists can potentially rake in from licensing their scores to publishers must be a drop in the bucket compared to income from record deals and concerts. Only the most hard-hearted bands would value this minimal income over the enhanced enjoyment that having these materials on the web provides to fans. It's really hard to have sympathy for an industry that is actively stifling fans' enjoyment of an artist's music and often chooses to publish inferior products at higher prices.

I've talked about protecting published scores here; it should be self-evident that attempting to protect published lyrics is unspeakably petty and counterproductive.

The music publishers should still be able to get by on the strength of classical scores, which aren't easily produced by ordinary people. But here's hoping that pop music artists will choose to end their licensing deals and allow their lyrics and transcriptions of their music available under public license.

(HT: some guy on Xanga.)


It's all about profits for the record companies. With that said, it is rather counter productive for even the profit making aspect of the music industry. There are/were multiple types of people engaged in piracy. The record industry emphasizes people who have the money, but are replacing their intent to buy the album with a free download. I suspect that this isn't/wasn't the biggest category of people downloading. Larger categories probably are: people who won't pay $15-20 for an unknown album and college students to whom $15-20 is currently a lot of money. For both of these categories, the record industry wasn't going to make the sale anyways. Especially for college students, by establishing their listening preferences now, there is a strong likelyhood of selling the record when the student graduates and gets a job.

I haven't looked at realistic statistics on it, but offhand, it would seem that record sales rose during the late 1990s and have been on the decline for 2003-5. This would imply a positive correlation between song sharing and record sales.

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