Fifty years ago, the British public were just about to see the first of a brand new format: the 7″ 45rpm single.
In 1956, all releases were on 78… but from 1957, the 45 quickly became dominant. It sounded better, it was more convenient, and there was a bunch of them squeezed into this newfangled jukebox thing down the pub.
With the announcement that British law will not extend the life of music copyright from 50 years to 95, now is the time to start dusting off and cleaning up those old rock & roll, jazz and early British skiffle recordings ready for re-release.
There are, as I see it, two prospective markets for recently public-domained works:
1) Faithful reissues: Get those rare and unavailable-on-CD tracks out and start making comprehensive and high quality remastered reissues. Extensive liner notes are a must as are complete metadata for the digital download versions, including photography, recording dates and details and even original catalogue numbers. You’re dealing with collectors now.
2) Compilations:Actually, there are two types: knowledgeable, tasteful and surprising compilations that contain lost gems and crucial rarities — and gratuitous, under-informed hack jobs with little or no useful information that would give the music its proper context… and is headed straight for the bargain bin at ASDA. You can probably make money at both — but let’s be honest: you want to be making the first type.
Reissuing out-of-copyright recordings is both potentially challenging and rewarding. While you don’t have to pay for studio sessions or bother with pesky musicians, you do have an obligation both to the culture that you’re preserving and representing, and to the new audiences that want to explore this music for the first time. Your job is that of an archivist: preserving and curating.
But — most importantly, anybody can release and sell public domain material. They’re not paying you for the music, they’re paying you for the presentation of the music. Track down some old rarities. Confirm their status as public domain. Research their origins and contexts — or at least find somebody who can give you the historical accuracy you need — and carefully clean them up. There is plenty of commercially available software that will restore music, reduce hiss, remove clicks and even stereo-enhance mono recordings should you wish to do so.
Then get them mastered, press them up — or just build a website and a download shop and away you go.
If running a reissue label isn’t your thing, you might want to start going through the deep back catalogue for some public domain samples — more coming on line every day. I want to hear a hip hop track with some early Petula Clark vocals.
The point is, when music becomes public domain, fifty years beyond the context into which it was initially launched as a going concern, it is released from its role as an instrument of commerce (which, for the most part, means it’s entirely unaccessible because the market’s not big enough to sustain release) and becomes an instrument of culture, belonging to everyone. If you can make money by helping the general public to reclaim their culture, then bloody good on you I say.
Substantially less than 5% of all the music that is owned by the major record labels is currently available for sale in any format. Time to start opening the gates.