What Might Happen To Your Music After You Die (and What You Can Do About It)



Bart McLean
Photo by Hasnul Saidon

The research for this article was prompted by my pondering how my own music would fare in the hereafter. It was soon clear to me that there were very few answers available. As the research grew and as I touched base with many of my colleagues, it was clear that something needed to be done about fostering an awareness of the issues, which have never been raised in the arts media with any degree of comprehensiveness and clarity.

In the course of this exploration, I have had multiple communications from many of the major players in the field (those heading organizations directly involved with archival/custodial issues). I am greatly indebted to their enthusiastic help in pointing me in certain directions, expounding on their own programs, and reading and editing the finished manuscript. Among them have been Betty Auman, Donor Relations Officer of the Library of Congress, Charles Eubanks, Administrator at The New York Public Library, Judy Klein, NY Public Library Consultant on the composers archive, Richard Kessler, Execuitve Director of the American Music Center, Deborah Atherton, Executive Director of American Composers Alliance (along with Richard Brooks, President of ACA), Joel Chadabe, President of the Electronic Music Foundation, Frank Proschan and Jeff Place from the Smithsonian Institution, Marcia Bauman from the Stanford IDEAMA Project, Johannes Goebel, head of the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (IDEAMA in Europe), and Gerald Warfield, former Manager of the Society of Composers, Inc. and Treasurer of the American Composers Alliance, among others. Additionally, I have been given access to a number of invaluable papers given by members of the Society of American Archivists and InterPARES dealing with these issues.

In these uncertain times composers who wish their music to live on after they pass away are in significant danger of their hard-fought life’s work slipping quietly away as the years and decades post mortem relegate their work to leisurely disappearance. This is exacerbated by:

  1. the diminishing ability of publishers and CD companies to make a profit on new music;
  2. the lack of secure financial underpinning and personnel at these companies, causing many to eventually cease to exist;
  3. the rapid change in media technology causing whole formats of music to be discarded due to technological obsolescence (such as the LP record, as evidenced by this author as I witnessed 13 LPs by my wife Priscilla and myself go out of print);
  4. societal/cultural factors;
  5. At the beginning of the 3rd Millennium the arts/educational community being confronted with an existing body of output from living composers and other artists far greater than all the other composers/artists who have lived since the beginning of civilization.

Our output will certainly need assistance as it finds its place among the deluge of the voices of future generations.

On a more optimistic note, occasionally changing (and more affordable) technology can be a positive force. For instance, I have just become aware of certain CD companies’ commitment toward making their older LP catalogs available once again, through a ‘one off’ process. This entails first digitizing their tape masters along with all liner notes, LP graphics, and then burning them one at a time on a CD-R format on demand. Smithsonian/Folkways has just made its entire catalog available in this fashion, and CRI and Louisville Orchestra Recordings may be headed in this direction. I would urge all composers to pressure smaller CD/LP companies to get on board.

During the next fifty years, the classical arts as we know them and their place in society will be far different, and perhaps even unrecognizable from their present position, as societal, political, and commercial forces shape them in ways that no one can now foresee. Based on my research one could adopt a worst-case premise that most current small publishers or CD companies will be gone in twenty years, most large, well-funded publisher/CD companies will be unrecognizable in thirty years (due to their being merged or bought out, and their contents rendered unobtainable), and most current large arts organizations will cease in 50 years except the very largest and broadest-based, such as the American Music Center. Take the Society of Composers, Inc., one of the most stable and successful in terms of membership and broad-based geographical representation. One could argue that, to project a life of 50 years beyond 2001, one would also have to postulate that the university as we know it, with its elaborate structure of being able to sustain performances, physical housing, etc. will still be in existence, a premise that I am not willing to accept in light of the rapid growth of web-based universities and the ever more burdensome cost to the student of the traditional education model, as well as the probability of a sea change in the societal/educational mission of the university of the future. Of course, I could be wrong about any of this, but that is not the point. The point is that, in order to develop realistic guidelines for the securance of one’s music, one has to start with a best-guess skeptical premise of the future.

And so what can we as artists do to ensure that our creative voices continue to be heard in the decades to come after our death? There are three aspects of how our work resonates in the future.

First, there is the Storage in an Archival Repository of our music, and attendant documents such as letters, biographical material, articles, etc., for research and educational purposes. (I have outlined a series of questions a composer should consider asking an archival institution along with a list of helpful hints for approaching such an organization.)

Second, there is the securing of the Continuation of Publication of scores and aural data (currently in CD format), as well as formats such as video, CD-ROM, etc. (I have compiled a list of technical issues for long-term storage of archival media as well as information about the InterPARES Project whose goal is the permanent preservation of authentic records created in electronic systems, and the Indiana University Digital Library Project which will establish a digital music library test bed, develop appropriate software, and seek answers to the thorny issues surrounding music-related intellectual property rights. I have also recounted the pitfalls that have befallen the International Digital Electroacoustic Music Archive, a pioneering effort to archive electro-acoustic music in 1990.)

