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A rights issue

I recently returned to normal duties after an enjoyable and I hope productive period of research leave. The sabbatical was granted in order for me to carryout research into the strategies which have enabled the music business to survive in the first decade of the twenty-first century despite the prevalence of online peer-to-peer file-sharing. Concentrating principally on EMI, which is the most interesting of the ‘major labels’ in this regard for various reasons (as well as being the only UK one), I built up a research database and did some writing. I wrote and proofed a chapter on an EMI music producer, for a book which is theoretically ‘in press’ but which probably won’t be out for another year or so. An article is nearing completion, and I have had discussions with a publisher about a book, which I would hope to deliver in late 2011.

But that’s only part of the story. Just before the sabbatical began I was commissioned to write an article for a forthcoming issue of the Contemporary Music Review, which will be devoted to the relationship between words and music. I began talking to the editor about writing something on heavy metal lyrics, and needless to say by the end of the conversation I had agreed to write about the libretto in contemporary opera! I am particularly interested in the ways in which librettists adapt existing texts. No-one else is, so I had firstly to invent a typology, taking as my starting point various discussions of adaptation from text to film or television. The resulting article will appear early in 2011. I am to give a paper on contemporary operatic adaptations at a conference in the autumn, and I hope to follow it up with at least one more article on the subject.

Quote unquote? Unquote, actually, unless you’re a rights holder

Researching and writing this article was fun up to a point, and the point was one it might be worth sharing some thoughts about. These days publishers of academic journals demand much of their authors (while giving them little or nothing in return), and the most troubling demands, it seems to me, are that we should obtain copyright permissions and/or otherwise absolve them of any liability in that regard, while they insist on taking copyright of our articles for themselves. Obtaining copyright permission to quote from libretti either took forever, or proved impossible. In the case of one opera by a major American composer with a libretto to her own text by a well-known contemporary novelist, after three months of enquiries I managed to obtain permission to view the work, but –specifically – not to quote directly from it. As a result of this and similar exchanges the content of the article changed markedly from first draft to current version, and as one or two enquiries are still outstanding it may have to be significantly amended again at proof stage.

Have any of you suffered similar inconvenience? If so I’d like to hear from you. There is a vital issue of the definition of ‘fair use’, if we are to investigate and comment on contemporary work, which strikes me as being at least as important as the reform of the libel laws (which finally seems to be on the political agenda). Do get in touch.

  1. January 16, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    Do you think this is because libretti for contemporary pieces change a lot while operas complete the rather torturous process of getting from page to stage, or because of the traditionally rather banal nature of libretti? The Two Boys opera by Nico Muhly (coming to ENO) has a libretto by Craig Lucas; Muhly’s other new opera has a libretto by Stephen Karam. These are both playwrights who one assumes will want to publish a final text at some point – unless they really cannot stand what happens to their texts in course of putting the operas into production.


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