It must be hard to be a musician and know that people who want to hear your work can’t because the one recording that ever made it to the marketplace has since gone out of print. Adding insult to injury, the label can hold the master tapes hostage—even if they aren’t releasing any copies, they may not let anyone else release any either. It’s a familiar story.
Composer Michael Torke, while watching recordings of his work for Argo/Decca made in the early ’90s rapidly disappear, managed to strike a deal with Decca and for the next ten years has the right to reissue his work. He has pulled the recordings neatly together onto six discs, (titled One, Two, Three…you get the idea). They will each be remastered and have new liner notes and art to go along with them. “It just feels so good that I’m in control of all that,” Torke admits with a laugh. “I’m even in control of the artwork. How fun is that?”
Torke admits that the project will likely not be a moneymaker. “I’m not going to make any money on this. I have to pay an advance to Decca and royalties for this right to do it, so it’s backwards from what all this was when they were paying me, but that’s how it works.” There’s still plenty of personal motivation, however. “I know I’ll learn a lot by doing this and even if I don’t sell a single album it will still be worth doing because to make this music available legally is my first objective. I feel I’m running a business and the best investment you can make is in yourself and your own business because you know it the best.”
So Torke is setting up shop, developing a website that can handle sales, working to get the recordings distributed through Barnes & Noble and amazon.com, perhaps even go through a national distributor depending on initial sales.
This is not a project every composer could take on. Torke credits his producer at the label for making his own deal happen. “My situation is pretty unusual. What I’ve heard is that when you call up your record company and say, ‘Hey let’s do a deal,’ they slam down the phone. It isn’t even worth their lawyer’s time to have a conversation with you. Even the agreement I have took a year to negotiate. These things are so ridiculous and that’s just the way it goes.”
Still a bit frustrated by the legalities, Torke points out that even now he doesn’t own the master tapes to the recordings he has negotiated reissue rights for—if Mercedes wants to use the recording in a commercial, he doesn’t have any say in that negotiation. “Maybe I could have offered [Decca] a million dollars [for the tapes] and they’d start talking, but their idea is you never know what will happen so they always want a piece of the action. Doing a licensing deal like this protects them.”
Considering these control issues, the current state of the recording business, and the demonstrated power of Internet sales potential, Torke suspects that the industry may be moving towards independent projects such as his. “The Internet has had a big influence. It takes away the reliance on the gatekeepers and I think that may be a good thing.”