It All Boils Down to Cabbage

The BBC World News reports that a High Court in London has decided in favour of the band Pink Floyd, supposedly preventing giant EMI from breaking up what the band calls concept albums into separate songs and selling them individually as digital downloads in services like iTunes.

EMI’s been ordered to pay $60,000 U.S. in costs, but the victory seems soft in light of further issues that still have to be argued and resolved in court, including the original contractual wording which Pink Floyd argues ensures the albums must remain intact when commercially released in any form. To “preserve the artistic integrity of the albums” is what helped keep albums like Dark Side of the Moon from being fully chopped up and released as singles, but EMI still argues the contract only applies to vinyl.

The case somewhat echoes an old clause in Orson Welles’ contract with RKO that prevented anyone from re-editing or altering Citizen Kane (1941) in any form without the permission of Welles or his estate, which protected the film when rumours of it being colorized surfaced during the eighties.

To one end of the Pink Floyd case, there’s the artist not being paid or paid sufficiently when a distribution contract is read as covering current and future media and distribution venues; to the other, there’s films or TV series, for example, not being released in one format because a label says the original monies paid to allow the inclusion of a song didn’t include future formats like DVD or any other digital format, making the home video release of something like WKRP in Cincinnati impossible for years.

Season 1 did eventually materialize after negotiations and replacement songs were sorted out, but the show’s yet to receive a second season release, either because it sold poorly, or negotiations are still ongoing. It’s due likely to poor sales in the eyes of label Fox, and the fact the years of contractual arguing prevented the show from emerging on DVD when interest was at its peak.

Labels are notorious poor in badly gauging the maximum interest level among mid-level fans just before it crests and starts to wane. Ardent fans will continue to pressure the release of a work, but so much TV product is out there – old and new series – that people will forget. Remember: while someone may want the release of a full season, in the case of an hour-long series from the eighties, that may be 22 or 24 episodes to plow through, which makes for considerable viewing time instead of a 100 min. movie that’s been unavailable for decades.

Watching Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) – long gone from home video until Sony’s 2006 DVD - takes up around 2 hours of viewing time, but even a half-hour show like WKRP is more than 9 hours, a time-hog that also has to compete with what’s currently on network and cable TV, as well as what you missed and plan to catch-up on DVD, like Mad Men or the full run of The Sopranos that you never managed to watch.

Certainly in the case of TV, studios and networks have to get the show out while the interest remains within the broadest viewer base, because unlike vintage shows Father Knows Best, The Untouchables, The Twilight Zone, Hawaii Five-0, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, or M*A*S*H, more recent series use popular music for montages, or to make the shows feel fresh and of-the-minute, and that eighties cliché has hindered the release of series like WKRP due to music rights issues.

This digression into film and TV merely shows how convoluted things can become when a song or an album becomes a commodity that labels want to exploit, artists want to protect, and technology mucks things up with new venues that cause both sides to seek a clear interpretation of a contract.

Anyone familiar with Pink Floyd knows their albums are conceptual works, and while songs from The Wall did appear as singles, Dark Side of the Moon is essentially one long work with tracks cross-mixed to form interconnected movements; with the exception of the song “Money,” chopping up the rest would have songs missing their opening and closing bars without a new remix.

According to the BBC report, EMI’s position is that the High Court’s ruling doesn’t force the label from making Floyd’s albums available as single track downloads, but perhaps the ruling will bring forth other artists, and the issue will progress further through the courts and eventually let artists have a say in the way their works are disseminated.

EMI’s just posturing for the media; there’s offering choice for the consumer, and then there’s hacking up a work that was edited and mixed as a full listening experience.

And completely unrelated, but also reported by the Beeb, is an announcement that the Royal Opera House’s plan to mount the Anna Nicole Opera is a go.

No, this is real.

I’m waiting for something of substance, like Cabbage: An Oratorio in Three Movements - “Seeding of Soil,” “Rounder is Better,” and the epic conclusion “Roughage,” with the audience cradling fiery votive cabbage rolls.

Wouldn't that be the event of a lifetime?



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