22 December 2011

Music on the Cheap

This is the time of year when television news programmes root out stories which purport to show how the Spirit of Goodwill To All Men permeates even the most austere realms of officialdom.  You know the sort of thing; the Norwegian Post Office employing a full-time staff to ensure all letters posted to Santa Claus are answered personally, the front office staff at the Tax Office donning Santa Claus hats, supermarkets handing out all their left-over perishable goods to children’s homes on Christmas Eve, and so on. 

The one that caught my eye this year was about staff at the Trading Standards Department of Wandsworth Borough Council (the council where my good friend Peter Almond spends his waking hours – including, it seems, all of Christmas – being astonishingly courteous to members of the public who call up to complain at all hours of the day and night) who, going about the grim task of confiscating fake designer-label garments from market traders and back-street shops, have chosen not to destroy the goods but pass them on to a church which painstakingly removes the fake labels and sews in their own legitimate ones.  The church then gives these garments away free to the homeless.  It was a truly heart-warming story, and had a nice extra moral about it in that the church had recently been given permission to use a former fake-goods factory in the area in order to re-brand the illicit goods professionally.

True, when the motley assortment of tramps and winos who had been presented with formerly-fake Gucci, Guess, Levi, Miss Selfridge and whatever else people seem to think warrants and extra pair of noughts on the price tag, were asked what they thought, they were, to a man, deeply unimpressed; “It’s OK”, said one, of his rebranded North Face anorak, “All right, I suppose”, said another from the depths of a quilted Formerly-Known-As-Barbour.  I wondered if they might not have been more enthusiastic had the church left the fake labels on.  But, there again, it might just be that designer clothes, fake or real, are more about appearance than practicality.  The point was, illegal copying of goods, useless or otherwise, is being ruthlessly stamped out in Wandsworth (God Bless It), but is being done so this Christmas with a humane face.

Perhaps next year the story might be of an equally conscientious council in the Far East exporting briquettes made from the pulped paper used to produce pirated music to heat the homes of freezing Euro-bereft Europeans, or sent to India as material to fill pot-holes.  Certainly there are vast quantities of such material just waiting to be confiscated, and would-be confiscators would do well to look first at the choirs of the region.  I don’t suppose there is a single choir in the whole of south east Asia that possesses more than one copy of each work they sing; my estimate is that there are 10,000 singers for every original copy, but I suspect that is ridiculously conservative.

A few days ago I attended a choral concert of Christmas music given by a collective of south east Asian choirs.  It was a lovely occasion and despite a certain tackiness (an inevitable side-effect of Christmas concerts anywhere), musically it was well worth the hefty admission fee. 

But… Five choirs, five conductors, five pianists.  Original copies?  None.  True to form, the singers had no music with them on stage (which caused a certain discomfort with the arms and hands which was only alleviated by the horrible inevitability of synchronised movements) but one could almost hear the clatter of clear-folders stuffed to the brim with photocopied sheets being cast aside in the wings as they all filed on stage. 

No such pretence for conductors and pianists, all of whom marched on with their clear plastic folders, glinting in the stage lights and revealing page after page of badly photocopied extracts from Carols for Choirs and the like.

I can sympathise with those who find it difficult to sort through the pages of a large carol book to find the next item, and with those whose books are so new they have yet to crack the bindings and sit flat on the music stand.  But we all know this is a fiction.  Why buy when you can steal, is the choral motto.  How I wish they adopted a similar attitude to their Mercs, BMWs and Porsches.  Yet, for some reason, while music should be free for all – after all, it’s only fun – driving a state of the art German automobile – which is a fatal weapon both directly and indirectly - should be the unique preserve of the wealthy.

Choral societies are the worst offenders, but by no means the only ones.  Once the trading standards people have taught them not to steal, they might start to look elsewhere.  The greatest Christmas present for those of us who make our living out of music would be some serious legal attempts to stop people getting our product for free and then, effectively profiting from it by charging an audience to witness the fruits of their theft.  Only when music is appreciated as a costly necessity rather than a cheap accessory will people begin to value it.

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