Third, there is the matter of what I shall call a ‘Center for Advocacy,’ a central entity which can assure that information and access to and about the composers’ works is maintained, most efficiently at present on a dedicated Web site. Before exploring the exciting new programs offered by a number of arts/educational/archival organizations to implement various combinations of these three criteria, it is important to first understand some basic issues relating to long-term archival repository and access.

[I distinguish between 'archival' care, which means preserving the music in its original form with original documents (including the possibility of digitization for research and educational purposes), without securing copyright, and 'custodial,' which is more along the lines of a publishing company, with the organization arranging copyright and accepting publisher royalty fees from ASCAP or BMI. 'Advocacy' refers to composer membership organizations which provide and update information about composers and their music, and actively promote it, from the composers', not the institution's point of view.]

At present there is no one single entity that can or will employ all three areas of service (storage in an archival repository, continuation of publication, and center for advocacy) to a composer posthumously. However, a number of partial solutions are in place or soon to be implemented, some quite promising, and are explored below. Due to constraints of length, I have focused on American institutions. A good introductory portal to international efforts might be the Gaudeamus Foundation’s Web site.

With all the opportunities for one’s artistic work and documents to be preserved after death, I find serious gaps still prevailing. Concerning archival opportunities, where it is certainly possible and advisable to deposit or have deposited one’s CDs and scores in any number of libraries, ostensibly remaining for the indefinite future, this is by no means guaranteed merely by virtue of their being included in the catalog. Libraries also are not composer-driven, but rather are institutionally-driven in their approach. The main exception, the American Music Center’s NewMusicJukeBox program, is certainly composer-driven in that it connects to a central composer Web site with links to other archival and publishing entities. But the AMC is not, in its present plans for NewMusicJukeBox, accepting anything but scores and audio materials, ruling out not only historical documents and non-standard multimedia materials but video as well. And, like general libraries, the AMC is not specifically set up as a posthumous archival program, only a de facto one. True posthumous archival programs such as those at the special collections of the Library of Congress and New York Public Library which do remedy some of these issues, themselves present difficulties in that they will probably not accept most composers as being "worthy" of inclusion into their special collections. And even if one does manage to establish a good relationship with a more local university or community archive, they are, by their very localized nature, not as universal as the LOC or NYPL, and materials deposited in them may never be found by researchers in decades to come.

Regarding custodial membership programs, the American Composers Alliance has taken bold steps toward making the music of its members available via publication posthumously. It is certainly composer-driven as well. But ACA has had recent periods in which it has had to shut down operations due to financial and staff concerns.

Regarding advocacy programs, the AMC and ACA both have components that provide additional information (biographical, other links, etc.) via the Internet, the AMC program accomplishing this with an individualized Web site controlled by the composer (or heirs). But both Web sites are limited in what they will provide. Moreover, both AMC and ACA possess passive rather than active advocacy programs after the death of the composer. That is, the information data banks for individual composers are more or less on automatic pilot once established and will only change when the composer (who is dead) or her heirs contribute additional information. Why is this important? Supposing a publisher discontinues publishing a composer’s score or CD for some reason. Supposing a previously unknown score by the composer was discovered? Supposing an important new book or review is published about the composer. Supposing important news regarding a performance of the composer’s work, such as a 50-year anniversary, is printed in a newspaper. Supposing important new research on the composer’s work was published from, say, a doctoral dissertation. None of this would be picked up on the Web sites of either of these organizations, simply because they are not set up to deal with active advocacy (neither will much of this information appear on search engines as they are now constituted). What is sorely needed is not only an active information advocacy program but also one in which discontinued CDs and scores can be again made available via publication with the advocacy organization acting as the default publisher. The definition of an active advocacy program, then, is one in which the staff ROUTINELY AND FREQUENTLY, AS PART OF ITS MISSION, scans all of these as well as other areas to ensure that all of the composer’s music is being continually distributed and that the composer’s Web site is being continually updated as new information becomes available. I have been talking with Joel Chadabe, founder and president of the Electronic Music Foundation, to determine if the EMF, perhaps in direct collaboration with any one of the organizations mentioned above, could establish a type of hybrid archival/advocacy/default custodial program that will close these remaining gaps in the services now collectively provided by other groups.

It should be mentioned in passing that the American Composers Forum and the Society of Composers, Inc., both have elements of advocacy in their programs as well, but neither of these important and worthy organizations has any interest in archival repository or custodial membership, and so are not relevant to the topic of this article.

What might happen to your music after you die can very well be a crap shoot. It is hoped that this research will empower composers as to what they can do about it by showing how the dice can be loaded in their favor, and hopefully may even propel organizations and individuals who are in a position to contribute to come forward and form coalitions which can close the gaps now evident.

After all, if we work so hard to produce our music, then we should endeavor with equal effort to do whatever we can to ensure that it lives on.

(Petersburg, NY, 7/19/2001)

Storage in an Archival Repository
Approaching an Archival Institution
Continuation of Publication
Technical Issues
Copyright Issues
Descriptions of Various Programs
InterPARES Project
Indiana University Digital Library Project
International Digital Electroacoustic Music Archive
American Music Center’s NewMusicJukeBox
Library of Congress
New York Public Library
American Composers Alliance’s Custodial Membership Plan
An EMF Custodial/Archival/Advocacy Membership Program
Biography of Bart McLean
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