Vic Lennard considers the current plight of the humble MIDI File library.
Before any of you write in to Sound On Sound complaining that this is not Atari‑specific, I'll hold up my hands and admit it. But the issue is unlikely to be covered elsewhere in this magazine, and is so big that I feel duty‑bound to run it past you.
I doubt whether there is a single Atari computer owner who hasn't loaded up a MIDI File at some point. In fact, it's fair to say that the Atari ST kicked off most of the MIDI File libraries. I've interviewed Joe Ortiz of Heavenly Music and Dave Clackett of Hands On MIDI Software in the past, and both started their sequencing habit on an ST. But if the powers that be get their way, the independence exhibited and the quality of product produced by both of these musicians (and many others), will be a thing of the past — and quickly.
Prior to January 1, 1995, anyone could contact the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (MCPS) and obtain a licence to produce and sell MIDI Files. What is the MCPS? Essentially, it's a Who's Who of music publishers that upholds the rights of its members, and acts as a collection house for royalties on sales of any mechanical items, such as records, cassettes, CDs and MIDI Files. A MIDI File library makes various returns to the MCPS, and then pays, typically, a 10 percent royalty on the sales of all Files. This is then distributed among the members. Sounds fine, you might say — but there are two key problem areas.
Back in the early days of Steinberg pro 24, Hybrid Arts MIDITrack and C‑Lab Creator, the issue of score printing didn't raise its head, as none of these early packages provided such a feature. However, C‑Lab Notator changed the picture drastically, offering a comprehensive score print facility. In fact, many of the upgrades to this program over the years have concentrated on enhancing this area.
Printing isn't covered in the MCPS licence, and publishers such as EMI brought this to the MCPS's attention some time ago. A letter was circulated by the MCPS to MIDI File libraries in 1992, warning them that an extra royalty might be due directly to individual publishers. The situation rested there, until now.
Earlier this year, EMI contacted all libraries, and informed them that an extra royalty of around 12.5 percent was due on all of its titles, backdated to the start of 1994. The MCPS then increased royalties by a similar amount, but without any backdating (EMI does not rely on the MCPS to collect its royalties, preferring to use its own in‑house system. Bearing in mind that EMI controls around 30 per cent of the music publishing market, one can understand why this is the case).
There are many issues here, not least of all that a number of MIDI File libraries claim never to have received a letter from MCPS, or to have understood the implications of it. While it can be claimed that ignorance is inexcusable, what we are talking about here is a tax on the possibility of printing a score from a MIDI File. If it were possible to print a perfect score, with lyrics, then one could understand the publishers' concern; such a scenario would cost them revenue in lost sheet music sales. But have many of them actually tried to set up and print an accurate score? I doubt it, and if they were to try this, they would appreciate that the score layout and printing sides of most sequencing packages leaves much to be desired.
This appears to be a knee‑jerk reaction to available technology, and is not consistent with the reaction to other developments. For instance, a program exists that allows sheet music to be scanned and converted to a MIDI File, a situation that should horrify most music publishers, and have copyright managers rubbing their hands. Yet I doubt whether many publishers are even aware of this program's existence.
The second area of contention is one that will always raise its head in a competitive market — sub‑standard product. If I had just had a number one hit [you wouldn't be writing this column — Ed] and my manager said "here, have a listen to this MIDI File of your song", I would be appalled if it bore little recognition to my masterpiece. But be honest — how many really good MIDI File renditions have you heard? It's unlikely to be many...
This is not a blanket slagging off. I've had dealings with most of the UK's libraries, and many of the proprietors know that I hold their work in high esteem — but there are some dire examples out there. And rather than get drawn into the issue of piracy, let's just say that the tens of thousands of Files residing on various bulletin boards and Internet sites don't really help the situation.
With this in mind, it's not surprising that a number of artists have apparently stated that they do not wish to have their works converted into MIDI Files, including Andrew Lloyd Webber, Billy Joel, Haddaway, Vangelis, Pet Shop Boys, Peter Gabriel, Dire Straits, and Mike Oldfield. I say 'apparently', because such messages have come from publishers and managers, not the artists themselves.
Things are getting to a point where a MIDI File creator has to obtain an individual licence for each song. Imagine this situation: a programmer has to spend a couple of valuable days creating the File to present it, without any guarantee that a licence will be granted. Additionally, should programmers attempt to create their own arrangement of songs, or as accurate a transcription as possible? Which will the publisher find more acceptable? Talk about walking on eggshells!
Royalties from MIDI Files are a mere drop in the ocean of the revenues generated from music, and yet MIDI Files keep alive a number of creative businesses. Perhaps the larger music publishers, who also have a hand in the sheet music trade, would prefer to have the entire pie to themselves, rather than allow a small slice of it to drop into entrepreneurial hands. There certainly seems to be a financial backdrop to this, and as my father keeps telling me: "where there's money, there's villainy".
One thing's for certain: there will be far less MIDI File libraries at the end of 1995 than at the start of it. Hardly any of 1995's hits have been licensed, and most libraries are producing backing track‑style Files to keep money coming through the letterbox.
Worst of all, there doesn't seem to be a solution, as the publishers hold all the cards. In time, I wouldn't be surprised to see some of them setting up 'official' MIDI File libraries for their products...