You can easily imagine the following lines starting off a serious debate on the cost of song files on a television program such as Kilroy... "Hands up everyone who has purchased at least one MIDI song file in the past. OK -- now keep your hand up if you felt that the price you were charged was too high; that's what I thought, most of you..."
Unfortunately, even though the MIDI song file industry in this country has a turnover in excess of one million pounds per year, such a topic would never be brought up in such an arena, for obvious reasons. So, let's debate it here!
Have a look through the adverts at the rear of this issue of SOS, and you'll find at least half a dozen legitimate MIDI song file libraries selling disks at between £4 and £6 each. Admittedly, there are discounts for quantity, but let's work on a figure of £5 as being the average price per file.
How can this possibly be justified? A mass-duplicated disk weighs in at less than 20p; the cost of a jiffy bag and the postage together can't come to more than another 50p, making around 70p in total. This means that the retailer is making a whopping great £4.30 profit, and what for? Sitting behind a computer and some MIDI gear, and doing what he or she enjoys, namely creating top ten hits. Yes please -- I'd like some of that!
And while the libraries advertise in the likes of this magazine, do they declare the income? Probably not -- after all, isn't it just a side-line that musicians carry out in the evenings and at weekends, when they're not working? And if they were decent musos, they'd probably be out gigging and earning real money instead of mucking around with computers.
As for the quality, surely the average musician could create a better rendition of a Top 10 hit than any of these libraries. Given all of these facts, shouldn't there be some rules and regulations governing MIDI files libraries?
Now, before every library in the land dives for its word processor and starts writing a letter of complaint about my previous comments, let's be straight: that's not me talking -- the gist of the comments actually came from a letter I received not so long ago. Are they accurate? Read on...
Let's work on an average retail price of five pounds. Have a look at Figure 1, a breakdown of where revenue has to go.
For starters, there's the dreaded VAT. Many people forget that while the threshold for paying VAT is over £40,000, that's £40,000 of turnover, not income. If a library is shifting more than, say, 100 disks a week, the chances are that this threshold will be exceeded.
All legitimate MIDI file libraries must be registered by the MCPS (Mechanical Copyright Protection Society). In addition, libraries must pay a royalty of 10% of income for all MIDI file sales. The MCPS then distributes this among the various song publishers.
Magazine advertising doesn't come cheap, especially if the library takes out a colour advert -- essential for impact. Catalogues have to be created and printed up, and all necessary equipment for the running of a business has to be purchased: computers, MIDI gear, a printer, telephone, fax, storage medium and so on. If a company has done its homework, it will have an idea of projected turnover for the first couple of years, and so will allow for equipment to be offset against profit per disk. And, of course, this can be a never-ending circle. Two years later, more modern equipment may be necessary.
Working on the premise of 100 disks a week or more, the chances are that staff will be employed to handle accounts, disk duplication and the day-to-day running of the company. If so, National Insurance, wages and general administrative costs have to be included. Visa and Access sales also cost upwards of 50p for debit-style cards and 2-3% for credit cards.
Finally, there's the floppy disk itself. While you can purchase bulk disks for as little as 15p each (excluding VAT), many companies prefer to pay more and have less chance of faulty returns, the bane of any disk-based business.
Have a look at Figure 2, a pie chart breakdown of the figures involved. From the original fiver that arrives in the post, only 68p remains.
And hasn't an important fact been missed out? What about the song programmers? If they aren't part of the company, then either a one-off payment, or a royalty (sometimes as high as fifty per cent of the retail price) has to be paid. In which case, how do MIDI file libraries make any profit at all?
The only way is to ensure that a sufficient number of each song file are sold -- perhaps as many as 40 or 50 just to break even. And there's another aspect we haven't considered, which is the enormous range of different formats that a respectable MIDI file library is expected to handle. For starters there's the basic two formats, 0 and 1 -- some computer sequencers prefer one to the other. Roland sequencers such as the MC500, the Alesis Data Disk, and Yamaha MIDI Data Filers -- all require the basic MIDI File in a slightly different format. And what of the various computer platforms? While the ST and PC share a common disk format (almost), the Mac and Amiga are quite different. Perhaps this gives you an idea of why a serious library has to make a substantial outlay on equipment before a single groat can be made in profit.
Is it really that easy to create MIDI song files fit for public consumption? Try it and see. Select your favourite Top 10 hit and endeavour to duplicate the various instrument lines. You may get close with the drums, percussion and bass, but what about the keyboard chord inversions and various synth effects, especially with the 128-sound limitation of General MIDI sound modules? Or the orchestrated strings and brass? You'll find it very difficult to end up with an accurate transcription of the song at all, let alone within a viable time limit, and may well accept that the result is your 'arrangement'. But would this be good enough for the general public to buy at least 50 times over for you to make a viable profit, song after song?
Unless we start to actively support the legitimate libraries, we'll either end up paying significantly more than £5 per file, or find that those with the ability to produce quality files exit to pastures new. This whole issue certainly needs more debate. If you would like to add your voice, write to me courtesy of SOS, and we'll return to this in a few months time...
One other aspect of this industry that isn't mentioned elsewhere in this article is piracy. An unemployed musician in Weymouth selling MIDI song files was recently found guilty of infringing the copyright of a legitimate library, and fined £1,000 with almost £500 costs. Many of the libraries believe that this is the tip of the iceberg; a further company is currently under investigation by Trading Standards. The piracy element is undoubtedly the reason we are now seeing 'building block'-style MIDI files costing £20 and more.
You'd be forgiven for thinking that there's nothing you can do personally, but you'd be wrong. You can help by asking the right questions when you first contact a MIDI song file library:
Start by asking whether the company holds an MCPS licence -- failure in this respect means that no royalties are being paid back to the copyright holders of the original compositions. This is a sure-fire indication that the company is not above board.
Ask who created the MIDI File. If the company can't give you a name and perhaps a contact number, keep them at arm's length.
Find out what documentation is included with the files. Expect a reputable company to include info on the song structure, voice assignments and, possibly, lyrics.