Tuesday, October 14, 2008

More on Moe: Preview from WORLDS OF SOUND

Moses Asch, pictured at the controls of Cue Studios in the late '50s, believed that all sounds should be available to everyone. Today, when the music labels are busily battling against "piracy," it's interesting to remember that the problem of "who owns" sound recordings has been around as long as recording themselves. Do the major labels have the right to control recordings, even those that they themselves have allowed to go out of print? Moses Asch was a champion of the people's right to know, including an artist's right to have his recordings available even when they were not commercially successful. In my new book, WORLDS OF SOUND: THE STORY OF SMITHSONIAN FOLKWAYS, I tell how Moe reissued Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads at Guthrie's request because RCA had put the records out of print. Over a decade later, RCA threatened to sue Asch over this "infringement." Here's more from the book:

Photo (c) David Gahr

Asch’s attitude toward the big labels crystallized early on when Woody Guthrie complained to him that RCA had withdraw his Dust Bowl Ballads album due to poor sales. Even though the label was no longer selling the recordings, they insisted they still held the rights, and wouldn’t either issue the records or give the rights back to Guthrie. Asch simply took the matter into his own hands, reissuing the recordings himself, challenging Victor to respond.

Victor eventually responded, when the folk revival suddenly made reissuing Guthrie’s original recordings commercially viable. In 1964, Victor wrote to Asch challenging his reissue of the Dust Bowl Ballads 78s, which Asch had recently converted from the original 10 inch album (issued with Guthrie’s blessings in 1950) to a full-size LP. Asch typically replied to Victor that he had every right to issue the material, having Guthrie’s approval—in fact Guthrie had pleaded with him to make the recordings available. Further, he had bought the original records on the open market and—once RCA declared them out of print—felt that they were fair game for reissue. Asch goes on to tell how Guthrie had approached RCA twice, in 1948 and 1950, and the label had declined to reissue the recordings on both occasions. Asch closed his letter explaining his belief that:

cultural property belongs to all and is limited to individual ownership only in so far as the copyright of the material is subjected to and limited to. Since records do not carry this copyright and since Folkways is in a unique position regarding the above, I cannot see what RCA can do about this, except to make a nuisance of it. I have patience and fortitude.

Indeed, Asch did have "patience and fortitude." Rather than fight with him, RCA simply reissued the Dust Bowl Ballads on its own label, adding tow previously unissued masters to its LP. Asch could hardly complain.

For Asch the right of “the people” to have access to recordings like Guthrie’s was greater than corporate ownership rights. During the early ‘50s, when he reissued Guthrie, the Jazz series, and the Anthology, the major labels showed little or no interest in their back catalog. Soon, specialty labels like Riverside (originally started to reissue early jazz recordings), Origin Jazz Library and Yazoo (blues reissues), and County (old time country music) would rise to carry forward this mission.

Asch was correct that copyright didn’t apply to sound recordings; the law was not updated until 1978, so that technically all records made before that date were “public domain.” However Asch went further than merely copyright law, basing his philosophy on the Constitution, where he found that the people were given “the right to know” that superseded copyright:

The Constitution of the United States was to me a very basic document. When World War II began there was a shortage of metals, copper and shellac, so the big companies broke up the masters . . . of Bessie Smith and all the other early recordings. They all disappeared . . . I started to realize here the Constitution was saying “dissemination”—the right to know is a right of the people, and there the record company wasn’t caring whether people have that right or not. They were destroying property which they claimed was their own. I always claimed what they were destroying was the culture, so I started to reissue some of the records which I thought ought to be preserved.

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